Why Do Some Product Launches Work and Others Fail in Myanmar (especially when the failed product is superior to the successful one)?

Snowball Soy Milk
Snowball Soy Milk

Introducing a new product on the market can be an exhilarating experience.  In Myanmar it can also be quite perilous and is not for the faint of heart.  I have learned this lesson the hard way having introduced my own product, Snowball Soy Milk in 2014 only to have to shut it down after 2 years in spite of its growth and popularity.  At one point, Snowball was in the second most widely distributed soy milk in Yangon.  I still entertain dreams of restarting it in the future.  I hate to waste the lessons learned.

Since 2010, there has been a flurry of new products launched in Myanmar including locally manufactured and imported soft drinks, beers (my favourite is still Myanmar Beer, but Burbrit is in a class on its own), snacks, technology, telecoms, and restaurants.  Unfortunately, some really good ideas failed to get off the ground (like snowball), while some pretty bad ones have been hugely successful (uh hum… no comment).  Sometimes it’s just fake success and they’re burning a lot of someone’s money.  The recent economic downturn has cleared away much of that chaff.

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Here are 8 lessons I learned on why products succeed or fail to penetrate in Myanmar:

  1. Price sensitivity: Myanmar people are not cheap, but they are looking for value.  They have a pretty good idea of what something should be worth, and if the price is too high (or too low) they will distrust it.  They also don’t like off-numbers like 250 Kyats and would be more likely to pay 300 than 250.  This is for good reason.  Because if neither the seller nor the vender have 50 kyats, then someone is going to be out 50 kyats.  Maybe I should have put that under psychological resistance.
  2. Taste Sensitivity: Burmese cuisine is very unique (I prefer Shan or Rakhine).  If Burmese food is done well, it can be very delicious, but usually it is not.  That’s because it’s often served cold, unhygienic, salty, using MSG, and fish paste.  Myanmar people (in general) are not real risk-takers when it comes to their pallet.  They even don’t like Indian food, which is strange, considering how delicious it is and its similarity to their own cuisine.  Do not expect flavours that work in India, to work in Myanmar just because they are neighbours.  This will alienate your market and is tantamount to colonial Britain putting Myanmar under India.  Chinese and Thai flavours do much better here; Italian does not (sorry Pizza)!
  3. Status: how does the product affect the consumers status?  The latest Iphone will always boost the perception of someone’s status, but last year’s model may not.
  4. Branding: This is similar to status, but with more cultural baggage.  Branding has to do with how the brand is contextualized to Myanmar.  Being a foreign brand is good.  Being  foreign brand from certain countries is not so good.  Appearing to be a local brand may help, but appearing too much like a local brand could backfire due to perceptions of poor quality in local manufacturing, especially if you are trying to charge a premium price.
  5. Psychological Resistance or Acceptance: I discovered early on, that introducing soy milk in Myanmar was (at least partly) about overcoming embedded resistance due to the previous governments attempt to introduce soy milk.  Unfortunately (they were socialists) so they made little attempt to make it appealing.  Myanmar people cannot forget the beany smell and (I think) they project a ghost smell onto any soy milk.  And they tell their kids.  I think they associate the smell with failed socialism.  So when you ask them why they don’t like soy milk and they say they don’t like the smell (I cannot smell anything) what they really mean is that they don’t like socialism.  That’s worth $10,000 of market research. You’re welcome!
  6. Distribution Channels: It really matters.  There  are  many distributions channels in Myanmar, and you need to choose the right one(s) early on.  Channels include HoReCa, supermarkets (like City Mart, Sein Hay Har and Super One for example), the wholesale market, mom and pop venders and sub distribution.
  7. Marketing Strategy: This is tied to everything listed above, but it also includes advertising.  The most successful product launches have been saturated with ample advertising above and below the line.  $10 a month in Facebook boosts are not enough.  But if $10 is all you have, its money well spent considering the popularity of Facebook in Myanmar (sorry MySquare).
  8. DUMB LUCK: The most important reason why some product launches reach have stratospheric results and others fizzle is luck (or the lack there of).  Some products or services succeed because they got lucky!PERIOD.  No amount of market research, focus groups, sample booths and quantitative studies will ever explain it, because it cannot be explained.  It takes guts, a secret knowing that cannot be reasoned.

I close with the immortal wisdom of Dwight Shrute “sometimes maybe there is no lesson… you just failed”.

Dwight Schrute and the Women’s Appreciation Memo