The mango that moved the world

With a simple bite of Thailand's iconic dessert, hip-hop star Milli set alight a movement to return the Kingdom to the top of the tourist heap

Many people enjoyed an unexpected windfall after the rapper Milli ate the beloved Thai dessert mango sticky rice onstage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival earlier this year.

Mango vendors had higher revenues while riders queued up for hours in front of their favourite mango sticky rice shops. A similar experience occurred after Blackpink singer Lisa said she wanted to buy the famed deep-fried meatballs from her home province of Buri Ram as soon as she returned home. The local delicacy suddenly became sought after across the country, with sales skyrocketing among vendors in the northeastern province.

These cultural touchstones that help enhance a country's image and economy are examples of soft power, which the Thai government hopes to harness through the creation of a committee for national image enhancement through soft power, with Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow serving as chair.

Iconic local products. Photos © Creative Economy Agency

Joint secretary and committee member Chakrit Pichyangkul, executive director of the Creative Economy Agency (CEA), spoke to the Thai press about the CEA's strategy to promote Thai soft power to the global market by empowering cultural assets and creative cities as well as building business competitiveness.

"The CEA will empower cultural assets in provinces. In Thailand, the CEA will visit provinces and search for their iconic identity. For example, Phetchaburi is well known for its jaggery -- dark brown sugar made from palm trees. To build business competitiveness, CEA may suggest a jaggery entrepreneur to manufacture a limited number of items for sale to Michelin star restaurants or export. This is to make the jaggery special and rare. This strategy is similar to the cherry blossom season in Japan, which takes place only once a year," explained Chakrit.

Additionally, the government will help develop different regions to join Unesco's Creative Cities Network, which admits cities based on criteria for specific categories (crafts and folk arts, media arts, film, design, gastronomy, literature and music).

Phetchaburi province was accepted into the Unesco programme last year for gastronomy. Other Unesco-designated cities are Phuket for gastronomy and Chiang Mai and Sukhothai for crafts and folk arts.

In the past, the CEA's duty ended after completion of the business framework for entrepreneurs. After that, entrepreneurs were on their own in developing their products. With the new strategies, the CEA will assist entrepreneurs, especially large businesses that have the potential to export products to the global market.

Iconic local products. Photos © Creative Economy Agency

"The CEA will collaborate with world class universities to educate entrepreneurs about the latest creative technology. With assistance from state agencies, entrepreneurs will register their intellectual property. The CEA will help entrepreneurs develop their products and match them with suitable international entrepreneurs," said Chakrit.

In 2020, Thailand's creative economy was valued at 1.19 trillion baht, or 7.58% of the GDP. During 2012 to 2020, Thailand's creative industry grew an average of 1.23% each year and generated 990,000 jobs.

The Global Soft Power Index 2022 by Brand Finance reported that Thailand ranks 35 of 120 countries with a score of 40.2 (38.7 in 2021). Compared to Asian countries, Thailand ranks No.6 behind India, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and China. Thailand gained high scores in the soft power index in business and trade, culture and heritage, and people and values, among other categories.

According to the CEA, the 5Fs of Thailand's potential cultural assets are food, fighting (Thai boxing), festivals, fashion (Thai fabric) and film. Last year, the content of Boy's Love was valued at over 1 billion baht. The main international viewers of Thai Boy's Love are Asian countries, China, Japan and South Korea. Other growing industries are games, comics and characters, and e-sports.

Iconic local products. Photos © Creative Economy Agency

Chakrit said the agency has plans for more than 20 soft power projects. He unveiled two main projects -- content lab and a metaverse ecosystem lab. Chakrit explained that the content industry is at the forefront to promote soft power, but Thailand lacks excellent screenwriters and producers.

"The content lab project will start next year; we will recruit and train screenwriters and producers. As a result, we expect to have 10 proposals for TV series or movies and will match the proposals with investors or platforms like Netflix. Contents of TV series or movies will contain Thai identity, but… we do not want to limit productivity. We are conducting research to understand the international market and the kind of content that is likely to attract international viewers. We will work with BEC Studio, which is in the process of building a soundstage studio, a huge virtual production studio, which aims to export movies internationally. Also, we have teamed up with PTT's subsidiary that is equipped to create augmented reality and virtual reality," said Chakrit.

Since technology changes very fast, the CEA created the metaverse ecosystem lab to help students and the general public learn about technology.

"Virtual production helps people in the film industry shoot films in the studio without having to go to the actual location. This new technology can create new trends in film production and new skills among people in the film industry. The metaverse ecosystem lab will be built on the 4th floor of Thailand Creative & Design Center. It will be a sandbox for students to experiment using tools and to develop their work. The general public also can visit the lab to learn about the metaverse. This lab will help to educate people, so everyone can understand about products and services related to the metaverse," Chakrit explained.

Funding sources for SMEs is another important issue that can help business companies reach their goals. Chakrit said the CEA is hiring university lecturers to research international funding sources, so that the agency will understand models in other countries.

"I personally want to establish a fund, but there are rules and regulations. Hence, the research by university lecturers will help us understand models of international funds and limitations of Thailand's funds. Main funders will probably come from state agencies or the private sector. We may connect with angel investors and ask for their sponsorship. Angel investors do not focus on profit," said Chakrit.

To welcome tourists, the CEA will organise a massive event at the end of this year or early next year. At this event, the CEA will have an opportunity to raise awareness of Thailand's soft power.

"The event will target international audiences and tourists. We cannot reveal the event theme, but the content will add to Thailand's identity, which will hopefully impress the target group and benefit Thailand's economy. The CEA does not focus on tourists because we want to build economy values. As a result, the effect will be more than attracting the target audiences to return to Thailand. Instead, they may continue to purchase Thai products after the event," said Chakrit.

Chakrit Pichyangkul, executive director of the Creative Economy Agency. Creative Economy Agency


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