Recovery branding for Tourism in Malaysia. A Q&A with Marcus Osborne


I was invited to participate in a conversation on Recovery Branding for Tourism. You can watch the video here.

I think the video is worth watching, but if you don’t have time, I’ve added my responses to the questions below

Introductions

On the personal front I’m Marcus Osborne. I’ve lived in Malaysia since 1994, I’m married to a Sarawakian and have 3 kids all born in Kuching and they all are very proud of their heritage.

On the professional front, I co-founded Fusionbrand in 2003 after a career in marketing & sales in Europe the Middle East and SE Asia.

We founded Fusionbrand because we saw how the branding landscape was changing and that although branding was becoming more complex and necessary, most firms thought it was related to positioning, taglines, logos etc.

Then and even now, most firms see branding or rebranding as a cosmetic tactical exercise like changing a logo, developing a tagline or creating a new advertising campaign. We also noticed that a lot of businesses were stuck more in a trading mentality and didn’t invest enough in the brand experience or technology to assist them with brand building.

We determined that with an economy growing at up to 9% a year, this didn’t matter but we realized that as growth slowed and the world was getting smaller, more dynamic, more competitive, that cost was no longer a good enough differentiator and that building brands around delivering value would not only block local and international competition but also lower operating costs and increase profits.

So we established Fusionbrand and built the business around two primary pillars

  1. THE BRAND
  2. BRANDING

The Brand

A brand is the visual, historical, topography, environmental and cultural assets of the business or destination. It’s important you base these not on what you want the destination to be but on the reality of what it has to offer. For destination brands today, authenticity is key so it’s about leveraging the natural assets into something that’s of interest to key segments.

This becomes the destination’s DNA and it must have at its heart the goal of consistently delivering memorable experiences to consumers at every stage of their journey from the initial research to becoming part of the consideration set and then to become the chosen destination, through the visit and afterwards as well.

It’s really important therefore to have the buy in of all stakeholders, especially the front liners who often benefit the most. If stakeholders aren’t on board, it doesn’t work. This is often the hardest part, especially when, if they won’t adjust, then they have to be excluded.

Branding

Branding is about how we bring the brand to life, throughout the customer journey. Both through the narrative we create around the destination and its assets and how we encourage others to participate in the development of that narrative.

The narrative can take many forms and be communicated through multi channels but the DNA has to be consistent in terms of how the brand is represented. This consistency is more important than how creatively it is presented.

Most campaign driven marketing projects are a straight line whereas smart branding uses technology to connect with the consumer from the outset using a variety of tools and build a relationship that includes staying connected with them long after their first visit.

To be successful, you need to have a solid brand in place before you attempt branding. There’s no guarantee of success but technology allows us to measure the effectiveness of everything we do.

And you need a fair amount of luck as well.

The benefits of branding are significant – lower acquisition costs, better reputation, improved visitor numbers, higher repeat visits or purchases, increased investment and more.

Fail to do it and at best you get left behind which is why most Malaysian states aren’t attracting visitors, even those with outstanding natural assets.

At worst you spend millions every year trying to develop a creative campaign that will stand out in a crowded market place dominated by destinations with far deeper pockets.

And of course if something like a pandemic or other disaster happens, everything you’ve spent on traditional media is essentially wasted.

  1. From your perspective, could you give us the overview of the current situation in our Tourism Industry?

The industry has been hit hard, really hard. Look at hospitality, even before the MCO, in the first 3 months of the year 170,000 hotel bookings were cancelled.

The hotel industry alone is reported to have lost RM3.5 billion in the first 6 months of the year. That’s unsustainable. All related industries have been impacted and it’s not over yet.

But you only need to look at the social media pages of the minister to see she is working tirelessly to stimulate domestic tourism & its working because there has been a fair amount of revenge tourism since the MCO was partially lifted although that has been a double edged sword because a lot of destinations and hotels weren’t ready for the surge in visitors.

Moving forward, what I’d like to see is a more strategic approach to stimulating domestic tourism. There needs to be a plan outlining initiatives as well as new incentives from the government to stimulate demand and regular briefings from the communications team at MOTAC on what is being done and its impact.

From Sarawak’s perspective, I can see that STB is trying hard to stimulate domestic demand & I like how quickly the Sia Sitok programme was developed although if I’m not mistaken, its only available for those living in Sarawak. If this is still the case, I suggest it is extended to West Malaysians.

At the same time STB seems to be moving away from mass advertising to developing branded content. This long term focus will help the state rebound quicker once the pandemic is over as potential visitors will be increasingly familiar with the state.

Because the way destinations are researched these days means experience related content is critical as it drives visitors to a website or blog which allows a tourism board to start the relationship building process through the use of email marketing and other tools. It also allows tourism boards to develop revenue streams by using affiliate marketing.

There’s a real possibility that as governments look for ways to reduce costs, pay for COVID economic stimulus packages or decide agencies now have to generate their own revenue streams, technology will help tourism boards achieve this.

Used correctly, technology allows tourism boards to have more control over their messaging. When visitors to a website or blog don’t sign up for newsletters or leave contact information they can still be reached with retargeting, allowing the destination to stay relevant for longer.

I also think the private sector needs to understand that it’s not just the job of the government to drive visitors to Malaysia, the private sector needs to contribute as well. This is going to require a mindset change.

            2. What are the prevalent branding practices during this pandemic (tourism or other industries) and what do you think of them?

On a Sarawak level, there seems to be a pivot away from international markets to domestic ones. This is necessary but I think content creation related to experiences needs to be ramped up. And improvements can be made to how social media is used.

On a national level there doesn’t seem to be much marketing with the exception of Desaru that is advertising a lot online but the website is buggy and doesn’t provide enough information or seamless opportunities to purchase products. Desaru could learn from the One and Only marketing experience.

From what I can see, just about every other state seems to have gone into its shell. This is sad because destinations can use the pandemic to forge long term bonds with domestic tourists now that could last for years, even generations.

Digital is underused & under appreciated

Digital can be used to build interest in destinations, forge relationships with travellers and close deals. But it’s important to appreciate that digital is not a broadcast platform. It’s a platform for connecting with people. This requires structural change and a move away from how things have been done for the past 40 years.

Today, destination brands must be constantly connecting with audiences to get the most out of social media. There is the potential to build DTC relationships that will benefit destinations in the long run. But this means digital infrastructure has to be changed as the old rules, even before Covid no longer apply.

Industry wide structural issues

However there are other structural issues that have to be addressed as well. There are not enough ‘best in class’ products in Malaysia. My theory is too many products are created from the wrong perspective. The goal is not to create a product. The goal is to create an authentic experience that delivers economic, experiential and emotional value.

For example a homestay is not about creating a building in a kampung and calling it a homestay. A homestay is about creating an authentic experience. Everything about it should mirror the reality of the kampung. If it doesn’t it fails.

            3. What are the new norms for tourism branding?

COVID has given us an opportunity to evaluate the national and state tourism industry as well as the agencies that are responsible for the development of the industry and the marketing of Malaysia and states.

And this is timely because there’s a problem with the industry. Tourism arrivals have been flat for ten years. Unsavoury practices within the industry are destroying Malaysia’s brand equity and need to be addressed because they won’t go away. Now is the time to take a long hard look at who manages the industry, how it is managed and where it is going because things must change.

A road map for investment needs to be developed around pillars that will drive the industry forward for the next 20 years. I think one pillar that should be explored thoroughly is tourism investment zones.

Until there’s a vaccine, it’s going to take a long time for international travel to pick up. Corridors will be the first step and marketing teams will have to adapt. We’re already hearing about a corridor between Perth and Langkawi. That’s a great development but it’s a small step.

With the right approach, we could see charter flights into Sarawak from certain locations but we need the products to attract visitors from those sources. This requires a pivot away from what we’ve done for the past 20 years.

Transparency is a critical success factor

Transparency is going to be really important. Who knows what the psychological impact of covid is going to be but we can sure that with all the uncertainty around the pandemic and the poor handling of the fallout by many important sources of visitors to Malaysia like the UK, transparancy will play a big part in generating traveller confidence in a destination.

Other new normal branding initiatives will be the use of visitor tracing apps in the supply of information. Leverage on the excellent work done by the Ministry of Health by providing information on health and safety in marketing collaterals and define protocols while providing easy access to real time information.

Those travellers who are exploring medium and long haul trips will look for ease of access to COVID related information around a destination. And they’ll cross reference it against what they can find online. Those that are transparent and open.

So destinations that use a multi channel approach to their branding and provide real time COVID updates, provide hot lines for visitors, seamless advice on what to do if there is a surge in numbers etc on a regular basis will build trust and give potential travellers the information they need to make travel plans. And once travel begins, make sure it’s a touchless travel experience to further build confidence.

These are new norms and confidence is key. Building confidence takes time. Now is the time to start.

On a tactical level, I think we’ve seen the end of the hotel buffet which is probably a good thing!

            4. What essential element(s) should industry players be aware of when strategising their recovery branding?

Well the pandemic should go away but it won’t be an on/off lightbulb moment. It’s more likely to fade away, so there’s time to get ready. If they haven’t done so already, industry players should be doing or do the following:

  1. Review your operations, especially marketing departments and how they operate
  2. Review existing products & determine whether they are fit for purpose for a post Covid environment
  3. Build a strategy around what you have, not what you or stakeholders want to have
  4. Use down time to reskill your teams around delivering memorable experiences at every stage of the customer journey both online and off
  5. Look to renovate, invest in new materials, equipment etc. The industry will come out of this and when it does, the competition will be intense
  6. Create a brand plan. If you don’t have a plan everything you do is guesswork. Fusionbrand, a destination brand consultancy has noticed that firms with a brand strategy that incorporates a crisis plan are dealing with the COVID environment better than those who don’t have a plan
  7. Government & the private sector must move away from mass media marketing to creating content that builds organic narratives and collect data
  8. Data will be key. The post COVID travel environment will be different, so invest in data collection tools and use data to build direct relationships with target markets. Especially important for those destinations or products that don’t have the massive marketing budgets of competitors
  9. Reduce the number of stakeholders in the industry
  10. Industry players should be objective in their decision making. Collaboration between stakeholders is important to get out of this. This is not the time for stubbornness!
  11. Explore tourism investment zones, ideal for places like Sematan in Sarawak for instance
  12. Stay fluid. Community managers will play a big role as they keep followers involved and informed on developments in the relevant destination
  13. The fastest way to restore traveller confidence is by being accessible and transparent. Put protocols in place now to deal with a surge in social enquiries

         5. New norm vs conventional ways. Do you think industry players would return to the conventional ways of doing things once this situation died down?

I hope not! We’ve been doing it wrong for some time. Which is why visitor numbers to Malaysia have remained around 25 million for the last 10 years.

The majority of people who visit, love Malaysia but products are not good enough to encourage return trips. There are exceptions but overall the quality and variety is simply not there. And many of the products are not marketed properly.

Moreover, regional competitors are constantly creating new offerings while Malaysia’s tend to stay the same. Plus the management of many of Malaysia’s tourism products leaves a lot to be desired.

Moving forward, there are not enough new products coming onto the market. This needs to change. Let’s hope it isn’t ignored once things get back to normal.

And there needs to be more synergy between TM & state tourism boards. Local destinations don’t market themselves aggressively enough.

And moving forward, I want to see the private sector investing more in the industry. If this requires policy change then so be it.

            6. How can branding for a destination like Sarawak be done effectively now during the pandemic and after it has blown over?

It’s important to appreciate that branding is a strategic initiative. So although COVID has taken a toll on every destination, there should still be a road map in place to drive the industry forward and build the destination’s reputation. Much of that will remain although if the marketing focus was on mass media, that needs to change.

Tactically, getting West Malaysians to visit is the right approach for both the long term and the short term but it’s going to take time and they need to be nudged repeatedly before it’ll start happening.

But Sarawak can’t ignore international markets. I understand a new tourism master plan is being developed and this is good news for the industry. It’ll have to be ruthless as currently there are too many stakeholders in Sarawak so this master plan should streamline this and it needs to move away from the campaign approach of small tactical initiatives to a long term strategy.

And that strategy must be built around a clear brand proposition that is authentic and they must use this to unlock growth around 3 pillars, products, content & relationships. Those products should be built around 5 – 10 niche sectors, invest in them to ensure they are best in class.

Substantial investments need to be made in the tourism infrastructure. New products created for the right target markets.

Sarawak has a lot of potential but not as a shopping/mainland Chinese mass tourism destination. There will be business from China but not volume business. It’ll never be a mass market destination for anyone & shouldn’t try to be.

Sarawak will never have the accessibility that other destinations have but that shouldn’t stop Sarawak from becoming a globally respected destination. Something it could be in 5 – 10 years.

More importantly, the tourism master plan must propose a task force is created to implement the master plan because too many plans have been created only to gather dust on a shelf.

Overtourism is coming to a destination near you


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Malaysia miss the coming travel and tourism boom?


Mass tourism is barely forty years old. I can still remember family discussions back in the seventies about how a British traveller was only allowed to take a maximum of £50 out of the country which meant few people could travel. With a father based in Malta and Gibraltar, as well as Hong Kong and Singapore, I was lucky enough to see more of the world than many.

Anyway, a few years ago we were hired by Malaysia’s tourism ministry to carty out what was at the time, and probably still is today, the most comprehensive brand audit ever done for a country’s tourism board. You can get a copy of a case study on the project by sending me your email address.

Due to client confidentiality rules, I can’t disclose all of our more than 300 recommendations but I can say that one of the recommendations was for a comprehensive overhaul of the incentives offered to the private sector to encourage more investment in the stagnant tourism sector.

During the brand audit discussions with visitors who had visited Malaysia, an often repeated comment was that they loved the country but didn’t think there was enough here to make them come back again. Yet to build a successful destination brand, you need that repeat visitation. This requires ongoing investment in products.

One of the problems in Malaysia is that property development is essentially risk free because of the sell then build model used here. What this means is that projects are often sold before work on them begins. Compare that to an investment in a hotel than has no guarantee of success and even if it is successful, can take 10 – 15 years before the developer sees a return on investment.

To my knowledge there have been few changes made to major tourism related policies because outside of Kuala Lumpur, there has been very little investment in the tourism sector. In fact, one frustrated operator complained recently that there are more 5 star hotels in Hua Hin Thailand than there are in the whole of Malaysia, excluding Kuala Lumpur.

This has to change and it has to change soon before this opportunity is lost. Because the next 10 years are expected to see a travel and tourism boom.

Travel and tourism can help Malaysia's economy
Travel and tourism can help Malaysia’s economy

Which is why South East Asian countries are investing heavily in their tourism products. After years of rising room rates and high occupancy, Australian investors and developers are increasing hotel development from Perth to Sydney and Hobart and up to Melbourne and Brisbane.

Australia’s hotel supply is growing 2.5 times faster than its long term average rate and 12,000 rooms will be added to the inventory by 2020. Tourism related investments are now close to A$30 billion, up from $17 billion in 2014.

Tourism investment is a priority for Indonesia as the government aims to attract 20 million visitors by 2019 and is revamping it’s tourism incentive programme to encourage investment.

According to the Saudi Gazette, the King of Saudi Arabia will spend 12 days in the country from March 1st as part of his Asian tour, and tourism development will be high on the agenda as the country targets over US$25 billion investment from Saudi.

Confident of positive long-term growth prospects for Thailand’s tourism industry, institutional investors from Hong Kong and Singapore accounted for around 45% of the total transaction volume in the country.

In Malaysia, according to Pemandu, the organisation set up to oversee the government’s transformation programme, RM24.5 billion (US$6 billion) of private investment was made in the tourism sector in Malaysia in 2015, making it the second highest private investment contributor, despite an alarming fall of 6% in arrivals in that year.

During the King of Saudi Arabia’s tour of Asia, he will also spend 3 days in Malaysia but the country’s ailing O&G industry appears to be the main topic on the agenda. Other figures for investment in tourism in Malaysia are hard to come by. However, outside of the capital, anecdotal evidence suggests investment is minimal.

Malaysia also suffers from a weak international image as well as a lack of buy in from stakeholders such as taxi drivers, travel and tour operators, hoteliers and retailers.

This needs to change otherwise Malaysia may miss out on the increased arrivals into the region as evidenced by the image above that shows the fastest growing flight routes around the world.

According to this chart, outside of India and China, the fastest growing routes will be to SE Asia. If Malaysia wants a bigger piece of this dynamic industry, it needs to make some significant policy changes to encourage more investment in the tourism sector.

Penang’s destination video isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. 6 ways to use video properly to build your destination brand


Google the words ‘Visit Penang’ and you get the following results:

'Visit Penang' search results
‘Visit Penang’ search results

The next step would be to click on the visitpenang website link that takes the visitor to a site that has no video on the homepage even though a video on a homepage is reported to increase conversion rates by more than 20%.

Indeed, the way consumers are absorbing information via video is well documented. According to YouTube reports, mobile video consumption rises 100% every year. Of course that will peak at some stage but it isn’t even slowing at the moment. In fact, more video content is uploaded in 30 days than all three major US TV networks combined created in the last 30 years.

And when it comes to travel and destination related videos, YouTube is the most used site with 79% of users looking at personal travel options. YouTube says that 66% of all travellers watch online films when they are thinking of taking a trip.

Someone sent me a link to a new tourism video for Penang and asked my opinion. The video, launched earlier this year lists a number of quotes stretching back to one from Yahoo in 2011. I presume the video is supposed to lure more visitors to the island but I couldn’t make out who it is targetted at.

I get the impression that it’s one of those ads designed to communicate with everyone that ends up communicating with no one. Yes it features everything that is well known about Penang but it didn’t bring us anything not already on the web. Penang is known for its Char Kway Teow and the dish is featured in the video but who is going to travel to Penang for a plate of noodles and besides, is it new?

Moreover, there are more popular, well established Vloggers on YouTube such as Roseanntangrs who have over a million followers including a Vlog about Penang food that has over 160,000 views (and plenty of negative comments that need to be addressed by the author). This would have been a smart channel to use to promote Penang food.

Here’s the Penang video. I feel like it’s about 20 years out of date, it’s like a TV commercial pushed out across digital.

It’s a real shame because Penang is a must visit destination for anyone coming to South East Asia. I felt this video didn’t do justice to the destination.

Inevitably after watching this I had to search YouTube to see if it was the worst tourism ad ever. I was surprised to find plenty of material including this one from Singapore that really is the worst destination ad I’ve ever seen or heard.

I don’t know what Singapore Tourism was doing when it commissioned this ad but it very thoughtfully pulled it off the visit Singapore site.

Thankfully or not, depending on your point of view, YouTube hasn’t been so considerate. Stick with it to the end because the punchline will have you heading for cringetowm.

Penang’s video isn’t as bad as Singapores but it will be as inneffective. Indeed after seven months it has only had 9,500 views. But what should Penang tourism’s approach be when developing destination videos?

Here are 6 top tips Fusionbrand recommends Penang take into account next time they want to use video as part of their brand strategy:

1) You can’t be all things to all people. And you can’t include everything about a destination in one video so don’t try. Hook the viewer with the first video and YouTube will do the rest of the work for you because they will link similar videos to the one the viewer first watched.

2) Think about the audience for your film. What will they want to get from a film about your destination and how can you make the content relevant to their needs? Because if it doesn’t resonate with a few seconds, they’ll move on.

3) Think about how travellers use the IoT. Basically it begins with explore and discover before moving onto consider and connect. That’s followed by evaluate and engage and finally adopt, buyin, embrace and share/endorse/advocate. You must be clear about what part of the buyer process your videos are aiming at and the content must reflect that. Don’t try and cover everything in one video.

4) Be real and human. The days of the corporate controlled ‘big idea’ and message pushed out across media are over. Consumers don’t believe it and besides, it’s been done to death. Instead show events that happen during filming, things that go wrong and the people involved in the filming.

5) Instead of spending your money on expensive production of one video, make it real and make it often. Publish and share film on an ongoing basis.

6) Creating the video is only the start. You then need to share it, comment, respond, write about it and so on. An editorial plan should be developed around all videos.

Videos the future, for now anyway. But destinations like Penang need to stand out, not add to the noise. Otherwise branding investments are wasted and tax payers funds are too important to waste.

15 things you didn’t know about TripAdvisor


TripAdvisor is 15 years old today. TripAdvisor has been at the heart of the revolution in destination branding and is responsible for changing the culture of travel and the travel related decision making process. It has ripped up the hospitality industry manual and forced the industry to focus on delivering value to customers rather than promising to deliver value.

According to comScore, TripAdvisor is the world’s largest travel site and together with it’s stable of 24 other travel brands including SeatGuru, Tingo and Family Vacation Critic gains 315 million unique monthly visits. And those visitors have created more than 200 million reviews of over 4.5 million destinations.

TripAdvisor broke loose from parent company Expedia in 2011 with an IPO valued at US$4 billion. As IPOs go it was a quiet one but TripAdvisor is a successful business with annual sales last year of US$354 million, up 39% over the previous year and now has a market capitalisation of US$12.7 billion.

Thanks to the Daily Telegraph for 15 things you might not have known about this enourmously successful site.

I hate Thailand


Tourism accounts for about 10% of the Thai economy, employs hundreds of thousands of people and generates as much as US$65 billion in foreign currency.

But the ongoing political crisis that saw the military junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) take power and the brutal murder of two British tourists in Phuket has seen arrival figures plummet.

According to Reuters tourist arrivals dropped 10.3% in the first 9 months of this year and 2014 will see negative arrival growth for the first time in years. The authorities have moved fast to stem the hemorrhaging with a crackdown on widespread crime, corruption and inflated costs encountered buy all but the most savvy visitors to the country.

In Phuket many of the illegal buildings, sunbed conmen, intimidating food and drink vendors, dubious boat operators and unscrupulous taxi operators have been yanked off the beach and a certain calm has returned.

Initial attempts to get tourists to come back included ramping up mass advertising and a travel insurance scheme that provided visitors who couldn’t get insurance because the country was under martial law, with insurance.

Unsurprisingly these didn’t have much of an impact. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) changed tack and came up with what it calls “A romantic comedy short film.” TAT initially released the video as consumer generated media but soon found itself having to explain the film was actually an advertisement for Thailand even though TAT wanted to create an ‘unbranded’ advertisement because ‘they receive more interest than conventional commercials.’

The spot is a counter intuitive attempt to show a more hospitable Thailand by featuring a young British tourist who has had his bag stolen and does the British thing of ranting at everyone as a result and finally declaring “I hate this place. I hate Thailand.”

Then he meets a beautiful Thai girl and a bunch of other people who rally round and help him. Sure enough, after some beautiful sunsets, scenes with kids and wonderful encounters his bag is returned with his passport and money still inside.

Counter intuitive differentiation is a brave model to use to sell a destination. But it’s also a model from a different era. An era when brands controlled the message and pushed it out across billboards, full page ads with tear offs in the corner and press releases. An era when consumers took those ads at face value and believed what brands told them. An era without the Internet.

The video is a fun piece that has received 1,500,000 views in 10 days with 21,000 Likes on YouTube. But here’s the rub. TAT should have been upfront about the video. As it is, they have given the impression it is consumer generated and that is wrong.

The video has also received more than 1,625 comments and the majority of them are not very complimentary. In fact some of them are downright hostile, talking about robberies, threats of violence, policemen that don’t speak English whilst others say the video is a scam and wrong.

One Thai commented, “Its too good to be true. No one would come by and give you a drink like that and Thai people wouldn’t give you sleepover at their house, especially in the tourist area.”

Another focused more on the deception, “How you will discover the truth by watching a fake video where the first words are already a lie. His name is not James. His name is Oliver Smith and he got paid by TAT to make this video. Look around yourself and consider how many real friends are left if you are out of money. This is not a Thai related issue it is everywhere around the world the same story. No money no honey. Same same but different. I love Thailand but I definately hate liars. And using lies to portrait (sic) a countries (sic) image is a mistake and an insult to all the honest Thai citizens. If they just made a short statement at the end of this clip that this is a TAT promotional video I would give my congratulations for that nice pink tinted heart moving clip.”

TAT is going to have to work harder than creating a video and passing it off as genuine consumer generated media to restore faith in the country.

It’ll need to work out a strategy and communicate that strategy effectively with multiple proof points. And if it wants to use social media and create influencers it needs to do it properly. There are no shortcuts in branding.

Travel related brands, especially luxury brands need to be doing social


Any brand in the destination branding space should look at this infographic to see how much effort the big travel related US brands are pouring into social media.

It is reported that there are 199 airlines active on Twitter which is an impressive total. This infographic looks at the top six which is dominated by US carriers.

Travel brands are investing in social because that's where their prospects and customers are spending their time
Travel brands are investing in social because that’s where their prospects and customers are spending their time

US hotels have jumped on the social bandwagon as well. Followers on Twitter for the top 6 hotels range from 4,000 (Radisson) to 231,000 for the Marriott. According to hotel marketing Internet users in the US generate 66.3% of global searches for luxury hotel brands which means that anyone in the luxury destination business needs to be online and doing social.

But it’s not just luxury brands that need to be doing social. 65% of leisure travelers begin researching online before they have decided where or how to travel. And a typical traveller visits 22 sites before making a destination decision. Arabs are big users of the online space for travel. Online bookings will nearly double in Arabia between 2011 and 2014, and the online leisure and business travel market is expected to cross the US$16 billion mark.

So if you are looking to attract visitors, especially from Western countries, you need to be doing social.

Thanks to media mosaic for the infographic.

Endless Possibilities has endless potential


The response to the “Endless possibilities” tagline has been, as one would expect when discussing a Nation Branding project, emotionally charged.

Much of the focus has been on whether or not the tagline has been used by Israel or for that matter Mongolia. In fact, it would seem the tagline has been used not only by both Israel and Mongolia but also Sagada in the Philippines.

sagada-2010-marlboro-country-endless-possibilities

And while we’re at it, “Endless possibilities” has also been used by a lot of companies such as BHS in India who used it for an advertising campaign and by Florian pearls. It’s also the name of a thrift shop in the USA, a change management company in the UK and it also appears on a tee shirt underneath an infinity loop.

But most commentators and those members of the public who have cast scathing comments in blogs, forums and on social media sites are missing the point. There may be questions around the chosen tagline, how it was researched and why it was chosen but the reality is, the tagline doesn’t really matter. Yes it is a bit embarrassing that it has been used by other countries but it’s important to understand that this is not the Malaysia Nation brand.

It is a tagline. And like the majority of taglines, it will soon be forgotten. In fact, taking a macro view it will have very little influence on the success of the Malaysia Nation Brand project.

Sadly, it is not unusual for organisations to launch a brand strategy with the creative side of the project. This is wrong but unfortunately it is common. What will make or break the success of the Malaysia Nation Branding project is what the strategy consists of and what comes next.

This will be mapped out in a well researched, comprehensive brand plan that will not only form the foundations of attempts to drive the brand forward but also be the glue that keeps stakeholders together.

The world is loose, more fluid and more collaborative than ever before. As a result, nations have less control over the Nation Brand than they are used to but that doesn’t mean they should forgo a well-researched brand plan and let consumers define the brand, something that may already be happening in Malaysia. The Nation Brand plan is more important than ever as it serves as a blueprint for all stakeholders to adhere to.

Specifically, the Malaysia Nation Brand plan must communicate a positive and dynamic personality with economic, experiential and emotional values that reflect target audience requirements.

The brand plan must be holistic and comprehensive to enhance export promotion, economic development, tourism, foreign direct investment and other key national initiatives.

It must also communicate the intended message to the target constituents and stakeholders in multiple countries and at the same time, it must lay guidelines to strengthen the strategic, communications and visual impact of the Nation Brand.

The blueprint must also systemically connect the Nation Brand to the country’s core industries, corporate brands and Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector brands.

This must be established via a systematic, holistic process that accommodates the requirements of both national and international stakeholders. This process must not only be effective to optimize the Malaysia Nation Brand, but also maximize limited national resources.

But at the same time, the team tasked with this project must be flexible and open in the implementation of the plan. Let events influence the plan and be ready to adapt to events and opportunities.

The new Malaysia logo (thanks to thestar.com.my)
The new Malaysia logo (thanks to thestar.com.my)

But right now, all we have to go on is the tagline, a logo, a website and a commercial featuring the Prime Minister that was aired on CNN a few months ago. There is a Facebook page for Visit Malaysia Year 2014 that features the new logo but the site hasn’t been updated since March 2013.

VMY 2014 FB page
VMY 2014 FB page

The Facebook page features a link to a competition but this actually goes to the Ministry of Tourism website. Such competitions will help drive interest in the country and there is no reason why a competition can’t be created for businesses that may want to invest in or relocate to Malaysia.

The message of the TV commercial was to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) while the message of the website is “Whether your passion is food, culture, sports or art; whether you’re a traveler or entrepreneur; Malaysia has something amazing to offer. The journey starts here”.

The malaysia.my home page
The malaysia.my home page

One might be forgiven for thinking that sounds like a tourism message however the site features a number of feel good stories about successful Malaysian entrepreneurs, achievements, news, activities and more.

As the website evolves, it may need to focus or at least segment activities more clearly and provide refreshing and new content that is of interest to stakeholders and not repeat content that is already in the public domain. This new content will create interest in the country, be picked up by search engines and robots and drive traffic to the site.

The team tasked with the responsibility of making the Malaysia Nation Brand project a success will also need to engage stakeholders on an ongoing basis and not just use digital platforms to broadcast corporate driven messages.

Right now, a search of “Endless Possibilities” on Youtube doesn’t send visitors to any Malaysia site. The Brand plan will also map out tactics for driving users and search engine robots to original content.

you tube search of 'endless possibilities'
you tube search of ‘endless possibilities’

The launch of the new Brand strategy is set for 17th September and we should know more about the project then. But I believe, done properly and based on a comprehensive Nation Brand plan, “Endless Possibilities” really does have endless potential.

Destination branding – turning a bad story into a good one to protect your brand


Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world and gets over 44 million tourists a year. Tourism is estimated to generate revenue of £120 billion (RM600 billion) per year.

It’s a lucrative industry and one that needs protecting. So the last thing they need is a negative story that could drive visitors away.

Recently, 4 British tourists visited Rome and were forced to pay £54 (RM270) for four ice creams. Now I know Italian ice cream is supposed to be the best in the world but it isn’t THAT good.

Stunned, the group paid but later complained to an Italian newspaper and soon after the story made the front pages of many newspapers in the UK.

Mindful of the impact negative stories have had on other countries such as India where brutal gang rapes of female tourists have resulted in a 25% drop in arrivals, tourism officials were quick to react.

They got in touch with the tourists and invited them back to the city as guests of the mayor. This time they were flown to the city, met at the airport, given free accommodation at the luxury Jumeirah Grand Hotel – rooms from £500 (RM2,500) per night, free meals and free tours of the city.

No trip to Rome is complete without a trip to Harry's Bar
No trip to Rome is complete without a trip to Harry’s Bar

They were treated like kings and shown around the Piazza Navona, Capitoline Museums and archeological remains of ancient Villas. And of course they stopped off at Harry’s Bar on the Via Veneto for a drink.

The response from quick thinking Italian tourism officials has turned a negative news story into a positive one and ensured the story did not escalate into something that could have had a detrimental effect on the lucrative tourism industry. Simple but effective. In the event of something similar happening to you, do you have a plan in place to do the same?

Building a country brand requires more than just a well executed advertising campaign


If you are responsible for a country or destination brand, read on.

As cheap air travel and the package tour (as well as the devaluation of the Spanish Peseta and the abolition of currency controls in the UK) helped jump start international travel in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the world was still a fairly predictable place and countries were, on the whole inhabited mainly by citizens of that country and not by the multicultural citizens living in most cities today.

Moreover, due to the social and economic structure of Western countries, consumers were only just beginning to have disposable income that allowed them to experience the concept of leisure time.

At the same time, mass media was becoming increasingly influential as consumers purchased more and more TVs and radios.

So, with more disposable income, more leisure time and the establishment of commercial television, it was now possible to reach large swathes of a population reasonably quickly and relatively inexpensively.

In this environment countries put their faith in creativity to build brands, hoping that an exotic image, tagline or promotion would resonate with prospects and increase visitor arrivals.

And generally, because of the cultural and social predictability of countries, the same message could be used to communicate with everyone.

Moreover, with few conduits to increasingly wealthy consumers who had more disposable income than ever before and with limited competition in the market place, this type of creative driven branding often raised the profile of countries enough to attract visitors.

Countries and destinations such as Spain, the UK, Kenya, Florida, Greece, The Algarve, Singapore and Italy as well as many other destinations used this approach. And in this mass market economy, mass media – TV, Print, Outdoor, with its huge reach, was the logical vehicle to enhance the impact of creative-driven branding with reach and repetition.

bemuda

italy

Early tourism ads worked because markets were similar, new, eager and easy to reach
Early tourism ads worked because markets were similar, new, eager and easy to reach

But that mass-market economy no longer exists. Today’s consumers are increasingly overwhelmed with those creative images, taglines and promotions. And many of the messages have become so similar that it is virtually impossible to differentiate one from another. And of course, consumers have also become fed up with countries failing to deliver on promises made.

Same images, sames messages = irrelevant

Despite this new world order, countries, agencies and consultants continue to try and build country brands by using ‘cool’ advertising, creative or symbolic logo’s with pretty colours, catchy taglines and so on.

But these activities are nothing more than advertising campaigns and do very little to build a nation brand. And even the one’s that have made us sit up, take notice and seek more information are more often than not soon forgotten or overtaken by a new campaign from a competitor destination or the recommendation of a friend.

But most worrying of all, these advertising campaigns lull countries into a false sense of security. ‘Visitor arrivals are up so everything is good in the world’. The problem is that an advertising campaign might draw the attention of visitors to a destination but it doesn’t build a destination brand.

An advertising campaign may be important but it is part of what should be a well researched and planned brand strategy that takes into account all brand related activities.

These include internal buy in and a thorough understanding of external stakeholder requirements for value and other elements such as content development, social media, PR and most important of all for a country, crisis management. Traditional communications pushed out across traditional and digital media, may still have a role to play, but they are not a total solution.

Sadly, too many countries and destinations have short cut the process to try and get their ads out quickly. This has resulted in the demise of the brand strategy. Yet failure to invest in such a brand strategy can be detrimental to the long term success of the brand.

A case in point. The Maldives has invested more than US$10 million in the last three years on advertising itself as a luxury destination. But in 2012, political turmoil saw arrivals from the lucrative European markets fall, with the UK registering a 12.2% drop. If it weren’t for a sharp rise in low yield arrivals from China, the Maldives would probably have registered a major drop in arrivals.

To the detriment of the country, participants or perhaps victims of the political turmoil in the Maldives called for a boycott of the tourism business and attempts by the new government to develop the tourism business are constantly thwarted by opponents.

One example was when the Twitter hashtag #sunnysideoflife (the official tagline) was hijacked and brochures entitled ‘The cloudy side of life’ threw scorn on tourism players and drew the readers attention to human rights abuses and police brutality against Maldivians.

This year has seen further negative press after a 15 year old girl raped by her stepfather and sexually abused by other men was sentenced to 100 lashes for having pre marital sex.

So far the Maldives government hasn’t responded, leading one to suspect they don’t have a brand strategy with a crisis plan to deal with such a situation. What is certainly true is that this complicated issue will not be solved with an advertising campaign.

In 2012 Jakarta initiated an advertising campaign across Asia in an attempt to attract visitors to the capital and largest city in Indonesia. The campaign was poorly planned, conceived and executed. You can read more about the Jakarta campaign here.

Based on the advertising campaign and the website, it is fairly safe to assume these two elements were not part of a brand strategy.

Does this ad make you want to get more information on Jakarta?
Does this ad make you want to get more information on Jakarta?

Lack of integration and poor content suggests little or no planning
Lack of integration and poor content suggests little or no planning

India is famous for its ‘Incredible India’ campaign launched in 2002. By 2009, India was spending US$200 million advertising the country. This iconic advertising campaign is still going strong and in November 2012 at the World Travel Market in London and to great fanfare, India announced a new advertising campaign headlined, “Find what you seek”.

Early 'incredible India' ads - excellent execution
Early ‘incredible India’ ads – excellent execution

Officially launched by the new Indian minister of tourism at a hotel in London in front of 400 guests, the new Incredible India campaign highlighted to consumers ‘that they will find whatever they are looking for from a holiday in India.’

The Minister of Tourism India launches the new Incredible India campaign, a week later 10 years of advertising were lost due to a lack of planning for disasters

It was also announced at the launch event that the goal of the campaign is to increase international arrivals by 12% annual till 2016.

Little more than a month later, in December 2012 in Delhi a woman was brutally gang raped and left for dead on a public bus. The story made headlines around the world.

And then in March 2013, a Swiss woman was gang raped whilst on a cycling tour of Madhya Pradesh and soon after, a British woman was attacked in Delhi and only avoided further suffering after jumping from a hotel window to escape.

Within a matter of weeks, tour operators were reporting a 35% cancellation rate from women and a 25% drop in all arrivals with multiple cancellations from the lucrative markets of Australia, the UK, Canada and the United States.

Much of the outrage toward these events is related to the treatment of woman in India and numerous stories that would not normally feature on international news are now making headlines globally including the stoning, arrests and murder of Indian women. None of these events will be addressed by advertising.

If you are responsible for developing a Nation, country or destination brand, don’t allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security over a ‘successful’ advertising and promotions campaign telling the world how great is your country or destination.

To build a strong brand amid increasing international competition and unforeseen circumstances that are carried across social media and possibly across mass media as well, destinations must have in place a well defined brand strategy that covers all potential scenarios and doesn’t just focus on communications.

A brand strategy has other benefits. Here are five more reasons for developing a brand strategy:

1) A brand strategy clearly defines the organisation values and promises and ensures stakeholders understand what is required of them to deliver on those promises and values. For a nation brand this internal branding is critical to the success of the brand.
2) Staying with the internal brand, lots of tourism boards and CVBs attend trade shows but if I had a pound for every time I’ve been to ITB or WTM and seen poorly trained personnel representing countries or states, I’d be a very wealthy man. Trade shows cost a lot of money. A brand strategy will ensure training occurs at the best possible time.
3) A brand strategy ensures the brand is ready for every eventuality, with a crisis plan to address issues such as those that have happened in India, the Maldives and most recently, Boston.
4) A brand strategy ensures all stakeholders are pulling in the same direction. If one state is targeting visitors at the same time as another state, resources are being wasted. A brand strategy will ensure integration and engagement, not individual tactics.
5) A brand strategy ensures time isn’t wasted on stand alone tactical initiatives implemented at the whim of a government servant or other person who should know better.

Far too many countries or destinations give the responsibility of building their brand to creative advertising agencies. These agencies are called advertising agencies for a reason. They do advertising.