Is Malaysia Airlines serious about rebuilding its brand?

I’ve been looking forward to the new Malaysia Airlines (MAB) brand from both a professional and a personal perspective. Professionally, I’m eager to see what direction a global company with a huge reputation proposes for the carrier. Personally, I’m a big fan of Malaysia Airlines and have been for over 20 years. I also believe a national carrier is a critical component of any nation brand and building a nation brand is harder without a national carrier.

Right now, despite a new CEO and one presumes new management, the brand seems to be directionless. I think 3 launch dates for the new brand have come and gone and each time the date passes, there is a deafening silence from management.

Meanwhile corporate driven messages tell us the new brand focus will be on ‘making the customer experience change.’ In mid 2015 we were told that in December 2015 the airline “will begin installing new cabin seating and improving inflight entertainment, customer service and on time performance. New technology, lounge concepts and catering would be introduced and the uniforms may change.”

This is not the new cabin seating I was expecting
This is not the new cabin seating I was expecting

But I can’t find anyone who has witnessed the ‘new cabin seating and improved inflight entertainment.’ I hear complaints about the poor state of aircraft and have witnessed it myself. Delays are inevitable when launching a new brand but in a social world, these delays must be explained. There is nothing wrong with being normal.

Poorly thought out announcements are made regarding long haul flights that result in global condemnation and humiliating U turns but management remains silent. Days later, as if nothing happened, a press release is sent out about the new beginning at MAB and how the CEO will ‘boost product offerings and rebuild confidence in the carrier.’

What does ‘boost offerings’ mean? Does it mean make it cheaper? The lines between Low Cost Carrier (LCC) and Legacy Carrier have become blurred. The low cost carrier (LCC) model is familiar to just about everyone who travels. Basically you purchase the use of a seat on a (very cramped) plane and then pay through the nose for anything else such as luggage, food, drinks and even the location of the seat.

The alternative is Legacy carriers but I’m not really sure what they are. The term came out of the USA but today, seems to apply to any national airline not making money. With a legacy carrier or national airline, you pay one fee that covers everything including what should be a postive, even memorable experience.

Nowadays, a lot of so called legacy carriers mimic the low cost carrier model. Many of them do it quite well, others not so well. Malaysia Airlines seems to bounce between the two. It recently offered business class seats to London at the ridiculously low return fare of RM3,400. However, just like LCCs the rate excluded GST (6%), taxes and fees and added a caveat that additional baggage and fees may apply. I didn’t check but I suspect this would have bought the figure to the same level as competitors.

MAB needs to focus on delivering on the promises it is making not slashing prices
MAB needs to focus on delivering on the promises it is making not slashing prices

This is a dangerous game because if Malaysia Airlines cannot compete on price with the Middle East carriers, it won’t be able to compete with LCCs like Air Asia. According to the Economist newspaper reporting on a KPMG study, “a legacy airline operating an Airbus A320 between London and Rome spends US$12,000 more on each round-trip than a low-cost airline.” Whilst the amounts may be different, the additional perceptage is no doubt the same in SE Asia.

Malaysia Airlines should focus more on improving its product than trying to discount its way through low seasons. Instead of trying to match the LCCs with their basic services and expensive add ons, Malaysia Airlines should seek to improve its relationships with its customers and offer a premium service rather than discounts, especially to its passengers at the front of the aircraft.

And it needs to start communicating with the public. Successful brands today are built on accessibility, transparency, collaboration, retention, personalisation and integrity. And consumers not companies determine the success of brands. Corporate driven press releases are not as effective as positive comments shared across social media. Malaysia Airlines needs to get its head around this.

And it must do it now because Air Asia, once the poster boy of LCCs is struggling to stay relevant and is looking to innovate. If it looks to Europe or Australia for inspiration, it will see the likes of Easy Jet and Virgin Australia morphing into legacy carriers. According to the Economist, this may leave legacy airlines “in a perilous state, regardless of their location and size.”

And before anyone says Malaysia Airlines is a private entity and doesn’t need to explain anything to anyone. Just remember that this is the 21st century not the 20th century. Consumers are smarter and acquire knowledge not from brands but from those who use them. And besides, Malaysians have invested billions in the carrier and they have a right to know what is happening and why deadlines are not being met.

If Malaysia Airlines is serious about its brand, someone needs to take charge of the communications and take charge now because I for one, don’t want to see this once great airline continue to make these elementary mistakes. Otherwise the only thing serious about the rebrand will be its inneffectiveness.


Malaysia Airlines won’t return to profitability with bland, boring TV commercials

I don’t like to kick a man (or an airline) when he’s (or it’s) down, and despite a couple of good quarters, Malaysia Airlines (MAS) is certainly down.

The good quarters (following six straight quarters of losses) are a result of increased revenues thanks to better load factors and higher RASK (Revenue per available seat kilometer).

Just to recap, to avoid bankruptcy, MAS embarked on a massive restructuring plan towards the end of 2011 that included cutting unprofitable routes and reducing costs with the goal being to return to full year profitability in 2013.

Although the airline has done quite well, that’s unlikely to happen even though it is focusing on Asia and has stopped flying to costly destinations such as Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Cape Town and oddly, Dubai. Giving up Dubai and Dammam suggests the carrier is surrendering to the aggressive carriers from the Middle East.

The most recent business strategy announced two key strategic elements – one to focus on the premium sector and the other to focus on the competitive Asian market. The announcement that the airline would go after the premium sector came at the same time as the partnership deal with AirAsia that has now been scrapped.

I’ve seen nothing to suggest the airline is courting premium customers and although it is good to see the airline understands the importance of segmentation, I doubt their ability to execute such a strategy.

Especially as the airline seems to be going the same old predictable route of using an advertising campaign featuring an irritating tagline (more on that later) to magically increase demand. And I’ve seen nothing else to suggest the airline is doing anything other than the usual advertising, print and PR tactics with a nod to social media.

And what an advertising campaign it is! I think this is the TV commercial.

I’m sorry but this has to be the worst commercial or video I’ve ever seen. It features people of various ages walking, cycling, swimming, jogging, directing traffic (I’m serious), reading newspapers, skateboarding, going to a meeting, graduating, bowling, clubbing and all with one thing in common – they are all carrying at least one suitcase! Yes, even the traffic policeman!! This really is rock bottom.

The print advertisement (which I’ve also seen on a billboard) features two men sitting on a wooden dock. They are both holding suitcases and the younger man has his arm around the older man and is looking into his eyes.

Sitting on the dock of the bay, suitcase in my hand
Sitting on the dock of the bay, suitcase in my hand

Does this image make anyone else uncomfortable? Here’s a close up to help you decide.

Does this make you uneasy?
Does this make you uneasy?

MAS also has a corporate video that starts off with a series of stock scenes featuring babies taking their first steps, dad playing with son, climbers etc and then cuts to old shots of MAS in the early days. Meanwhile the voice over tells us that life is made up of countless journeys. Getit?.

Then we get shots of computer generated imagery of the various planes used by the airline from past to present (didn’t BA do something similar?) before going back to the people shots – nice, smiling, friendly air hostess with kid – cut to boys jumping into lake – then back to nice, smiling people, tender, caring hostess and then, out of the blue we’re told the strangers we meet on our journeys give us courage – cut to skydivers – then back to lovers on beach, cultural harmony, pregnant couple and so on. I stopped at this point, unable to continue. Have a look instead.

One of the videos (I can’t remember which one and I have no intention of watching them again) features the Malaysia Airlines app that I really like but isn’t integrated with the website (or if it is I can’t figure out how to find my bookings made online on the app).

So if MAS is serious about increasing market share, what should the company do? Here are 5 things they need to start doing today.

1) Forget about the big idea. Focus instead on consistent, onging, personalised engagement with each of your very diverse audiences.
2) You probably have one of the most comprehensive databases in South East Asia. Start to use it properly.
3) Focus. These ‘one-size-fits-all’ advertising campaigns are an expensive exercise in naïve futility. Put an end to them now.
4) Don’t do social, be social.
5) Integrate all your solutions to make it easier for consumers to use them. Otherwise they defeat the object of developing them in the first place!

I’ve been flying MAS for over 20 years and I think it is a great product but it needs work. A lot of work. This traditional approach to brand building is not going to help steer the airline to full year profitability. They’d be better off throwing the money down a black hole.

Are brands responsible for where their ads are placed?

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about negative brand association. You can read the story here.

I hate to say ‘I told you so’ but I’ve always said that in the social economy, the concept of using communications to try and position a product or service in the mind of a consumer is fraught with danger because it can backfire in many ways.

When I last discussed this issue, I mentioned a video on the BBC website that featured a drunk driver in China who was caught on film smashing into road dividers and barricades.

That video story was preceded by a commercial for Lexus! Here is a still image from the end of the commercial.

Negative brand association - Lexus and drunk drivers
Negative brand association – Lexus and drunk drivers

Interestingly, the story is still online but now the video is preceded by a commercial for the Philippines with an amusing if a little tactless play on the concept of parking! Which would suggest the ad placement is left to the media owner.

India spent millions and millions of dollars positioning the country as an incredible destination only for all their hard work to be undone in a matter of months this year as report after report came out about the rape and murder of women, tourists and children.

More recently, Facebook has been criticised not only for featuring customer ads on controversial sites, but also for reacting slowly to complaints from customers.

Facebook - not just their fault

Dove, owned by Unilever the global Multinational Corporation that spends over US$1.5 billion per year on advertising, with an increasingly large percentage spent online was said to be furious when its ads on Facebook were featured on controversial group pages such as ‘Drop kicking sluts in the teeth’ and ‘Raping’.

Vodafone, another advertiser with a global marketing budget in excess of US$1.3 billion was particularly miffed when its ads appeared on the offensive Facebook page ‘This is why Indian girls are raped’.

It's the responsibility of brands to know where their ads are placed
It’s the responsibility of brands to know where their ads are placed

Another advertiser affected in a similar way announced that it would review it’s advertising if Facebook could not ensure this didn’t happen again.

Facebook’s revenue from advertising in the last quarter was an impressive US$1.33 billion, up 41% on the previous quarter.

If Facebook wants to continue to see such massive increases in advertising revenue, it needs to sort out its processes and systems.

But it’s also the responsibility of CEOs, brand owners and managers who need to understand that in the social economy, using traditional methods to try and position brands is a lazy approach and unless they start to take control of their brands, the platforms they use and the way they communicate, they may find that their brands will suffer in the long term.

They will probably blame their advertising or media agency and they have a point but the real responsibility lies with them, the brand owner.

10 Principles to build the Malaysia Nation Brand

Minister in the Prime Minister’s department, Datuk Seri Idris Jala announced yesterday that the Prime Minister, Datuk Sri Najib Razak has a team in place and they are working full time to create a national brand for Malaysia.

Datuk Seri Idris said that the brand would involve Malaysian perspectives on national policy as well as the pattern of behaviour of Malaysians. He was quoted as saying, “If we can align these, then we can have a national brand”.

It is good to note that Datuk Seri Idris isn’t suggesting PR and advertising will drive the process. However, I don’t quite know what he means by “the brand would involve Malaysian perspectives on national policy…”, but I am sure he knows what he is doing.

One concern I have is that his statement might give some people the impression that building a Nation Brand is a relatively simple process and that it can be managed and controlled by internal forces.

Whilst the behaviour of Malaysians will have a distinct bearing on the success of a Malaysian Nation Brand, the process will also require significant investment in many other areas, many of which cannot be controlled by internal forces.

And as mentioned above and repeated later, Nation Branding is not a communications process. We cannot convince potential investors or tourists that Malaysia is the place to invest in, move to or visit.

We can influence the reputation of the country by building relationships and delivering on promises – multiple promises to multiple sectors – but we will never convince anyone of anything.

To help the PM and his team develop the Nation Brand, I’ve come up with ten key principles for a strategic Nation branding initiative. Although there isn’t a standard formula for building a Nation Brand because of course they all start from a different place, these principles will help form the foundations of any Nation brand strategy.

The same model should also be applied to government ministries, departments and agencies. And of course, these stakeholders should also form part of the internal element of any Nation Brand initiative.

• Nation Branding is a collaborative process
The best news to come out of Malaysia is that the Prime Minister is driving this initiative because without the CEOs buy in, any branding initiative is doomed. His involvement makes a statement to all those who will be involved that this is very important.

But the PM will need assistance from government representatives in each of the states and from other stakeholders. Most successful destination branding initiatives come from situations where key constituents move beyond turf protection/building, put aside their political affiliations and step out of their comfort zone and show some originality and courage.

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 Nation 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 brand plan stronger and more effective.

Next, it facilitates better, more effective 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.

(I didn’t say this was going to be easy!)

• Research and data are fundamental
Sadly too many Nations (and companies) see Branding as a creative driven process of repetitively pushing government defined tourism and other messages out across traditional media, ad infinitum. The hope is that the message will resonate with someone or enough ‘someones’ to make it worthwhile.

Historically, this process has been the responsibility of the tourism board with support from other departments/agencies such as the agency responsible for inward investment and the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Often the tourist board drives the Nation Brand

The tourism board delivers its message with a combination of slick, well-produced communications across mainly traditional media, PR and familiarization trips, trade shows and other trade related initiatives.

But just because the concept of carpet-bombing consumers with slickly produced commercials and PR messages worked (although this is contentious) for athletic shoes, automobiles, breakfast cereals and toothpaste in the mass economy (which incidentally no longer exists) of the post war years, doesn’t mean it is the way forward for the Malaysia Nation Brand.

Now, more than ever, step two in the Nation Branding process must include extensive qualitative and quantitative research with multiple stakeholders, both internal and external and from previously identified sectors.

Without research and data, branding decisions are no more than guesswork and the Malaysia Nation Brand is too important to base strategic decisions (or, any decisions) on guesswork.

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

Most perceptions about countries have been formed long ago but they can be changed, despite what Simon Anholt says! But the way they are changed in America will require a very different approach to the way they are changed in France, UK or Germany.

And of course the requirements for value of an automotive manufacturer from Detroit looking for an Asian country to set up a manufacturing base, will be very different to the value requirements of a financial institution from the city of London.

You’ll also need to know what target industries/segments think of you and also what they want from you, who/where they get their information from and what are their hot buttons.

It will be tempting to develop a common approach for these and other targetted yet diverse industries, but the reality is that each one will require information that is different and therefore more emphasis will have to be placed on relationship building than any communications.

The research will also allow you to identify what firms or institutions you should be going after and which ones you should not. And this is where the balance between the Nation Brand and the immediate success factors critical to political survival become entwined.

Because some industries are more attractive than others but if a firm from a controversial industry waves a couple of billion dollars in your face, the short term political benefits maybe significant but the long term branding benefits may be few, if any.

Of course it will require a very brave CEO to eschew those short-term political benefits for the long term benefit of the Nation. But such decisions will have to be made and to make them more palatable, they must be leveraged effectively for the benefit of the official and the government of the day.

• It is impossible for a Nation Brand to reach its greatest potential using 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 your brand.

Furthermore, a creative campaign is best suited for mass markets and mass media – we’re back to running shoes, shampoo and so on.

Consumers are being inundated with so many messages they've stopped listening

Think of a TV commercial for a country or enterprise zone (you probably won’t be able to remember any, even if you are looking for one). They all say pretty much the same thing – how good the accessibility is, how great the country is, how special/unique their incentives are, how well educated their talent pool is, how extensive is their public transport system and so on.

But the reality is that if you are looking for somewhere to relocate to, the first thing you will do is get on the Internet and use a search engine to explore options.

Increasingly, the information you review will come from consumer generated media across social media platforms. It doesn’t matter how much a country spends on a cool logo or pushing a creative driven message out across traditional media, prospects will still go to the Internet and look for real world experiences.

Another issue I have with the creative driven approach is that it is essentially an acquisition driven model and doesn’t take into account existing prospects and investors.

But most damning of all, this approach leaves the strategy for the Nation in the hands of the advertising agency not in the hands of the CEO and executive management.

• Plan your work and work your plan
Once you have carried out your research and aligned your stakeholders, you can start to map out a Nation 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. And you have less control over the Nation Brand than ever before but that doesn’t mean you should forgo a well-researched brand plan and let consumers define your brand. In fact the 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 (more on SMEs later).

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 be flexible and open to the implementation of the plan. Let events influence the plan and be ready to adapt to events and opportunities.

• The essence of the Malaysia Nation Brand is more important than the brand guidelines so beloved of advertising agencies
It is common practice for companies to spend a great deal of money and time producing, communicating and training personnel about brand guidelines and how to police those brand guidelines.

What they really should be doing is spending those resources on building and nurturing a national appreciation and understanding of the brand and what it stands for, and developing a culture that will deliver a consistent brand across all touch points.

A great example is the South West of England that spent more offering free customer engagement and relationship training to key visitor facing companies than it did on advertising.

• Segmentation enables differentiation
Despite, or because of the power and sweep of globalization, which has Malaysians wearing the same fashions as Italians and Aston Martins in hot demand from Brazil to India and 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.

Social media and the voice of the consumer will drive online discussion and it is imperative that a social media strategy is initiated and integrated with the brand plan.

But communications are not enough. Relationships will be the key to successful development of a Malaysia Nation Brand. The successful implementation of these relationships will require unique and diverse talents that will be able to go out and sell the country. And it is important to match the right level of personnel with the prospects.

• Nation branding is a marathon, not a sprint
There is no quick win 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 weak economic performance over the last 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-cycle engines overseas.

But because it invested heavily in the development of the Japan Nation Brand, it has withstood the effects of the ‘lost decade’ and in fact, many argue that the Japan brand has improved, despite the economic impact of that lost decade and the terrible Tsunami of 2011.

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 must look at establishing a Nation brand not for us – but for our children.

The good news is that signs of improvement and the benefits of investing in the Nation Brand development process can be enjoyed more quickly as witnessed by countries such as Croatia, Slovenia and to a lesser extent, Bosnia. These countries have invested heavily in research, product development, training and communications and as a result are building promising Nation Brands.

• The private sector, and in particular SMEs must carry its weight
The Government of Malaysia has tried to develop policies and funding and other resource allocation for SMEs to build brands. The Brand Promotion Grant was one such initiative.

However what would work better for the SMEs would be Brand development grants because Malaysian SMEs, supposedly responsible for as much as 97% of the economy, need to build brands before they can promote them.

The Malaysian government has tried to do a lot for the Nation brand – but it cannot do it alone. The private sector and SMEs need to start pulling their weight.

One way of doing this that would also generate a lot of positive publicity for the government would be to commission a reality TV programme that looks to find 25, 50 or 100 companies with the potential to make it globally.

Every season viewers vote for the SME they think has the most potential and the winner is given the opportunity and significant resources to become a global brand.

This would give SMEs a clear roadmap to success and fast track ‘country of origin’ development for Malaysian products.

Global sporting events will also help to build the Malaysia Nation Brand. It is probably not the right time to suggest Malaysia host the Olympics (although personally, I think Malaysia should be exploring the possibility of co-hosting the event with Indonesia. This would also do wonders for relationships with its neighbour).

Other 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.

Tourism shouldn’t be neglected but if there is a strategy, it needs to be reviewed because current communications are very tactical and fall into the ‘me too’ category with little differentiation from competitors.

1Malaysia is a good concept but it needs more structure and strategy, not least to protect it otherwise it’s strength and potential will be diluted. It also needs to be better sold to Malaysians.

• 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.

But don’t rely on polls such as the Nation Brand Index. Such a tool, whilst perhaps relevant to Western countries offers little value to developing countries. People are too worried about their own situations to worry about Malaysia.

The western world is looking to Asia to drag it out of the economic quagmire. We may never get such an opportunity again. The timing of this initiative by the Prime Minister is perfect but we need to move fast.

Destination Branding – Take advantage of opportunities when they come your way

A luxury cruise ship, the Azamara Quest caught fire a couple of days ago whilst sailing in the South China Seas. The ship was travelling from Manila on its way to Sulawesi, Bali and Komodo before heading off to its final destination of Singapore.

By all accounts, the Azamara Quest is a beautifully designed and well built ship and the crew extinguished the fire quickly and professionally and with little if any danger to the passengers.

But the ship is now running on limited power from its generator and the passengers are probably suffering, especially if there isn’t any air conditioning.

It is not clear if the ship was scheduled to stop at Sandakan on the eastern side of north Borneo because it is not listed as a destination on the company website. But anyway that doesn’t matter because it will be stopping there now!

Sandakan has a chance to leverage this opportunity to great effect. I don’t want to take anything away from the misfortune of the company and the passengers but up to 1,000 wealthy and influential, mainly European and American visitors are about to make an unscheduled stop at what is one of the best kept secrets in South East Asia.

Furthermore, because cruise ships have had a rotten press lately, the industry is reeling and as a result, this story is getting more coverage than is typical so many journalists from around the world are covering the story and may make their way there to talk to passengers when they dock.

It is a wonderful opportunity for Sandakan and Sabah, the Malaysian state in which Sandakan is the second largest city, to gain valuable exposure.

So what should Sabah tourism do?

Find a way of communicating with the passengers before they arrive and identify what they want when they get to port and make sure you give it to them. Depending on how long it will take to repair the ship, will determine how long the passengers are staying in Sandakan. Offer the cruise ship owner accommodation to all the passengers at hotels and make sure the rate is very attractive.

Being wealthy and influential passengers, many of them will be on tight schedules and this may mean the end of their holiday. If they leave Sandakan feeling unhappy, Sandakan may be guilty by association. Make sure those passengers that need to leave quickly are assisted in anyway possible and work with partners in Kuala Lumpur and other transit points to ensure their departure is a positive experience.

Assign well trained representatives to welcome the passengers and make sure they are easily contactable, given decision making responsibilities and budgets to help passengers in any way.

Use this opportunity to show off places like Lankayan island by providing free transfers to the island and subsidised rates for those passengers that would like to go diving.

Offer free trips to visit other attractions such as Gomantong caves, the Turtle island park, the Proboscis monkey sanctuary and of course, for anyone who has their clubs, a round of golf at the golf and country club.

All these efforts should be underwritten by the Sabah Tourism Board. There will be a temptation to see this an an opportunity to make some extra money and even charge more to the cruise ship passengers. This would be a mistake.

Wherever possible, get contact information, email addresses, twitter profiles, tumblr information and track them once they’ve left and stay in touch with those with influence.

Such gestures will also form the foundations for future negotiations with this and other cruise lines who will certainly learn of the generous and proactive approach of Sabah Tourism.

This is a marketing/PR/reputation opportunity and should be seen in such a way. These efforts won’t cost much, will leave an indelible impression on the visitors who will discuss the welcome they received in Sabah for years to come.

Simon Anholt comments on the Public Relations efforts of Malaysia

Simon Anholt, the originator of the term nation brand and for many years an authority on managing national identity was interviewed by BFM radio in Kuala Lumpur recently. You can hear the interview here.

The interview was also covered by the online media and you can read about it here.

My thoughts on this issue are as follows

No disrespect Datuk Seri, but Malaysia and her future is much bigger and more important than Datuk Seri Najib Razak, UMNO and BN. Indeed, I am sure Datuk Seri Najib would be the first to agree with me.

Politically, the facts are that citizens of Malaysia voted for the government and gave that government a mandate to rule and represent the people. If about 35% of the population didn’t vote for a party within the government coalition and voted instead for another party (assuming they did vote – if they didn’t they should keep quiet) they have to accept that their party lost, and get on with working to build a global nation for their children and grand children.

Recently, the Malaysian government, elected by the people to manage the country on behalf of the people, decided to use traditional media, as part of what I hope is an integrated, multi pronged country brand communications strategy to help improve the image of the country.

It is unlikely this is an isolated tactic but part of multiple, integrated initiatives that are planned and coordinated by a plan that measures and leverages results.

If the government decides to work with a company that appears to have impecable credentials (and FCB media have them in spades) but appears to mislead the government then that government must dispense with such companies and its services, which is exactly what the Malaysian government has done with FCB media.

It is an unfortunate event but I sincerely believe that the government is not to blame for the debacle.

What perhaps should be questioned is not that the goverment tried to improve the image of the country – how can that be a bad thing and show me a country that doesn’t want to improve its image – but what were the justifications for using FCB media, what were the channels used and are they as effective today as they were say 25 years ago, what was the scope of work, what did FCB promise, was it necessary to pay such large sums of money to FCB, what did FCB use that money for and what metrics were used to calculate ROI?

On the face of it the amount spent appears to be excessive but without a breakdown of the expenditure we can’t be sure. And although it is not justification for spending so much money, show me a country that doesn’t waste taxpayer’s money? Only today, the UK has announced it wasted £11.5 BILLION on a National Health Service project that has been abandoned despite the huge sums spent.

Personally, I’m surprised that Simon Anholt has chosen to make such damning comments about one tactic that is, I assume part of a larger more integrated and holistic Malaysia country brand strategy.

I’m also surprised at his suggestion that countries can only make themselves more relevant by ‘making themselves more useful’. And the way to do this is by tackling a list of predictable issues – climate change, women’s rights, terrorism and financial insecurity – currently being addressed by many countries already.

I also think it is a little naive to think that Malaysia isn’t playing its part in some or all of those issues already. In fact, one could argue Malaysia has successfully combatted terrorism for longer than many countries except perhaps Northern Ireland.

I’m also surprised that he cites becoming a ‘widely recognised and widely appreciated country’ as goals. These are rather wishy washy goals and probably irrelevant as it wouldn’t be difficult to identify millions of people worldwide who recognise Malaysia and the country is probably ‘widely appreciated’ by hundreds of millions of people already.

You can read my earlier post on how Malaysia should build a nation brand here

For brands, now more than ever, content is king but who generates that content?

I think it was Bill Gates who coined the phrase “Content is King” back in the mid 1990s. He was right then and he is right today, possibly even more so today.

In today’s economic climate, traditional media owners, desperate for content but unable to afford to produce it themselves, are increasingly looking to independent production companies to generate that content.

But ever more cynical consumers are skeptical of content distributed via traditional media channels, especially in Malaysia where the mainstream media is acknowledged as being controlled by the government. Even content on respected platforms such as the BBC, CNN and CNBC has come under scrutiny recently after questions were asked about content produced by UK company FBC media

At the same time, or perhaps as a result of this, consumers are now changing the way they interact with brands, both during the evaluation stage, purchase stage and, critically after the purchase.

In the past, despite the major investment required to attract a new customer, the brand owner would be happy to sell them something and let them go. If they didn’t come back, it didn’t really matter as there were an increasing number of consumers to replace the initial customer and competition was limited. Moreover consumers expected little from the brands they bought.

Now after a purchase, consumers want to be involved with brands and mindful of the lack of genuine information available, want to influence others. Thanks to social media, they can do this and will share information, thoughts and opinions about their acquisition, long after the actual purchase.

Those consumers also believe they have a right to a role in the development of the brand going forward. This means that increasingly we are seeing consumers create content that defines brands and not the brand owner.

So content is still king, but it is now created by consumers. The key is to influence that content in the same way as traditional media once did.

Do you agree?

What Malaysia must do to build a Nation Brand

Traditionally, Tourism Malaysia has had the responsibility of raising the awareness and promotion of Malaysia. And Tourism Malaysia has worked hard to build awareness of the country as a tourist destination and on the whole, it has been reasonably successful.

But in an increasingly competitive world, Malaysia is not just in a global competition to attract tourists. It is also in a global competition to encourage talented Malaysians to return to the country, international talent to live in the country and international investment. Malaysia also needs to move away from its image as a supplier of commodities to the provider of more valued added products and services and increase its influence in Asia and on the world stage. As if there weren’t enough, it is also in a domestic battle to forge a national identity bought into by multiple races!

A strategic tool to achieve the goals of attracting talent, increased revenue through expanded tourism and more valuable exports is Nation Branding or country branding. Australia, India, Norway, Oman and Qatar are all making a concerted effort to attract the world’s attention, interest and revenue by embarking on Nation Branding initiatives.

In this competitive environment, complicated by bickering politicians and individual agendas, tactical rather than strategic initiatives, fragmented and outdated communications, a lack of integration and communication between organisations and dwindling global funds available for investment, Malaysia has a lot to offer.

It is a progressive, innovative and stimulating country in which to live, work and visit. Malaysians are enthusiastic for development and have a natural ability for entrepreneurship. Individual races have capabilities in specific areas important for the growth of the country. For such a young country, it is remarkably open and many times it has been called a model Islamic country. It has numerous natural resources that should ensure quality of life can be high. Residents and visitors can enjoy the benefits of increasingly advanced infrastructure combined with a vibrant, diverse culture and a reasonably well trained and educated work force.

But, unfortunately, Malaysia does not have a clearly defined image or the visibility internationally that it deserves. Part of the reason is that it lacks a national Brand that resonates with Malaysians and enjoys wide acceptance internally and is effectively and consistently communicated externally.

As a result, international perceptions vary widely. Some believe it is an undeveloped country rich in such natural resources as rubber and timber; others look at the Petronas twin towers and fail to see many differences between Taipei, Shanghai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and other Asian metropolises. This lack of a consistent Nation Brand persists despite the efforts of successive Prime Ministers, international events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the 1998 Commonwealth Games and increased visitors to the country.

The need for successful Nation Branding is recognized at the highest levels.

Most recently, the Prime Minister, via his website and with the assistance of Tony Fernandes, CEO of Air Asia has outlined the need to shape the country moving forward and asked for help from citizens. Although technically not a citizen, I have three children growing up as Malaysians so I have a vested interest in the success of the country.

So what should Malaysia do to start building the Malaysia Nation Brand?

Five key factors are required to achieve the prime minister’s goal as an international “corporate nation.” These include:

• Widespread agreement and acceptance on what Malaysia stands for, and what makes her unique in the community of nations. The agreement and acceptance is based on communication and understanding among all levels of government and all facets of society.

• The identification of industries most likely to complement Nation Branding initiatives and a clear process for investing in and sustaining that investment and developing those industries.

• Clear, consistent and coordinated communications to domestic and international audiences by public and private sectors. A long-term plan with goals and measurements is critical. Ideally, these communications must be tailored to specific segments.

• Successful execution of brand messages. This is not just a communications exercise. The public and private sector must facilitate international and other economic involvement, while tourist-related industries and areas must perform according to expectations.

• Leadership. Current branding efforts are hampered by a variety of uncoordinated tactical efforts, each promulgating a different message. Leadership is required to ensure that Malaysia both speaks “with a single voice” and has the necessary long-term commitment.

The following are the key steps required in the development of the Malaysia Nation Brand and they are as follows:

1) Carry out a brand audit. Who do we think we are? Who do our stakeholders think we are? What do we have? What do we want to become? What do we have? Do we have the skill sets required to sell it? Are our communications communicating this effectively? Does the content of our communications resonate with target markets or are we using a one-size-fits-all strategy to communicate with everyone? Are we using the right platforms? Who are key stakeholder influencers? How do we communicate with them? What do stakeholders want from us? Can we deliver? If so how?

2) Analyse and review the data collected in step one and identification of key industries to help drive the Malaysia Nation Brand.

3) Develop the nation brand framework. This stage includes the development and articulation of the vision, mission and values of the brand as well as the development of a positive & competitive identity that offers economic, experiential and emotional value to each target audience

4) Develop a holistic and comprehensive visual and verbal brand. Sadly this is where most nation brands start. Using a creative driven approach, they look to spray advertising across as many platforms as budgets will allow and pray that it sticks in at least some of the places. This ‘spray and pray’ approach to branding is destined to fail nearly every time.

5) Develop the brand strategy. Only AFTER the above steps can the brand strategy be developed. Normally a plan to drive the brand forward, it outlines how to position Malaysia as a unique, different and attractive country for key stakeholders such as tourists, investors, strategic partners and talent and includes, branding, marketing, sales and other imperatives as well as measurement, budgets, responsibilities and more. Individual country brand strategies should also be included for key markets. The brand strategy also outlines requirements to clearly communicate relevant messages to the target constituents and stakeholders in multiple countries.

6) Make sure all initiatives systemically connect the Nation Brand to Malaysia’s core industries, corporate brands and Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector brands

7) Measure, improve, refresh and keep relevant.

Building a nation brand is not easy. It requires commitment and perseverance and the will to stick with something even when it may not be going according to plan. Follow the elements above and we will have a much better chance of building a Malaysia Nation Brand.

Arizona brand strategy

This question was asked recently “Does Arizona need Rebranding or Public Relations Crisis Management?” You can see the full article, context and responses here

“Does Arizona need Rebranding or Public Relations Crisis Management?” is the wrong question to ask because they are confusing the issue by asking a question that doesn’t make sense. PR at whatever level, is an important component of a brand strategy but it is only one element and cannot, on its own, drive or build a brand. So it is not an alternative to a rebranding exercise.

The article outlines four attributes in the Arizona Travel and Tourism branding guide. To access the guide, Google “perception of Arizona” brand.The attributes, are geared towards tourism (predictably) but Branding a state is not simply a tourism exercise. After all, the main issue at the heart of the problem is an immigration issue and although I don’t have much information, I doubt the immigration issue is a tourism issue.

A brand strategy should involve tourism (and in most cases can be driven by tourism) but it should involve other stakeholders as well. I wrote a ‘How to brand a city’ article here. Although it is related to cities, many of the rules can be applied to a state as well.

If Arizona has a brand strategy, those responsible for the strategy should have been consulted when the law to address the challenges of illegal immigration was being drafted and then given a mandate to develop a comprehensive and integrated communications campaign, including PR but also other channels such as Social Media to explain the law. This campaign must focus not on cool creatives or catchy tagline like vibrant variety but on content that resonates with the target segments and must communicate with those segments through channels favoured by those segments.

Unfortunately, because Arizona does not appear to have a brand strategy, the state is now on the back foot as it tries to address issues raised over what is always, but even more so now, a very contentious issue.