Many Westerners doing business in Asia – even those who have been there for a long time – complain that they still feel outsiders in the country where they are operating.

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Some say that they expected to feel more at home and accepted in Country B when they moved from Country A, but nothing seemed to change.

Others remained hopeful that it was just a question of time and the local business people in Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan or South Korea would eventually come to accept them as they were – and they would become well respected and trusted.

This feeling of not being accepted can be highly damaging both to personal confidence and to the profile of the company you are representing or where you are working.

It can lead to loss of business deals, broken relationships and many missed opportunities. So how do you become accepted and trusted? How do you change from being a member of the out-group to a member of the in-group?


It is perhaps easy to forget that one of the most essential ways to open doors, forge lasting business relationships and show Asia business leadership is personal branding.

That may sound strange, as if you have to become a Richard Branson or Steve Jobs to succeed. But it’s amazing how many people fall down when it comes to projecting themselves and their company.

Part of the challenge is clear communication: how to speak clearly and at a regular pace in a foreign culture without complicating your language. You have to make sure you’re understood in settings where English is perhaps a second or third language.

But there’s more to it than that.


Personal branding goes to the heart of what you are trying to sell or promote: You!

If you are walk though almost any Asian capital from Seoul to Beijing, from Tokyo to Singapore, from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur, you will be knocked out by the sheer amount of visual stimulus: stylish architecture, huge billboards with beautiful actors or actresses and singers, models, top-of-the-line cars, world-class cosmetics and fashion.

The various countries of Asia have youthful and dynamic cultures. The younger generation often form a majority of their populations. Their idols fill the airwaves and the TV channels. Everywhere, stylishness and modernity are on display.

Therefore, those who desire success in the marketplaces of Asia should sit up and take notice.

Most manuals about business success in Asia miss out this one essential element. They tell you that Asians are much more ‘contextual’ in business interactions. They talk about ‘high context’ Asians versus ‘low context’ Westerners.

But beyond the basic rules of etiquette and recommending you dress conservatively, they don’t specify what this high context is.


To put it bluntly, it’s what you look like.

It’s the visual impression you give in what are increasingly smart, sophisticated, cosmopolitan and cultured Asian business circles.

Your face, your clothing, your body language, your speech and visual impression are all part of what an Asian counterpart will conclude about you.

This may sound like some Hollywood hang-up on image. It may strike you as nothing to do with someone who is selling widgets in Chongqing.

But in Asia the visual goes beyond simply image. The good (well educated, professional) impression you make is often the entry point for further conclusions about you, hence your business.


Being smart and respectful often indicates other promising values, such as truthfulness, diligence, kindness, intelligence and loyalty.

These values will form part of the impression a Korean or a Japanese, a Malaysian or a Chinese makes as to whether they can work with you. They will contribute to the feeling that an Asian has about you.

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In almost every Asian country, this unspoken feeling is what cements the business relationship.

The image you project of stylishness will see you categorized into boxes labelled ‘social class’, ‘education’, ‘potential’ and ‘I want to be seen with you’.

So if you are entering Asia markets for the first time, or want to up your game in Asia, just remember that if you ask an Asian’s opinion about a friend or a politician or a potential employee, they will often say ‘They look like a good or clever or trustworthy’ person.’

The good news is that this emphasis is on appearance doesn’t mean that you have to undergo cosmetic surgery in Korea, Japan or the Philippines!


You just have to take care with your personal presentation.

Go to the gym and lose some pounds, sort out your wardrobe, get well scrubbed and regularly moisturized, drop the biro and invest in a Mont Blanc, buy a good watch and put away the Swatch.

Each of these details will be quickly assessed and noted as part of your personal branding.  Each of them will mark you out as being ‘worth it’.

No one has ever been looked down upon for dressing up a bit or dressing slightly more conservatively.

In Asia, a ‘low level person’ is unshaven or wearing a check shirt and baggy chinos or a revealing beach-type dress at a business meeting. If you want to gain millionaire status in Asia, you have to be on the money. You have to get the rules.

And the number one rule is good personal branding.

Have you had a problem with building long-term relationships or with your company’s profile and positioning in your chosen Asian market (s)? If so I’d love to help you.

I’m opening up some spaces on my calendar to discuss your specific challenges so if you’re ready to take action now, complete your details below and we’ll be in touch.

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