A Q&A with Marcus Osborne, our CEO & author of ‘Stop Advertising, Start Branding‘
Q. THE BARISAN NASIONAL INVESTED HEAVILY IN TRADITIONAL COMMUNICATIONS BEFORE & DURING THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN. WAS THAT THE RIGHT WAY FOR TODAY’S BRANDING ENVIRONMENT?
A: As the dust settles on the extraordinary 14th General Election, the well known brand guru who allegedly ran the Barisan Nasional (BN) advertising campaign, the advertising agency involved and a number of other communications executives must be scratching their collective heads at what went wrong.
No one knows for sure how much Barisan Nasional spent on marketing in the lead up to the 14th General Election. I’ve heard RM20 million to RM2 billion with the reality probably somewhere in between. I did hear from a reliable source that RM20 million was spent online which is a lot of money for a short campaign period.
We’ll probably never know because there aren’t really any fund disclosure laws in Malaysia but we do know GLCs were asked to and did contribute.
So with so much money, a high profile brand guru, global advertising agency resources and total control of the mass media, what went wrong?
I will try and answer that question by putting it into some sort of historical marketing context.
The years from 1950 – 1995 can be characterized as the mass marketing economy. It was the golden age of advertising and the early days of branding.
During this period political parties could define, or “position,” themselves and use the mass media to reach and influence mass markets of relatively ‘docile’ citizens.
Don’t forget, up until the mid 1980s, Malaysia only had 2 TV channels and only one of them showed commercials. There wasn’t much to do after a hard day of work and so most citizens were watching those 2 channels. And both of these channels were owned and controlled by the government.
Limited satellite TV came to Malaysia in 1995 but there were no more than 5 channels. Reaching as many consumers as possible was still achieved through mass marketing tools such as TV, radio, billboards, newspaper advertising and the Bas Mini – provided you weren’t too worried about brand association!
Over the next 20 years things got exciting as media evolved quickly and today we have more than 300 TV options. Throughout this communications revolution, Barisan Nasional used mass media to push its messages to the public. And as history shows, it was very successful.
Then came the Internet and Malaysians took to this new platform very quickly. But the real turning point was social media. Social media radically changed the way brands communicate with citizens.
But crucially, from a political perspective, for the first time Malaysians had a platform that wasn’t government owned and that they trusted enough to use to voice out their concerns and frustrations about how the country was being administered.
Q. BUT DIDN’T BN USE SOCIAL MEDIA EXTENSIVELY?
A: Yes they did. But Barisan Nasional seemed to be under the impression it could simply move it’s broadcast message online and continue using this new media in the same way as they used the mass media they controlled.
In the lead up to GE14 BN went on Twitter in an aggressive, controlled approach using infographics, memes, images justifying government policies and lambasting the opposition’s promises.
The Digital Forensic Research (DFR) Lab of the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank was quoted by Reuters as saying, “over 17,000 bots tweeted content related to the Malaysian election” immediately after the election date was confirmed.
According to the DFR lab, anti Pakatan tweets with the hashtags ‘#SayNoToPH’ and ‘#KalahkanPakatan “were used around 44,100 times by 17,600 users from 12th – 20th April 2018 and 98% percent of the users appear to be bots.”
Soon after, Twitter suspended 500 accounts posting spam or malicious content about the election. Salleh Said Keruak was contacted by the media but he did not respond to text or calls asking for comments, despite his official position as the communications minister.
Other social media images included well attended ceramah and of course ‘random’ individuals carrying “I love PM” signs and waving UMNO flags. While it made sense for BN to be on Twitter because the site is the most active platform for political debate in the country, and at times the approach was well structured but it didn’t understand the basic rules of voter engagement.
Consumers behave differently on social media. They are part of communities populated by people just like them who were just as unhappy as them. BN thought they could beat them into submission the way they had in the mass media environment.
Q. SO YOU ARE SAYING THEY USED SOCIAL MEDIA BUT THEY DIDN’T USE IT PROPERLY?
A: Exactly. Malaysians are not confrontational but push them into a corner and they come out fighting. Social Media provided that corner. This required a new, more collaborative approach to engagement but Barisan Nasional carpet bombed social media the same way it had carpet bombed traditional media for more than 60 years.
Barisan Nasional put a huge amount of resources into mass media techniques that were successful when the mass media yielded power over passive audiences willing to accept the word of the politician as final. However, Malaysians proved that mass media tactics don’t work on social media and they are no longer passive when it comes to politics.
Q. BUT CERAMAHS AND OTHER EVENTS WERE WELL ATTENDED. DOESN’T THAT SUGGEST THEY WERE POPULAR?
A: I think we all know that a well attended Ceramah or BN events doesn’t necessarily equate to popularity. Sure voters attended the events and listened politely to political messages at Ceramah while nodding appropriately. And of course candidate visits to constituencies were on the whole, well attended but they always are, especially when there is free food.
As matters became desperate towards the end of the campaign period, many of these visits came with blatant cash handouts, some of which were filmed on smartphones and shared across social media and whatsapp groups.
In the past these cash handouts were often enough to sway those on the fence but this time citizens sought third party verification on social media before making decisions or forming opinions.
And that verification came from people like them. Whether that be in Facebook communities of like minded individuals, in the comments section of articles about election related issues or in whatsapp groups.
For the first time ever, voters were informed and opinionated and social media was awash with people like them. It was like a wave the country has never witnessed.
Barisan Nasional was oblivious to these developments partly because their controlled media online such as The NST, Berita Harian and The Star were pushing out the government message but didn’t allow comments from readers at the end of the articles.
It showed a huge lack of appreciation for how the landscape was changing. But also meant the ruling party was unable to gauge less partisan feelings and address issues important to voters.
Barisan Nasional was basically stuck in 1985. It believed that all it had to do was create a party driven message and position that message in the minds of citizens.
Q. SO YOU ARE SAYING BARISAN NATIONAL SPENT FAR TOO MUCH ON ADVERTISING?
A: Far too many creative companies are given responsibility for building brands. And a recent ‘brand consultant of the year’ award went to an advertising agency! That’s like a car winning ‘motorbike of the year’! It’s confusing for everyone.
Branding today is much more than cool ads, cool logos, cool design, a great tagline all communicated using beautiful advertising. And this election proved that beyond a doubt.
Barisan Nasional put a lot of emphasis on logos during its time and for GE14 created the tagline “Utamakan Yang Perlu, Hebatkan Negaraku” which was soon shortened to the Trumpesque “Make My Country Great”.
It was extremely naive of the BN President or those advising him, to believe that an artificially contrived message, created without consultation of major stakeholders and retrofitted around an elitist party was going to make Barisan Nasional instantly acceptable, recognizable, trusted and voted for.
Some in the industry have questioned the advertising campaigns that focused on the achievements of the BN government and yet more often that not, featured a larger than life image of the Prime Minister.
The campaign was almost presidential yet didn’t seem to talk to anyone particular. For all the discussions about the impact of the youth in this election campaign, the reality is they aren’t going to vote for someone who, as one 22 year old told me, “looks like a friend of my dad’s.”
One industry veteran said the campaign looked really attractive and professional, but he didn’t know who they were talking to. It looked to him like the ads were created to please the Prime Minister.
Another industry professional thought that the campaign was, “run like an Obama campaign but in the style of Clinton with its heavy dependence on contrived messaging and negative comments about the opposition.
Q: SO BARISAN NASIONAL DIDN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT IT TAKES TO BUILD A POLITICAL BRAND?
A: Branding today requires a product that is fit for purpose. Internally, everyone within the organization must be ‘on brand’ so that they are all pulling in the same direction.
BN should have known through a brand audit what were the issues that were affecting the voters and how to address them. I think some research was carried out and there were also suggestions that the disgraced political consulting company Cambridge Analytica was involved.
But when research is managed internally or with those close to the ‘CEO’, the results may be influenced by the short term goals of those involved.
And of course participants don’t always provide truthful information if they don’t trust the source of the questions or what the data will be used for. And just to ram home this point about the flaws in internally carried out research, if the findings are not good, there is a temptation to sugar coat the results or present them in a less than legitimate manner.
BN’s messages had all the hallmarks of the contrived, ‘they’ll listen to what we want them to hear’ approach to branding. They spoke to everyone while saying nothing to anyone. There was a real lack of empathy for the audience.
When asked about the economy, 1MDB, GST, education in other words, the issues important to voters, they kept quiet or gave stock, pre prepared responses.
Arul Kanda was sent out to talk a lot without saying anything with his one man monologues on 1MDB but he changed nothing. BN could not gather feedback through neutral or semi neutral channels because it had closed them all off. And views of citizens through comments in Malaysiakini were dismissed as the ramblings of a few opposition planted extremists.
But citizens are not stupid and the majority of people saw straight through much of what BN was saying. BN has a track record of over promising, especially at election time, and under delivering afterwards. Many others were caught blatantly lying and in this day and age people will not put their trust in liars to run the country.
Q: SO DO YOU THINK BARISAN NASIONAL HAD A STRATEGY?
A: Barisan obviously had a narrative determined in advance. But instead of being based around issues that matter to the voters and tested first, it was very much based around how wonderful is the president and what they have done for the country.
As former Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz said, “the old objective was to “present a picture much rosier than it really is”. However, what was needed now are transparency, responsibility and honesty.”
That may be stating the obvious but as was patently clear during the campaigning period, BN was only ready to present a picture it wanted to present around it’s own narrative. BN only had a push plan and no pull plan. It seemed there was no real interest to address the many elephants in the room.
It was as if BN thought it could buy voters whereas they should have been trying to win their trust. And when it got really difficult, and BN was losing ground to the opposition there was no Plan B and instead, BN fell back on paying out cash, the demonization of the Chinese, the age of the opposition leader and numerous other petty, often personal matters to try and boost support.
BN made mistake after mistake. Initiatives such as weaponising Sungai Besar Umno chief Jamal Yunos and demonizing the DAP were perceived as negative and backfired.
The Barisan Nasional leadership, on the whole a wealthy elite, many of whom ‘inherited’ their positions and have never even worked in the private sector, were completely out of touch with their core voters.
If you spoke to any hard core UMNO members in the 6 months before the election, many of them were edging towards the fence because they were losing confidence in the leadership and it was easy to see the disparity between what BN said and what they did.
In the election campaign, some of the senior Barisan Nasional representatives would turn up for a Ceramah, spend 10 minutes screaming at the audience and then leave. This drove a bigger wedge between them and the people.
And throughout the whole campaign, there seemed to be nothing holding all these tactics together, except a old fashioned approach of presenting a fake picture of success.
Q: SO WHAT SHOULD BARISAN NASIONAL HAVE DONE TO BUILD ITS BRAND?
A: Political branding today is about six key attributes – warmth & humility, integrity & transparency and competence & accessibility. None of those attributes can be communicated with logos, advertising, taglines etc.
These attributes require engagement and interactions, the building of trust through legitimacy and a real, human side that can’t be faked. It might be flawed, that’s fine but it can’t be faked. BN was a million miles away from these attributes.
The opposition party, a fragile coalition of fragmented parties under the Pakatan Harapan banner and led by a 92 year old man, was prohibited from using a common logo and constantly under threat from the authorities.
Their events were disrupted, election posters defaced and their supporters were even threatened. Throughout the whole campaign however, they maintained their dignity, showed an approachable naturalness, campaigned on a ticket of integrity and transparency, were always accessible and came across as competent and knowledgeable, especially in matters of fiscal importance.
Their communications resonated with small, niche segments and because of that it had it’s own organic legs. According to one source, Pakatan Harapan spent a mere RM800 on Social Media during the entire election campaign. All that content you saw and probably shared got to you organically.
Compare that with the alleged RM20 million spent online by Barisan Nasional during the campaign period. Most of which was spent on passive content such as banners or negative content against the opposition with only a small amount assigned to branded content and native advertising.
Q. WHAT LESSONS CAN BE LEARNED FROM THIS BRANDING DISASTER?
A: The main lesson has to be that political parties can no longer construct a brand around a party driven strategy and expect voters to embrace it because the party tells them to.
Trust is more important than ever. And now that voters have got a taste and better understanding of their power, they will be more inclined to use it. Underperform and you will be out of office.
The attributes above take time to be absorbed by voters. Those who you want to convince may want to be convinced but it won’t happen immediately. For people to believe what you tell them you must first connect with them on an emotional level.
And this will inevitably happen through various touch points with your brand. And remember the success of everything that you say online will be defined by what you do offline.
Governments are going to have to deliver. Ministers will have to know what they are doing, tenders will have to be open. If political parties aren’t providing the value diverse voter segments require, you aren’t going to stay in power for long.
Sure you may win some votes but you won’t get to the stage where you have a political brand that doesn’t require huge investments in marketing. You’ll always be struggling to get votes (or in this case offering more and more desperate incentives, many of them financial) and always be discounting, always wondering if today will be your last.
Another lesson that all brands can learn from this is to understand that branding is relational not transactional. It is no longer about selling one idea to as many voters as possible but instead is about building and nurturing relationships with communities of like minded individuals.
There has to be significant substance to the political party brand. And it has to be truthful with its point of view on issues. And this applies to Pakatan as well. Malaysians have flexed their muscles and seen how powerful they can be. Right now Pakatan is riding a wave of popularity but already citizens are asking questions.
Brands cannot be manufactured. They have to be real, they have to have substance and they have to be legitimate. The always on world that we live in doesn’t take kindly to liars.
The Barisan Nasional campaign was deconstructed every day in social media. For the first time in Malaysia, an election was fought not in the coffee shops of the Kampungs of the rural heartland but in the virtual coffee shops of Facebook and Twitter.
Historically, children from the kampungs went home and were influenced by their parents when it came to voting. This is no longer the case as many children living in the cities and overseas and returning home to vote, explained to their parents the extent of the apparent rot in Barisan Nasional and the hope for the future that Pakatan seemed to offer.
Moving forward, there is no question that political branding is moving through unchartered waters. Not just in Malaysia but around the world.
It’s no longer enough to just say ‘we are the best choice and if you vote for the opposition you will bring doom and gloom to you, your family and the nation.’
And we can expect to see a lot more Malaysians registering to vote as they realise they can make a difference. Millennials, with their fluctuating loyalties will become the power brokers in the next two elections.
These citizens are oblivious to the noise of the election billboard, are unlikely to see the party political broadcast on TV3 and don’t have the time, interest or concentration span for a 60 year old giving them a lecture at a Ceramah.
Q. ANY OTHER BRANDING TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS ELECTION?
A: A key branding takeaway from this election is that more substance, less communication will resonate with voters. One of the reasons Tun Dr Mahathir is so popular is because he comes from an era when politicians were seen as patriots, who were passionate about their country and made personal sacrifices for the nation.
He’s also popular because he’s a diminutive, old ‘doctor’ who is hardly threatening. And when he does bring up the opposition, he does it in a seemingly unconfrontational, more human manner, with a bit of humour.
Some of the BN representatives appeared almost bitter and aggressive when they spoke about him. And of course when a young person attacks an old person, there’s only going to be one winner. It was all very shallow and personal.
Another takeaway is that from now on, the political battleground is digital, it actually helped Pakatan because it meant they didn’t need to reach every corner of the country.
While BN created an arms length, slick, PM driven campaign with a lot of chest thumping, Pakatan was embracing voters, or more importantly Pakatan supporters were embracing voters in the digital coffee shops with informal, instantaneous responses to issues.
Trust and loyalty are the foundations of every brand and they always have been. Malaysians are smarter and better informed than they have ever been. They have shown they will no longer tolerate patronizing, incompetent politicians.
Politicians will have to earn the voters trust. They will have to be at the heart of every political party’s approach. Fail to learn that lesson and your days in power will be numbered.
Q: FINALLY, WHY DID YOU WRITE THE CONTROVERSIAL BOOK: STOP ADVERTISING, START BRANDING?
A: I got the idea for the book when I saw a print ad for Singapore from 1971 and then a week later I saw another one from 2016. Except for some minor changes such as the addition of a website in place of a tear off strip, they were virtually identical.
And soon after I read an article from Ernst & Young about how US$1.5 trillion was spent annually on marketing yet 80 – 90% of products failed to become brands.
I realised that even though the competitive environment and consumers are very different today than they were 50 years ago. That management, manufacturing and distribution have made substantial advances in the same period and we’re moving towards Industry 4.0, branding initiatives were still based around tactics from the Industry 2.0 era, even when used on new platforms.
The more I researched the topic, the more it appeared that reliance on outdated tactics from the past were the reason behind so much wasted money and so many branding failures.
So I decided to write a book about how to move away from the traditional style of trying to build a brand and save a lot of companies, and political parties, a lot of money.
Marcus Osborne is CEO of Fusionbrand Sdn Bhd headquartered in Kuala Lumpur and can be reached on marcus at fusionbrand dot com