Chen May Yee has been recently selected to head the newly created Asia Pacific unit of J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, which will bring The Innovation Group’s cultural and consumer insights to one of the world’s most exciting regions. A seasoned journalist, Chen will head JWT Intelligence’s APAC operations from the emerging hotspot of Kuala Lumpur. Below, Chen explains her background and the trends she’s currently watching.

Tell us about your background and your role with the Innovation Group.

I’ve worked as a journalist in Malaysia, Singapore and the United States over the last twenty years. I was a correspondent for Agence France-Presse and the Wall Street Journal in Asia, and later worked in the US at the Minneapolis Star Tribune with a team covering healthcare, medical devices, real estate, food and consumer issues. Since moving back to Asia, I’ve edited international news for Singapore’s Straits Times and written stories on trends and culture for the international editions of the New York Times and Forbes.

As the Innovation Group’s new APAC Director, I am excited about bringing this new offering to help clients in Asia stay on top of cultural trends and consumer insights in one of the world’s fastest-moving regions. Which ones are relevant? How do they matter to brands? I know a good story when I see one and there are so many good stories here.

What are you currently working on for the Innovation Group?

Our first report is on female Muslim millennials in Southeast Asia. It’s titled “The New Muslimah.”

Broadly speaking, these young women are more religiously observant than older generations. But they are also more cosmopolitan as consumers. These two trends – more Islamic, also more global – have created a space of conflict, negotiation, adaptation and innovation that’s playing out across sectors. The rise of hijabi fashion is just the most obvious sign. Indeed, these shifts in boundaries, taste and desire are driving innovation in areas as diverse as food, travel, technology, banking, beauty and education.

We surveyed 1,000 women in Indonesia and Malaysia on their views on everything from religion to food to travel to social media. And we interviewed more than a dozen media influencers, researchers and entrepreneurs.

What topics would you most like to tackle in the future?

Technological innovation, particularly the intersection of social media and commerce. Generational shifts. Changing Asian parenthood. The changing role of women. I could go on.

What, to you, are some of the most exciting trends in the region?

China’s shift from a low-cost manufacturing destination to an innovation hub is giving Silicon Valley a run for its money. That has implications for where brands look to develop their ideas and offerings all the way to who buys those products and services.

I’m also interested in generational shifts and urbanization. We have countries here where people have moved from farming to manufacturing in a generation, or from village to town to city. How does this shape identity, attitudes and outlook?

What are some of the defining characteristics of consumers in the APAC markets that you see as unique to that region?

I think the defining characteristic here is the speed of change. When something happens here, it’s likely happening much faster here than in Europe and the US. You have whole groups of people here who never owned a desktop computer and jumped straight to mobile. The APAC market is also incredibly diverse – different ethnicities and religions, urban versus rural. We need to understand the nuances not just between countries but also between different regions within countries.

What is the importance of the APAC markets? What can marketers in other regions learn from emerging trends in Asia?

The world is getting smaller each year, and these days, trends are just as likely to emerge from Singapore or Shanghai as they are from London or New York.

You see Muslim modest fashion designed in Indonesia on the catwalks of Europe. You see K-pop and Korean dramas everywhere. Taiwanese bubble tea is now sold in chain stores in Houston and Minneapolis.

On the fringes, you also see fascinating hybrids like hijabi Cosplay – young women who incorporate their hijab into anime or superhero-inspired costumes. Pay attention to Asia, because the next global trend could well start here.

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