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Pushing into Asia, Match’s “love capitalism” tries to dodge cultural snags

As the online dating conglomerate expands globally, it’s learning to adapt to different cultural norms around dating—from India’s matchmaking culture to Japan’s stigma on premarital sex.

Pushing into Asia, Match’s “love capitalism” tries to dodge cultural snags
[Photo: Flickr user Eden, Janine and Jim]

In the 1990s, cafés and coffee shops sprung up in Indian cities, and made it easier for young people to meet and date in public spaces.

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The cultural ideal for middle-class Japanese men in the 1980s was workplace romances with pink-collar workers known as “office ladies.”

Without growing up in these societies, there’s little chance you’d know about these social peculiarities. But these are the niche cultural quirks that Western dating companies have to understand as they enter foreign markets.

Match Group, the world’s largest online-dating conglomerate, and owner of some of the U.S.’s largest dating apps such as Tinder, Match.com, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid, announced during its first-quarter earnings call that its priority for the future is to continue to expand internationally, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region (APAC).

In that earnings report, Match said that direct revenue was up by 16% year on year, a continuation of an upward growth trend. International revenue specifically has also been on the rise. In the same quarter, it accounted for $216.2 million of the $454 million total, or about 48% of its overall revenue.

Average subscribers across all Match apps was up by 16% overall year over year, but the international rate was higher, at 23%. The potential to capitalize on further international expansion is evident–and the company aspires for Asia-Pacific region revenue to make up a quarter of its total revenue by 2023.

Match had a 5% global market share in the digital dating space in 2015, estimates Dan Salmon, an analyst for Bank of Montreal, adding that he expects that share to increase to 12% by 2020. Salmon predicted that stigmas around online dating would slowly decline globally–and that dating companies should add features to their products in these countries that resonate well with users to help them adjust.

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And Match is doing just that. In April, CEO Mandy Ginsberg announced an executive team restructure, appointing general managers in both India and Japan “to focus on the market opportunity in Asia and accelerate international growth.” The realignment falls into line with its strategy to assemble dedicated teams on the ground in those countries with superior knowledge of “the culture, regulatory challenges, and market dynamics.”

One size doesn’t fit all. Match’s expansion strategies vary according to the target country. In India, it’s offering an existing product, with slight tweaks to address cultural customs. In Japan, it’s found its soulmate in an acquired homegrown app that already boasts an insider knowledge of the country’s distinctive dating norms.

India’s matchmaking culture is good for Tinder

India has a long history of arranged marriages. While customs are slowly changing, marriage remains the uncompromising end goal of relationships, and families still play dominant roles. While it does happen, “sleeping around is a cultural no-no,” says Rashmi Sadana, an associate professor of anthropology at George Mason University. “The idea that you would be using an app to optimize that practice is something that you would not tell people about.”

Making a big push for Tinder in India may seem like an odd game plan for Match. In the U.S., Tinder is synonymous with hookup culture, and its new brand marketing campaign–with slogans such as “single does what single wants”–doubles down on the idea that singledom is the ideal for 18- to 25-year-olds.

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And yet, India is an important market for Tinder because it has a growing younger population, and people are continuing to migrate toward large metropolitan areas. Smartphone use is prolific in the country, and there’s high access to mobile data. (And Match even has plans to cater to those remote areas that do have expensive or sparse data coverage, with the imminent launch of Tinder Lite, a smaller version of the app that’ll take up less critical usage space.)

Aishwarya Yadav, a Bombay resident who’s used Tinder in the past, said many users are actively searching for mates. But Tinder is a way for them to escape the arranged-marriage shackles, and to independently find marital partners for themselves. Some middle-class, urban families are now adjusting to the idea of accepting marriages for love.

Matchmaking has always been a part of the culture in India, where Sunday papers are still filled with matrimonial ads. Some of the oldest and most popular “dating” apps in India are matrimony.com and shaadi.com, which center entirely on finding marital partners. In a way, Western apps are simply an extension of these.

Hayley Quinn, a London-based online dating coach, said that Tinder ironically makes more sense in the East than in the West, where the modern ideal of finding “the one” clashes with the humdrum use of “a deeply unromantic dating app.”

Tinder has added two unique features in India to try to combat societal issues and gain an upper hand against the incumbents.

Tinder launched “My Move” last September, in an attempt to combat sexual harassment. The feature allows only the woman to start the conversation once matched with a man, similar to the way rival dating app Bumble operates. It means women can feel safer by vetting a match online before meeting him in person, says Taru Kapoor, the newly promoted general manager of Match Group in India.

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Sexual harassment is a crisis outside the middle-class areas of India, where aggressive public behavior toward women, such as cat-calling, leering, and even groping is ubiquitous, says Harleen Singh, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. “Any woman who has been in a public space, unequivocally, has been sexually harassed,” she says.

In its effort to make the gay and transgender community more at ease, Tinder rolled out an extended list of gender options in November, after consulting with an organization called The Humsafar Trust, which advocates for LGBTQ rights. Meeting people organically can be hard for gay people in India, where heterosexual mingling dominates public spaces in cities. In this sense, apps could be democratizing for marginalized communities, Sadana said.

Leaving it to the locals in Japan

Tinder doesn’t translate as easily in Japan. The app is associated with less committed relationships, and casual sex is stigmatized in that country. So, Match is relying on another, more conservative, dating app.

In 2015, Match acquired that app, Pairs. It focuses on serious relationships and fulfills the traditional mentality that couples will get married. Emu Nishiyama, Pairs’s brand director, said 80% of Japanese people still want to marry, but only slightly more than 50% of Japanese men have been in relationships. “There’s a gap between what they’re willing to do one day, and where they are today,” she says.

Because the Japanese have notoriously heavy work schedules and use cell phones at high rates, online dating answers a lot of needs, she adds. There’s also more of a willingness to pay for matchmaking apps.

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Crucially, Pairs developers are already clued into niche customs. Western developers would never think of including blood type as a profile question, Nishiyama said. But in Japan, blood type, or ketsuekigata, is considered by many a personality definer and compatibility factor, said Anna Wozny, a PhD student at University of Michigan, whose research focuses on Japanese marriage values. A cultural parallel in the West could be the fixation on horoscopes.

On a less seductive note, the developers are also abreast of the strict governmental regulations. In the 1990s, a non-regulated online dating scene known as deai-kei sprung up, giving way to a torrent of crimes including prostitution, extortion, rape, and murder. In response, the government passed legislation to reinforce security. Nishiyama said Pairs covers all the requirements, such as ensuring users are over 18 and are matched before they can start chatting.

It still remains to be seen how Match’s existing strategies will fare in the long term. Tinder has a worthy competitor in the swiping space since December last year, when archrival Bumble kicked off a high-profile launch with the help of actress Priyanka Chopra. In Q1, Tinder was the highest-grossing app on Androids in India–surpassing Netflix–according to market insights firm, App Annie.

And Match, with its near-monopoly in the dating space, has a surplus of weapons in its amorous app arsenal: It recently introduced OkCupid in India as a free alternative, which has already rocketed to a 600% increase in downloads year over year.

Ultimately, dating companies will go where high populations are, and where those populations are digitally enabled.

“Our success in India is a template of how we are approaching other emerging Asian markets,” said Ginsberg, the CEO. And with hubs already pinpointed in lesser-tapped cities like Seoul and Singapore, Match’s booming love capitalism continues to march into new territories.

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