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


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

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

Introductions

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. THE BRAND
  2. BRANDING

The Brand

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

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

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

Branding

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

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

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

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

And you need a fair amount of luck as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital is underused & under appreciated

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

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

Industry wide structural issues

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

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

            3. What are the new norms for tourism branding?

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

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

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

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

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

Transparency is a critical success factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adding value to Malaysia’s commodities & making the move from original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to original brand manufacturer (OBM)


This morning, I read with interest Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah’s comments about the price of pepper.

You can read the full article here but the crux of it is that he’s talking about the dramatic price drop and appears upset (rightly so) that the solution offered by the Primary Industries Ministry and the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB) was to plant more pepper.

He said that he had asked for the Federal government to provide subsidies for pepper farmers but no allocation was included in the Federal budget so the State government would have to provide the bail out instead.

Unfortunately the Minister’s solution isn’t right either. Sure, it may assuage the farmers in the short term but in the long term, the problem will return every time the price drops.

And with pepper production rising in many countries, the price is likely to remain depressed which means the farmers will require more handouts next year.

Black pepper sold as a commodity only RM8,820 per ton

This leads to a dependence on the government because farmers will grow used to being bailed out. This is not effective use taxpayer’s hard earned cash and will slow the state growth, let alone build a globally competitive industry or for that matter a self sufficient industry.

Mature economies look to add value to their commodities. So that when the price of the main ingredient fluctuates, they have a buffer. One potentially lucrative way of adding this value is building global brands.

Sarawak Pepper is acknowledged as the best in the world and 90% of Malaysia’s pepper comes from Sarawak yet it is basically sold as Malaysia Pepper. Sarawak pepper still has some existing brand equity but it is rapidly being eroded.

Black pepper ‘brand’ sold at Kuching airport RM41,950 per ton

The commodity business is a zero sum game. It’s like the Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) business, whereby firms manufacture equipment for other firms who then use their branding skills to sell the product at a premium.

This has proved to be a popular business model in Malaysia but as the country is now finding out the hard way, you can make money in the short term, but in the long term OEM is little more than a commodity business with very low margins and little growth potential.

But the biggest drawback is that there is always a competitor somewhere who can produce the same thing as you at a cheaper price and who can get it to market quicker.

Because the only relationship is a contract based on a cheap price, customers have few qualms about moving to those competing companies or countries offering cheaper deals.

We’re already seeing how Malaysian commodities such as Palm Oil, Rubber, Timber and Pepper, as well as OEM, especially in the electronics sector are finding it ever harder to compete in the face of competition from aggressive challenger economies such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Black pepper sold as a European brand in a Malaysia supermarket RM379,000 per ton

The time has come to start adding value to the commodity and OEM sectors in Malaysia. Companies in more mature Asian markets, such as Japan and Korea saw the lack of a future in competing on price.

In the late 1990s, when Eric Kim was executive vice president of global marketing at Samsung, he saw the writing on the wall, “We were nobody. We were down at the commodity level.” Samsung understood that they had to make the move from OEM to Original Brand manufacturer (OBM) and make it fast.

Moving from a commodity grower or Original Equipment manufacturer to a grower of ingredients for a global brand or becoming an Original Brand manufacturer (OBM) has huge benefits not only for the company but the country as well.

Today, Korea is admired and Samsung is imprinted on consumer DNA as one of the world’s leading brands. In flat-panel screens, Samsung is the market leader. In smart phones, Samsung sold 300 million units in 2017, compared to Apple’s 200 million.

Huawei, Haier, LG Electronics, BenQ, Lenovo and other firms have accomplished what many Malaysian firms need to do – make the jump from OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to OBM (original brand manufacturer).

The motivations are clear. Brands are more profitable. According to one report, the world’s top 100 consumer goods and retail companies generated sales of US$3.6 trillion recently and profits of US$228 billion.

Meanwhile, the top 100 OEMs in the Asia Pacific region that supplied products to those top 100 companies reported a relatively meagre US$85bil in sales, with total profits of US$4bil in the same year.

A pepper brand in Europe selling at RM581,000 per metric ton, compared with RM8,800 in Sarawak

Making the move to OBM will also help with Malaysia’s bold attempts to move the country up the value chain to developed status. Other advantages include greater national employment and influence, increased opportunities for strategic alliances and leverage to open new markets.

Compared to the brutally competitive world of OEM, OBMs also have greater control over their destiny. How many Malaysian OEM’s have folded in the last 10 years after a major customer has sought lower costs elsewhere?

What happens to Sarawak’s pepper farmers if the Koreans and Japanese confectionary manufacturers source from Vietnam?

The good news is that thanks to long-established relationships with such major Western brands as Motorola, Dell, Texas Instruments, Ralph Lauren, Airbus, Tommy Hilfiger, Marks & Spencer and many more, Malaysian OEMs have the manufacturing, logistical and quality control potential required to compete in world markets.

But more Malaysian firms have to take the plunge otherwise they will lose out. And the government needs to focus not on bailing out farmers but showing them how to build brands that can conquer the world.

However, making the jump from commodity producer, the global branding dominance or from OEM to OBM is not as simple as spending millions on advertising.

A USA brand of pepper that could be from Sarawak sells at RM251,000 per metric ton, compared with RM8,820 in Malaysia as a commodity

It requires a substantial commitment of time and resources to establish channel relationships and share-of-mind in target markets. And the move is not without risk. Remember when Acer tried to breach the US market but had to withdraw, wasting an investment of almost $10 billion.

Key success factors include:

Change government & corporate thinking: Although Asian consumers are the most brand-conscious in the world, Asian Ministers and business owners devote much more time to advertising and discounting than branding.

Branding is seen as a cost, not an investment, and branding initiatives don’t get much further than billboards, TV commercials and annual sales (4 times a year).

Think long-term: There is no quick fix. It took Samsung five years to move from commodity to brand. Five years is a minimum, although specialty B2B markets may only require three.

Understand branding: Many Asian leaders believe that a new logo, large discounts and heavy advertising is branding. Actually, branding requires the ability to develop emotional and experiential as well as economic relationships with customers.

Ensure execution: Quality is a given. But is the distribution broad enough to support a national branding campaign? Where do consumers call for support? Are staff trained to deal with unhappy customers? How are returns handled?

Commit the resources: Consumer branding doesn’t come cheap. In 2016, Samsung spent US$10 billion on marketing its brand and products to consumers all over the world.

Bertolli, the global Virgin Olive Oil brand regularly spends US$10 million on advertising in the USA where its brand holds a dominant share (37%) of all the olive oil consumed in America and a market worth over US$1 billion. You do the maths.

Start with niche markets: Haier tried to break into the US market using a traditional advertising campaign. After a fortune in advertising driven branding was wasted, they carried out a brand audit as recommended by Fusionbrand.

After the audit, Haier spotted a gap in the hospitality and student markets and started selling small refrigerators to college students and hotels in the US. Now it sells all types of white goods, and in 2017 paid US$5.6 billion for GE Appliances.

Understand targeting and segmentation: The mass market is dead. Now there are as many markets as there are satellite TV channels, ranging from Chinese, Malay, English to Islamic. As a result, one-size-fits-all branding campaigns will not work.

Learn from failure: Honda’s first effort to export motorcycles to the U.S. ended in failure when Americans didn’t like the design. It carried out a brand audit, incorporated the feedback and successfully re-entered the U.S. market.

Invest in design and innovation: Copying existing products is a ‘strategy’ destined to failure as it faces pricing and branding obstacles. We all know how Apple became the biggest company in the world but it didn’t invent the smartphone or for that matter the tablet. But it made them good through innovation and design.

Malaysia is at a monumental cross roads. It has to move from grower and exporter of commodities and from OEM to producer of some of the world’s greatest brands.

The Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak could save the tax payer a lot of money, make the Sarawak farmers very rich and do his government a big favour. Not by giving hand outs to farmers. But by helping them make Sarawak pepper a global brand.

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Marcus Osborne is CEO of Fusionbrand, Asia’s leading data driven brand consultancy headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.

Is this another Malaysia Airlines branding fail?


Back in August 2014, as part of its ill conceived attempt to move on from the twin tragedies of earlier in the year, Malaysia Airlines launched a contest called “My Ultimate Bucket List” which Time magazine said was not such a good idea because a bucket list is made up of the things one wants to see or accomplish before dying.

Following the wave of criticism, the airline quickly apologized and the campaign was withdrawn but not before social medial let rip, with one Twitter user asking, “This is a sick, sick joke right? Marketing/PR needs to be fired.”

The focus at Malaysia Airlines has been an ambitious restructuring plan led by outgoing CEO Christoph Mueller who has cut unprofitable routes or offloaded them to competitors, slashed thousands of jobs, and brought in new management.

Is this the right image for Malaysia Airlines to use in its latest campaign?
Is this the right image for Malaysia Airlines to use in its latest campaign?

But throughout this process, the carrier has developed a reputation for poorly conceived communications. Last Saturday I was flying out of Kuching International Airport and saw this strange image above the entrance.

Maybe it’s me but my first thought was that the woman looked like an angel. Doesn’t her hat look like a halo? My next thought was of MH370 and the tagline although totally innocent suggested an announcement was imminent.

And if it isn’t an angel, what is she supposed to be? A butterfly? And what’s the campaign about? Is the world waiting for her? Will she ever arrive?

Whatever it is, I couldn’t help but think this was the beginning of another bucket list fiasco. Or am I over thinking it? Tell me what you think!

Is this the first glimpse of the new Malaysia Airlines brand?


Malaysia Airlines has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns in an effort to convince us that it’s a top carrier and we’ll all have fun flying the airline etc. You can read one of my scathing attacks on the marketing department here and another one here.

Unsurprisingly this 1960s approach to building a brand didn’t work so they focussed instead on cutting costs wherever costs could be cut, without giving much thought to the effects of these cuts.

Most recently the carrier was ripped apart in the Malaysia media because it has stopped serving alcohol on any flight of less than three hours and not just in economy but in business class as well. What appeared to be most galling to the hundreds of consumers who commented on the ban was the fact that the airline had implemented the rule below the radar. Without apparently any formal announcement. Scores of furious business class travellers took to Facebook to air their frustrations and to swear never to fly the carrier again.

And then a few days later the CEO stepped down, nearly two years before the end of his lucrative contract. We’ll come back to that in another post. Because this post is a positive one.

This afternoon I received an email from Malaysia Airlines telling me my flight was delayed. Now I know a lot of you are going to ask what is the big deal but this is the first time, for as long as I can remember that MAS has emailed me to inform me that my flight was delayed.

Rebuilding the Malaysia Airlines brand, one baby step at a time.
Rebuilding the Malaysia Airlines brand, one baby step at a time.

It’s not perfect. For instance I would also like to have received a text notifying me of the delay because I might not have checked my email before leaving for the airport. And of course you’d think that after more than 20 years of being a customer, they could address me by my name but that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that rebuilding the reputation of the Malaysia Airlines brand will require a greater investment in improving experiences at every touch point than in advertising campaigns that are lost in the sea of noise. I’m not holding my breath, but I hope this is the first step in the rebranding process.

Communication is key to a successful Malaysia Airlines rebrand


Flying into Kuching this morning on Malaysia Airlines​ the haze was so bad the pilot aborted the landing and went around again. The same thing happened last week. The haze isn’t MAS MAB fault but it has a significant impact on its brand.

Last week, the pilot came on the PA and explained the problem, reassuring everyone with his confidence and authority. This time the flight deck was silent. So we the passengers are sitting there wondering why the landing was aborted.

Without any information and aware of the carriers recent issues, we start asking ourselves, “Is there a problem with the aircraft?” or “Perhaps the airport is closed?” In that case, “Do we have enough fuel to go elsewhere?” “Are the pilot and co-pilot ill or even conscious?” An intimidating situation such as this one can have a negative effect on the brand. Yet at the same time, it can be part of the rebranding process.

It’s the little things that make or break a brand. Especially one that is already broken. A simple 30 second explanation was all that was needed to calm everyone down and earn a little bit of respect. Communication is a key part of branding. Successful brands have an emotional connection with consumers.

MAB has a credibility problem and that credibility problem needs to be fixed. One of the problems is the lack of an emotional connection. How can consumers connect with a brand that doesn’t communicate? If there is no connection the rebrand will fail. It certainly won’t be fixed with pressing the flesh, a new name, new livery, new advertising and a new logo.

It’ll be fixed by creating an emotional connection with customers and delivering economic, experiential and emotional value to those consumers.

Another example of how consumers are building destination brands


This interactive ‘heat map’ shows which tourist attraction at every destination around the world is photographed the most.

There are as many as 1,000 photographs in some countries with New York’s Guggenheim Museum the most photographed landmark in the world.

The most phtographed landmark in the world
The most phtographed landmark in the world

In Singapore the Merlion is the most photographed landmark whilst in Kuala Lumpur it is, rather unsurprisingly the Twin Towers. In Bangkok it’s the Wat Sraket Rajavaravihara and in Kuching it is the Sarawak river.

The Merlion, popular with tourists in Singapore
The Merlion, popular with tourists in Singapore

What does this site mean to the business of destination branding? Well primarily it will drive traffic away from tourism board sites and their carefully choreographed images to consumer sites and there peer to peer content.

Those destinations that continue to focus their funds on corporate driven strategies or groups of tactics instead of encouraging engagement across social sites and consumer generated content will lose business which in turn will lead to reduced revenue for the many businesses that benefit from tourism.

How to brand a destination to attract investors, the right businesses, talent and tourists


The destination branding rewards are high in terms of investment, jobs, development, tourism, exports, domestic and even international influence. But building destination brands is harder today than ever before. There are over 1,000 national and regional economic development agencies in South East Asia alone and the ongoing global economic crisis, political interference and a fragmented, tactical approach to a strategic initiative all help complicate the process.

It’s also hard because most destinations attempt to build their brands on a platform of familiar marketing and advertising campaigns that include one-size-fits-all positioning strategies driven by advertising in mass media, that do little more than add to the advertising clutter increasingly ignored by consumers. And more often than not, those campaigns are led by tourism.

Tourism maybe about to become the number one industry in the world, but did Indonesia’s 2008 tourism campaign and the tagline “Celebrating 100 years of nation’s (That is not a typo) awakening.” influence South Korea’s Hankook Tire when it was looking for a location for a US$1.2 billion tyre plant? Of course it didn’t.

Hankook Tire sought a good location close to transport hubs, a secure source of quality rubber, abundant and cheap labour and probably the opportunity of an early crack at Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia is on something of a roll at the moment and is expecting as much as US$10 billion of investment from South Korea alone over the next four years. And it’s not just Korean firms that are looking hard at the country.

The steel company Arcelor Mittal is currently considering a US$5 billion investment and China Investment Corp is rumoured to be considering an investment of as much as US$25 billion. A number of other deals are also in the works but although details a sketchy, one thing is for sure, none of them will be swayed by positioning statements or slick advertising campaigns featuring white sandy beaches, azure skies and crystal clear seas.

These companies will make their destination decisions, and this is particularly true of Indonesia but also applies to other Asian destinations, on political stability, a clearly defined long term plan to invest in railways, roads, power plants and distribution networks, ports, transportation and more as well as concerted attempts to tackle bureaucratic red tape, graft, and unfriendly labour laws.

Indonesia understands this and regional competitors would be wrong to ignore this sleeping giant. President Susilo recently instructed the relevant federal and state or regional authorities to speed up spending, particularly on infrastructure. Assurances from the central bank that it would not impose outright capital controls will do a lot more to convince potential investors than any expensive tagline or one-size-fits-all positioning statement.

Don’t get me wrong, tourism has an major role to play in the development of many destinations but an international one-size-fits-all positioning statement that attempts to speak to potential investors, tourists, talent and others from diverse parts of the world with one message is not the way forward.

So what can regions, states or cities do to build destination brands that will attract investors, businesses, talent and tourists?

Once the infrastructure is in place or the blueprint outlining the infrastructural development with timelines, responsibilities and milestones is determined, destinations must carry out research to identify channels, communities and influencers within those channels and communities and develop content that resonates with those influencers and those communities.

Prospects from different industries from different parts of the world have different requirements for value. Sarawak corridor of renewable energy (SCORE) on Borneo is targetting ten core industries. Those industries are as diverse as Aluminum, Aquaculture, Fishing, Glass, Timber and Tourism. Such diverse industries with their different requirements for value, will seek information from and be influenced by completely different environments.

Identifying those requirements is mission critical, without it destinations are guessing and the success of a destination brand should not rely on guesswork. So destinations must talk to prospects and customers from each segment. Find out what value they seek and determine if the destination can deliver that value.

To avoid wasting valuable resources on advertising and marketing that is lost in the clutter, it is important to determine what online communities they inhabit and who or what influences them. Also identify why investors chose the destination. And talk to lost customers and find out why they chose another destination over yours.

At the same time, internal brand research must identify what are the core brand values of the destination and how will they be communicated internally so that the whole organization is on brand and understands the role they play in the successful implementation of the brand. And it is critical that the core brand values are developed with customers in mind and not from the destinations point of view.

The analysis and data from this key research will form the foundations of the destination brand strategy. And only once the brand strategy is developed can the implementation begin. The implementation must not neglect citizens and their communities who will be impacted by the changes to their environments.

There will be positive and negative implications for communities and these must where possible be predicted and dealt with accordingly. If they cannot be predicted, they must be dealt with in a consistent, transparent and confident manner. It is important for destinations to understand from the outset that without citizen and other stakeholder buy in, the destination will not succeed.

Increasingly fragmented media, the Internet and an increase in leisure time activities make it harder to reach consumers via traditional media. Destinations must look past the traditional broadcast approach to generate interest in the destination.

One destination in South East Asia purchased a double page spread in the International Herald Tribune to market the destination. The feature was really well written, with top quality images and provided a comprehensive overview of the destination. But the feature made the common mistake of trying to tell everyone about everything.

This approach hopes that the advertisement or feature will be seen by the right people at the right time and that they will invest the time required to read through the substantial feature in the hope that there will be something relevant to them. The problem is that there are lots of competitors doing the same thing and moreover, how many senior executives are willing to invest time reading such articles?

This particular feature also made the mistake of not including any tracking tool to identify the number of responses. Any marketing efforts must include tools to measure their effectiveness because if you don’t track the effectiveness of your marketing efforts, how do you know which ones are working and which are not?

Communications must also take into account changes in consumer behaviour and look past the traditional media channels with an emphasis on the Internet and Social Media. And this will require a comprehensive change in the thinking of CEOs and others tasked with developing a destination brand as it requires ongoing engagement with consumers rather than a traditional broadcast approach.

To be successful, destination brands must now adapt to these emerging business and customer imperatives. Imperatives that include a special emphasis on the right research and the right data collection and analysis, effective customer, channel and employee communications, operational excellence, accountability, service and the ongoing ability to meet customer requirements.

The potential rewards are huge but the stakes too are high and with competition coming from all angles, destinations will only get one shot at building a successful destination brand.