10 Principles to build the Malaysia Nation Brand

Minister in the Prime Minister’s department, Datuk Seri Idris Jala announced yesterday that the Prime Minister, Datuk Sri Najib Razak has a team in place and they are working full time to create a national brand for Malaysia.

Datuk Seri Idris said that the brand would involve Malaysian perspectives on national policy as well as the pattern of behaviour of Malaysians. He was quoted as saying, “If we can align these, then we can have a national brand”.

It is good to note that Datuk Seri Idris isn’t suggesting PR and advertising will drive the process. However, I don’t quite know what he means by “the brand would involve Malaysian perspectives on national policy…”, but I am sure he knows what he is doing.

One concern I have is that his statement might give some people the impression that building a Nation Brand is a relatively simple process and that it can be managed and controlled by internal forces.

Whilst the behaviour of Malaysians will have a distinct bearing on the success of a Malaysian Nation Brand, the process will also require significant investment in many other areas, many of which cannot be controlled by internal forces.

And as mentioned above and repeated later, Nation Branding is not a communications process. We cannot convince potential investors or tourists that Malaysia is the place to invest in, move to or visit.

We can influence the reputation of the country by building relationships and delivering on promises – multiple promises to multiple sectors – but we will never convince anyone of anything.

To help the PM and his team develop the Nation Brand, I’ve come up with ten key principles for a strategic Nation branding initiative. Although there isn’t a standard formula for building a Nation Brand because of course they all start from a different place, these principles will help form the foundations of any Nation brand strategy.

The same model should also be applied to government ministries, departments and agencies. And of course, these stakeholders should also form part of the internal element of any Nation Brand initiative.

• Nation Branding is a collaborative process
The best news to come out of Malaysia is that the Prime Minister is driving this initiative because without the CEOs buy in, any branding initiative is doomed. His involvement makes a statement to all those who will be involved that this is very important.

But the PM will need assistance from government representatives in each of the states and from other stakeholders. Most successful destination branding initiatives come from situations where key constituents move beyond turf protection/building, put aside their political affiliations and step out of their comfort zone and show some originality and courage.

Nation branding is difficult, requiring planning, support and coordination from a wide array of public and private entities. But even the best plan in the world will not succeed without buy-in from Nation brand stakeholders.

The most important step to ensuring buy-in is involvement in the research and planning process. As much as possible, brand stakeholders that are involved in implementation must have the opportunity to add their input to the plan.

Such buy-in has two advantages. First, it allows valuable perspectives and experiences to be incorporated into the plan, making the brand plan stronger and more effective.

Next, it facilitates better, more effective execution. If all the parties involved have a complete understanding of the entire plan and their role in it and what its success means to them, then redundant efforts can be avoided and resources maximized.

(I didn’t say this was going to be easy!)

• Research and data are fundamental
Sadly too many Nations (and companies) see Branding as a creative driven process of repetitively pushing government defined tourism and other messages out across traditional media, ad infinitum. The hope is that the message will resonate with someone or enough ‘someones’ to make it worthwhile.

Historically, this process has been the responsibility of the tourism board with support from other departments/agencies such as the agency responsible for inward investment and the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Often the tourist board drives the Nation Brand

The tourism board delivers its message with a combination of slick, well-produced communications across mainly traditional media, PR and familiarization trips, trade shows and other trade related initiatives.

But just because the concept of carpet-bombing consumers with slickly produced commercials and PR messages worked (although this is contentious) for athletic shoes, automobiles, breakfast cereals and toothpaste in the mass economy (which incidentally no longer exists) of the post war years, doesn’t mean it is the way forward for the Malaysia Nation Brand.

Now, more than ever, step two in the Nation Branding process must include extensive qualitative and quantitative research with multiple stakeholders, both internal and external and from previously identified sectors.

Without research and data, branding decisions are no more than guesswork and the Malaysia Nation Brand is too important to base strategic decisions (or, any decisions) on guesswork.

The right research is vital for uncovering perceptions, attitudes and requirements for emotional, experiential and economic value, the three key elements of a successful Nation brand. Research also provides benchmarks for measurement and accountability.

Most perceptions about countries have been formed long ago but they can be changed, despite what Simon Anholt says! But the way they are changed in America will require a very different approach to the way they are changed in France, UK or Germany.

And of course the requirements for value of an automotive manufacturer from Detroit looking for an Asian country to set up a manufacturing base, will be very different to the value requirements of a financial institution from the city of London.

You’ll also need to know what target industries/segments think of you and also what they want from you, who/where they get their information from and what are their hot buttons.

It will be tempting to develop a common approach for these and other targetted yet diverse industries, but the reality is that each one will require information that is different and therefore more emphasis will have to be placed on relationship building than any communications.

The research will also allow you to identify what firms or institutions you should be going after and which ones you should not. And this is where the balance between the Nation Brand and the immediate success factors critical to political survival become entwined.

Because some industries are more attractive than others but if a firm from a controversial industry waves a couple of billion dollars in your face, the short term political benefits maybe significant but the long term branding benefits may be few, if any.

Of course it will require a very brave CEO to eschew those short-term political benefits for the long term benefit of the Nation. But such decisions will have to be made and to make them more palatable, they must be leveraged effectively for the benefit of the official and the government of the day.

• It is impossible for a Nation Brand to reach its greatest potential using creativity alone
Too much is at stake – both in terms of a country’s brand and resources invested – to depend on a creative-driven branding campaign (and that’s all it is because it is impossible to sustain) to form the foundations of your brand.

Furthermore, a creative campaign is best suited for mass markets and mass media – we’re back to running shoes, shampoo and so on.

Consumers are being inundated with so many messages they've stopped listening

Think of a TV commercial for a country or enterprise zone (you probably won’t be able to remember any, even if you are looking for one). They all say pretty much the same thing – how good the accessibility is, how great the country is, how special/unique their incentives are, how well educated their talent pool is, how extensive is their public transport system and so on.

But the reality is that if you are looking for somewhere to relocate to, the first thing you will do is get on the Internet and use a search engine to explore options.

Increasingly, the information you review will come from consumer generated media across social media platforms. It doesn’t matter how much a country spends on a cool logo or pushing a creative driven message out across traditional media, prospects will still go to the Internet and look for real world experiences.

Another issue I have with the creative driven approach is that it is essentially an acquisition driven model and doesn’t take into account existing prospects and investors.

But most damning of all, this approach leaves the strategy for the Nation in the hands of the advertising agency not in the hands of the CEO and executive management.

• Plan your work and work your plan
Once you have carried out your research and aligned your stakeholders, you can start to map out a Nation Brand plan that will not only form the foundations of attempts to drive the brand forward but also be the glue that keeps stakeholders together.

The world is loose, more fluid and more collaborative than ever before. And you have less control over the Nation Brand than ever before but that doesn’t mean you should forgo a well-researched brand plan and let consumers define your brand. In fact the plan is more important than ever as it serves as a blueprint for all stakeholders to adhere to.

Specifically, the Malaysia Nation Brand plan must communicate a positive and dynamic personality with economic, experiential and emotional values that reflect target audience requirements.

The brand plan must be holistic and comprehensive to enhance export promotion, economic development, tourism, foreign direct investment and other key national initiatives.

It must also communicate the intended message to the target constituents and stakeholders in multiple countries and at the same time, it must lay guidelines to strengthen the strategic, communications and visual impact of the Nation Brand.

The blueprint must also systemically connect the Nation Brand to the country’s core industries, corporate brands and Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector brands (more on SMEs later).

This must be established via a systematic, holistic process that accommodates the requirements of both national and international stakeholders. This process must not only be effective to optimize the Malaysia Nation Brand, but also maximize limited national resources.

But be flexible and open to the implementation of the plan. Let events influence the plan and be ready to adapt to events and opportunities.

• The essence of the Malaysia Nation Brand is more important than the brand guidelines so beloved of advertising agencies
It is common practice for companies to spend a great deal of money and time producing, communicating and training personnel about brand guidelines and how to police those brand guidelines.

What they really should be doing is spending those resources on building and nurturing a national appreciation and understanding of the brand and what it stands for, and developing a culture that will deliver a consistent brand across all touch points.

A great example is the South West of England that spent more offering free customer engagement and relationship training to key visitor facing companies than it did on advertising.

• Segmentation enables differentiation
Despite, or because of the power and sweep of globalization, which has Malaysians wearing the same fashions as Italians and Aston Martins in hot demand from Brazil to India and China, each country has its own requirements and world-views.

Once research has revealed the differing characteristics of various audiences, branding must be devoted to tailoring messages, media, channels and activities to the specific values and requirements of target markets.

Such segmentation not only ensures more receptive targets but also easily ensures differentiation from competitive countries trying to be all things to all people.

Social media and the voice of the consumer will drive online discussion and it is imperative that a social media strategy is initiated and integrated with the brand plan.

But communications are not enough. Relationships will be the key to successful development of a Malaysia Nation Brand. The successful implementation of these relationships will require unique and diverse talents that will be able to go out and sell the country. And it is important to match the right level of personnel with the prospects.

• Nation branding is a marathon, not a sprint
There is no quick win or quick fixes in any branding and this applies especially to Nation branding. Even in these technology driven times, establishing a Nation brand may take as long as a generation to develop.

For example, the current view of Japan as a nation famed for its precision and electronics is not based on its weak economic performance over the last decade. Rather, the seeds of Japan’s current nation brand were planted more than thirty years ago, when it began exporting transistor radios and two-cycle engines overseas.

But because it invested heavily in the development of the Japan Nation Brand, it has withstood the effects of the ‘lost decade’ and in fact, many argue that the Japan brand has improved, despite the economic impact of that lost decade and the terrible Tsunami of 2011.

Just as Malaysia launched its Vision 2020 program in 1991 to become a developed nation by 2020, the country must adopt a similar long-term view for Nation branding. Malaysia must look at establishing a Nation brand not for us – but for our children.

The good news is that signs of improvement and the benefits of investing in the Nation Brand development process can be enjoyed more quickly as witnessed by countries such as Croatia, Slovenia and to a lesser extent, Bosnia. These countries have invested heavily in research, product development, training and communications and as a result are building promising Nation Brands.

• The private sector, and in particular SMEs must carry its weight
The Government of Malaysia has tried to develop policies and funding and other resource allocation for SMEs to build brands. The Brand Promotion Grant was one such initiative.

However what would work better for the SMEs would be Brand development grants because Malaysian SMEs, supposedly responsible for as much as 97% of the economy, need to build brands before they can promote them.

The Malaysian government has tried to do a lot for the Nation brand – but it cannot do it alone. The private sector and SMEs need to start pulling their weight.

One way of doing this that would also generate a lot of positive publicity for the government would be to commission a reality TV programme that looks to find 25, 50 or 100 companies with the potential to make it globally.

Every season viewers vote for the SME they think has the most potential and the winner is given the opportunity and significant resources to become a global brand.

This would give SMEs a clear roadmap to success and fast track ‘country of origin’ development for Malaysian products.

Global sporting events will also help to build the Malaysia Nation Brand. It is probably not the right time to suggest Malaysia host the Olympics (although personally, I think Malaysia should be exploring the possibility of co-hosting the event with Indonesia. This would also do wonders for relationships with its neighbour).

Other private sector initiatives can range from promoting country of origin on foods and industrial goods, as Australia has done, to helping to fund trade missions to even good business ethics.

Tourism shouldn’t be neglected but if there is a strategy, it needs to be reviewed because current communications are very tactical and fall into the ‘me too’ category with little differentiation from competitors.

1Malaysia is a good concept but it needs more structure and strategy, not least to protect it otherwise it’s strength and potential will be diluted. It also needs to be better sold to Malaysians.

• Measurement and evaluation
Why should money or resources ever be spent without knowing the return? Wherever possible, perceptions, activities and processes must be measured, ideally with quantitative benchmarks.

Such measurement and evaluation must be used to establish accountability and to ensure continuous improvement.

But don’t rely on polls such as the Nation Brand Index. Such a tool, whilst perhaps relevant to Western countries offers little value to developing countries. People are too worried about their own situations to worry about Malaysia.

The western world is looking to Asia to drag it out of the economic quagmire. We may never get such an opportunity again. The timing of this initiative by the Prime Minister is perfect but we need to move fast.


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