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Asia Business Development – Asia Business Consulting » The Next Frontier in Asia: How Asia’s second-tier cities are the world’s new marketing arena

SpirE-Journal 2010 Q3

The Next Frontier in Asia: How Asia’s second-tier cities are the world’s new marketing arena

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The Next Frontier in Asia: How Asia’s second-tier cities are the world’s new marketing arena

Asia’s first-tier cities are rapidly taking on some of the attributes of developed markets. The classic emerging market growth curve is now more evident in lower–tier cities, where growth potential in almost every product category is now far higher, but from a smaller base. These locations are also sucking in a larger share of investment, thanks to soaring prices, wages and infrastructure bottlenecks in the big, first-tier locations. What is the nature of the opportunity in these cities, how is the competition shaping up and what do firms have to do to win?

Over the last three decades, “top-tier” cities – those that are national capitals or recognized national economic hubs – have boomed on the back of the explosion in foreign direct investment, export-oriented production and services as well as growing domestic demand and government spending. Cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou in China, Delhi and Mumbai in India, Seoul in South Korea, Jakarta in Indonesia, Metro Manila in the Philippines and Bangkok in Thailand have seen exponential growth in the number of business set-ups. While this suggests tremendous market potential, it has also led to two adverse trends in these metropolitan areas – a slowly saturating market and over-heating business costs. Both of these make the first-tier cities less attractive both as markets as well as investment destinations.

China’s tier-1 cities are a good example of this trend. English education, a sector that was traditionally lucrative here, is no longer considered attractive due to fierce competition from 50,000 existing companies, mostly centred in tier-1 cities1. Internet penetration in Beijing and Shanghai was estimated at 60% in 2008, approximately three times higher than the country average. Other technology products such as digital photography also see a considerably higher penetration rate in tier-1 cities, approaching the levels of developed markets in the OECD.

Businesses worldwide still value the potential that emerging countries represent. East Asia and the Pacific is expected to register real GDP growth of 7.8% in 2011, while the figure for South Asia is forecast at 8.0%. Consumer spending is also expected to increase drastically in 2010 in countries such as India (9.9%), Thailand & Indonesia (7.2%). However, overcrowding and maturation in tier-1 cities is driving firms to realize these opportunities off the beaten track, in second and third tier locations. In many cases, firms are finding a field of relatively unexplored opportunities in these places. In recent years, second-tier cities such as Bandung in Indonesia, Jaipur in India and Chongqing in China have seen much faster rates of growth than the first-tier cities in their countries.

A quick scan of cities in the region reveals over 100 cities with populations of over one million, the majority of which are traditionally classified as second-tier or below.

Growing Affluence

Consumerism in lower tier cities is creating opportunities aplenty. A number of lower tier cities were estimated to have income levels that were similar to tier-1 cities. In 2008, second-tier cities Dongguan and Wenzhou (China) registered disposable income per capita of RMB 29,754 and RMB 26,577 respectively, even higher than the levels in Beijing (RMB 24,560) and Shanghai (RMB 26,223). In India, Goa is well-known to have one of the highest per capita GDP levels in the country – at Rs 70,112 in 2005-2006 versus Rs 61,676 for Delhi in the same period.

A more conducive business environment

Nowadays, provincial governments and governments in lower-tier cities have more autonomy in controlling local revenues and levying taxes, thanks to reforms such as Indonesia’s regional autonomy law of 2001. These governments are actively courting foreign investors and businesses through aggressive economic reforms.

This is evident in states such as Gujarat and Maharashtra in India that have become among the fastest growing states since the economic reforms of 1991. In 2005-2006, Gurajat and Maharashtra experienced the strongest annual GDP growth in the country, reported at 16.4% and 14.1% respectively.

Governments in Asia are also investing heavily in infrastructure in the lower tier cities and rural areas. As part of China’s 11th five-year plan ending in 2010, the government has invested heavily in developing an extensive transportation system in the western and inland regions. Improvements can be seen in areas such as air transportation, with the total number of airports in the country reaching 166 as of 2009.

In India, the Union Budget for 2010-11 increased the allocation for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to US$ 8.71billion, ensuring massive funding for rural job-creation. Another US$ 37.6 billion was set aside for infrastructure development. In particular, the allocation for road transport increased by 13% compared to the previous year.

These investments sometimes aim to reduce income disparities or assuage political tensions. In May 2010, the Chinese government pledged to double investments in Xinjiang province over the next 5 years to help re-establish social stability in the province after a spate of unrest. This investment would focus on road and railway construction, with the aim of raising provincial public service and income levels to close the gap with the national average. The building of the 4th civil airport in Tibet was another example of this sort of investment.

Asian governments have also been active in setting up Special Economic Zones (SEZs). These SEZs, which used to surround only major cities, have now arrived at lower tier locations in a big way.

In the Philippines, some of the SEZs being developed include tourism zones (Embarcadero de Legazpi located at Legaspi City) and Agro-industrial zones (AJMR Agro-Industrial Economic Zone, located at Davao City). In August 2009, Malaysia announced a plan to turn its East Coast Economic Region into the country’s first SEZ, which it hoped would attract MYR 90 billion in investment by 2020.

With improving investment prospects, lower tier cities are actively promoting themselves to reach out to international investors. In recent years, there has been an increasing trend of mayors of smaller cities organizing trade missions to other countries. For example, in 2008, the mayor of Chongqing visited Wales and signed a Co-operation Agreement between the two territories.

City governments have also rolled out their own marketing campaigns, especially in the tourism industry. For example, in 2010, Busan (Korea) and Singapore agreed to join hands in promoting inbound and outbound tourism among the two cities. Da Nang, a city in central Vietnam famous for its tourist attractions, is planning road shows in Tokyo and Osaka during the JATA World Tourism Congress and Travel Fair in Japan, which will take place in September 2010. The city has previously organized tourism promotion trips to Thailand and Hong Kong.

The right verticals in the right cities

Many smaller cities have developed strengths in specific sectors. These have evolved by virtue of natural advantages such as proximity to natural resources or geographic location in some cases, while in others it has been a function of conscious governmental efforts or even historical accident. Lower-tier locations hold out valuable business opportunities for companies that are focused on the right verticals in the right cities.


There are cities in Asia that are education hubs within their own countries, characterised by a high concentration of educational institutions. Bandung, the capital of West Java province in Indonesia, is an example of such a hub. It is home to several State Junior High Schools (SMP Negeri) and State High Schools (SMA Negeri). At least 16 universities and 45 professional schools are also located throughout the city.

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in China, is an education hub with 8 national colleges and universities. Some of the better-known institutions are Wuhan University and Huazhong University of Science & Technology. Not coincidentally, Wuhan has over 350 research institutes and 1,470 officially designated “high-tech enterprises” being fed from this pool of graduates. The city is regarded as one of the most attractive locations in China for investment in R&D and education services.

Cities in India such as Mussoorie, Dehradun, Kodaikanal, Nainital and Ajmer are also known to have a critical mass of educational institutions.

These cities are attractive markets for vendors selling products and solutions to the education sector, such as printer and copier vendors for example. They are also interesting locations for investing in private education centers.


Tourism is a major driver of growth in many emerging economies. Lower-tier cities that are popular with tourists create ample business opportunities for industries such as food and beverage, hospitality and retail.

Bali, one of the most popular tourist spots in the region, is among the wealthiest regions in Indonesia. Income from tourism activities accounts for around two thirds of its GDP. French retail chain Carrefours opened a store in Bali in 2007 to tap demand from international tourists.

Goa, located on India’s west coast, is one of the country’s smallest states by area and the fourth smallest by population. However, it is one of the richest states in India, owing to its tourism sector. It is estimated that tourism accounted for approximately 35% of the state’s GDP. Other cities that are popular among tourists include Harbin, Hangzhou and Suzhou in China and Agra, Jaipur, Kodaikanal, Darjeeling and Dehradhun in India.


Agribusiness is a big sector in much of the emerging world, where a large share of the population still earns a living from small-scale agriculture. In some countries, food production for export is a pillar of the economy. The examples that spring to mind are Thailand’s success with rice and Vietnam’s with coffee and seafood. Agribusiness firms can find unique business opportunities in small cities and market towns that support agriculture (and especially production for export) in the surrounding regions.

Thailand has been the world’s leader in natural rubber production since 1991. In 2006, it exported more than 2.7 million tons of natural rubber (valued at US$5.41 billion). The bulk of this was produced in the South, on the Isthmus of Kra. Besides rubber, Thailand is also known for its production of pineapples, rice and palm oil. Cities like Nakon Ratchasima and Udon Thani are business hubs in the North-east supporting the surrounding agri-food cultivation regions. Davao in the southern Philippines plays a similar role. Such cities may house agri-food processing plants.

Forestry and Extractive industries

The Asia-Pacific has an abundance of natural resources such as timber, oil and minerals. For example, Asia accounts for 99% of the total teak resources in the world. Myanmar, in turn, accounted for 86.7% of the world’s natural grown teak. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s top two producers of palm oil, accounting for over 80% of global supply. The waters off Indonesia and Myanmar also boast a plentiful supply of fish, while the Tenasserim area of Myanmar is known for having some of the finest pearls in the world. Australia and Indonesia are major global exporters of coal and other energy-yielding commodities – natural gas in the case of Indonesia and uranium in the case of Australia.

These natural resource pools have stimulated growth in proximate lower-tier cities that support these industries. Examples of such locations include Bintulu and Jambi in Indonesia (supporting the forestry industry), Sandakan in Sarawak, East Malaysia (supporting the palm oil industry), Makassar in Indonesia (supporting the fishing industry) and Perth in Australia (the commercial hub for extractive industries in the state of Western Australia).

Textiles and Apparel

The textile industry has been an important and growing sector in Asia for decades. With the expiry of the Multi-Fibre Agreement in 2005 that had limited the total volume of textile exports from any one country, China grew its share of the global textile market. However, other emerging countries still maintain substantial textile (and apparel) production and export, including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

In China, Harbin’s nutrient-rich soil makes it a prime location for growing and harvesting crops for textiles. Semarang, located on the north coast of Java, is a major Indonesian textile production hub, with many industrial parks in the western part of the city housing textile manufacturers.

Information and Communications Technology

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is a sector of interest in Asia, which hosts the factories and solution centers of many global ICT giants. One country in Asia that is prominent in this sector is India. Many of its cities, such as Bangalore and Chennai, host Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and R&D facilities of ICT giants such as Amazon, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

In Hyderabad, several Fortune 500 corporations have established operations – including Microsoft, which maintains its largest R&D base outside the United States in Hyderabad. Amazon, Google and Oracle are also well-established in the city.

Lower-tier cities with major clusters of electronics production would include Malaysia’s Penang, China’s Shenzhen, Xiamen and Hangzhou, the Philippine’s Cebu, Taiwan’s Hsinchu and India’s Chennai.

Logistics hubs

In tandem with rapid economic development, many Asian lower tier cities have evolved into regional logistic hubs. These cities are characterized by a more advanced logistics infrastructure.

For example, Zhengzhou, Xi’an and Lanzhou in China serve as logistics hubs for the Western China region. Wuhan plays an important role as a distribution hub for Hubei province and the surrounding central China zone. Other cities which have evolved into logistic hubs include Vishakhapatnam in India as well as Hai Phong and Da Nang in Vietnam.

The Opportunities Abound

As marketers roll out programs in lower tier locations, what should they be focused on? Many of the lessons that apply to emerging versus mature country marketing would also apply to marketing in lower-tier cities versus first-tier ones.

For example – it is advantageous to root local service support capabilities in key lower-tier cities rather than relying on service from a first-tier location. Shortening lead times for after-sales service could provide the crucial advantage in categories like consumer electronics, computers, mobile phones and other home ICT devices.

Also key is anticipating customer needs based on a solid understanding of each city’s strengths. Knowing the fact that cities like Bandung and Wuhan are thriving education hubs would suggest the value of launching products that offer the next level of products and services to students and faculty – trendy external storage drives, E-books and chic bistros and restaurants, for example.

Thirdly, companies investing in lower tier cities need to pay more attention to improving channel design, especially since logistics infrastructure in these places tends to be less efficient. The Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), one of the country’s largest exporters of agricultural products, launched the “eChoupal” initiative, an extensive distribution system using e-commerce that cut lead times while increasing transparency in their value chain.

Companies should also study each city’s level of infrastructure and technology development, so as to design appropriate go-to-market strategies. For example, in physically isolated towns with lower household incomes, weak internet penetration but high TV penetration, TV home shopping may be a good alternative channel as opposed to selling stock to local retailers. Interestingly, TV penetration in China is estimated at 97.2% in 2010, significantly higher than internet penetration (~28.7% by the end of 2009). The same is true for many countries in the region. However the variation by city would be tremendous.

Another advantage to be gained is localizing product design according to local conditions. Coco-Cola is an example of a company which has succeeded in entering the lower tier cities and rural areas of India through its socio-cultural understanding of these places. People living in these areas are generally more price-sensitive. Instead of purchasing big 1.5-litre bottles, they prefer to buy small pack sizes. In response, Coca-Cola created a new packaging format – small glass bottles. Customers can even return the bottle for a small rebate.

Having said that, the biggest single pitfall in marketing to lower-tier locations will be the tendency to de-prioritize these places or automatically assume that they are less affluent. It is not the case that second-tier locations are always the poorer cousins of first-tier cities.

Second-tier cities in China like Wenzhou have income levels that are higher than Beijing and Shanghai. One of the Chinese cities where US boy band “The Backstreet Boys” have performed live is a second-tier city – Nanjing. Differentiating among lower-tier cities and regions will be the sine qua non for success.

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