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

How Malaysia Airlines can rebuild its troubled Brand


Malaysia Airlines (MAS) embarked on a massive restructuring plan towards the end of 2011 with the goal being to reduce costs and return to full year profitability in 2013.

At the same time, the airline reported a staggering RM2.52 Billion (US$850 million) loss for 2011.

MAS logo

MAS didn’t realise its stated goal because in late February 2014, the national carrier posted a 2013 net loss of RM1.17 billion (US$356 million). This was almost three times the airline’s 2012 net loss of RM432.6 million.

So despite the restructuring plan, MAS lost RM4 billion in 3 years. Ouch.

In 2012, one assumes as part of the restructuring plan, MAS announced a business strategy with two key strategic elements – one to focus on the premium sector and the other to focus on the competitive Asian market.

I don’t know what the airline’s definition of the premium sector is but bearing in mind premium passenger numbers appear flat, a large chunk of its business comes from the domestic government and the price sensitive kangaroo routes, this may be a major challenge.

Furthermore, I’ve seen nor heard of any premium customer strategy or tactics. The ‘Flying in luxury’ section of the March 2014 issue of Going Places offers little insight into what might be happening. Even the benefits of being a platinum member of the Enrich programme haven’t changed in a long time.

Premium passenger numbers appear flat
Premium passenger numbers appear flat

Of course they could be referring to the upgrades to the business and first class check in counters at KLIA. Whilst they are an improvement and certainly add an air of exclusivity to the experience, they are hardly ground breaking. And the attitude of some of the staff manning these counters is often indifferent at best.

But I digress. About 18 months ago, MAS announced that it was doubling its marketing budget. The marketing budget is reported to be as much as 2% of revenue which means that in 2012, MAS spent more than RM550 million or US$190 million to focus on the premium sector and the Asian market in an attempt to rebuild it’s battered brand. That’s a tidy sum. Did it work? Based on the latest figures, no.

In 2012, the company announced it will provide a ‘better and more branded customer experience and embark on a major advertising and promotions campaign′.

I don’t know exactly what is ‘a more branded customer experience’ but as a frequent flyer of the airline I haven’t witnessed a change in or better customer experience although the terrifying vibrations at 38,000 feet on a 737 flight from Kuching to KL in January 2014 were new but I don’t think that’s what they meant.

And judging by the negativity across the Internet it would appear few others have experienced an improvement in customer experience.

In 2012 talking about the appointment of Ogilvy and Mather as the airline’s agency, Al Ishal Ishak the senior vice president for marketing and promotions stated, “2012 will be a breakthrough year for Malaysia Airlines on our path to recovery. We recognised, however, that we could not achieve financial success without clearly defining our brand positioning.”

He went on to say, “Ogilvy understood this and throughout the pitch process were best able to translate our message into a powerful campaign idea. An idea that is big enough to help us transform our business and truly engage our customers like never before.”

Judging by the advertising campaign that soon followed, I can only assume that idea revolved around journeys and suitcases. It was, in my humble opinion one of the worst advertising campaigns I have ever seen. I wrote about it here and you can see the TVC below.

What is really depressing about this whole depressingly familiar scenario is that the O&M advertising campaign aims in part to create awareness and drive visitors to the MAS website. And if improvements were to be made to the experience, one would expect logically that the website experience would be the first experiential improvement.

Sadly no, despite a RM550 million marketing budget which I hope wasn’t spent just on the O&M advertising campaign, the first page of the MAS website has a bug in it that frustrates visitors every time and the bug hasn’t been fixed for at least a year!

Another area that one would expect to be addressed during the improvements to the customer experience would be interactions with the customer service department but again, judging by this negative blog posting, the airline has not managed to deliver on its promises.

So now that MAS has posted another net loss, despite doubling it’s marketing budget to clearly define it’s brand positioning and despite not improving the customer experience, what can the airline do now to salvage its reputation and rebuild its brand?

Here are 20 things MAS needs to do now to improve its brand

1) You and the unions need to wake up to reality and appreciate that market conditions are such that unless you get rid of a large number of staff, the airline will be on my list of brands that won’t make it past 2016.
2) The organization is the brand. Many MAS staff are trying really hard but they are let down by those that don’t care. Current middle management systems don’t seem to be working. Fix them.
3) The six principles to turning around an airline and used successfully by Air Canada, ANA and Aeroflot and probably being used by MAS (a logical assumption bearing in mind the influx of management from Air Canada) include a zero compromise on quality of customer service, investments in staff training and better internal and external communications. The company is failing miserably in all these activities and needs to carry out a comprehensive review and overhaul of current practices and service providers in these critical areas.
4) Forget about the big idea. In the social economy, when consumers not companies define brands and those consumers are spoilt for choice and rarely believe what advertisers tell them, the one size fits all ‘clearly defined’ brand positioning campaign is a futile exercise that does nothing more than waste valuable funds. In this case, RM550 million of valuable funds.
5) Focus instead on consistent, ongoing, personalised engagement with each of your very diverse audiences. And start with your Enrich database! Segment that database in a way that allows you to deliver value to relevant segments today and not segments that belong to the 1980s. Travellers are segmenting into smaller niche, groups and individual travellers and they are willing/able to manage the whole process themselves. Talking to them requires more than an advertising campaign. See point 5.
6) FIX THE BLOODY BUG IN YOUR BOOKING ENGINE! It doesn’t matter what it costs just fix it! If your global advertising campaign did make a prospect visit your site and she then had to go through the ridiculous moves required to enter a destination or departure city, they’d soon leave thinking, ‘if they can’t make a simple fix like that, what are they not fixing on their aircraft or elsewhere?’

Why is it so hard to fill in the 'to' and 'from' fields?
Why is it so hard to fill in the ‘to’ and ‘from’ fields?

7) Because it’s so important, your database gets a double mention. A chunk of your brand’s profitability will come from your existing customers. Instead of spending RM550 million on an outdated advertising campaign that seems to want to acquire and retain customers, start to use what is probably one of the most comprehensive databases in South East Asia, properly.
8) Focus. These ‘one-size-fits-all’ advertising campaigns are an expensive exercise in naïve futility. Put an end to them now. If I’m repeating myself its because the marketing budget is being wasted on outdated mass market models.
9) Don’t do social, be social. Pushing one size fits all advertising campaigns out across social media is pointless. It’s not a television or a radio so don’t use it like one. Social is dynamic and you need to be dynamic to get the most out of it. Stop using your Facebook as another broadcast platform. And stop ignoring negative comments and blog posts and instead, engage with the authors.
10) Integrate all your solutions to make it easier for consumers to use them. 40% of business travellers and 25% of leisure travellers in Asia now use mobile or tablets for travel but as far as I can work out, the MAS app (when I can get it to work) isn’t integrated with my online profile. Why not?
11) Stop spending, no wasting huge amounts of money on forgettable mass market advertising campaigns and start building a brand.
12) Train your staff, and start with your customer relationship staff. Whoever is doing it now isn’t doing a good job. Find someone who really wants it and make your staff the best in the world.
13) You have a legion of brand angels out there who are desperate for you to succeed. Do you know who they are? If not, you need to identify influencers and quickly leverage on their passion for your brand.
14) Seek new revenue streams. Of course you are already doing this but there are a couple of opportunities that you are not exploiting and you should be.
15) You are not a low cost carrier so stop trying to be one.
16) Get those new aircraft, now.
17) Stop focussing on costs and start focussing on delivering value.
18) Don’t compromise on anything related to customer touch points, whatever the cost.
19) Image is everything. The change in the look of some aircraft was a great development but what about the rest of the fleet? There seem to be three different liveries for the MAS fleet. And what about the uniforms? A partial change was made to some male uniforms but what happened to the rest of them? Is this a strategic project or an ad hoc one? Whatever it is, consistency in a brand image is a must.
20) One last comment on segmentation. Each segment within each country has completely different requirements for value. In Indonesia small businesses employ 80% of employees. In Malaysia, SMEs account for as much as 99% of businesses. In Japan, 20% of leisure travel is by the over 65s. What do you know about these segments and do you have a brand strategy to communicate with them?

Not many legacy carriers have remained profitable following the intense competition in the airline industry. Even without the massive interference of the governments of the past, MAS has found it tough to adapt to increased customer expectations, LCC competition, fluctuating fuel prices and rising costs.

The days of using cost cutting and outdated mass marketing communications campaigns to drive restructuring plans are over. The future will require an even more nimble approach and a focus on delivering value to diverse segments on their terms.

Only then can MAS out maneuver budget airlines and other new entrants into the market and become profitable once again.

Old fashioned marketing won’t help Wonda achieve 20% market share in Malaysia


Wonda Coffee, owned by Asahi Group of Japan used The New Straits Times (NST) a Malaysian daily to launch its hallmark canned coffee with what the NST called “its first 5D advertisement campaign.”

According to the NST the campaign for the ready to drink coffee was “widely touted as the most amazing print-enabled campaign.”

It ran for four days and readers of the newspaper were promised they would be able to “engage their senses of touch, sight, sound, smell and taste with the launch of Wonda.”

There were multiple teaser ads before the launch, at least four full page ads in one edition of the paper, wraparounds of another, a four page ‘pop-up’ ad and sponsorships of whole supplements of the paper that required the use of 3D glasses. The 3D glasses were supposed to come with the paper but ours didn’t.

There were advertorials on the benefits of coffee, teaser ads and even a little music box that played a Wonda coffee Jingle that probably went out across radio. I couldn’t get it to work although it does now play occasionally, normally when nobody is near it.

Typical Wonda print ad
Typical Wonda print ad

There were also multiple messages, taglines and headings used in the campaign that I found confusing.

I don’t know the cost of this campaign but it won’t have been cheap. It is not uncommon for a brand to launch with a mass advertising campaign like this. It’s the wrong way but if you give your product launch to an advertising agency, what else can you expect?

One of the key points of a launch is to ensure that if any buzz is created and consumers buy into the idea of the product, their ability to engage physically with the brand must be seamless. In other words it needs to be available or better still be everywhere the consumer goes.

Although I’m a coffee drinker, I’m not a fan of instant coffee but I decided to buy the product. On the third day of the campaign, I went down to my local convenience store to buy Wonda. They sell most drinks here except it would seem, Wonda.

The following day the NST carried another full page ad for Wonda coffee with a coupon offering a can for 10 cents if you buy from 7eleven. So I tore out the coupon and went over to the local 7eleven. I had a look in the fridges and there was no sign of Wonda coffee. Competitor brands from Nescafe and others were represented and selling for RM1.90 (local brand) – RM2.20 (Nescafe).

I showed the coupon to the assistant and asked for my 10c drink. He wasn’t aware of the offer. However after some cajoling and a couple of rereads while the queue grew he went to the storeroom and got me a can. I asked what the retail price is and he said RM1.90. On the tin it says premium coffee yet is priced below Nescafe.

Since the big splash in the NST I’ve seen Wonda coffee posters at toll booths and there is at least one TVC (see below) so they are obviously spending a lot of money on traditional media.

But of course the initial buzz around the product launch will die down within a week or two once the advertising has stopped. In this era of social media, there is a great opportunity to maintain any traction by taking the marketing to the community.

I had a quick look on Youtube to see if there is a consumer driven competition there. All I could find was this TV commercial.

The TVC has been up for a month and has only received 400 views. Interestingly not one like or dislike. Seriously underwhelming but at least we know they haven’t paid for likes!

Determined now to find out how Wonda is engaging consumers on Social Media I figured there would be a big splash on Facebook, right? Nope. I couldn’t find anything. Twitter? Nothing.

I wonder why Wonda isn't using FB to launch itself
I wonder why Wonda isn’t using FB to launch itself

So here we are in 2014, launching a new product in Malaysia and there doesn’t seem to be any use of social media!

Even though Facebook is the most visited site in Malaysia – There are 10.5 million Facebook users in Malaysia (out of a population of about 27 million) and 3.5 million of those are 18 – 24, probably the perfect target market for this product. Social media is responsible for 33% of all web traffic in Malaysia.

Globally 93% of marketers rate social tools as important and 90% of them support this by using social media channels for business. In this social media dominated era, why aren’t the team responsible for launching Wonda using Social media?

Now of course I don’t know what else is involved in the launch of Wonda and it could be that some sort of Social media presence is part 2 of the launch.

Although not the right way to launch a product, I hope this is the case because ultimately, it will be consumers on social media who determine the success or failure of Wonda Coffee and not a traditional campaign pushed out across traditional media, no matter how creative it is and how ‘amazing’ it is.

Asahi is targetting 20% of Malaysia’s coffee beverage market with Wonda. If it continues to use old fashioned methods to launch and market Wonda and doesn’t leverage on Social Media, it won’t achieve this goal.

Malaysia Airlines won’t return to profitability with bland, boring TV commercials


I don’t like to kick a man (or an airline) when he’s (or it’s) down, and despite a couple of good quarters, Malaysia Airlines (MAS) is certainly down.

The good quarters (following six straight quarters of losses) are a result of increased revenues thanks to better load factors and higher RASK (Revenue per available seat kilometer).

Just to recap, to avoid bankruptcy, MAS embarked on a massive restructuring plan towards the end of 2011 that included cutting unprofitable routes and reducing costs with the goal being to return to full year profitability in 2013.

Although the airline has done quite well, that’s unlikely to happen even though it is focusing on Asia and has stopped flying to costly destinations such as Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Cape Town and oddly, Dubai. Giving up Dubai and Dammam suggests the carrier is surrendering to the aggressive carriers from the Middle East.

The most recent business strategy announced two key strategic elements – one to focus on the premium sector and the other to focus on the competitive Asian market. The announcement that the airline would go after the premium sector came at the same time as the partnership deal with AirAsia that has now been scrapped.

I’ve seen nothing to suggest the airline is courting premium customers and although it is good to see the airline understands the importance of segmentation, I doubt their ability to execute such a strategy.

Especially as the airline seems to be going the same old predictable route of using an advertising campaign featuring an irritating tagline (more on that later) to magically increase demand. And I’ve seen nothing else to suggest the airline is doing anything other than the usual advertising, print and PR tactics with a nod to social media.

And what an advertising campaign it is! I think this is the TV commercial.

I’m sorry but this has to be the worst commercial or video I’ve ever seen. It features people of various ages walking, cycling, swimming, jogging, directing traffic (I’m serious), reading newspapers, skateboarding, going to a meeting, graduating, bowling, clubbing and all with one thing in common – they are all carrying at least one suitcase! Yes, even the traffic policeman!! This really is rock bottom.

The print advertisement (which I’ve also seen on a billboard) features two men sitting on a wooden dock. They are both holding suitcases and the younger man has his arm around the older man and is looking into his eyes.

Sitting on the dock of the bay, suitcase in my hand
Sitting on the dock of the bay, suitcase in my hand

Does this image make anyone else uncomfortable? Here’s a close up to help you decide.

Does this make you uneasy?
Does this make you uneasy?

MAS also has a corporate video that starts off with a series of stock scenes featuring babies taking their first steps, dad playing with son, climbers etc and then cuts to old shots of MAS in the early days. Meanwhile the voice over tells us that life is made up of countless journeys. Getit?.

Then we get shots of computer generated imagery of the various planes used by the airline from past to present (didn’t BA do something similar?) before going back to the people shots – nice, smiling, friendly air hostess with kid – cut to boys jumping into lake – then back to nice, smiling people, tender, caring hostess and then, out of the blue we’re told the strangers we meet on our journeys give us courage – cut to skydivers – then back to lovers on beach, cultural harmony, pregnant couple and so on. I stopped at this point, unable to continue. Have a look instead.

One of the videos (I can’t remember which one and I have no intention of watching them again) features the Malaysia Airlines app that I really like but isn’t integrated with the website (or if it is I can’t figure out how to find my bookings made online on the app).

So if MAS is serious about increasing market share, what should the company do? Here are 5 things they need to start doing today.

1) Forget about the big idea. Focus instead on consistent, onging, personalised engagement with each of your very diverse audiences.
2) You probably have one of the most comprehensive databases in South East Asia. Start to use it properly.
3) Focus. These ‘one-size-fits-all’ advertising campaigns are an expensive exercise in naïve futility. Put an end to them now.
4) Don’t do social, be social.
5) Integrate all your solutions to make it easier for consumers to use them. Otherwise they defeat the object of developing them in the first place!

I’ve been flying MAS for over 20 years and I think it is a great product but it needs work. A lot of work. This traditional approach to brand building is not going to help steer the airline to full year profitability. They’d be better off throwing the money down a black hole.

Stop advertising and start branding part III


According to medical anthropologist Dr. Michael L. Tan, “Smoking will kill more people in the next twenty years than HIV/AIDS, accidents, homicides, and suicides combined.”

One report estimates that national health care costs for tobacco-related diseases for a population with a smoking prevalence rate of 50% could add up to almost 2% of GDP, or nearly 20% of the country’s total healthcare budget of just under RM20billion (US$6.5billion).

Little wonder then that countries such as Singapore are doing everything they can to encourage smokers to quit. Unfortunately, most of these efforts revolve around advertising campaigns.

And with advertising becoming increasingly ineffective, it is little wonder that the number of smokers shows no sign of a significant reduction.

This despite the fact that Singapore has one of the highest tax rates on cigarettes, the strictest rules on smoking in public places and those under 18 can even be fined just for carrying cigarettes.

In 2010 the Health Promotion Board appointed Ogilvy & Mather Singapore to develop a creative campaign to encourage young people to ‘reject cigarettes and live a tobacco free life that will improve their appearance, fitness, spending power and contribute positively to the environment’.

The results were ‘Live it up without lighting up’ and examples of the print ads can be seen ogilvy_smoke-1 and ogilvy_smoke2-1. The campaign featured above the line (ATL), out of home (OOH), digital, radio and events such as the Great Audio Experience, held on 29th May 2010 as part of World No Tobacco Day celebrations.

The creatives feature gorgeous, young, happy, confident people with unblemished skin in semi cartoon like environments. Copy tells readers that “Non smokers tend to look younger than smokers of the same age” and “Non smokers tend to be physically fitter than smokers.”

Goals were to communicate a better more beautiful and green world populated by gorgeous young things who are fitter, healthier and generally in a better place as a result of not smoking.

According to Jon Loke, the then Head of Art, Ogilvy & Mather Singapore, the agency was careful to ensure that “the campaign would not talk down to them”.

“We needed to turn the traditional way anti-smoking campaigns are carried out on their heads to create a message that would appeal to youths. Hence, the campaign encourages, empowers and ultimately celebrates a smoke-free life.”

Now I really liked the creatives for this campaign. I think they were really well executed and I wanted the campaign to work. But at the time I sincerely doubted this was the right way forward.

That’s because a creative driven campaign, no matter how much it turns things upside down, is unlikely to have an impact on the number of smokers in Singapore. Data shows that traditional marketing tools are even less effective today than they were as recently as 10 years ago. Consumers simply don’t listen to corporate driven mass marketing the way they used to, especially when copy uses vague terms such as ‘tend’.

Malaysia spent RM100 million (US$30 million) over 5 years on such a campaign that was ineffective in bringing down the number of smokers in Malaysia and the smoking rate of men in Malaysia is still over 50%.

In the UK, after extensive research of more than 8,500 smokers over a ten-year period, the Institute for Social and Economic research found that the warnings on cigarette packets that smoking kills or maims are ineffective in reducing the number of smokers.

Likewise, chilling commercials or emotionally disturbing programs are also ineffective. The study also discovered that even when a close family member becomes ill from the effects of smoking, the smoker takes no notice.

In fact, according to the study, smokers only reduce the number of cigarettes or sometimes quit when their own personal health is at stake. And even failing health may not persuade a smoker to reduce or even stop smoking because smoking is linked to a lack of psychological wellbeing and quite often failing health results in psychological decline.

Now I don’t know if these campaigns are working but if the goal is to reduce smoking then the answer is no they are not. Because according to The Wall Street Journal, more Singaporeans, especially young adults are smoking than ever before.

According to a Singapore National Health Survey in 2010, the proportion of smokers among young Singaporeans aged 18 to 29 was 16.3% in 2010, up 33% from 12.3% in 2004.

Even though previous ad campaigns did not work, the Government of Singapore commissioned Ogilvy & Mather Singapore to develop another campaign. This time the message moved from anti-smoking to pro-quitting. The campaign highlighted citizens who had quit smoking and made them “quitter champions.” ‘im01HealthPromotionBoard-2012-492‘.

This campaign also featured across traditional and digital media. From 1st June 2013 a quit smoking movement will try to encourage smokers to quit for 28 days in the hope those that commit to the programme will not go back to smoking at the end of the 28 days. We shall see.

So what should Singapore do to reduce smoking in the country?

Countries that really want to reduce the number of smokers (and every country should want to because the burden on the health services will not get better) must understand that advertising is not going to solve their problems. There is no silver bullet to reducing the number of smokers.

What is required is a data driven approach to the issue. Specific and comprehensive qualitative research with relevant targeted questions related to each segment (and each segment will be specific and targetted) that are designed to deliver actionable data. For instance if Singaporeans are becoming smokers when they do their national service, is an advertising campaign going to change that? Of course not. The issue needs to be addressed inside the National Service camps.

It is imperative that audiences are identified and then engaged individually, on a one to one basis. It will be an expensive and long term effort (but not as expensive as wasting money on advertising campaigns and health costs). That doesn’t mean repeating the same one size fits all commercials or messages, this means developing a relationship with these partners through engagement.

Also critical to the development of the strategy will be the buy in from stakeholders such as doctors, educators, retailers and others. Discussions must be held with these key elements to determine strategies. One such strategy will involve retailers where most cigarettes are sold. But before banning sales at retailers, alternative sources of income for retailers must be identified. Once implemented, policing of retailers must be ramped up.

Once research is completed and analysed, a comprehensive strategy must be developed featuring a fully integrated program to communicate with all stakeholders with specific emphasis on education at residential level and dynamic, preventative and educational programmes for schools. Existing smokers will be targetted individually through interviews with doctors, rather than one-size-fits all government driven creative campaigns.

Singapore has done many things right in the past to reduce the numbers of smokers. Investing valuable resources on creative driven campaigns that are proven to have been ineffective in the past is not the way forward.

IS YOUR INTERNET STRATEGY WORKING FOR OR AGAINST YOUR BRAND?


I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Naumi hotel in Singapore and as I’m travelling down south, I thought it would be a good opportunity to try the place. Sadly when I attempted to book online, the hotel was full.

The next day I was reading an online newspaper and noticed an ad for the Naumi. I thought that maybe they’ve freed up some rooms and I can get to stay there after all.

Unfortunately, the hotel was still fully booked. In fact, after further research, the hotel is fully booked and in just about every room category, with one or two exceptions, for the next 12 months at least. I didn’t look past 12 months so it could even be longer.

Massive digital campaign despite being fully booked for a year

Since I saw the ad almost a week ago, I have continued to see Naumi ads across a wide variety of online sites, both local and international.

So why is the Naumi advertising? Isn’t this a total waste of an advertising budget? Is this an example of why CEOs are losing patience with CMOs? I can only assume it’s not a one off ad but in fact part of a campaign. If I am right, how much is this campaign costing and if the hotel is full for 12 months, what is the point?

Despite being fully booked, the hotel continues to advertise

When creating a digital campaign, reach and frequency are irrelevant. If those words were used in the pitch to you then you need to sack the agency. Because all they tell you is how many people saw your ad and how often they saw it.

You are probably wondering if they are perhaps using it as a lead generation exercise. Well I thought the same thing and that as I left the site they would try to grab some data from me.

It’s a logical thought because banner ads are not that effective. The general consensus of opinion is that the number of visitors who actually click on a banner ad is only 0.2%, which equates to one in 500 visitors that actually click on the ad.

And just because they click on the ad, doesn’t mean they automatically become customers. The seller, in this case the Naumi hotel still has to convert those visitors into prospects.

There are various ways of doing this, depending on your business. For the Naumi hotel, this is obviously to get the visitor to book a room. However if the hotel doesn’t have any rooms and simply tells the visitor this, the whole exercise has been a complete waste of time and money.

Of course the visitor may return, but then again they may not after all, how many visitors that have been disappointed, return to the scene of their disappointment? Or they may go on to build a relationship with another hotel.

Surely it would have made sense for the hotel to offer an apology (I don’t know about you, but when a firm apologises for being successful, I am hooked) and ask me for an email address so they can start to build a relationship with me?

And to use the campaign more effectively, I would create an offer whereby any visitors that register, will be offered a free upgrade when they book at a later date.

But no, they spent that money creating a campaign to get me to their website and then when I get there its like the place has closed down.

I bet the marketing department is reporting an increasing rate of visitors to the website but so what.

Digital advertising is not just about the campaign – the creativity, the reach, the frequency, the impressions, the clicks etc.

It is about the data, the source of the lead, the influencers and ultimately conversions that generate ROI.

If you don’t do it properly, don’t do it at all.

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.

First rule of auto advertising – keep it real!


We are carpet bombed with messages from the moment we wake up till the moment we go to sleep. Little wonder then that studies show we are increasingly oblivious to these messages.

As a result advertising agencies are increasingly hard pressed to cut through all the clutter and make us look, listen and absorb. To try and sell cars, those advertising agencies have for years used CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), think Honda and the ‘greatest ever car’ commercial, sex, think the Renault Megane ‘shake it’ campaign and humour, think Proton and ‘the Pontianak’ in their TV commercials.

Print advertising hasn’t escaped either. I don’t know exactly when automotive manufacturers started to make ridiculous claims in print advertising but I certainly remember when Toyota, in the late 1970s used “Oh what a feeling” to describe driving a Toyota!

I also remember Peugeot talking about the ‘lion leaping from strength to strength’ in the 1990s and the launch campaign for the first Proton MPV the Exora that claimed “You’ll be amazed” in 2009. I’m sorry but if I’m going to be amazed by the Exora then how will I feel about the Aston Martin V12 Zagato? Or, perhaps more relevant, how will I feel about the third version of the Exora due out in 2012?

Most recently I came across an online ad for the Volvo S60. The ad claims there are ‘naughty cars everywhere’ and that ‘naughty cars go everywhere’. The box ad features the price of the car and two links to either get naughty with the car or test drive it.

I decided to click on the get naughty link and was diverted to a landing page where I was encouraged to enter a website address. Naturally I entered my address and was confronted with this cringeworthy statement, “When we said naughty cars go everywhere…. we meant everywhere!”

You are then encouraged to ‘start your engines’ and the gimmick is that you can drive an S60 around your website very own website.

Once you get bored, and for most of you that will be after about 3 seconds, you can then request a test drive, invite a fried to have a go or close the tab, which I did. My memory of this exercise is the smoke coming out of the exhaust and the tyre tracks, not very environmentally considerate.

I don’t know about you but I think this campaign is flawed on numerous levels. To start with it really is a stretch to use the word naughty in the same sentence as Volvo. Secondly, what is naughty about the car? thirdly, what is naughty about maneuvering a car around a website? Finally, after all that effort, the campaign doesn’t collect any information on visitors!

You can see some good but hardly naughty volvo videos here

Brand communications is no longer about broadcasting a company position across multiple mass communication platforms.


In today’s always on world, an important part of any brand strategy is the communications strategy but if Asian brands are going to be taken seriously, Asian CEOs must understand that times have changed and that we are living in a new world order. And in that new world order, the success of a brand is in the hands of the consumer not the corporation.

Today CEOs must understand that how consumers source information about brands and where they source that information from, has changed dramatically over the last 5 – 10 years. Where previously they learnt about brands from television commercials, newspaper advertisements and the recommendations of friends, today they learn about brands from Facebook communities, Twitter lists and YouTube channels.

Gartner estimates that mass marketing campaigns now have only a 2% response rate and this is declining annually. Despite this, Asian CEOs, so long in control of their brands and reluctant to lose that control, continue to try and shape brand perceptions by broadcasting positions repeatedly across traditional media via multiple and repetitive campaigns.

But Asian CEOs need to accept that in today’s noisy, crowded, dynamic, mobile market place, a brand cannot be shaped by repetitive communications campaigns that try to appeal to as many people as possible in the hope that someone will buy and communicated across traditional media. And those CEOs must understand that the success of their brands is too important to be left in the hands of marketers and advertising agencies.

According to Gartner, by 2015, at least 80% of consumers’ discretionary spending will be influenced by marketing across social and mobile platforms. And it is imperative that CEOs do not allow marketing departments to continue the mass market model of invasive campaigns that try to push a one size fits all corporate position onto consumers.

So if building a successful brand requires more than a traditional approach to marketing where reaching anyone and everyone and making them all aware of the brand with a generic message broadcast multiple times across multiple channels is not the way forward, what should Asian CEOs do if they want to challenge the global western brands?

The first thing is that this new world order is good news for Asian CEOs because it means they can stop wasting funds on expensive creative driven initiatives that require deep wallets to fund advertising campaigns repeatedly across traditional media in the hope that they will resonate with consumers and lead to a possible sale because the reality is, very few of them are noticed, let alone remembered.

Try this experiment. If you advertise in a daily newspaper or on TV, ask yourself which ads you remember from yesterday’s newspaper or on TV last night. Be honest. I doubt it is many. Personally I remember the ads from the Sunday paper because I was stunned at how many pages featured supermarkets and hypermarkets having a ‘cheap off’ on chicken wings, grapes and cases of beer.

And these are the very same newspapers that featured advertisements for Patek Philipe and Rolex watches, Lexus and Audi cars and other luxury products and services the week before!

And even if you remember newspaper ads or TV commercials, how many of the products or services advertised, have you interacted with? And of those how many have led to a purchase? And even if they have led to a purchase, what did the company do to ensure you come back again? I suspect they didn’t do anything and instead, after they spent all that money getting you into their store or to buy their product, they let you leave without getting some personal information in order for them to start to lay the foundations for a relationship!

In this era of smart phones and the half a million applications that can be used on them; In this era of social media with five hundred million Facebook users (6 million in Malaysia) of whom 50% are active every day and one hundred and forty million daily tweets on Twitter, many of them generated by Malaysia’s 1.1 million members; the proliferation of leisure time activities and abundant choice at malls and more, Asian CEOs must understand that the answer to brand building is delivering economic, experiential and emotional value to consumers and on their terms and across all touch points.

The global economic situation is a golden opportunity for Asian brands to take market share from established Western firms struggling to overcome cash flow issues and poor brand penetration. But it is up to CEOs to understand that they have to review traditional practices and take an interest, indeed responsibility for the brand and ensure brand departments understand that it is no longer enough just to advertise in traditional media and hope a brand will succeed.

CEOs must ensure too that at the heart of any new strategy must be the organization, making sure every brand touch point focuses on delivering value and communications departments must take social media seriously and understand how to deliver more engaged communications. And this will have to be done in a much more integrated, dynamic and fluid manner.

And whereas in the past, a series of the same full page ads repeated in daily newspapers or a number of prime time TVCs was generally sufficient to build brand awareness which would lead to a sale. Indeed, many consumers would actually watch a commercial and take a note of the brand and where they could purchase it. Those consumers would then go to the store, look for the brand and buy it. If the brand was unavailable they would take time out to come back again and again until they could make a purchase.

Today those same consumers don’t bother taking note of the brand names because they’re carpet bombed with messages throughout the day, every day. Many of those messages are making outrageous claims or are totally irrelevant to them. They are also too busy multi-tasking during the expensive commercial breaks. Furthermore, they’ve been let down so many times after believing those claims that they now often ignore them completely. And because consumers have so much choice and so many information channels, they don’t need to pay attention to messages broadcast via mass media any more.

Now consumers use social media and other tools where they inhabit communities that they relate to and trust, to seek information about brands. So it is in these communities where brands must learn to communicate and engage with consumers and deliver value that resonates with those consumers enough to make them want to own the brand.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t advertise but I am saying that if your organization is not on brand and all marketing initiatives are not integrated to allow you to deliver on the brand promise. And if your organization is unable to deliver value across all touch points and if you don’t use every opportunity to engage with consumers and collect data to help you get to know your customer and start to build a relationship with your customer, your advertising efforts will be wasted and your brand will not survive these extraordinary times.

In this crazy, always on, competitive market place it is these relationships that are going to help build a successful brand and not newspaper ads or TV commercials, no matter how cool they are and no matter how cutting edge is the technology used in the commercial.