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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor database management can destroy your brand’s credibility


My inbox is overflowing with ‘invitations’ to attend numerous conventions, exhibitions, masterclasses, seminars and so on. I don’t know where these guys get my email address but I must be on every mailing list from Malaysia to Mexico.

I’ve trained my junk mail filter to send most of them to the trash without me having to do it manually but somehow, quite a few still get through. One company is particularly good at getting around my filter and I find myself actually reading the subject line or even some of the copy, especially when I can’t find anything with which to self harm which is what I would prefer to do.

Normally I just swear at the sender, make a note of the company name and promise myself that I will never, ever attend one of their events and then just trash the email. But I thought I’d share this one with you so that if you are in the event or seminar business, you might learn something.

Here is a section of their most recent email

Not quite relevant to brand consultants
Not quite relevant to brand consultants

Of course her earlier email was included so I’m going to share part of it with you

Who is responsible for boilers? Are you serious?
Who is responsible for boilers? Are you serious?

You can draw your own conclusions from this farcical attempt to get the head of boiler operations at a brand consultancy to attend a seminar, the benefits of which are according to the email, “boiler efficiency, improved water strategy and analysis, better understanding of modern boiler burner operations as well as easier identification of its failures, by reducing cost and increasing safety and finally better understanding of legal requirements of Dosh

Tosh more like. If you must use email campaigns to try and drum up business, here are 5 top tips for an email campaign:

1) Give recipients an opt out from your list. This email doesn’t even allow me to unsubscribe, which may well be illegal.
2) Segment your list or risk destroying your brand. You’ve collected information, use it properly. Failure to do so may see you embarrassed on a blog.
3) Make your subject line creative, short and sweet.
4) Less is more. Trust me, the more emails I get, the more determined I am not to attend any of the seminars listed.
5) Track your customer activities. If they don’t respond to any emails, get in contact and find out why.

There you are, despite annoying me I’ve given you some sound and free advice. I shall be sending this post to Anna. Feel free to send it to anyone who keeps sending you irrelevant emails.

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 II


A fascinating insight into the social media and mobile shopping habits of consumers in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore has just been released by SDL in the UK.

The survey size is a little small – 4,000 people in four countries – but the results unearth new data on how social media and mobile are influencing how consumers interact and build relations with brands.

Singapore participant breakdown
Singapore participant breakdown

Findings include:

33% of respondents from all four countries have acted on promotions seen on social media.

58% of respondents have shared positive experiences online and have sought advice from friends and family when talking about brands on social media.

U.K. respondents are more likely than respondents from the other four countries to complain about service on social.

When respondents express feedback, Facebook is the most popular platform to do this.

Showrooming (visiting a physical location to evaluate products and services even when you know you will buy online at another time) is increasingly prevalent as 77% of participants showroom.

Experiential branding key to branding success
Experiential branding key to branding success

62% of the participants use a mobile device when in stores to compare product prices.

69% of respondents from all four countries expect a brand’s online store, mobile app, and physical store to offer the same pricing, discounts and sales.

Pricing consistency is expected in all countries
Pricing consistency is expected in all countries

What can brands learn from this thought provoking survey?

They need to understand their relationship with consumers and what resonates with those consumers.

Brands that ensure parity in pricing and products across multiple channels will have to place greater emphasis on the customer experience and experiential branding if they want to win and retain business. Those that compete on price alone will soon be out of business.

Department stores and other retail outlets that represent multiple brands will have to work harder to engage consumers and ensure a positive brand experience otherwise they face the prospect of losing customers, possibly forever.

Mobiles are changing the way consumers research and learn about brands.

Brands that take the time to build relationships with core fans or brand evangelists will see their brands promoted to thousands of fans for minimal financial investment.

Those brands with digital brand strategies that go beyond tactical campaigns online are increasing sales through loyalty and advocacy.

Brands that try to control content and manage corporate driven messages and ignore consumers are unlikely to last very long in the consumer economy of today.

Telling the brand story online should be done across Facebook and other popular platforms with the ongoing development of corporate and consumer content.

Be part of a new brand being built from scratch


We’ve been building brands for other people for some time now but have decided to build our own online clothing brand that will begin with a range of souvenir Tee shirts with a specific theme and target market to build traction.

But as we’re not a traditional group of people, we won’t be doing this in a traditional way!

We’re looking for designers who are interested to be part of our team and yet work with us on a commission basis that provides ongoing rewards for your efforts.

What this means is that you will receive a royalty for each Tee shirt sold instead of a one off fee at the beginning.

So if your design becomes a global best seller, you will be in a position to receive royalties for two years, thereby realising the fruits of your creative capabilities!

If you are interested to learn more, please get in touch with me directly to start a dialogue.

BRAND AUDITS: Key for consistency and integration


How effective are your branding activities? Are they aligned for the future?

Unfortunately, most branding initiatives revolve around a creative campaign developed by an advertising agency. Depending on budget, the creative campaign will be implemented with a one-size-fits-all message communicated to all and sundry and across multiple mass media platforms for as long as budget allows.

The model essentially revolves around hope – hope that lots of people will see the campaign, hope that amongst those people will be the target markets, hope that the message will resonate with those target markets, hope that those target markets will remember and hope that if they remember they will act. So basically, the ‘strategy’ is one of hope. Chances are if it isn’t, the agency will, if you haven’t already fired them, propose more of the same.

For most brands this approach is an exercise in futility. Wouldn’t it be better to first get an understanding of where your brand is, what your stakeholders want from your brand, what you are doing right (and wrong), the channels they are most likely to interface with, their influencers and more?

Internal and external brand and communications audits can both help determine how effective your branding activities have been and, more importantly, what they need to accomplish in the future.

Brand audits have multiple advantages. They provide a benchmark to evaluate the current brand position. Carried out every 2 years they can evaluate progress toward branding goals. They also unify an organization. Too often, everyone has a different definition of branding.

A brand audit can provide a consistent, universally accepted definition that ensures that everyone is marching to the beat of the same branding drum. Finally, a brand audit can help eliminate the all-too-common disconnect between what companies believe their brand to be and what customers perceive it to be.

An internal brand audit takes the brand temperature from corporate executives and other personnel. One-on-one confidential interviews probe to determine each individual’s perceptions of the brand, branding goals, evaluation of past branding activities, knowledge of key corporate or brand messages and other key points.

What are the current branding and customer processes, and how can they be improved? One great question to ask is: “Imagine it is five years from now, and the company is celebrating historic financial and market success. How did the company arrive at this point? What are some of the activities that brought us to such success?”

A brand audit can cover a wide cross section of departments but must have the customer and the customer’s needs at its core. Is relevant customer data being added to corporate databases? Is customer information shared with other areas of the company? What initiatives are on the horizon that will affect certain customers and how will this be addressed?

A minimum of 25 minutes is required for each interview, but they can take up to an hour. Questions can be prepared beforehand, but the most valuable insights often result from free-ranging discussions on relevant topics.

A key component of a brand audit is a communications audit, which is especially useful for larger firms with multiple divisions or departments that get involved in branding activities.

A communications audit looks at all the visual material that represents a brand – the brand identity, press releases, ads, brochures, Web site, logos, etc. Analysis then determines the amount of consistency and integration in appearance/design, messages and their relevance to target markets and adherence to corporate standards. Ideally, a brand manual is in place to provide a benchmark.

The role of social media in corporate communications is increasingly important and a social media audit must be included in the communications audit. Communications across social media require different skill sets to traditional marketing and this is scaring some companies away but it must be addressed.

Internal brand and communications audits often reveal a stunning amount of discrepancies that result in mixed messages, incompatible branding efforts or even disagreement about branding goals.

An external brand audit looks at how various stakeholders (or, more accurately, constituencies) view the brand. Such constituencies include customers, prospects, media, distributors/retailers, regulatory bodies and suppliers.

Sometimes, an external brand audit is combined with a loss analysis to determine why a contract or other business went to a competitor. These constituencies are asked their perceptions and experiences with the brand.

Sample questions can include: “Why did you buy the first time?” “Why will you buy again?” “How useful and relevant are corporate communications?” “How responsive is our support?” “How do our competitors compare to us?” One revealing question we’ve used in the past is: “If you were running our company, what would you do to better meet your requirements?”

The number involved in brand audits can vary greatly according to time, cost or other constraints. Even as few as 5 – 10 interviews may produce actionable insights.

The success of a brand audit will be determined by the people involved. They must understand branding imperatives, be familiar with the relevant products and company and have superb questioning, listening and analytical skills.

Results of brand audits must not only be shared as widely as possible but also incorporated into internal and external branding efforts, including employee communications, advertising and PR.

It is especially important to use the results to drive changes in sales, service, support and other customer-facing activities.

Finally, remember to use brand audits as guidelines for improvement, not as sticks for punishment.

How Tourism Malaysia should have approached its social media strategy


Twitter, facebook and other social media communities have been buzzing with comments related to the RM1,800,000 (US$600,000) Tourism Malaysia (TM) is spending on Social Media (SM). Here’s a little background on the story.

Initially, the deputy minister of tourism was quoted as saying that the RM1,800,000 “covers the cost of hosting various activities on the facebook page, including six interactive Flash applications, development and maintenance work and advertising.” He went on to say that, “the ministry spent nearly RM300,000 to develop each of the six applications on their facebook page.” I could only find one (see screenshot below).

This statement was rejected by citizens and government ministers alike with one minister suggesting it was a waste of funds as the facebook site is free and using the ‘Visit Penang’ facebook page as an example (see screenshot below), explained that it was set up for free and had attracted over 100,000 fans.

Citizens were even more incensed, with one enterprising and concerned tax payer setting up a facebook page that parodied one of the official government pages (see screen grab below). Within hours, this page had attracted 5 times as many ‘likes’ as the official page.

A couple of days later, the tourism minister announced that, “the RM1.8 million (is) for a full social media branding campaign, and not just to set up a facebook page.” She went on to say, “”(The money) is for responding, informing, interaction and monitoring (work on the facebook page), evaluation, data collecting, content development and advertising on Google, Facebook, etc…”

With her comments came an official release that stated the costs were for the following:

1. Technical

* Dedicated hardware deployment
* Software licencing
* Front end applications
* Application server engine

2. Development of six campaigns that require the following:

* Flash games engine
* Flash programming and coding
* Creative development and design
* Campaigns ideas and concept
* Front-end Flash design
* Testing and debugging

3. Campaign promotions

* Digital advertising campaigns on Google and facebook
* Contest, page wall and tourism fanpage content management
* Collection and management of database

The tourism minister then went on the offensive, asking reporters, “Do you think it’s cheap to set this up?” And as if to justify the expense, explained, “Tourism Australia is spending RM150 million (US$50 million) for the next three years on social media.”

Most recently, the minister stated that the allocation was to ‘run, manage and monitor a tourism campaign in the social media, including RM360,000 for advertising and over RM500,000 for prizes for the contests organized.’

‘Disappointed and hurt’ she is reported to have invited the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to investigate the campaign finances.

It is too early to determine the results of Tourism Malaysia’s first foray into social media but whatever the results, the Malaysian government, the tourism minister and the tourism ministry could have handled the matter more effectively and efficiently.

One would be forgiven for thinking that Tourism Malaysia has some internal communications issues. Because when the deputy minister first explained what the funds were spent on, his statement didn’t make sense. The deputy minister’s statement suggests he was provided with notes written by someone more familiar with the workings of an IT department than the requirements of a social media campaign. This has caused the deputy minister to be embarrassed in parliament and I hope someone has been reprimanded.

In terms of the social media exercise, Dave Duarte MD of South Africa based Huddlemind and a social media expert who was in Malaysia as the story broke stated in his blog that the exercise has already justified its expense.

His rationale is based on his guesstimate that the average conversion rate of a facebook fan to a customer is approximately 3% and because the average domestic tourist spends RM2,500 with 40,000 fans, the facebook page has already recouped its expenses.

This statement may be a little optimistic but it is certainly worth tracking the number of ‘likes’.

In terms of the game itself, it seems OK, leaning heavily on guitar hero. Personally I found the racial profiling of the characters unnecessary. Playing the game requires one to be more dexterous than I and as a result, the score required to qualify for the iPad 2 draw will always be beyond my means! I suspect I’m not the only decision maker in the family who will feel the same and this resulted in me leaving the page rather disappointed. But I digress.

So Tourism Malaysia’s (TM) long overdue foray into social media has not had an auspicious start. In the future, what can this key organization that contributes over RM50 billion (US$16.6 billion) to the national purse do to ensure tax payers get value money for all social media branding initiatives?

Here are 10 key recommendations for future initiatives

1) A social media strategy or any of the tactics within that strategy, is not the responsibility of the IT department. In future, the head of the department responsible for social media initiatives should represent the ministry when talking to the press and his press release should be prepared by him and his department and not by anyone else. Although the minister or his/her deputy must respond to questions in parliament, it is wrong to expect them to be knowledgeable about branding tools such as social media. Ministers do not need to talk to the media about such relatively small activities.

2) Social media requires an ongoing strategy and interactive initiatives such as the facebook pages are merely tactics within the strategy. Successful social media initiatives must be integrated with other branding initiatives.

3) I strongly suspect TM didn’t think through what they were doing when they launched the facebook pages. First of all it is important to develop a plan. Within that plan and before embarking on a social media strategy, it is important to identify what are the goals and how can facebook add value to branding efforts. Facebook is obviously an additional channel to interact with prospects and customers but why do it? To get more fans? Why? To get more participants? Why? How does TM convert those participants in the competition into leads? How does TM put a monetary value on social media activities? What metrics should be used? All of these should be outlined in the social media plan before implementation.

At the moment, registration is only required if participants want to be included in the draw for the iPad or meals. So how will TM optimize interactions with those participants and get them to become customers?

4) It’s also important to get fans to interact with other participants and to interact with participants. Critical to the success of any social media campaign are the conversations. Channels such as facebook are not platforms to broadcast messages about the company or in this case, Malaysia. The cuti cuti 1Malaysia facebook page has generated over 40,000 likes in a very short time and this is impressive. Furthermore, many of the postings on the wall have generated plenty of comments but TM is failing to enter into discussions with those who comment, preferring instead to pass that responsibility to others (See screen shot below). Interacting and engaging with people who comment is what social media is all about and will give TM more visibility, improve reputation and increase trust.

5) This first foray into social media is pretty basic and there is nothing wrong with that. But in future, Tourism Malaysia must look to be more innovative with what it does on social media. Fans will soon get bored of commenting and uploading images, especially if issues raised are ignored. Tourism Malaysia must encourage fans to be more creative. Perhaps by designing trips, submitting and voting for slideshows or setting up sub groups of specific niche related fans.

6) What makes being a fan special? At the moment nothing really which is a good and bad thing. Good because it means more people will become fans but bad because TM doesn’t know how many fans are really interested in the product or just want to win an iPad. In future, TM must look for ways to offer special content to fans or competition participants. Don’t be afraid to ask people to register.

7) This maybe a bit difficult for TM because technically, it isn’t allowed to sell Malaysia, only promote it but that doesn’t mean it can’t turn facebook into a potential profit centre. TM should make it easy for fans to book trips to destinations featured on the TM facebook the way it does on its website.

8) TM is still using mass media tactics on social media channels. This is ineffective and pointless. TM needs to stop thinking demographics and start thinking communities.

9) This applies to everyone and not just TM. Pause before creating a facebook group. Managing a group is difficult, time consuming and requires talent and patience to be able to respond to issues raised and continue a conversation till it’s natural end. TM launched four or five facebook pages at the same time! That requires a lot of talented manpower and judging by the lack of responses to issues raised, TM was ill prepared. Also important is what to do with the facebook group once the contest or event is over. It you want to delete a group, you have to manually delete every member of the group. With 40,000 members and growing, and with at least two clicks required to delete a member, the cuti cuti site will take a lot of manpower to shut down! If TM decides not to close down pages, in five years time, there will be a lot of dead pages that will confuse people.

10) The big question with facebook is what to measure and how to calculate ROI. In 2010 a study stated that fans of the top twenty brands on facebook were worth an average of US$136 each. With 40,000 fans, that would make the cuti cuti page worth over RM16 million! However the study was panned as it was actually a measure of the value of customer loyalty and not a measure of how much facebook had contributed to that loyalty. Moreover, the average of 20 brands like Nokia and Apple bears no relevance to tourism anyway!

As TM doesn’t technically have a product to sell, it is hard to know what to measure. For instance, TM can’t measure the ROI of acquiring a prospect and turning that prospect into a customer via facebook and comparing it with other customer acquisition programmes.

In reality, Measuring the ROI of facebook fans is probably impossible, especially for a national tourism agency such as TM and especially when the facebook page features a competition that allows multiple attempts from the same user and the end product is a future staycation.

As the dust settles on this rather unfortunate event, TM and its agency has a lot of work to do to sort out its social media strategy. It’s not a great start, and a lot of mistakes have been made. The key is not to make the same ones again.

Direct Mail, Email and your brand


Direct Mail and Email marketing are critical components of any branding strategy for either a business to business or business to consumer brand. And it is a growing business. But the quality of Direct Mail and Email marketing in Malaysia and the mining and management of the databases used is horrendous.

If you own a company and you want to destroy any equity there may be in your brand, prepare a badly written product sheet on your desktop and when you are finished, don’t bother to spell check the document.

Print 50,000 copies and shove them in all the letterboxes of as many office or apartment complexes in the Klang Valley as you can. While you are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring (assuming you included it on the flyer – and believe me, some don’t), your ‘DM campaign’ is being thrown in the rubbish bin by the lift, used as a place mat for lunch or simply thrown on the floor by the mail boxes. Hardly an inspiring ‘moment of truth’ first time experience for your brand and potential customer.

Another way to damage your brand is to send the wrong material to the wrong people. I have three kids, two under the age of 13. Yet this year they have both received two offers from credit card companies. These offers state that applicants must be at least 18 years of age.

A lot of firms are moving away from DM to save money on the printing of their flyers or brochures and looking at Email marketing. Although figures are unavailable for Malaysia, the Direct Marketing Association in the UK informs us that 90% of companies are now using email marketing.

There is no doubt that a well thought out and planned email campaign can be effective and profitable. But too many firms don’t do this and instead are simply adding to the seven trillion spam messages expected to be delivered to inboxes around the world in 2011.

I signed up with a local event organiser for information on forthcoming branding and marketing seminars that they organise in the region. Within a week my inbox was inundated with emails related to human resources, accounting, insurance, motivation and other topics I have nothing to do with and no interest in. These emails are trashed with the same irritation as the ones for Viagra, lottery wins and Nigerian banks.

Despite my repeated requests to be unsubscribed from their list, I continue to receive multiple emails. I cannot simply mark the email as ‘junk’ because they are using a Gmail account and this will send all mail from Gmail addresses to my trash. The name of the company is ingrained in my subconscious, but for all the wrong reasons and it is now a matter of principle that we will not sign up for any event organized by this firm.

I have received about 10 emails in the past month from an insurance company that recently spent RM13 million (US$4 million) on a rebranding exercise. The emails are not personalized, the attachment is of a flyer that is dull and states in two places that the offer is exclusively for Mastercard holders yet I don’t have a Mastercard.

I really lose faith in financial institutions and other companies when they make such mistakes. Think of the money wasted on the cost of the name, flyers, administration and so on.

The rewards for good campaigns are significant. The Direct Marketing Association reports that more than RM550 billion was spent on direct marketing advertising (including email marketing) in 2008 and sales generated from that were an astonishing RM6,450 billion! There is no question then that DM can be effective because it allows consumers to read about the products and services before deciding to explore further, or even buy.

But it has to be done properly. It is not enough simply to create a campaign and send it out. It is also important that the content resonates with the target market. And you still need to ‘sell’ the product. Just because you have got into the prospect’s inbox, doesn’t mean the prospect will buy.

The key for all direct marketing or email marketing is get the customer information right in the first place and keep it updated accurately thereafter. If you are collecting a lot of leads but don’t have the resources to input and clean the data, then outsource. There are many firms offering such services and it will be money well spent.

There is an edict within Direct Marketing industry that says, “Right offer, right person, right time.”

So it’s time for Malaysian firms, from SME up to main board, to end all this untargetted, uninspiring, untrackable, unproofed direct mail and start building brands with quality marketing collateral.