Magazine article Marketing

Vietnamese Shops Test Capitalist Waters; Official Liberalization Yields Strange Bedfellows in Communist Nation

Magazine article Marketing

Vietnamese Shops Test Capitalist Waters; Official Liberalization Yields Strange Bedfellows in Communist Nation

Article excerpt

Vietnamese Shops Test Capitalist Waters

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam: Communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but the Socialist Republic of Vietnam still clings to its leftist ideology.

At least, officially it does.

The day-to-day reality is radically different.

The regime has sanctioned a policy of economic liberalization called doi moi ("renovation") which allows market forces to replace cumbersome controls.

But, in practice, things have gone a lot farther than that.

The nation's capital, Hanoi, still shows its battle-hardened socialist face with considerable pride and popular support.

But down south is Ho Chi Minh City - formerly Saigon.

It is still the country's commercial heart - you could almost believe that you are in part of capitalist Asia.

People increasingly are being allowed to pay lip-service to ideology while exercising the southerners' celebrated skill for making money.

Living standards in the south plunged after 1975, when the country became united under communism.

Ho Chi Minh City's residents know that making up for lost time will be hard, but they're off on their quest for profit.

And they're setting an example that the rest of Vietnam is sure to follow.

Foreign business visitors look out from the five-star luxury of the Australian-run Saigon Floating Hotel, moored downtown to cater to visiting deal-makers, and see a vista of advertising billboards and neon signs.

With the U.S. trade embargo still in place, most are for Japanese products.

All this is good news for the city's three advertising agencies, whose handiwork increasingly is edging aside the old communist political billboards exhorting increased rice production, socialist solidarity, world peace and the party line.

Billboards are the most common advertising vehicle - but ads for consumer goods increasingly are a feature of TV, newspapers and magazines.

Even some public park benches now carry advertising.

Pedicabs - called cyclos and still the city's most popular form of public transportation - sport shiny new ads for stored-valued phone cards that can be used at some downtown pay phones.

Advertising agencies now operating - with more expected to spring up soon - include the state-owned Advertising Service Center, semi-private (with a small government interest) Saigon Advertising and Youth Advertising.

Saigon Advertising represents Ogilvy and Mather, the only multi-national with a direct connection. There's a big O&M billboard outside the airport announcing that it is locally represented.

All three agencies use billboard space to promote their services in a society which isn't yet familiar with their role.

Youth Advertising, the oldest, is an interesting case study.

It's a branch of the city's Youth Union.

(In this hard-pressed economy, ministries, state organizations and local government departments have been told to make money. Often they do so in ways unrelated to their major activity.)

In 1988, the Youth Union spotted a niche-advertising.

At first it operated as little more than a sign-writing company for state agencies and foreign companies.

"We saw a need, but we didn't have the skills. Our business doubled within six months - and has kept on growing," says Tran Thanh Son, the manager of Youth Advertising.

"At first, foreign clients - either agencies or the manufacturer itself - would provide us with the ads and all we'd do was place them on billboards or in newspapers and on TV," says Son, 41.

"But later we received help in how to operate as an agency from some overseas Vietnamese who'd worked in agencies in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and North America. …

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