Branding, corporate or political, is an organisational issue

One of the problems faced by brands and branding are the attempts to simplify it. Fortuitously this approach has yet to gain traction with the aviation industry!

The business of building brands takes time. And as the business of brands and branding has evolved and the waters have become increasingly muddied, the only constant has been the influence consumers now have over the success or failure of brands.

As a result, the role of the brand manager is increasingly irrelevant because her attempts to control everything related to the brand are obsolete and pointless because consumers are crafting the messages that are heard not the marketing department or the advertising agency.

These are lessons that need to be learned in the political space as well. In Malaysia, the Prime Minister DS Najib Razak has a powerful personal brand but he cannot be expected to single handedly win an election. The key is to get all the other elements on brand. And anyway, as Tun Abdullah Badawi knows too well, a high approval rating is no guarantee of a big election win.

Historically, creating clearly defined messages and broadcasting them across traditional media was enough to build a brand or political party but today, this model alone, can no longer be relied on to educate, inform and convince.

Today, the first thing a consumer will do, assuming they hear the message through all the clutter, will be to determine if the message fits in with their own experiences. If it doesn’t, they will discard the message immediately. Secondly, consumers will discuss the message with others who they know and respect and explore their experiences and perceptions. Thirdly, consumers will seek the opinions of those they may not know. This is normally done across social media.

Only once consumers have absorbed all the information will they make a decision. If the promises defined by the organisation, whether it be a political or corporate one do not match the consumers own experiences or those of her friends or acquaintences, the message will be discarded. No matter how much money is spent.

If the response is favourable, the consumer may seek to experience a physical interaction with the brand, perhaps through a retail outlet, website or political rally. If any of these experiences are negative, the consumer will walk away from the brand, and it will take a superhuman effort to get them back.

A brand, whether political or business, requires every division, department, individual – from the tea lady to the CEO, or from the branch leader to the state leader to the divisional leader etc – to know and understand what they have to do to achieve clear strategic goals.

Only then will the brand survive and thrive.


Principles of Nation Branding

Here are my eight key principles for a strategic Nation branding initiative.

Having said that, I also believe these principles should be applied to government ministries, departments, agencies and the private sector as well. What do you think?

1) Research and data are fundamental: Qualitative and quantitative research is essential to data-driven branding (see below) and data-driven branding is essential to building a brand in the customer economy of today and the demand economy of tomorrow. Without research and data, branding decisions are no more than guesswork and the nation brand strategy is too important to base strategic decisions (or, any decisions) on guesswork.

Research is vital for uncovering perceptions, attitudes and requirements for emotional, experiential and economic value, the three key elements of a successful brand. Research also provides benchmarks for measurement and accountability.

Qualitative research gives you valuable data on the requirements of target segments in the future. It allows you to tailor communications to resonate with target segments and also identifies key influencers, thereby saving valuable funds that are wasted on a mass market, one-size-fits-all approach.

2) It is impossible to build a brand on creativity alone. Too much is at stake – both in terms of a country’s brand and resources invested – to depend on a creative-driven branding campaign (and that’s all it is because it is impossible to sustain) to form the foundations of a nation brand. Let’s face it, if you sit back and think for five minutes, how many country related advertising campaigns can you remember? More relevant, how many made you act?

Furthermore, a creative campaign is best suited for mass markets and mass media whereas data-driven branding enables segmentation and targeting of communications that ensures content resonates with target markets. For instance, divers don’t think, “Let’s go to Malaysia and see if we can dive.” They think, “Let’s go diving.” And then determine the destination.

Likewise, are potential investors going to be impressed by white sandy beaches or communications that resonate with them because they offer specific value?

Other benefits of data-driven creative driven branding include a focus on acquisition and relationships that ensure ongoing business, while creative driven branding focuses primarily on acquisition. Crucially, a data-driven approach to branding places strategy in the hands of executive management whereas a creative driven approach puts the strategy in the hands of an advertising agency.

3) Segmentation enables differentiation: “One-size-fits-all” branding doesn’t work. Despite the power and sweep of globalization, which has Malaysians wearing the same fashions as Italians and Aston Martins in hot demand from Brazil to China, each country has its own requirements and world-views.

Once research has revealed the differing characteristics of various audiences, branding must be devoted to tailoring messages, media, channels and activities to the specific values and requirements of target markets. Such segmentation not only ensures more receptive targets but also easily ensures differentiation from competitive countries trying to be all things to all people.

4) No buy-in, no success: Nation branding is difficult, requiring planning, support and coordination from a wide array of public and private entities. But even the best plan in the world will not succeed without buy-in from brand stakeholders. The most important step to ensuring buy-in is involvement in the research and planning process. As much as possible, brand stakeholders that are involved in implementation must have the opportunity to add their input to the plan.

Such buy-in has two advantages. First, it allows valuable perspectives and experiences to be incorporated into the plan, making the plan stronger and more effective. Next, it facilitates better execution. If all the parties involved have a complete understanding of the entire plan and their role in it and what its success means to them, then redundant efforts can be avoided and resources maximized.

5) A brand blueprint must be developed: A strong, visible Nation brand must have a blueprint based on the research findings to enhance the country’s reputation and image while enhancing economic, education and social growth and increasing its ‘share of voice’ in the world community. Specifically, the Nation Brand Blueprint must communicate a positive and dynamic personality with economic, experiential and emotional values that reflect target audience requirements.

The blueprint 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 Nation Brand, but also maximize limited national resources.

6) Nation branding is a marathon, not a sprint: There are no silver bullets or quick fixes in any branding and this applies especially to Nation branding. Even in these technology driven times, establishing a Nation brand may take as long as a generation to develop. For example, the current view of Japan as a nation famed for its precision and electronics is not based on its efforts during the past decade. Rather, the seeds of Japan’s current nation brand were planted more than thirty years ago, when it began exporting transistor radios and two-stroke engines overseas. Just as Malaysia launched its Vision 2020 program in 1991 to become a developed nation by 2020, the country must adopt a similar long-term view for Nation branding. Malaysia and other countries must look at establishing a Nation brand not for us – but for our children.

7) Private sector must carry its weight: As an example, with responsible policies, funding and resource allocation, the Government of Malaysia can and has tried to do a lot for the Nation brand – but it cannot do it alone. Private-sector involvement and initiative are crucial. Private sector initiatives can range from promoting country of origin on foods and industrial goods, as Australia has done, to helping to fund trade missions to even good business ethics. The bulk of activities outlined in the Nation Brand Blueprint must be carried out by private and non-profit organizations

8) Measurement and evaluation: Why should money or resources ever be spent without knowing the return? Wherever possible, perceptions, activities and processes must be measured, ideally with quantitative benchmarks. Such measurement and evaluation must be used to establish accountability and to ensure continuous improvement.

These key priniciples form the foundations of any nation branding initiative but there are other equally important elements.

One example of these other elements is a crisis plan which should be incorporated into the brand blueprint.

Recent events in Malaysia and Angola show little signs of a planned response with either silence or multiple and often conflicting responses coming from various sources and little or no reactions to debates on social media.

This failure to engage consumers, citizens and potential investors will undo much of the good work carried out to date.