In a social media world, should an advertising agency be responsible for your brand?


CEOs need to accept that in a crowded, dynamic, mobile market place, their brand is too important for a traditional approach to marketing. It is time to stop wasting funds on one off campaigns that are not even noticed, let alone remembered.

If you advertise in a daily newspaper or on TV, ask yourself which ads you remember from yesterday’s paper or on TV last night. Be honest. I doubt it is many. Personally I remember the ads from the Sunday paper (today is Tuesday morning) because I was stunned at how many pages were purchased on behalf of supermarkets and hypermarkets having a ‘cheap off’ on baked beans, grapes and cases of beer. And even if you remember the ads, how many of them have you interacted with? And of those how many have you purchased?

Sample ads of Malaysian hypermarkets. Take a look at the Cold Storage and Giant ads and see if you can spot how they put down their competitors. Let me know in the comments section and I’ll buy you a drink in KL if you get it right!

There is nothing wrong with these ads and I am sure they are effective, although I would be interested to know what metrics are used to measure effectiveness. I hope it isn’t CPM.

But in the 21st century, an era of smart phones, social media, increased leisure time activities and abundant choice, firms must understand that a traditional mass economy, mass media approach to communications with its one-size-fits-all campaign driven focus on tactical initiatives such as billboards, print ads, TVCs and so on is not the answer to brand building which is a strategic initiative driven by consumers and based on delivering economic, experiential and emotional value to those consumers and on their terms.

Despite extensive global research by firms such as McKinsey that proves the decision making process is now more about providing economic, experiential and emotional value, advertising agencies and some brand consultants who should know better, continue to talk about positioning products in the consumer’s mind. It’s like nothing has changed since the 1970s when Al Ries first developed the term!

But if you ask an advertising agency to build a brand you’d be a fool to think you will get anything other than a creative campaign. it might be packaged as something else but that is all it will be. Why? Because advertising agencies make money out of creating advertisements. That’s the business they are in.

It is up to CEOs to understand that they have to take an interest, indeed responsibility for the brand and ensure CMOs and brand departments take social media and more engaged communications in a social media world seriously. And this will have to be done in a much more dynamic and fluid manner.

In the past a series of full page ads in daily newspapers or a number of prime time TVCs was generally sufficient to build brand awareness. 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 it and buy it. If it 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’ve been let down so many times by those claims that they now 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 just block out those messages and instead use social media and other tools where they inhabit communities that they relate to and trust, to seek information.

I’ve mentioned this before, the first TVCs consisted of a man standing in front of a microphone reading from a script. Why? Because that was how it was done on radio. Right now firms are at the digital equivalent of standing in front of that microphone.

Creative campaign not the solution to smoking issues in Singapore


As with many issues, Singapore has a zero tolerance approach to smoking and in particular, teen smoking. Get caught selling cigarettes to minors and you face a fine of over US$6,000.

Anyone under the age of 18 caught carrying cigarettes, carrying not smoking, and it is an automatic fine of US$30. Get caught again and the fine is US$60. If you don’t pay the fine, your parents spend a night in jail.

Smoking is banned in all public places such as hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, bars, shopping malls, museums, theatres, airports and other public transport places, libraries, indoor and outdoor sports arenas and government and private offices.

If a person serving in the military is caught smoking whilst in uniform he or she is disciplined and fined. Like other countries, cigarette packets carry gruesome images of what smoking can do to throats, mouths, unborn babies and so on.

Little wonder then that according to a recent Synovate survey, Singapore has the lowest numbers of smokers (13%) across a random selection of countries including Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Italy, Korea, the Netherlands, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Taiwan, Thailand, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately many of these smokers started smoking in their teens. According to a Pfizer poll in May 2010, 84% of smokers started the habit in their teens and some started smoking as young as 12.

And although at 9%, Singapore has one of the lowest rates of teen smoking in the world, the Health Promotion Board is keen to address the issue of smoking amongst young adults and teens.

So 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 are ‘Live it up without lighting up’ and they 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 are 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, 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 like the creatives, I think they are really well executed and I really hope the campaign works. But I sincerely doubt this is the 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.

Malaysia spent RM100 million (US$30 million) over 5 years on such a campaign that was inneffective in bringing down the number of smokers in Malaysia.

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 often failing health results in psychological decline.

Even before this campaign, Singapore has successfully reduced smoking amongst youths. Statistics released in 2009 by the Students’ Health Survey (SHS) 2009 suggest a downward trend in youth smoking, with the proportion of youngsters who had tried smoking, even one or two puffs, declining from 26% in 2000 to 16% in 2009. That’s an impressive statistic and I would focus more on what drove those achievements rather than new creative campaigns.

I have a hunch that this campaign will not have a dramatic effect on the number of smokers in Singapore. Data shows that traditional marketing tools are even less effective today than they were 10 years ago. Consumers simply don’t listen to mass marketing the way they used to, especially when copy uses vague terms such as ‘tend’.

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. I’m sure this information is already available.

It is imperative that the audience is identified and then engaged individually, on a one to one basis. It will be an expensive and long term effort. 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 might be to find alternative sources of income for retailers. Policing of key stakeholders such as 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 creative campaigns.

Only once the strategic blueprint is ready can the implementation begin. There is no easy way to reduce the number of smokers in Singapore. It’s going to take a long term investment in time, effort and money.

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

Top tips for successful city branding


I know I’ve said this before and I am probably beginning to sound like a broken record but advertising agencies do advertising.

And advertising is a tactical initiative driven, on the whole by creativity. Using advertising across one or more channels is a series of tactical initiatives known as a campaign. It is not a brand strategy.

If you want to build a brand, you are not, unless you have extremely deep pockets and are very very lucky, going to do it with advertising alone. This is especially true in the destination branding sector. What is required is a comprehensive, integrated brand strategy that acts as the blueprint that drives multiple interanl and external initiatives, including the very important creative elements developed by advertising agencies and not the other way around.

Bill Baker, author of Destination Branding for Small Cities available here, has written a timely, concise and easy to read set of guidelines for any city or destination that is ready to develop a brand strategy.

The article is here dont_hire_painter-1

I strongly recommend any destination, and for that matter, any company read this article to understand what they need to do before wasting valuable resources on tactical initiatives that will only add to the noise.

Branding is more than a communications exercise


The most common definition of a brand that I hear is: “A brand is a name, sign, symbol, slogan or anything that is used to identify and distinguish a specific good (product), service, or business” This comes from the respected American Marketing Association. The problem is that this definition belongs to an era of limited competition, limited choice and limited knowledge of consumers.

In the mass economy that no longer exists, it was relatively easy to build a brand and your brand could easily become the name, in your category, on everyone’s lips. And it got to this position by mass advertising via mass media. 50 years ago, a good ad on prime time TV was enough to get someone to write a brand name down and ask for it at the department store the next day.

Quite often, even if the product was unable to deliver value, consumers would still buy it, quite often because they didn’t have a choice or because they were less demanding, and willing to put up with poor quality. In some cases consumers believed they were wrong and the product was good so they continued to buy it.

Today consumers are far more knowledgeable and much more demanding. They have more choice and there is more competition, especially for consumers attention via mass marketing channels. Moreover, a lot of those products with their flashy names, creative symbols and signs have lied to consumers in their slogans and consumers have been let down. It is no longer enough to tell a consumer your product is the best. If they are let down they won’t buy it again.

Instead, they go elsewhere. Today, to build a brand requires a comprehensive investment in organisational excellence. Building a brand is no longer a creative exercise or a communications exercise to differentiate a product. And the key metric must be profitability.

At this stage, most articles give an example of Nike, Coke, Apple or a similar brand. But these companies are exceptions and I’ll explain that in another article. But this time I am going to use Apple as an example because they have adopted their brand better than most.

Apple is a brand but 15 years ago the name, logo, etc that differentiated the good/product was not helping the company gain market share in the computer business. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking of changing the name.

But instead, what happened was a massive investment in operational excellence, R&D, purchasing, supply chain, distribution and strategic alliances in manufacturing, etc plus a complete overhaul of sales processes, customer service, a huge stroke of luck and later, an investment in clever creatives.

The result, the ability to match product attributes to give consumers economic, experiential and emotional value that has built a global brand. I would say that the ads didn’t build Apple, it was the investment in R&D, organisational excellence and a lot of luck.

Another example is PAN AM. PAN AM had a great name, nice logo and spent a lot of money on mass marketing. I’m sure we all remember the tagline “PanAm. We’re flying better than ever”. Where is PAN AM today? PAN AM doesn’t exist.

So the next time someone says a brand is “A brand is a name, sign, symbol, slogan or anything that is used to identify and distinguish a specific good (product), service, or business” Ask them how many products they buy because of the name.

Take control of your ad placement


I’ve decided to make these real time observations of branding blunders/negative brand association individual posts instead of putting them all together. This latest one is a real gem.

Essentially it is an argument between the British meat industry and the World Cancer Research Fund about the the dangers (or not) of red meat. The article is littered with negative words such as confusing, cancer, nightmare, death, bitter, row and more. To the right (and above) the article is an ad selling Dell computers. You can read the full article here but of course the advertisers may change

The execution of the ad is good. Readers can quickly and easily identify the brand and there is a seamless call to action.

But I’d like to know why Dell is advertising next to such a negative article. How does Dell buy these ads? Have they considered where the ads may be placed? Do they book a specific number of spots and choose the location or does the website decide where the ad goes?

If you are a brand and considering advertising online, make sure you determine what sort of articles the ads can be placed alongside otherwise you may be associated with death, cancer, arguements and so on. Probably not what you intended.

Any thoughts?

Does shock and awe advertising still work?


This is a brutally graphic public service announcement from Australia’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC). Viewer discretion is advised.

This is an immensely powerful piece of work beautifully executed. And it had an emotional impact on me. All the characters resonated with me as I imagined myself as many of them at various stages of my life. At the end I was breathless and close to tears.

But the question being asked by Bill Green is “Does this stuff work? Really work?” According to Bill, TAC says yes. According to TAC, “in 1989 the first TAC commercial went to air. In that year the road toll was 776; by 2008 it had fallen to 303”. That fell again to 295 in 2009. However, despite these powerful commercials, 16 people died over the Christmas period.

Topically, I have just spent 10 days in Australia over the festive period and the only TVCs I can recall were for alcohol (beer and hard liquor) and fast food. I was stunned to see so much alcohol advertised on TV. I didn’t see this TAC commercial or if I did, it didn’t register.

Using creativity to communicate
Advertising, and in particular well executed advertising, used to be a great way to reach a great many people over a relatively short period of time. With less competition, more accepting and attentive consumers, such reach could ensure the message was received and absorbed by the right people. Not anymore. Mass media has fragmented into niches and communities. Using creativity to communicate a message is no longer effective because the message is blocked out or soon forgotten because we simply don’t have the interest or bandwidth to absorb all the messages assaulting us throughout the day, every day. Increasing frequency doesn’t help, it makes it worse as it adds to the noise. Even beautifully executed work like this is lost in the fog of products and services.

I wrote an article about a similar approach used toward smoking in the UK and Malaysia. You can read the full article here,

Chilling commercials don’t work
With smoking, the research, carried out over 10 years by 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 when a close family member become 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.

In Malaysia, despite nearly US$50 million spent on shock and awe campaigns to create awareness of the dangers of smoking, the number of smokers has practically doubled every 10 years. Whether or not there are parallels between campaigns for smokers and those who drink and drive, I don’t know.

Personally, I suspect that the reductions in fatal traffic accidents since 1989 are due to better safety features in cars, better roads, better lighting, highly visible enforcement measures, increased penalties for offences such as not wearing seatbelts and using mobiles, reductions of speed limits, more drug testing and better educated consumers.

The key then is not to add to carpet bombing of consumers via advertising, but to identify how those consumers become better educated? Was it the commercials or a reaction to the commercials or other initiatives?

Pubs legally obliged to breathalyse patrons
This can be done using qualitative research with consumers and then use that data to forge future strategies. It may be expensive and time consuming, but it will give us the answers we are looking for and determine future strategies. Of course it may be that it is not the commercials but in fact peer pressure at key times such as when consumers leave a pub, club etc. I think this may be the case and I see a time, not too far in the distant future when all bars and restaurants have to, by law, breathalyse all patrons as they leave the premises.

Personally, although this is a powerful TVC, I wouldn’t watch it again. If this commercial came on, I would change channels because if I am watching TV, I don’t want my leisure time to be challenged by issues I don’t want to address at that particular time.

Thanks to Andy Wright for the heads up on this story.

Organisational excellence required to build global Asian brands


Not too long ago, the Michigan (U.S.) State Business School reported that every US$1 (RM3.36) invested in marketing earned US$5 (RM16.80). By contrast, for every US$1 (RM3.36) invested in operational excellence, returned revenue was US$60 (RM201.75).

Despite such data, the majority of Asian firms have been slow to grasp the importance of everyday operational excellence that requires a continuing commitment to quality service, as well as processes that are effective from the customer’s point of view and advanced supply chain skills.

Many Asian firms prefer to spend fortunes on tactics to acquire customers yet very little on the operational and other strategic requirements needed to keep them. Sales and marketing growth based on increased awareness are fine and important but they are activities to be embarked on only after the operational foundations are in place. This is because an acquisition only approach is generally unsustainable.

Therefore, once a customer is acquired, it is critical to develop relationships to retain them. Firms cannot simply ‘hope’ they will come back time and time again because, with so much competition, so many alternatives, if you are not communicating with them – and selling to them, someone else will.

Customers build brands
And because customers have the power to make or break our brands, Asian companies must learn to do business on their terms. At the same time, they must become focused on creating PROFITABLE customers (on average, 15% of customers are unprofitable), ensuring those customers become our brand ambassadors, and consistently increasing their share of wallet.

Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Pan-Am, Ford and so on, represent mass-economy brands. These Western brands were successful because they shrewdly used the tools of the mass economy. They positioned themselves by repeatedly advertising in the mass media of one, two or three TV stations, one or two newspapers and knew where consumers were most of the time as there were few leisure time activities to take them away from the home.

Global markets
They also used mass production to achieve economies of scale, and they used distribution to penetrate mass markets. Global markets were opening up, disposable income was increasing, competition was limited. Customer retention didn’t really matter. Markets were growing so fast, and the mass-economy tools were so powerful, that it is was fairly easy to acquire a new customer for everyone that was lost. They also had a large, essentially one segment, ready made affluent domestic market.

But today, the mass economy is dead. The mass economy was killed by the fragmentation of the media, new leisure time activities, the Internet, greater competition, globalization, immigration, increasing number of and power of retailers, marketing segmentation and other forces.

In its place, we now have the “Customer Economy.” Companies no longer have the exclusivity to make the rules and control information by “positioning” products or promoting “brand equity” through advertising and PR like they did in the mass economy. Moreover, where in the past, prospects were segmented by demographics and geography, now they are part of communities. In these circumstances, can advertising and PR be effective to build brands? As part of a comprehensive brand strategy, yes. On their own, no.

For example, in the 10 year period to 2006, the computer manufacturer Acer spent US$10 billion (RM33.6 billion) trying to build a global brand via advertising. The effort failed. Acer withdrew from the retail market and has only recently reentered it with a new strategy focusing on individual segments.

Sony mass market failure
In 2000 and 2001, Sony spent an incredible US$2.5 billion (RM8.4 billion) on advertising worldwide. The result? The first three months of 2003 saw stunning losses, a 25% slide in the company’s share price in just two days and layoffs of more than 20,000 workers worldwide.

Unperturbed, Sony again tried mass economy tactics in 2008, spending an astonishing US$4.9 billion (RM16.5 billion) to position its diverse range of products including televisions, Blu-Ray players, music players, Laptops, PlayStation games, movies from Sony Pictures and new music from Sony Music. The approach failed and Sony is now exploring a more specific product focused niche approach.

Asian companies
Asian companies obsess with using traditional marketing tools such as advertising and PR to acquire new customers. But what good does it do to acquire customers if you have no idea how long they are going to stay and how profitable they will be? Also required are investments in operational excellence and accountability.

There is also a belief by many firms that they just have to ‘participate’ in an activity to get business. One local firm we’re familiar with collected 200 qualified leads from a trade show, yet months later those leads were still collecting dust! They were waiting for the prospects to contact them!

Another Asian company invested over US$50,000 (RM175,000) on a trade show, instructed 3 ‘top’ sales people to represent the company at the trade show and then failed to train the staff on how to behave and sell at the trade show. Moreover, there was zero investment in a lead management programme for leads generated. This meant the company was unable to measure the effectiveness of the trade show.

Finally, within 3 weeks of the trade show ending, two of the sales people manning the booth left the company, taking all the leads generated with them.

As we work to move up the value chain, the goal of every Asian company that wants to build a brand must be profitability, backed by measurement and accountability. Reaching solely for sales or market growth is no longer enough.

Repeat business
Not so long ago, in the US, to reach its sales goals, Ford offered $3,000 in rebates and other special deals off the cost of the Taurus car. Ford maintained its market share – but at the cost of losing money on each vehicle sold. Interestingly, Ford learned from its mistakes. Its next TV ad campaign in the US was based on the following line: “The highest proportion of repeat buyers of any car in its class.” What better testimonial is there? Little wonder then that in a report released by LeaseTrader.com in August 2009, Ford had the highest brand loyalty of any American automotive brand.

Despite the obvious need to invest heavily in retention strategies, ask a typical advertising agency about the branding issues faced by Acer, Sony, Ford and other companies, and what do you think the most common response will be?

Exactly. Recommendations for more ads, in more media across more platforms! They’ll promise a better creative team to provide greater creativity, but what’s really required is accountability for results! The usual agency attitude of “spraying and praying!” may have been the best strategy during the mass economy when there were a limited number of media conduits. But in the customer economy, the proliferation of media outlets and competitive advertisers now makes it practically impossible to build a brand solely based on ‘spraying and praying’.

Strategic approach required
What Asian companies need more than anything else is a strategic approach to branding that is aligned with the new imperatives of the customer driven global economy. Branding in the customer economy requires a fresh look at how the organisation engages with customers, as well as market and profitability requirements.

Rather than a simplistic reliance on logos and creative driven, one-size-fits-all, repetitive advertising, branding today demands research, data, measurement, supply chain effectiveness, customer intelligence, service AND accountability to both customer requirements and resources spent. Only once the company has identified who it should talk to and how, can it start to talk to those prospects.

Because acquisition is so expensive, and existing customers make the best brand ambassadors, branding also requires an emphasis on the identification and retention of PROFITABLE customers. This is especially true as the balance of power shifts from sellers to buyers.

The payoffs from such customer-economy branding can be substantial. British Airways calculates that customer retention efforts return $2 for every dollar invested. The clothing label Zara has thrived against powerhouses like Gap by moving from four collections a year to releasing new styles every two weeks.

So, as Asian firms attempt to move up the value chain, it is imperative companies monitor their retention rates (which fewer than 20% of companies do), because it is the best indicator of future profitability and brand strength.

Track RFM (Recency, Frequency, Monetary Value) because it shows which customers may be prone to defection and which are candidates for up – or cross – selling. Since it is likely 20% of customers are generating 80% of profits, segment customers according to profitability, and develop unique value propositions for the top 1%, 4% and 15%.

Calculate the lifetime value of clients. For instance, Ford calculates that a customer who buys his first car at the age of eighteen, upgrades it every three years and services it at a Ford dealership is worth a six figure sum to Ford over a lifetime. Cadillac estimates the lifetime value to be $300,000.

Revisit dormant customers. And optimize spending by developing marketing ROI based on actual customer profitability.

Other areas of organisational excellence that are key to building global Asian brands include recruitment and training. The retail sector is only realizing a fraction of its potential. This is partly due to the lack of training of staff and subsequent indifference of frontline staff when interacting with customers. If there is no attempt to build rapport with a prospect, why should the prospect return?

This is also true of manufacturing. One company in Malaysia we contacted recently listed 2 markets it wanted to develop as the UK and France. Yet when we called the office, no one spoke English.

Building Asian brands will take much more than basic advertising and PR. Core requirements include research, accountability, operational excellence, data management and customer equity (lifetime value of customers).

In Malaysia, according to research carried out by PriceWaterhouse Coopers, 86% of Malaysian CEOs and their Board of Directors say that they believe in the economic potential of effective brand building. However, almost the same number of CEO respondents admitted that they do not have a brand unit to integrate brand practices within their organisation. Sentiments are similar in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam

Until those C level executives take the plunge and invest in their brands by building operational excellence into their brand strategy, the concept of building global Malaysian or other Asian brands will remain just that, a concept.

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Negative brand association


Watching news videos on the bbc website. One is on child prostitution (every father’s nightmare) in the US. I won’t go into the details. The video is preceeded by a commercial for HSBC.

It reminded me of a breaking news report on a TV news channel that I saw not that long ago. The story was about a suicide bombing in Iraq that had resulted in over 100 deaths. The ad on the ticker across the bottom of the screen was for Cathay Pacific.

Surely these brands would be better off not being associated with such horrific stories and images of cruelty, depravation, slavery, carnage and murder? Stories that show the worst possible side of the human race. Or perhaps HSBC deliberately positions the commercials before such stories because the commercial projects the image of good people. This is the sort of ‘out of the box’ advice that a creative agency might give.

Is there any scientific evidence to say these associations have a negative impact on the brand?

It failed once so let’s try it again


According to a Ministry of Health (Malaysia) survey carried out in 1996, there were 2.4 million smokers in Malaysia. This was a rise of 41% over the number of smokers in 1986. Today the country has about 5 million smokers, about double the number in 1996. One can deduce therefore that the number is doubling every 10 years or so. As of 2003, approximately 49% of all adult males and 5% of all adult females are smokers.

Of most concern is the prevalence of smoking among young Malaysians. 30% of teenage boys aged 12–18 years smoke while smoking among girls doubled from 4.8% in 1996 to 8% in 1999. The prevalence of smokers aged 15 and above has increased from 21% in 1985 to 31% in 2000. This compares with about 21% of the population in the UK who smoke in 2009, down from 45% in 1974.

No data is available on what smoking costs the country but we do know it costs the Canadian government around RM10.5 billion in direct health care and another RM38 billion in lost productivity. Meanwhile revenue from taxes on cigarettes totaled around RM9 billion. Canada is a good benchmark for Malaysia because in 2001 approximately 5.7 million Canadians smoked, about the same as Malaysia.

To combat the rising number of smokers in the country, a number of initiatives have been put into place. These include a rapid rise in the price of cigarettes and a number of health ministry driven initiatives to alert smokers to the dangers of smoking.

The first of these initiatives was an anti smoking campaign launched in 1991, in conjunction with the National Healthy Life Style Campaign. This extensive campaign that ran for over 10 years raised the level of awareness of the hazards of smoking among the general public, both smokers and non-smokers.

The “Tak Nak” campaign was initially launched in 2003 and consisted of TVCs, Radio, print and Outdoor (including school notice boards). Costing almost RM18 million (US$5 million) for the first year, and rumoured to cost in total RM100 million for the 5 year campaign, it was widely lambasted in the media.

This is because although the campaign raised the awareness of the effects of smoking, it did little to reduce the number of smokers. Even the Health Minister Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek said in 2005 that there was no indication that the number of smokers had gone down since the campaign began.

Despite the ineffectiveness of this campaign, in August 2009, The Malaysia Ministry of Health launched the latest (and most harrowing) installment (see video) of its anti-smoking “Tak Nak” campaign via TVCs. The TVC’s feature gruesome images of mouth cancer and lost limbs due to gangrene caused by smoking.

This campaign follows the legislation, earlier this year that all cigarette packets sold in Malaysia must carry graphic images related to smoking. These include images of the results of neck cancer and a dead foetus. Displaying these graphic images on cigarette packets is a requirement of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco control of which Malaysia is a signatory.

It’s not clear if the latest series of graphic commercials that are obviously designed to shock, and the images on cigarette packets are part of a strategic plan or two independent tactical campaigns.

I’m not sure what the goals of the latest campaign are but I am sure they do not want to simply raise awareness of the dangerous side effects of smoking. I would imagine the goals include reducing the numbers of smokers in Malaysia and discouraging young adults of both sexes from taking up the habit.

If these are the goals then one has to question whether or not this is the best tactic. Certainly evidence from previous campaigns in Malaysia and other countries suggests that campaigns featuring shocking images and graphic descriptions of the consequences of smoking using old economy tools such as TVCs, print ads and outdoor are ineffective.

Malaysia spent RM100 million over 5 years on such a campaign that was inneffective in bringing down the number of smokers in Malaysia. 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 when a close family member become 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 often failing health results in psychological decline.

I have a hunch that this campaign will not reduce the number of smokers in Malaysia. Data shows that traditional marketing tools are even less effective today than they were 10 years ago.

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. It is imperative that the audience is identified and then communicated with using content that resonates with them. It will be a long term effort. 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. 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 kampung level and dynamic, preventative programmes for schools. Existing smokers will be targetted individually through interviews with doctors, rather than one-size-fits all shock and awe campaigns.

Only once the strategic blueprint is ready can the implementation begin. There is no easy way to reduce the number of smokers in Malaysia. It’s going to take a long term investment in time, effort and money. Wasting money on creative driven campaigns that have not worked in the past is not the way forward.

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