From the news, you would think that Asian countries are on the verge of shutting themselves off from the rest of the world.

For example:

  • Indonesia recently banned 477 websites, including Tumblr.
  • China blocks Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many other Western sites using the ‘Great Firewall of China’.
  • And because of licensing issues, TV and movies which are widely available in North America and Europe are inaccessible in Asian countries.

But, as with many things in Asia, where there is a will, there is a way around it.  And in this case, it’s the virtual private network (VPN).

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a way for people to connect to the internet which makes it look like their computer is somewhere other than the place it is.

It was traditionally a way for employees to access their corporate network from home. The employee would log their home computer into a VPN and it would appear to other computers on the company network that it, too, was in the building.

But recently it’s become more popular with tech-savvy media hunters hungry for TV and movies which are not yet available in their home country.

People all over Asia subscribe to VPN services and now enjoy Netflix like the Americans, BBC like the British, and live sports globally, wherever they are shown.

And as more sites are being blocked by various Asian countries, it seems that web surfing and social media will also be a popular reason to sign up for a VPN service.

Are VPNs difficult to use?

For the uninitiated, using a VPN simply involves installing software on your computer, configuring your browser, or downloading an app.

And once the VPN is set up, it’s just a matter of paying a small subscription fee to the service and you are then, virtually, in the country of your choice.

There are free options as well, though these are typically far less reliable.

How popular are VPNs?

It is difficult to say. Both providers and users have a vested interest in not letting anyone know what they are doing!

GlobalWebIndex, a digital consumer research company, published survey results in 2014 and found that usage widely varied from country to country.

Western countries had low adoption of VPNs, with the US being typical at around 3%.

In Asia, however, nearly one in five Chinese (19%) used a VPN and in Indonesia it was nearly one in four. There are also other reports which show much higher usage rates.

And any search on ‘VPNs in ‘ will reveal a lively discussion between local netizens on which VPN service offers the best rate for the fastest download speed and, almost inevitably, how well Netflix works on it.

What does this mean for brands?

It’s quite clear that for publishers and media producers this means that country-based licensing agreements are being systematically breached by people all over the world.

Publishers need to either work on blocking VPN access to their content or find a way to deliver licensed content globally.

Netflix recently worked out an agreement with over 100 countries.

It’s less clear, however, what it means for brands.  

For brands who are advertising on this ‘leaky’ media, VPNs are a mixed blessing.

If the brand is international and offers its products fairly universally across the globe, then this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Its product is now being associated with media that is so valuable to people that they are willing to go to great lengths to consume it.

But for brands who target its products regionally, having its ads viewed via a VPN can, at best, send mixed messages to consumers and, at worst, possibly make them feel ripped off in their home countries.

So what can brands do?

Start by just being aware that many people in Asian countries, and elsewhere, consume Western media like Westerners.

Then, when buying media, brands can ask questions about the number of consumers who are likely to be coming in through a VPN and their country of origin.

If the brand is global or works with a global agency, then counterparts in the Asian countries may know what TV shows or Western sites are popular, yet unavailable, in the country.

There could be an opportunity for a brand to tell its story in a unique way to its ‘forbidden’ fans.

For the most part, though, brands are just going to have to get used to this sort of random, global distribution of media.

Information, as they say, wants to be free and any attempt to keep your messaging contained to a particular geography will almost certainly not work.