Why it’s dangerous to hire the wrong freelancer

Even before the arrival of COVID19, the bottom had fallen out of the freelancer market in Malaysia. Once upon a time, freelancing was seen as the best of both worlds, work to your own routine, don’t have to answer to a dictatorial boss while only taking clients you wanted. Sadly life is rarely so simple and many freelancers have suffered.

A frustrated freelancer described the business to me like this:

Freelance graphic designers get friends asking them to do wedding invites for RM500, 3 days before the wedding. Even though the freelancer knew his friend was getting married, he didn’t ask for the business in case he was rejected. The friend getting married didn’t ask earlier because he’s disorganised or assumed his friend would do it. Plus he’s a guy and leaves everything to the last minute.

The freelancer is happy to get the job but 2 weeks earlier he’d won a RM5,000 job and had been paid RM1,000 but hadn’t started work on it because, well he’s a freelancer and works to his own schedule but the deadline is a week away and he was intending to work 3 days straight to catch up but now he’s got the wedding job so focusses on that because it’s for a friend and he can’t let a friend down and it’s a wedding, so he can’t push the deadline back!

As a result, the RM5,000 job gets put aside but he is too shy to tell the client. As the deadline approaches the client starts calling more and more often. Because he doesn’t know how to speak to clients, apologise and explain a new timeline, he ignores the client’s calls till he’s finished the wedding job which he does. His friend is really happy and pays RM250 and promises the balance later, blaming the wedding costs etc for the delay.

It’s his wedding and he’s a friend so the freelancer has to say no problem. Then he calls the RM5,000 client who ignores his calls because he’s got fed up and has taken the RM5,000 job and given it to someone else. Now desperate he starts looking for work but can’t find any.

He can’t chase the wedding guy because they are friends and it’s too embarrassing to ask friends to pay their debts. Besides, what if he tells other people in the kampung? He’ll never get another wedding job.

Meanwhile the RM5,000 client has found a freelancer willing to do the RM5,000 job for RM3,000 so even after writing off the RM1,000 deposit he paid to the first freelancer, he’s actually saving RM1,000 which should make his boss happy and his boss is more happy when money is saved than when value is created.

However, the freelancer who is doing the RM5,000 job for RM3,000 doesn’t put much effort into the job because he’s only getting 3k and it’s a lot of work and should really cost RM5,000 plus he didn’t get anything in advance because the client is pissed off with the first freelancer but why should he be punished?

I forgot to mention the original freelancer who did the wedding job used the RM1,000 deposit he got for the RM5,000 job for a downpayment on a 50 inch TV from Harvey Norman and desperately needs to make the next payment or suffer the humiliation of his neighbours seeing the TV taken away a month after it was delivered.

So he goes out and gets a RM5,000 job by offering to do it for RM1,000 with 50% up front so he can pay the next instalment on the TV. But after paying off the TV he’s got nothing left and TNB cuts off the power to his house so he can’t work. The client is calling him so he turns off his phone and goes back to his parents.

Meanwhile, all the companies that thought using a freelancer would save them money have seen deadlines and opportunities missed, brand equity reduced, reputation tarnished and large amounts of hair pulled from heads.

Across town in Damansara, a mother of three who markets herself as a social media guru because she’s got 10,000 questionable followers on IG and gets free products for promoting unknown skin care brands, suddenly realises that there’s more to social media than sharing 12 second videos of cats saving babies from falling off motorbikes in the suburbs of Boise, Idaho or ducks doing handstands. But she charged RM1,000 to develop a social media strategy for a government company with impossible to achieve follower targets because organic takes forever and she doesn’t have any budget to promote the posts which is probably a good thing for the rest of us because it’s less crap content clogging up our feeds!

So if you are thinking of becoming a freelancer or hiring one over a consultancy or an agency because they are cheap, think again. Think past cost and think about value. Cheap can often cost far more than moderately expensive. There are some good freelancers out there. But you need to find them. Not all of them are created equal and it can be very dangerous if you choose the wrong one…

Another C level executive leaves Malaysia Airlines

According to marketing magazine, group CMO of Malaysia Airlines Arved von zur Muehlen lasted 6 months in the role before jumping ‘ship’ and joining a Canadian carrier.

This despite Malaysia Airlines crediting him with being “instrumental in restoring the airline’s position as a leading international carrier and developing its innovative customer-centric services.”

Only yesterday, Group chief executive officer Izham Ismail announced in a bullish interview with Bernama that things were improving at the carrier and the five-year Malaysia Airlines Recovery Plan (MRP) was seeing impressive results across the board.

Err, you don’t say! “the key focus in year 2018 included driving revenue.”

He said “…customer experience had also improved with market-driven metrics based on the company’s customer survey and net promoter measures showing significant positive gains over the last two financial years.” I don’t quite understand what that means but I do understand that this latest departure and the barrage of abuse the carrier is getting online and on an almost daily basis (See this earlier report with hugely embarrassing videos) suggests things are not so rosy down there in Sepang.

But one thing seems to be for sure. Despite the CEO saying things are really, really good, Malaysia Airlines is a springboard to better positions in more solid Western carriers because Muehlen is about the fourth Western C level executive to bail out in the last couple of years.

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

Watch the John Lewis Christmas 2017 TV commercial

Back in my day we knew Christmas was coming because the thick woollen shorts we wore through the winter term, yes shorts despite going to school in the wettest, darkest, coldest (well it felt like it in those shorts) part of England, began to rub the skin off your thighs because your legs were so cold.

Christmas meant it would be warm in 3 months and you’d soon feel your toes again. Nowadays they say you know Christmas is coming when the John Lewis TV ad is released. And this year, just like previous years it was eagerly awaited and came out today. You can watch it in all its glory here.

Personally, I don’t think it is as good as previous years, with 2016 being the standout year for me.

Reactions on YouTube have been mixed. One comment was, “So basically… his parents gave him a badly wrapped present that killed his only friend.” While another said, “Such a disappointment! It has no sweet sentiment that makes you feel all warm and excited about xmas. I’ll go as far as to say it’s shite. Look what you’ve made me say about xmas!”

John Lewis 2017 Christmas ad. Not as good as the animals on the trampoline

The 120 second TV commercial will premiere on Channel 4 and Sky tonight, 10th November. It cost about £1 million to shoot which is the same as the M&S ad and John Lewis will also spend another £6 million to cover media.

I haven’t seen any other Christmas ads except this one and the M&S ad. My money is on the M&S ad being more popular.

There is still a place for creativity in the age of the Internet

Have you ever wondered how powerful the Internet really is? Have you ever wondered if video can really help increase sales? Have you ever wondered how to sell something for more than it’s worth? Would you like to turn US$499 into US$150,000 with a little bit of creativity? Then watch this video.

New Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has an explosive start

Rumour has it the new flagship phablet from Samsung has a dodgy battery. Early reports on social media from Korea feature terrible images of burned units fresh out of the box. Samsung was quick to say only about 0.1% of the devices were affected but out of 7 million already sold, that’s an embarrassment they could have done without.

That's going to hurt
That’s going to hurt

The latest news is that they are going to issue a recall of all Galaxy Note 7s. This will be a massive blow to the mighty Korean electronics firm that has been banking on the Note 7 to stop the decline in profits of the last couple of years.

I haven’t played with it but cannot escape the relentless advertising across all media channels. With USB Type C charging (said to be the root of the problem), waterproofing and a futuristic iris scanner that uses your eye to unlock the phone, this was considered a real threat to Apple’s dominance.

With a new iPhone due to be released next week, it will be interesting to see how Samsung manages the fallout and whether it can continue to stay in touch with Apple. I expect Samsung to be very transparent and decisive about the whole issue. The recall suggests that’s the case. It’ll also take more marketing dollars, a lot of grovelling and lots of freebies to those affected.

Harder to win over maybe those who were considering switching from Apple to other devices. A category I include myself in. It just maybe that the winner will actually be Huawei. Huawei has seen a 40% spike in smartphone revenue and now has 9% of the smartphone market. To overtake Samsung, it’ll need to sell about 10 million more handsets. That’s a challenge but dodgy batteries and weak quality control at Samsung will help its cause.

A negative brand experience with Malaysia Airlines can be a lesson for all brands

Although this post is almost inevitably a branding lesson for Malaysia Airlines, it’s also a branding lesson for any company that doesn’t appreciate the importance of retaining customers.

At the risk of stating the obvious, customers are key to a brand’s success. After all, you can’t build a brand without customers although there are probably some advertising agencies that would dispute that.

Retention not aquisition should be at the heart of any Malaysia Airlines restructuring
Retention not aquisition should be at the heart of any Malaysia Airlines restructuring

Loyal customers are generally the most profitable of all. And as I wrote in my book, if you have enough loyal customers and look after them, you don’t need to spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small Scandinavian country on advertising to keep selling to new people.

Just think about it. If every customer you ever had came back over and over again and never left you, it would hardly matter how slowly the numbers built up. Fast or slow, your business would grow.

If every new customer became a convert for life, most of the risks would be taken out of running your business. Simply put, you’d be able to plan your sales and production, predict your cash flow, know when to open and when to close, recruit the right people at the right time and know exactly when to commit yourself to a new factory or, in the case of an airline, new aircraft.

Branding means looking after your customers. If you do, why would they leave?
Branding means looking after your customers. If you do, why would they leave?

In a situation like that, the only way is up. Unfortunately, though, it’s not going to happen. Customers don’t just come. Repeat business and customer retention rates are never going to be anywhere near 100 per cent in practice. Customers will leave too. But the absolute key to building a brand is getting more of them to stay.

And the reason why is because once they’ve become a customer presuming the experience from their perspective was a success, they are likely to come back again. According to one report, once a customer buys something, there’s a 70% chance of him coming back. And, once he’s back, he’s likely to stay.

repeat-customers-are-more-likely-to-convert

So how do you get more customers to stay? Obviously, by offering something that’s more attractive than the offer your competitors put up against it. Actually it’s easier than that because quite often a loyal customer will be oblivious to what the competition as to offer anyway.

But that’s not as easy today as it was 20 or even 10 years ago. There are companies out there who can manufacture what you manufacture more cheaply. There are companies out there who can get the same product as you to the market more quickly and in smaller or larger quantities than you.

Unless you are very lucky, there’s only really one advantage that you have over your competitors and that is your company’s relationship with your customers. That relationship, managed properly can never be duplicated.

And good relationships are the key to repeat business. Once Malaysia Airlines returns to profitability, and take it from me that it will do and ahead of target it will then need to start rebuilding it’s brand.

Customer experiences must be improved at Malaysia Airlines
Customer experiences must be improved at Malaysia Airlines

And if it really wants to rebuild its brand, and continue to make a profit once it starts to increase prices, which it will have to do, it must start to place relationships with existing and especially loyal customers at the heart of its turnaround strategy.

Malaysia Airlines must be prepared to invest in getting to know its customers by collecting the right data about them, developing relationships with them and then leveraging those relationships to generate higher sales and the referrals that will bring in more customers.

Malaysia Airlines must understand that building businesses today requires a relational, rather than a transactional, approach to doing business. This will be an almost 180 degree change in direction from the way it is managed at the moment.

The customer who is attracted to the airline because of a discounted fare but has no relationship with it will walk away the moment he sees the same thing cheaper somewhere else.

But customers who feel they are getting something out of the relationship, beyond the individual transaction, will stick around.

That ‘something’ the customer gains will depend on its ability to deliver emotional, economic and experiential value to every customer. And this is going to be hard because a lot of customers have now experienced the competition.

Branding isn't transactional, it's relational
Branding isn’t transactional, it’s relational

This is where branding gets complicated because it requires C level executives and senior management to refocus and move away from the ingrained, traditional ways of running a business. And for Malaysia Airlines it will mean tearing up the very strategy that got it back to profitability.

Most difficult of all, it means they have to give more responsibility to front line staff, many of whom they frankly don’t trust to do the right thing.

And much of that lack of trust is based on the fact that those management and C level executives see staff as a cost not an investment.

Even after the massive cull that has seen more than 6,000 workers retrenched, the carrier is staffed with people who simply don’t have the skills to represent the brand at this critical time.

But it’s also because whilst the ‘turnaround’ focus has been on slashing costs, the organization still suffers from a traditional, top down approach to managing the business.

A case in point is yet another depressingly familiar experience with Malaysia Airlines. As I’ve said many times before, I fly fifty times a year domestically with Malaysia Airlines and anything from two to ten times internationally. I’m not a major customer but I am a loyal one and continued to fly with them through the dark days of 2014.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know how loyal I’ve been to Malaysia Airlines. You’ll know how I flew repeatedly following those 2 tragic events of 2014 and despite the fear and the mess the management and government made of engaging with the global media, family of those lost in the disasters and other stakeholders, I kept flying.

I don't expect to be treated like a VIP but I expect to be appreciated otherwise I'll take my business elsewhere
I don’t expect to be treated like a VIP but I expect to be appreciated otherwise I’ll take my business elsewhere

But like just about every other consumer, my loyalty shouldn’t be taken for granted. And if the quality of the product provided deteriorates and there is no attempt to reach out to me in a human way during that process, then it’s only logical that I’ll start to look for other suppliers. If those other suppliers deliver value to me, why would I go back?

Malaysia Airlines never reached out to me despite my loyalty. I wasn’t looking for much, perhaps an unexpected upgrade here, an invitation to use a lounge when travelling economy or perhaps some bonus miles as a gesture of appreciation.

Sure there were times when I picked up a few bargains during travel fairs but they weren’t personal and required me to invest hours of my time sitting in front of my computer waiting for the page to load.

Since 2014, the brand continued on its downward spiral to ignominy thanks to a ‘transformation plan’ that resembled the cast of a disaster movie as they stripped everything out of a plane in a desperate attempt to keep it in the air.

The quality of the product, the aircraft, the offering, the service, the ability of the brand to deliver value to me and on my terms degenerated to such an extent that I’ve finally started to cut the umbilical chord and over the last 12 months, I’ve booked me and/or my family on British Airways, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Silk Air, Air Asia and most recently, Malindo.

All of the bookings are on routes served by Malaysia Airlines and only one of them because Malaysia Airlines was full on that sector.

Last week I was flying Malindo on a domestic sector that I always fly Malaysia Airlines. My Malindo experience wasn’t perfect (For the first time ever, my flight departure time was brought FORWARD which could have caused havoc with my work schedule) but my expectations weren’t high anyway.

Although I wasn’t even travelling on Malaysia Airlines, I still managed to have a negative experience with the carrier.

Let me explain. When I got to KLIA I thought I’d try to use the Malaysia Airlines business class lounge. After all I was flying business class and besides, I’m a gold member of their frequent flyer programme (FFP) and have been as long as they’ve had one.

In case you are unaware, the top two tiers of the Malaysia Airlines FFP are Platinum and Gold. To be a Platinum member you need 100,000 Elite Miles or 130 Elite Sectors.

A tale of two toiletry bags. Emirates offers a brand experience
A tale of two toiletry bags. Emirates offers a brand experience
Malaysia Airlines does what it has to do
Malaysia Airlines does what it has to do

To qualify for a Gold card which is what I have, you need 50,000 Elite Miles or 50 Elite Sectors. If I’m not mistaken, you get 2 elite sectors for each business class flight and one for each economy class flight. This means I’ve travelled at least 25 times in business or 50 times in economy.

My most common route is KL to Kuching so let’s say for the sake of argument that all of those sectors were KL to Kuching. The fare to Kuching is about RM1,000 for business class so at a minimum I’ve spent RM25,000 to get those 50 elite sectors. Not a lot but if you add it to the other fares it starts to add up. To become a Platinum member I’d need to spend about RM65,000.

When I got to the Malaysia Airlines lounge I asked if I could get a cup of coffee. Long story short, the receptionist said I couldn’t and nor could a Platinum member however, and here’s the kicker, anyone can access the lounge for RM200 (US$50).

As you can imagine, this wound me up. Royally. I support a brand through the most difficult period of its history and encourage others to do so but I can’t get a cup of coffee in the lounge.

However, someone who has never flown the airline before and may never do so, can drop RM200 at the door and sit in the lounge as long as he likes.

That simply doesn’t make branding sense. Whilst the motivation for doing this is obvious, isn’t it a bit shortsighted? It was the last straw and I wrote this in my business class seat on an Emirates flight to London.

Sitting next to me was my wife and in economy were two of our kids. We spent about RM30,000 (US$7,500) on this trip but would have spent it on Malaysia Airlines. During the trip to London we met up with a group of about 20 Malaysian all of whom, bar two had flown in on Emirates.

Now I’ve flown the ‘world’s best airline’ it’s going to pretty hard for Malaysia Airlines to win back my business. Even my wife who travels more than I do and is a true patriot and blindly loyal to Malaysia Airlines admits it’s going to be tough to go back.

You could argue that not allowing me to use the lounge for 10 minutes has cost the airline perhaps RM250,000 a year from my family. Every year for the next say 10 years. That’s RM2,500,000 of lost revenue.

Of the group we met, 2 travelled first class on Emirates, 10 travelled business class and the rest economy. How much has that cost Malaysia Airlines? And it doesn’t take into account anyone who reads this or listens to my rants offline. Was it worth losing all that business over RM200? Of course not.

So what should Malaysia Airlines have done?

When the latest turnaround plan was developed, instead of the Chairman announcing there was no need to rebrand, there should have been a strong commitment to the brand.

The Chairman doesn’t understand what constitutes a brand and what is required to build a brand. He probably assumed a rebrand was a new name or logo or positioning statement implemented with a global advertising campaign pushed out across all media for as long as the budget would allow.

Whilst Malaysia Airlines is restructuring it's brand is being sacrificed
Whilst Malaysia Airlines is restructuring it’s brand is being sacrificed

Someone on the restructuring task force should have been able to educate the rest of the team on what constitutes a brand and its importance during the turnaround process. As mentioned already, emphasis should have been placed on delivering value to customers and not simply slashing costs.

More responsibility should have been given to those staff on the front line who were interfacing with the few customers still travelling on the airline.

The FFP should have been revamped immediately with personalized communications, ongoing engagement through unique dialogues to build an ecosystem of supporters willing to discuss the brand positively.

A concerted effort should have been placed on creating positivity about the airline. A transparent approach to building a new narrative, openness and humility should have been the foundation for any communications, not poorly thought out advertising campaigns.

Instead, with no one guiding the brand, much of the narrative around Malaysia Airlines has been negative, related to the 6,000 plus personnel that have been laid off and the replacement of modern aircraft with old, worn out planes.

Pictures appeared online of masking tape used to fix breaks in the business class cabins of old 737s on routes that had normally been served by much newer aircraft.

Unlikely to inspire confidence in the Malaysia Airlines brand
Unlikely to inspire confidence in the Malaysia Airlines brand

IMG_4538

Discussions and complaints raged about the lack of alcohol on flights of less than 3 hours and then the departure of the CEO after only a year or so of a 3 year contract generated more negativity. More recently, the new CEO made headlines for his comments about charges at terminals one and two.

Non stop negativity surrounding Malaysia Airlines is destroying the brand
Non stop negativity surrounding Malaysia Airlines is destroying the brand

Now I expect a lot of people reading this will say I’m being petty and besides, the airline is right. They need to have rules in place and if the front line staff were given freedom to make such decisions, it would be open to abuse.

Others will say that few airlines will let travellers into a lounge if they are not flying with the airline and they are probably right although many of them would let a frequent flyer use the lounge. Bbut that’s not the point because unlike the Malaysia Airlines brand, the majority of these airlines don’t have a broken brand.

But most importantly of all, branding today is about small steps, it’s about the small things that matter to customers. There is no more ‘big idea’ or other traditional mass media solution that speaks to everyone in the same way.

If you want to restore a broken brand you need to focus on many, many little things to make sure the brand get’s fixed quickly. Move the narrative away from negativity to positivity, from mass communictions to personalized collaboration.

Emirates is a classic example of an airline that understands branding. It spends a phenomenal amount of money building its brand. Not just through communications but in the experience and relationships.

I flew from London to Kuala Lumpur via Dubai and both sectors were full, despite the fact that a week before an Emirates 777 had been involved in a crash in Dubai.

Despite suggestions of a deeper issue at DXB, Emirates investments in its brand meant it had plenty of equity in the bank. Crucially, this meant there was little negative news to write about the carrier following the crash.

The event and the fall out was managed effectively and efficiently. Fortunately other than one brave fireman, there were no fatalities and the international media had little interest in building a story around the crash.

That’s one of the many benefits of real branding. The equity you have comes in handy when you need it. A week after the crash, it’s business as usual at Emirates.

Compare that to Malaysia Airlines, two years after the twin tragedies. It’s still struggling and continues to slash prices and the quality of the product.

Malaysia Airlines will return to profitability thanks to labour cuts, more old aircraft, new supplier deals and low oil prices. But unless it learns some harsh branding lessons and starts to invest in its brand, it is unlikely to stay profitable for very long and will struggle when it begins to increase fares.

Another Malaysia Airlines marketing fail

Malaysia Airlines’ latest Twitter campaign is live. It really seems as if the struggling carrier sees digital and social media as another version of mass media – as a channel for pushing a corporate message onto an unsuspecting public.

Over the last couple of years they’ve made some terrible blunders online and you can read about them here and here.

Today the attached post appeared in my Twitter feed.

why would anyone share this pointless tweet from Malaysia Airlines?
why would anyone share this pointless tweet from Malaysia Airlines?

In an attempt to increase sales of business class, the marketing department seeks to make the business class offering unique by telling you that if you buy a business class seat you can have access to the business class lounge before your flight leaves!

Isn’t that stating the obvious? Doesn’t every business class passenger have access to the business class lounge? Or does Malaysia Airlines not allow business class passengers to use the business class lounge?

And if you click on the link in the tweet, you go to the golden lounge page on the website. That’s it!

That's it? A page with standard information on the lounges?
That’s it? A page with standard information on the lounges?

Seriously Malaysia Airlines marketing department, is this the best you can come up with? If it is, give me a call. I promise we can do better as you stop advertising, start branding.

The spat between AirAsia and Malaysia Airports is damaging both brands and the Malaysia Nation brand

Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, the charismatic founder of Air Asia acknowledged this week that despite threats to do so, he has no right to change the name of Malaysia’s low cost terminal from klia2 to LCCT2.

Tan Sri Tony Fernandes. Charismatic but controversial and ill informed
Tan Sri Tony Fernandes. Charismatic but controversial and ill informed

This U turn is a relief to many because his spat with Malaysian airport operator Malaysia Airports over the naming of the second terminal at the country’s main gateway was becoming increasingly petulant and was yet another controversy Malaysia’s damaged brand could do without.

Nevertheless, the outspoken entrepreneur hasn’t given up on the project and is scheduled to meet the Malaysian Minister of Transport today, June 29th.

Tan Sri Tony was quoted recently as saying, “I’m doing a marketing campaign and the minister knows that. There is nothing wrong with it.”

He added, rather confusingly “It’s freedom of speech. I’m allowed to do any advertising I want. Why are we always bullied? We are trying to do business here, to create jobs, to attract tourists.”

“Penalties, fines, that’s old fashion (sic). Aren’t we (AirAsia and Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad) doing the same business together? Isn’t this good for Malaysia?”

“If anyone can tell me this is bad for the country, then I’ll stop,” Fernandes said, adding: “Let us work together to build something in this economic season.”

Well Tan Sri, what you are doing IS bad for the country and it’s bad for you and your airline as well. In addition to having a negative impact on the nation brand, these very public spats between an airline and an airport operator do not inspire confidence in either organisation.

Malaysia's transport minister
Malaysia’s transport minister

Furthermore, and I apologise in advance for being so candid but your rants are confusing, misinformed and contradictory. Promoting the nation’s second airport terminal as LCCT2 isn’t marketing, it’s illogical.

And confusing naming with a marketing campaign whilst suggesting you are a victim might gain you some sympathetic traction somewhere but it only detracts the reader from your stated aims.

Southwest Airlines, the largest and most successful low cost carrier and one I’m sure you are familiar with hasn’t tried to rename any of the terminals it has successful flown out of since 1971.

Newer low cost carriers such as AirArabia in the Middle East and IndiGo in India as well as the more established Jetstar in Australia and Gol in South America don’t fly in and out of terminals called LCCT, they fly in and out of terminals named terminal 1 or 2 or main terminal.

Other low cost carriers such as Air Arabia haven't tried to change airport names to LCCT2
Other low cost carriers such as Air Arabia haven’t tried to change airport names to LCCT2

It’s also a bit naïve to suggest that changing the name of terminal 2 to LCCT2 would ‘reinforce Kuala Lumpur’s position as the leading low cost gateway to Asia and beyond’.

Firstly, the concept of positioning is outdated and irrelevant in today’s social media world where consumers are more knowledgeable and no longer need to rely on the word of the corporation. But even if it was relevant, who are you positioning it to?

AirAsia is responsible for something like 90% of the passengers at Malaysia’s second terminal. If you haven’t already sold your passengers an onward flight, do you think the name of the terminal is going to make any difference? No matter how much you spend on positioning the terminal, it won’t make a difference.

Secondly, where is LCCT1? Just because you know it doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean a young Beijing based Chinese travel writer travelling to SE Asia for the first time doesn’t know. But if he’s confused, he’ll write about it and I guarantee that’ll have more impact than any positioning campaign.

Thirdly, is it really possible to ‘reinforce Kuala Lumpur’s position as the leading low cost gateway to Asia and beyond?’ Irrespective of the fact that nobody else is trying to position Kuala Lumpur as anything or the fact that positioning doesn’t make sense, who is going to drive this? Have you got buy in from other stakeholders? And who is going to fund it? And how?

And what about the future? Which other airlines are going to use the LCC terminal? Already Malindo has moved to the main terminal. Do airlines really want to be associated with a LCCT? Especially when the experience of using the second terminal is not one passengers are enamoured with.

There is definately a need for consistency in the naming of the terminals at KLIA. It is logical to name the terminals one and two. Preferably KLIAT1 and KLIAT2.

And the next one can be called KLIAT3 and so on, just like Changi, Heathrow, Los Angeles, Sydney and just about every other easy to use and successful airport in the world that has chosen logic and the user experience over everything else when naming their airports and terminals.

Once the naming has been addressed logically and in line with global best practices, we can move onto the marketing of Kuala Lumpur and the airport and the freedom of speech and all the other stuff TS Tony mentioned. But only then.

How to spot a shit brand consultant

A friend sent me a great link to a Mark Ritson rant in marketingweek yesterday. Mark Ritson is something of a God for many in the marketing business and sells himself really well. And so he should as he’s won more medals than Michael Phelps.

In the rant which you can read here, he recalled a recent evening in London where a friend told him how he had been ripped off by a brand consultant. Ritson doesn’t share how the friend was ripped off but goes on to outline a seven point system for identifying ‘shit’ brand consultants so you can avoid them like the plague.

Mark Ritson - more gongs than just about everyone
Mark Ritson – more gongs than just about everyone

The list goes something like this:

1) If the consultant mentions millennials, run a mile.
2) If the consultant offers advice without qualitative or quantitative research to back up his recommendations, run a mile.
3) The more concepts the brand consultant tries to sell you, the more ‘crapper’ he is.
4) If the brand consultant uses trigger words, he is unworthy. An example of a trigger word is Innovation. According to Ritson innovation ‘is a product orientated word and worthless as a result.’
5) Any brand consultant that mentions Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs should be shown the door – after you’ve thrown something heavy at him.
6) Likewise, if the brand consultant shows you a picture of a cow being branded.
7) And again, if they tell you reputations take decades to build.
8) If the brand consultant has a trademark attached to their special branding methodology or they use an acronym like ‘RESULTZ’ or ‘PERFORM’ then walk out of the room, but before you do write WANK on the nearest whiteboard.
9) If your brand consultant waxes lyrical about Steve Jobs and Apple and insists that what he did is relevant to your business, head for the door.

OK that’s a 9 point list but I’m only the messenger. So what do people think of his rant and list? Judging by the comments section, most of his fans agree with him. However, John Robbins of newzpoint blames ‘shit’ brand managers rather than shit brand consultants, “Although I can’t help but think the main reason there are so many shit brand consultants is because there are so many shit brand managers and the fact that you have to prepare a guide for brand managers because they generally can’t tell the difference between good and bad consultants is recognition of this.”

Robbins continues, “Try talking in realistic terms to a shit client (there are tons of them, easy to find) and most of the time their eyes glaze over because they find common sense rather tedious and prefer to listen to inflated bullshit as it excites them more. The emperors cloths continue to be sold and resold every day and no doubt will for sometime. As the old adage goes – brand managers get the brand consultants they deserve.” Powerful stuff from Mr Robbins.

Another comment from Claire who focused on the reference to the millennial segment, “I am apparently a millennial and I’m married with a kid. My brother and sister in law are technically also millennials and living it up with no mortgage in London. The idea that we are both basically the same segment for targeting is ludicrous.”

So what do I think of it? Well I think Mr Ritson is spot on really. I mean the concept of doing anything and making any recommendations without doing research is borderline criminal in my book. But the research must be focused on identifying value requirements of target markets and not be determined by age or decade of birth.

Who needs logic when you can pay for for inflated bullshit?
Who needs logic when you can pay for inflated bullshit?

I mean, in an era when social media allows you to find like minded souls in groups on Facebook and other platforms, the concept of a ‘segment’ like 18 – 24 year olds or people born in a certain year or decade is rather naive.

Every customer is a segment now and they must be engaged with content that resonates with them. And that doesn’t have to be done through marketing. Indeed, it’s hard to do so, but it can be done when the prospect is researching the product or at the point of sale, after a connection or after a sale. If any segmentation is required, it should be separating prospects from existing customers.

Or as John Robbins said, the problem is often the client. If a client wants a brand consultant to go straight to implementation without doing any research, what is he supposed to do?

Should he walk away? Undoubtedly and many brand consultants probably do but if the economy were tanking and the pipeline was bare, who can blame them for taking the plunge? After all, the client will spend their money somewhere.

And besides, once on board the brand consultant can always try to convince the client to do the proper research.