These videos suggest there is a disconnect between what Malaysia Airlines says and what it does

In the mid 1980s, I was working in the Middle East and when it came to taking leave, we had 2 travel options. Head West for Europe or East for Asia. Whichever direction, the airline recommendations were always the same – try to fly on Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific or Malaysia Airlines.

Why, because those airlines offered top quality service. Something the European carriers, with the exception perhaps of Swissair, were unwilling or unable to do.

Emirates arrived in 1985, Oman and Qatar Air in 1993, Etihad in 2003. Prior to that, the only Gulf carriers were Saudi Airlines and Gulf Air. Thanks to their owner’s deep pockets, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar accelerated the establishment of their brands with massive investments in brand experiences.

Since then, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have done their best to compete but Malaysia Airlines (MAB) was left far behind and today, is a mere shadow of the great brand it once was.

To many, if it wasn’t for the Business and First class offerings, it’s essentially already a low cost carrier. Nevertheless, in its communications at least, Malaysia Airlines continues to give the outside world the impression it sees itself as a world-class carrier.

In March 2018, Malaysia Airlines launched a campaign titled “Malaysian Hospitality Begins With Us”. The campaign aim was to ‘reinstate and demonstrate MAB as the national icon and represent Malaysian hospitality on behalf of the nation to all its guests and customers.’

MAB’s group CEO Izham Ismail said during the launch “that the airline’s diversity, heritage and culture are the foundation and reference of the brand promise, and that MAB aims to provide a Malaysian experience in travel through Malaysian hospitality.”

These bold and practically impossible to live up to statements were supported by the usual professionally produced advertisements and videos shot in high definition with smiling cabin crew in brand new aircraft telling us about ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and how it is a culture that ‘runs through the organization’.

The website, the first destination for many potential passengers has a special section for ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and in this section announces “Welcome’, or as the locals would say, ‘Selamat Datang’. That’s how it begins, the experience that is our hospitality. Warmth and generosity are the hallmarks of how we treat anyone we meet. That’s what we’re known for as Malaysians, and more importantly as an airline.”

It goes on to say, “Our hospitality begins with our experience. As we strive to deliver the best experience possible, everything we do is guided by our principles of hospitality.”

Now in some ways I think this is quite clever. Because if Malaysians are known for their warmth and generosity, then they only need to leverage on the natural capabilities of employees to deliver a potentially world class experience.

But it also means that every crew on every flight, will have to be on top of their game non stop if they are to deliver a high level of service at every touch point, every time. And that delivery must meet the very diverse needs of very diverse passengers.

And of course, the concept of ‘warmth and generosity’ may be difficult to deliver. Warmth yes, but generosity? What does that mean? Do you hug every passenger and give them a US$100 bill? Or do you upgrade everyone who asks?

Don’t forget, the aim is to ‘represent Malaysian hospitality on behalf of the nation to all its guests and customers’. With such a promise, there can be no half measures. And of course you can be sure plenty of people will be waiting for the first fail.

Is Malaysia Airlines delivering on the promises above? Despite the glossy high-end corporate videos, two videos have emerged recently to suggest it isn’t.

On their own, these videos could be dismissed as ‘one off’ rants by disgruntled customers but watched together and added to the explosion of negativity on the MAS Facebook page and a pattern seems to be emerging.

This suggests to me that whatever training cabin crew are receiving is not linked to the big promise and whoever is responsible for measuring the effectiveness of that training, isn’t doing their job properly.

Let’s take a look at the videos. The first one was uploaded to YouTube on November 20th 2018 by travel and aviation vlogger Josh Cahil who is based in Germany and has 23,000 followers on Instagram and close to 10,000 followers on Twitter.

His YouTube video where he claimed he was bullied by “extremely unfriendly” MAS cabin crew on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London has been viewed more than 280,000 times and generated more than 2,600 comments.

International media in the UK and Australia picked up the story as well and in Malaysia it was covered by Says.com not to mention other news portals.

The second video was circulated around Malaysia via Whatsapp towards the end of November 2018. This video was created by controversial travel hack, entrepreneur and author of “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?: Confessions of a First-Class A**hole” Justin Ross Lee.

I have a suspicion this video was created some time ago because it features the Malaysia Airlines A380 and as far as I know, they aren’t using that aircraft on the London sector any more.

But what both these videos do is show how Malaysia Airlines is unable to deliver on the bold promises it makes in its marketing. They also show the futility of spending large sums of money on big ideas and not linking that promise to the departments responsible for delivering on that promise when all it takes is one passenger to have a bad experience and share that experience across social media and the whole expensive, one size fits all campaign is ruined.

This mass economy approach more suited to 1988 than to 2018 is built around the belief that with a large enough investment, an airline can make potential and existing passengers believe each bold statement it makes and that if it doesn’t deliver on that statement during their particular interaction with the brand, the passenger should just be grateful anyway.

Following the Josh Cahil video, Malaysia Airlines initiated an investigation and according to Cahil, the group CEO sent him a template apology and offered him a refund, which he asked them to donate to a charity supported by them.

The problem was that by this stage, the story was dominating social media conversations. Even corporate driven tactics on social media were being ambushed with negative comments.

In fact the majority of MAB’s attempts to use social media in a positive way are being hijacked by negative comments. And when this happens, the firm doesn’t seem to grasp the link between what the commentators are saying online and what is happening offline.

Malaysia Airlines attempts to build brand equity on social media
However, brand experiences are not meeting expectations & negativity is hijacking campaigns

This is the dangerous spiral many brands are finding themselves on today. They don’t invest in the right training to deliver the experiences consumers demand offline.

There are a variety of reasons for this and some of them sinister. Most common is that the scope of work for a campaign is created in isolation and by people who don’t understand the importance of delivering a ‘best in class’ customer experience.

Which means that if the scope of work for the project is wrong, it is doomed to failure before it even starts.

In despair or because they now have a channel in which to express their frustrations, consumers go online where they passionately vent those frustrations. And often they do it in the very space the company thinks it owns such as on a Facebook page, further diluting the ability of the brand to deliver on the brand promises made in the very expensive corporate driven messages it believes are defining its brand in the way it wants to be defined!

And if that wasn’t bad enough, when passengers vent those frustrations online, the people tasked with representing the brand simply don’t have the skills or for that matter the responsibility to respond in a suitable manner.

This exasperates the negativity around the brand, causing brand equity to plummet to such an extent that it can be almost impossible to escape the spiral into brand obscurity.

So what can Malaysia Airlines do? If they are serious about building a national brand that can compete with Asian and Middle Eastern competitors then it needs to understand the following

1) Forget about the big idea
Smart Brands understand the concept of the big idea belongs to the 1970s and much as the world has changed significantly since then, so should the way brands engage. Malaysia Airlines must focus budgets not on telling people they deliver Malaysian Hospitality but on showing people they deliver Malaysian Hospitality.

This requires a comprehensive overhaul of the marketing, advertising, customer relationship and social media strategies. Fusionbrand recommends this be carried out through a brand audit as soon as possible.

2) The right experience training
Judging by these videos and the comments across Social Media, Malaysia Airlines see training as a box to be ticked. A review is required to identify if there is an understanding of what constitutes world class service.

If the training providers have been hired for the wrong reasons and don’t have the skills to deliver the type of training required to compete with sector leaders, how can Malaysia Airlines cabin crew and for that matter ground crew, deliver a world class service?

3) Social Media
There’s no escaping social media but too many brands don’t give it suitable attention. Malaysia Airlines must start investing funds in social media instead of big idea promises it cannot keep.

I don’t know what’s happening at MAB, but too many companies think social media is the perfect place for interns because they are young and have an Instagram account themselves. After all, what could be hard about posting on Facebook and Twitter, right? Wrong.

Social Media is about many things. For brands, it’s about cultural, social and other nuances. Being responsible for a brand online is not something you do, it’s something you are.

Malaysia Airlines needs to link what it says and does offline with what it says and does online. Quickly, before it’s too late.

Does it make sense to rebrand Kuala Lumpur’s taxis?

Taxis are ubiquitous in Kuala Lumpur, just as they are in most cities in around the world. Unfortunately, years of poor public transport, viable alternatives, ineffective regulation and little or no oversight has created an industry that is a Frankenstein monster that has lost sight of it’s actual purpose. In other words, it has grown fat and lazy.

Generations of visitors to Kuala Lumpur have put up with a terrible product. Drivers would stop at taxi ranks and ask each person in the queue where they wanted to go.

Once the driver found someone going where he, the driver wanted to go he would quote an (inflated) fare and the potential passenger could take it or leave it.

If none of the waiting passengers wanted to go in his direction or refused to accept the quoted fare, he would drive off, only to sit in traffic with an empty cab. (That particular stunt always baffled me.)

KL taxis waiting to take customers to a place the driver is happy to go

Getting a receipt for a journey was an exercise in futility. Meter rules were flouted, tourists and residents ripped off and on more than one occasion, this writer was driven by a Pakistani native who’s long beard and salwar kameez did not match the clean shaven, tie wearing Malay in the id on the dashboard identification.

There were exceptions but they were few and far between. A vast majority of the drivers appeared oblivious to the concept of customer service or for that matter, safety, personal hygiene, honesty, integrity and warmth.

And then in 2014, the uber disruptor Uber opened in Malaysia. You’d think that with the arrival of such a dynamic competitor, the Kuala Lumpur taxi business would think to itself, ‘well we’ve had it good for years but now serious competition has arrived so we better up our game’. Alas no because a year later, Kuala Lumpur came top in a poll for the city with the worst taxi drivers in the world.

To celebrate this accolade, taxi drivers complained to the government and rioted in the streets, attacking the vehicles of Uber drivers and in some cases dragging customers out of Uber cars and into taxis. Who needs customer service when you’ve got brute force and violence?

KL taxi drivers think the way to impress customers is by destroying the competition with violence

Citizens voted with their feet and despite being more expensive, Uber became the preferred mode of transport for most KLites.

All it took for this revolution was a taxi business that did what it said on the tin – ie picked people up when they wanted to be picked up and sent them to where they wanted to go at the agreed price in a nice, pleasant environment, normally delivered with a smile.

Recently there has been talk of rebranding the KL taxi business? Can this issue be fixed with a rebrand and if so, how? The short answer is that done properly, a rebrand has a very strong chance of success but if the wrong approach is taken, it’ll be an expensive and futile exercise.

And why is that I hear you ask. Well we need to first understand what constitutes branding. Only then can we appreciate what constitutes a rebrand.

To answer this, we first need to look at what isn’t a brand. In a nutshell, a brand is not a new logo or brand identity. Imagine the Apple logo. Would changing the logo from an Apple to say a sausage change anything about the brand? Of course not.

And rebranding is not launching the new logo or brand identity with a new website, new tagline and new advertising campaign that makes outrageous claims that are almost impossible to live up to and more importantly will be viewed with scepticism by consumers.

A rebrand is a three stage process that begins with a comprehensive review of the business. In this case, it will probably be painful but it needs to be done to benchmark future effectiveness of the brand strategy.

It’ll look at processes and systems related to the brand. What’s good and bad about it, explore segment specific perceptions, the technology used, communications, experiences and much more while identifying areas for short, medium and long term improvement.

Once this brand audit is completed, the findings are used to develop the internal and external brand strategy.

The internal strategy will improve dated systems and processes related to hiring, training and firing of drivers, define driver rules, develop codes of conduct and develop best practices for key touch point linked to customer requirements for value.

The adoption of technology will play a key role in providing a better product and in due course, contributing to the process of changing the perceived professionalism of the taxi industry. Tools are already on the market that allow the sharing of the resources of Grab and taxis to the benefit of both businesses and users.

The external strategy will focus on activities around 6 core attributes necessary for the success of any brand. Those attributes are warmth, humility, integrity, competence, accessibility and transparency.

Disruption is the scourge of every business today and actually has been for many years. Think how the hospitality, banking, aviation and retail industries have had to keep reinventing themselves.

KL’s taxi drivers shouldn’t be frightened of change. By using these attributes as the pillars of their industry, they have a lot going for them.

The external strategy will also leverage weaknesses in the Grab model. A narrative needs to be developed around what taxi drivers contribute to the economy, as opposed to what Grab doesn’t contribute to the community.

If there are questions about how much tax Grab pays, the taxi model will be extremely transparent and the amount of tax paid by taxi drivers will be developed as a societal narrative.

The carbon friendly London taxi, voted the best in the world

If insurance and safety are key concerns when it comes to using Grab, the taxi industry can use this to it’s advantage by inculcating a culture of safety with the drivers (instead of the often blatant abuse of traffic rules) and water tight insurance policies that cover passengers.

If Grab has a weakness when it comes to passengers with disabilities, the taxi industry will specialize in working with such groups. If the Grab pricing models are contentious, the taxi models will be clear, fair, transparent and impartial. At all times, taxis will be well maintained.

Some European cities have used regulatory vetoing to block disruptors. But in KL there was a serious market failure when it came to the needs of the customer.

So with the damage done, the free market has already decided so such action won’t work in Malaysia and the taxi drivers should stop trying to force the government to take the same approach or for that matter by trying to force the government into action with random acts of violence.

However, KL’s taxis can rebuild trust and belief in the brand. But they’ll need to adopt an organizational approach to a rebrand. If they do so, over time, perceptions of taxis and taxi drivers will improve.

A service driven culture will increase the revenue of taxi drivers while making KL a better place to live.

Ironically, taxi drivers have the potential to become the disruptors they fear, to influence cultural and political change in KL, Malaysia and possibly the region.

So yes it does make sense to rebrand KL’s taxi business. And just like the Malaysian people have proven to the world there is still some mileage left in democracy, Kuala Lumpur’s taxi drivers can prove to the world that this ancient industry has plenty of miles left in it.

 

Fusionbrand is Malaysia’s only Strategic Brand consultancy. You can reach the author Marcus Osborne on marcus (at) fusionbrand (dot) com or call 03 7954 2075 and ask for Gurmeet.

If mass marketing is necessary to build a brand, why did Barisan Nasional lose the 2018 general election?

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.

The launch of the BN election portal was another attempt to paper over the cracks

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!

How the media environment in Malaysia has changed

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.

The BN PIC for communications was very uncommunicative during GE14

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”.

Paper over the cracks of what are the real issues with Trumpesque taglines

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.”

Rafidah Aziz couldn’t believe it was the same old same old

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.

Jamal Yunos – Who let the dogs out?

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.

An honest, genuine product cannot be beaten, no matter how much you spend on marketing

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.

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad saves Malaysia from ruin at the hands of Najib Razak

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.

Fusionbrand CEO Marcus Osborne

Marcus Osborne is CEO of Fusionbrand Sdn Bhd headquartered in Kuala Lumpur and can be reached on marcus at fusionbrand dot com

Another example of why advertising is becoming irrelevant

Everyone at Fusionbrand is convinced that 90% of advertising is a complete waste of money.

And in Asia it’s not helped by the fact that most CEOs think they are creative directors and most agencies won’t bother challenging CEOs in case they lose the business that they won because invariably, they were the cheapest.

And as we all know, when your only differentiator is cheap, you are always looking over your shoulder for someone who has quoted cheaper than you have.

And besides, there’s no point being creative when many CEOs think they know everything about creativity or think creativity is copying someone else, creatively.

This billboard in KL can only be an example of a CEO thinking he knows best because I cannot believe any CD would allow this. I’m shocked to be honest that the Nissan brand approved it.

For the record it says the new Serena is a miracle! The woman’s head appears to be completely random. Perhaps a nod, pun intended, to the headroom?

A disgrace that does nothing but add to the advertising noise.

A disgrace to the advertising industry. Whoever created and approved this should be shot

Branding in Industry 4.0

We had a great time today with creative writing, advertising and journalism students at the International Islamic University Malaysia. The discussion revolved around “Branding in the era of industry 4.0” and we talked about what Malaysian brands must do to to thrive in new economy and more relevant perhaps to these guys, how the advertising industry is changing and what they need to do to help those brands stay relevant.

Fusionbrand would like to thank you for having us over & thanks for the lunch too!

Marcus Osborne of Fusionbrand wrapping up before the Q&A session

Overtourism is coming to a destination near you

Overtourism is putting immense pressure on destinations around the world. From Bali to Phuket and from Venice to New Orleans and Ibiza, popular places are creaking under the weight of millions of visitors. 28 million people visited Venice last year, swamping (excuse the pun) the local population of 55,000.

Venice has for years considered limiting the those who enter the city and recently set a cap on the number of cars allowed in and provides ‘tourist only’ routes for accessing the most popular destinations.

15,000 people call the Greek island of Santorini home. Last year they ‘welcomed’ 2 million visitors. The mayor recently announced that only 8,000 can visit each day in an attempt to help retain its uniqueness.

In Bali, the government is trying to take back control of an out of control industry that is threatening to destroy the very island that has made it what it is. One estimate has it that 300 tonnes of waste enters the waters around the island every single day. Little wonder then that attempts to reclaim land for yet another mega project in the island’s Benoa Bay were met with fierce resistance from locals.

But potentially the most dramatic changes are happening in Ibiza, the hedonistic destination for mostly young, British holidaymakers looking for 2 weeks of mayhem. 3 million visitors arrived on the balearic island in 2017 and it seems as if the tiny island’s population of 150,000 has had enough. Earlier this year, Airbnb and other accommodation platforms were banned, open air bars must now close at midnight and club closing times are now 3am instead of 5am.

The tourist board has also taken steps to address the impact of tourism on the island, with its new ‘Love Ibiza’ campaign focusing on sustainable travel. Tourism has made Ibiza what it is today. Whether that is good or bad, only the locals can say. The Facebook page states, “We want to return to the peace and quiet of the traditional Ibiza.”

I was fortunate enough to visit Ibiza in 1980 when it was peaceful and traditional. Relatively anyway. it was a beautiful place with only a hint of the hedonism that was just around the corner.

My concern is that it will take a lot more than a quaint video to change it back to the peace and quiet of the traditional Ibiza. I believe that to reverse overtourism, or at least stall it, without impacting the economy of the destination, there needs to be the buy in of the local population. The Ibiza video suggests some buy in as it talks about sustainability but there doesn’t appear to be a clear direction on how this will be achieved.

Overtourism is a real threat to many destinations. A well thought out destination brand road map would make this a more compelling offering. Otherwise it becomes nothing more than a (well meaning) dream.

Enrich is not a channel to sell as much as possible, it’s a channel for the brand to build relationships

So I’m checking in online for a flight on Malaysia Airlines and I noticed that my Enrich membership (that’s the MAS Frequent Flyer Programme (FFP)) has been downgraded from gold to silver.

That in itself is hardly a surprise because I rarely fly with them anymore (the 3 – 4 business class business trips I take to the UK from Malaysia each year are now on a competitor carrier where I’m a gold card member) but what surprised me is the way my demotion was, or in this case, wasn’t communicated to me.

After going through old emails, I don’t think I received any communications telling me I would be or had been downgraded. No gentle nudge or reminder to travel to retain the gold status. No email to ask what could MAS do to help me remain a gold card holder. Nothing. Just a stealth like downgrade. And I presume that’s standard operating procedure for anyone downgraded?

I can’t remember how long I’ve been a gold member but I suspect it’s around 10 years, maybe more. But as I’ve documented extensively elsewhere in this blog, I’ve been flying with Malaysia Airlines for more than 30 years and was one of the few to fly MAS in the days after MH370 went down. So I feel, perhaps wrongly that I have some relational credits in the bank.

Now I’d like to reiterate that I’m not complaining about being downgraded because I knew it was coming. I’m just reminded how few brands understand the concept of loyalty, of retaining a customer once they’ve acquired them. Of doing what they can to salvage a customer before they leave.

Harvard Business Review would argue that not all customers are worth keeping. And Malaysia Airlines most probably would argue that I’m definately not worth keeping. Even though I manage the travel budget of my family of five as well as my company and influence a number of other business owners.

According to Harvard Business Review, “acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.” Meanwhile Accenture reports that 80% of ‘switchers’ feel the company could have done something to retain them.

I switched my long haul allegiance to another carrier years ago and am definately one of the 80%. Malaysia Airlines has done nothing to stop me switching. And has done nothing to try and win me back once I have switched.

They put a lot of effort into encouraging travellers to join Enrich, the Frequent Flier programme. But once a member, communications are fairly standard and lack personalisation. Even a customer experience email sent to me after a flight was addressed ‘Dear Sir/Madam’.

Malaysia Airlines needs to move away from a transactional approach to branding

The email was written in an old fashioned style (who says ‘we will duly respect your style?”), littered with grammatical errors and despite stating the survey was only valid for 7 days, the link which was sent to me on 8th October 2017, was working today 10th April 2018. The email offers me an opt out option if I don’t want to receive the surveys but there isn’t a link to make this happen.

The email signed off ‘We are professional, progressive, connected and open‘ That’s a bold, ambitious statement, very hard to measure and almost impossible to live up to.

I get a lot of emails from the frequent flyer programme and they are almost always trying to sell me flights, packages, destinations, discounts on third party products and services and I get that but these are all transactions. The airline is simply carpet bombing the database with offers and hoping that enough of them will stick.

The focus seems to be about selling enough of everything to as many people as possible and in the shortest period of time. There is zero attempt to build a relationship with the recipient despite the fact that it’s the FFP. It simply reduces MAS to nothing more than an object or a commodity.

But as Malaysia Airlines should have realised post MH370, objects can’t be differentiated emotionally and besides consumers have no emotional connection or loyalty to objects.

I am sure MAS understands this because that’s why it has a FFP programme. Unfortunately, it’s stuck in the past when it comes to using the FFP. Malaysia Airlines needs to stop looking at members as customers and start to see them as partners.

What are the lessons for MAS and other brands? If you collect customer data, store it and use it properly. Instead of trying to sell something to everyone, use the data base properly. Link offers to customer value requirements. Preempt negative situations. Don’t simply downgrade members, find out how to keep them happy. Personalise correspondence. Encourage participation.

Instead of selling to them, collaborate with loyalty programme members. Build relationships by providing solutions to members’ needs. Successful brands are built on openness and Malaysia Airlines says it’s an open company. Prove it.

Every Internal branding project needs to be driven by the CEO

Just thinking about an internal branding programme that Fusionbrand did at the end of 2017.

One of the hardest parts of the project was getting the C level execs to buy into the fact that without their support and especially the buy in of the CEO, it would never gain traction. (Side note, it was a GLC and smoking is banned anywhere in government offices but the CEO smoked).

The C level executives just wanted a series of messages to be created and then those messages were to be broadcast across the organisation. We explained that this would never work. Mainly because the concept of creating and broadcasting a series of words, no matter how well crafted they are, simply doesn’t work any more.

But also because we needed to be setting examples, not telling people how to behave. Back to the simple example of the smoking CEO. If an employee is told not to smoke on the premises but the CEO smokes in his office and the smell wafts its way down the corridor, teasing all those that smoke and potentially killing all those who don’t, why should the employee pay attention to the no smoking signs? And how can the no smoking policy be enforced if the CEO smokes?

Besides, we as consumers have been let down so often by corporate promises that are compromised by reality that we tune out of messaging anyway.

One of the goals of any internal branding project is to bring the employer and the employee closer together. The CEO needs to lead by example in every aspect of his daily routine. And that begins with obeying the rules.

Meeting Malaysia’s corporate leaders of tomorrow

Founded in 1905, the University of Malaya is Malaysia’s oldest university. It has 27,000 students attending 12 faculties, 2 academies and 3 Centres at the sprawling campus on the outskirts of KL. I was invited to be a guest speaker at the Graduate School of Business, Faculty of Business and Accountancy.

The title of my presentation to the UM Graduate School of Business

It was a great opportunity and a privilege to spend a few hours with some very bright people who may one day be running some of the best brands in Malaysia. There was lots of participation and plenty of probing questions! Most of which I answered, I think! OK, maybe not the Samsung one!

Students at the UM GSB kept me on my toes!

Many thanks to Professor Zalfa Laili Hamzah for organising the talk.

‘Think Big’ yes, but first Malaysian business owners must stop thinking cheap

There’s a thought provoking piece in the business section of freemalaysiatoday.com that reports more Malaysians buying Chinese made goods ‘out of economic necessity’.

The article says that Malaysians look past the stigma of Chinese products even though there are concerns that they of inferior quality and possibly even dangerous compared to products from other countries.

The article quotes Mr Yeah Kim Leng, professor of Economics at Sunway University Business School who says, “the open market system brought about by globalisation and increased connectivity was intensifying competition for local businesses.”

The President of a local consumers association supports Mr Yeah’s point of view saying that even though many Malaysians are concerned about the quality and legitimacy of China made products, they are prepared to basically risk their lives because Chinese made goods are readily available and cheaper than Malaysian products.

Another economist and Klang MP Charles Santiago is quoted as saying, “Malaysians were buying food from China out of economic necessity despite their misgivings about the quality of the items.” He went on to say, rather worryingly, “There is no excuse for eating toxic food. We must ensure that the food coming into the country fulfils all international health standards.”

I agree with Mr Santiago, there is no excuse for eating toxic food. And in the last twenty years there have been reports out of China of adulterated baby formula. Factories using industrial-grade salt to pickle vegetables then spraying them with banned pesticides before shipment, soy sauce made from human hair, counterfeit alcohol and fruits and vegetables with unacceptably high levels of illegal pesticides.

In our house we stopped buying any foods and most other things from China more than 10 years ago. I don’t care what it costs, I’m not going to jeopardise the lives of my family in an attempt to save money which if they get sick is a false economy anyway. More on the false economy later. But it seems we’re the exception not the rule.

I think there is a deeper issue here. My theory is that there is a culture in Malaysia of ‘if it’s cheap, its good value.’ I think we’ve lost sight of what constitutes value. There are many reasons for this. We’ve been ripped off or know of people who have been ripped off, time and time again by unscrupulous companies from just about every sector and in particular automotive/property/food/transport/healthcare/hospitality and so on.

One patriotic Malaysian friend of mine (and I won’t be popular for quoting this), suggests some Malaysians have been let down so many times and have become so cynical about what companies promise that they now believe it’s better to pay the minimum amount for something and then if it doesn’t deliver on the promises made, well at least the bare minimum was spent.

At the same time, he believes this has created a stubbornness which in turn has made them unable to make sensible decisions when confronted with difficult scenarios.

He suggests that is why many people will spend 30 minutes stuck in traffic to avoid a RM1 toll charge. The fact that the wear and tear on the car engine, the petrol, the lost productivity and stress cost so much more than the RM1 toll charge is irrelevant. The goal is to avoid the RM1 toll charge.

It’s the same with people (and this is not just restricted to Malaysia) who make a special trip to fill up their petrol tank because the next day, petrol is going up by 2 sen a litre. Much of what is saved, is spent on the extra journey, the fuel used in the inevitable long queue and the time spent away from more important things. In almost all such cases, the action delivers a net loss or at best, an immeasurable gain.

And that’s why Malaysians are now buying toxic food. It’s not deliberate, it’s just a natural progression. How many times have you heard a conversation along the lines of:

Q: ‘How was the nasi lemak?’
A: ‘Good, it only cost RM6.’

Hardly the breakfast of champions but never mind, it only cost RM6

The fact that the dish was 80% rice, included 3 peanuts, two ikan bilis, a tiny serving of sambal, the scrawniest chicken wing and 1/8th of an egg is irrelevant. And that’s before we even discuss the source of the oil used in the cooking, the supply chain and the hygiene of the foreigners who cook the food. What’s become important is that it only cost RM6.

What’s all this got to do with the economy and in particular branding? Well for Malaysian businesses to compete against any foreign firms, not just those from China but also those from Europe, the USA and north Asia, they need to move on from the mentality of competing purely on price.

To move on from a belief that they can only compete if they are the cheapest. To see their business not as a series of transactions, but as building relationships with their customers. Because this approach is unsustainable. There will always be someone out there, who can produce what you produce cheaper. And in this case that someone is China.

The economist Mr Yeah suggests that Malaysian firms should ‘think big’ and he’s right, Malaysian firms or rather the businessmen that run them, need to think big but only after they move away from the belief that what’s cheap is good or what’s big is cheap. And the good news is that it’s not a huge step.

International luxury houses such as Gucci, LVMH, Prada, Georgi Armani and Channel have for years dominated sales of luxury goods in Malaysia. Closer to home, Malaysia has proven it can build brands from scratch. Think of Royal Selangor Pewter, PappaRich, Sime Darby, YTL, Proton and Linghams sauces, probably the first Malaysian brand to go international and now available in 100 countries.

But these are the exceptions, not the rule. And it’s the middle ground that needs to change. To move away from the false economy of cheap is best. The false economy in Malaysia has become so chronically negative that it is having a detrimental effect on decision making across the spectrum. Even though it is now threatening lives.

I find it extraordinary that I am writing a blog post about people willing to risk their lives to save a few pennies. But everywhere I go, my team and I have discussions about brand tactics that are driven not by questions such as “What do we have to do to make our business the number one choice in our sector” but instead by questions like “How much does it cost?”

Recently I had a discussion with the head of marketing at the Malaysian campus of a British school with a unique 150 year heritage. The head of marketing wants a video for the school and he asked us to submit a proposal. He didn’t have a brief (which as head of marketing he should prepare) but wanted us to submit a proposal for ‘a school video’. When we asked the budget, he refused to share it.

So there was no brief and no budget. I explained that there were already a lot of videos of the school online (‘none of which are very good’ according to the most senior member of staff) and how is this one going to be any different? He replied that that was our job.

That we should ‘think out of the box’, to ‘propose something unique’, to ‘do something special’. When we explained that ‘thinking out of the box’ took more time and therefore cost extra and therefore we needed to know the budget to see if was possible, he refused to share it.

I explained that even without the ‘thinking out of the box’ requirement, the budget was crucial because it would determine the type of production. Did he want a script? Did he require a film crew to visit the school? Are we to interview staff/pupils etc? Would he like drone shots? How long does he want the video to be? SD or HD? And so on.

We realised that if we were to go this route, we could be submitting ideas for months before we accidentally created something he liked. We also realised that by not sharing the budget, there was a good chance that even if we created something he liked, he might not be able to afford it (or alternatively, we could propose something that didn’t utilise the full budget, to the detriment of the school) and that his decision would probably be based on price and so we reluctantly walked away from the business.

This mentality of ‘cheapest’ has a negative impact on his brand. Not because he didn’t get to work with us although thats one reason, but also because it makes the video a priority instead of making what the video can do a priority. It’s the business equivalent of buying potentially tainted food from China and ignoring that fact because the main thing is it was cheap.

This culture of cheapest is best has caused him to move from doing what’s best to market the school to getting a video done. It actually becomes a box ticking exercise instead of a useful tactic. And we’re seeing this time and time again.

Once a large percentage of Malaysians get past the ‘cheapest is best’ mentality, then only then can businesses have the confidence to ‘Think big’. It will require a cultural change in both how they think and how they run their businesses. Once they do that then we’ll see more successful Malaysian businesses become brands.