Can Christoph Mueller rebuild the MAS brand?

The May 2015 edition of Going Places, Malaysia Airlines in flight magazine features an introduction from Mr Christoph Mueller, the airline’s new CEO. In the short message Mr Mueller talks about the “overwhelming hospitality” he has received since arriving in Malaysia two months earlier. He explains that he would like all Malaysia Airlines’ passengers to experience the same overwhelming hospitality on board MAS flights.

MAS is not a bad airline
MAS is not a bad airline

He goes on to talk about the “formidable culture” of Malaysia and expresses hope that MAS will leave visitors with a “wonderful experience from the heart of Asia”. He tells us he is ‘excited’ for Malaysia Airlines despite the difficult and challenging task he and his staff face in turning the carrier around and making it profitable again.

He explains that the turnaround begins with people like ‘me’ (the reader) who he calls guests. The airline will be listening carefully to the feedback from guests. Mr Mueller goes on to say that the “the key is to design products and services to create a guest experience that you will find truly valuable.” I’m not sure what the key refers to to but I presume it is to rebuilding the airline.

'Truly valuable products and services'
‘Truly valuable products and services’

Mr Mueller is certainly right that the turnaround of MAS begins with the airline’s guests and in particular the frequent flyers who have supported the airline over the last 20 years. No doubt retention of guests will be at the heart of the rebranding brief sent out a few weeks ago and the RFPs for which are due at the end of this week. But he needs to steer away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to his guests because they all have very different needs and requirements for value.

As for ‘designing products and services’ that guests will find ‘truly valuable’, Mr Mueller is making the right noises although I would have liked to have seen a more specific set of ideas delivered confidently and dynamically in his first public communication to the country and those many supporters of Malaysia Airlines. For instance, an overview of what he has in mind would have given people something to start talking about and sharing on social media, generating a wave of interest, enthusiasm, anticipation and positivity. And what exactly does ‘truly valuable’ mean?

MAS is not a bad product and it’s certainly not broken. Far from it, the product and services are OK. But the trouble is, to be competitive in today’s aviation business, or for that matter any other business being OK simply isn’t enough. To be successful in the aviation business, you need to be exceptional.

On a business trip to London earlier this month, I met up with a group of Malaysians who were all long-term MAS passengers, all with Silver or Gold Enrich (The MAS frequent flyer programme) cards. But this time they had flown in on Emirates and were raving about the quality of the business class experience, the outstanding service from the crew of 13 different nationalities and their professionalism, the efficiency of the airline, the seamless integration between the business class lounge in Dubai and the A380.

But what surprised me most of all was how they waxed lyrical about the communication between the crew and the passengers. Each crew member seemed to know each passenger’s name and used it in every communication, no matter how trivial. And the crew seemed genuinely interested in each passenger. Not in an irritating, intrusive way but in a professional client/customer way.

Emirates, the benchmark for MAS
Emirates, the benchmark for MAS

The meal service was akin to something normally reserved for a 5 star restaurant and was designed around the individual passengers needs on that flight. Meals were served individually, by hand and not from a trolley. Two of the travellers sat next to each other. Both were asked if they would like to sleep first and have their meal later or eat first and then sleep. They felt the crew were doing everything possible to make their trip truly memorable.

The service wasn’t rushed and they all thought the announcements over the PA were delivered in a confident, calming and professional way. And when the Captain (not the chief steward) announced clearly and confidently that seat belts needed to be put on while the aircraft experienced some ‘choppy’ weather, they all felt instantly at ease. MAS does many of the things Emirates does (I believe having flown Emirates, MAS and Etihad business class to the UK in the last 5 months that Emirates is the benchmark) and many of the things it doesn’t do can be done.

The question is, will MAS be able to do them exceptionally? Will Mr Mueller be able to find enough good middle managers with the skills and commitment to motivate MAS staff to deliver an outstanding experience time and time again? Will branding investments focus on getting the organisation ‘on brand’ before launching very expensive and imminently forgettable advertising campaigns that over promise and force the airline to under deliver?

Making experiences outstanding will be key to winning back lost customers and attracting new business and not glossy advertising campaigns, a new logo or new uniforms. We all want Mr Mueller to turn the airline around and with the support of the government giving him the authority to let go of 6,000 staff and low oil prices driving down the price of aviation fuel his chances are good. But judging by where MAS is at the moment and the ability of competitors to keep raising the bar, Mr Mueller is really up against it.


Is this where my love affair with the BMW brand ends?

Dear BMW

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for letting me be your customer for more than 25 years. During that time I’ve had some amazing experiences with a brand for which I’ve always had a soft spot.

I remember as soon as I could afford a ‘proper’ car, I went out and bought a BMW. I was living in Bahrain, it was 1989 and I purchased a stunning 1982 635csi with a little rubber spoiler on the boot. Black with red leather interior it was a beauty. Of course it was seven years old so always broke down but I was young and didn’t care. Even in the summer, with the temperature hovering around 45 degrees C when I found myself sitting yet again in a pool of sweat by the side of the Shaikh Khalifa highway whilst waiting yet again for Ali (we were on first name terms) to arrive in his tow truck, I felt privileged.

BMW 635csi
BMW 635csi

I saved up and soon purchased a brand new British racing green 525i that was ideal for those long journeys across the desert to Riyadh. At around this time and due to competition from Japanese and American brands, you began to position BMW as a luxury brand (we won’t mention the disastrous acquisition of Rover and the ridiculous belief that you could position Rover as a luxury brand).

I think it was 1992 when I bought the 5 series but I have to say it was tough selling it a few years later, around the time you lost about £700 million in one year (close to £2 billion in today’s money) and your brand was struggling to live up to expectations.

525i ate up the miles between Bahrain and Riyadh
525i ate up the miles between Bahrain and Riyadh

When I arrived in Malaysia after my stint in Bahrain, I couldn’t afford a new BMW and anyway your reputation here was so bad then that I wouldn’t have bought one if I could. But using service and customers to drive the rejuvenation of the brand culture you turned around your poor reputation and kudos to you.

The good news was that by 2012 I was in the market for another new BMW. By now I’m a husband and father and doing well. So my wife and I bought an X1. To be honest that was a mistake but as offloading it would incur a massive loss (it didn’t take off in Malaysia) we decided to sell it to one of our small companies and buy an X3. By the way, what exactly is the X1? Is it a hatchback? Is it a family estate? To be honest I could never figure it out but I’m glad we got rid of it because the plastic on the dashboard buttons was beginning to come off and the door was creaking and the rear window was starting to rattle.

Now the X3 was a hit with everyone in the family and we’ve had some great times in this car. It purred on long journeys to Singapore, Terrengganu or up to Penang. The X3 lapped up the school runs and trips around town and by the end of 2014 we had done close to 100,000 kms. Not huge mileage, especially for your cars but that’s when things started to go wrong. Sure there were similar little niggles to the X1 – rattling window and creaking door but we tolerated them.

In mid 2014 the X3 started to spew grey smoke out of the exhaust. Now remember we live in the tropics so cars are fairly warm when they start so it wasn’t due to a cold engine but I wasn’t bothered as this is a BMW and I’d read on the BMW website that, “Original BMW parts are subject to the same standards of quality as BMW vehicles – from construction planning to quality assurance.”

At BMW it would seem longevity is up to 2.5 years
At BMW it would seem longevity is up to 2.5 years

Of course when I read that before buying a car I felt reassured and it was one reason why I had ignored the fact that BMW only gave a 2 year warranty when competitors were giving anything from 2 – 5 years. But reading it again it suddenly looked like a bunch of words stuck together to make me think the components were solid and reliable. Obviously not.

So I went back to the website and read it again and realized that the copy was hard to understand. I mean read this, “The precision and high-quality construction of each original BMW part guarantees that all components in your BMW work together perfectly – for optimum performance and maximum safety and longevity.” Is it common then for some manufacturers to construct parts that don’t worth together perfectly? And what’s the definition of longevity in Munich? When it comes to certain components is it less than 30 months or does it depend on the component?

As I was considering what to do about the smoke, the airconditioner stopped working and in the tropics you need aircon. So we sent the car to the dealer we bought it from and asked them what was wrong.

They told me that both the compressor and the turbo needed to be replaced. Now I have to say I was taken aback by this. We’re talking about a BMW here and although I’m no petrol head, I was confident these components should last more than 30 months, especially as BMW prides itself on the longevity of its parts (assuming longevity is more than a couple of years). So I scoured the Internet looking for complaints about the X3 turbo unit and compressor and couldn’t find any!

One website features an astonishing 786 complaints about BMW but as far as I can see not one of them is related to these 2 components. Another site, also has a surprisingly large number of complaints about BMWs but nothing about these components which again suggests to me once more that I was just unlucky and got a car with 2 faulty components. After a great deal of searching, all I could find was one poor BMW user who had to wait 22 years before he could replace his compressor.

As for the turbo issue, most online discussions around the current generation of turbos suggest a lifespan of up to 250,000 miles. I thought that was a little ambitious so I halved it which meant I should get 125,000 miles or about 200,000 kms. My X3 has done less than 100,000 km and the turbo is kaput.

Unless the longevity of your components means no more than 2.5 years, I think you’ll agree that these two bits of hardware should last considerably longer than they have done on my car. I also own a Mercedes C250 and a 5 year old Suzuki and neither of these cars have any problems with these or other major components.

I contacted my dealer and asked them to replace the parts free of charge because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise I was just unlucky and had got a faulty car or at best a car with faulty equipment. And in today’s transparent, human environment and with your focus on the customer as well as our long association, I thought this would be a relatively simple process. After all, all I’m doing is asking BMW to take responsibility for the issue.

At the same time, on December 18th 2014 I wrote to BMW customer service in Munich and received an unsigned email the same day telling me my complaint had been forwarded to the relevant department for assessment. I can only assume that assessment is continuing because as of today, 19th January 2015 I haven’t heard from anyone.

Meanwhile the dealer immediately offered a discount of 20%. I took this as a sign that he agreed with me because logically if it was common for these components to fail so quickly, they wouldn’t have offered me a discount. I wasn’t happy with this discount and realizing the dealer isn’t the manufacturer, I decided to contact the head of BMW Malaysia.

The only way to get hold of Mr Harris is through his secretary. I don’t know if she passed my email to him because he didn’t reply (but she did tell me when I called her that he is very busy) but she did pass the email to staff in customer service (the irony) and for some reason to the after sales area manager who was the only one to contact me, unless you include a variety of automatic ‘out of office’ emails as contact.

The After Sales Area Manager wrote to me (spelling my name wrongly – that really bugs me because it suggests sloppy standards and that’s not good in the automotive industry, ask British Leyland and a host of other dead automotive brands).

In his letter he informed me that BMW cars have a 3 year warranty on paint defects and 12 years unlimited mileage against paint corrosion and a bunch of other irrelevant stuff that just rubbed salt into my wound.

So I wrote back to him suggesting it is only right and fair that BMW takes full responsibility for these defective components and replaces them free of charge. I asked him as the representative of BMW to accept this responsibility and ensure this negative experience doesn’t escalate further.

Later he called me and we spoke for about 10 minutes. I once again explained the problem and when I finished he said it didn’t matter because BMW was not going to replace the parts free of charge and that “You have a contract with the dealer not BMW.” Stunned at this response I asked him to pass me to someone in customer service or management who might be a little bit more empathetic but he refused saying, “I’m not going to escalate this higher.” Shocked I told him that in that case I would take my complaint public and he laughed and said, “I’m going to end this call because you are wasting my time.”

And that’s as far as I got. All I wanted was you to accept responsibility for a couple of substandard parts. To see the bigger picture and give a little bit back after 25 loyal years and numerous positive recommendations. But I didn’t get it. There was no empathy, no demonstration of your customer focused values, despite what you say in your recruitment video and a complete lack of concern over my situation.

So as it stands I really can’t see myself buying another BMW because I’ve lost faith in the brand. I really like the clever way you use a German speaking Chinese lady to communicate your caring and customer focused culture and “reaching out to the individual and speaking to him in a very personal way” but as a customer, I’m not feeling it.

Certainly that culture hasn’t filtered through to the people in your office in Malaysia. Certainly not the one who told me “he was going to end the call because I was wasting his time”. And contrary to what the confident girl said in the video, the culture of your company appears to be very different to what it actually is.

My friends will probably be happy because I’m a very vocal brand advocate so at least they won’t have to listen to me yapping away at how great BMW is. But they do have to listen to me whine about the cost of the repairs.

We’re going to miss those beautifully packaged boxes you send out with the “exclusively for BMW white card owners” on them that include a desk calendar for me to promote you and a brochure with ‘special offers’ that are not as good as I can get myself if I go directly to the company but I know you mean well.

So it looks like it is goodbye from me, your friend and advocate of 25 years.

Marcus Osborne – Kuala Lumpur. January 2015

Turbulence helps Singapore Airlines strengthen its brand

Singapore Airlines only recently reported its group operating profit fell 19.8% to S$229 million (RM564 million). SIA Engineering and SilkAir also reported lower profits while losses for SIA Cargo dived more than 40% from S$119 million to S$167 million.

And then a recent Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to London made it into the global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Air turbulence caused the flight to lose altitude just as breakfast was being served. Much of the food and drinks were left all over the cabin and passengers and a potential Public Relations nightmare could have resulted with irate passengers complaining across social media.

Milk and sugar?
Milk and sugar?

However, an event that the airline has little control over turned into a PR success thanks not to the Singapore Airlines corporate PR department but due to the professionalism of the crew and the community approach of the passengers.

As soon as it was safe to do so, the cabin crew checked every passenger and then, with the help of passengers did their best to clean up the mess. When the flight arrived in London, paramedics were waiting to treat the few slightly injured passengers & crew.

As passengers disembarked, the crew handed out an apology, chocolates and of course a big Singapore Airlines smile. A potential disaster averted with good training, responsibility and a customer centric mentality.

Read the full story here

How to build a luxury automotive brand in the tough Malaysian market

The Malaysian automotive industry consists of two low-end manufacturers. To help these manufacturers, the government protects them with massive import duties, sales and other taxes that can jack up the price of an imported car with a large engine by as much as 155%.

In addition to these taxes an Approved Permit (AP) is required to import a car. These can cost around RM30,000 (US$10,000) each.

This makes it a tough country in which to sell foreign cars, especially luxury vehicles. To give you an example, a BMW 3 series that costs approximately £30,000 (RM150,000) in the UK, will cost about RM230,000 (£46,000) in Malaysia.

Top selling luxury cars in Malaysia
The BMW 3 series and the Mercedes C class are the most popular of all luxury vehicles in Malaysia. Sales of the BMW 3 series are around 2,000 units per year and the Mercedes C class slightly higher at 2,200 units. Both these models account for about 40% of each manufacturer’s total annual sales in Malaysia.

Mercedes Benz C class interior
Mercedes Benz C class interior

So you would expect any dealer that makes a living selling and servicing luxury cars to be on top of their game. Right?

In November and December 2012, a prospect visited a number of luxury auto dealers and had a few test drives. During one test drive, the sales person spent the whole time texting.

On another occasion, at a different showroom he was approached by an executive who began the discussion by arguing about whether a particular vehicle in the showroom was the latest model.

Despite operating in a very competitive space, neither sales executive followed up on the prospect’s visit. However one of them does send ad hoc emails focusing on discounts.

Eventually the prospect asked a friend to refer him to someone at one of the main dealers. He was introduced to a senior Director who referred him to a manager who referred him to an assistant manager. Despite this the prospect purchased a new Mercedes Benz C250 because this dealer offered a larger discount than any of the other dealers.

Even this luxury car dealer who got a referral from a supplier and made a sale with zero marketing investment has done little to build a relationship with the customer, preferring instead to simply sell a car. More on this later.

Selling a luxury product is not like selling a bag of rice
More than any other sector, luxury brands must have people who know how to build relationships with customers. The market for these brands is 0.02% of the Malaysian population. It is not like selling rice, LCD TVs, Computers or Fax machines where volume is the key to success.

Ensuring a luxury purchase requires an investment in time and effort to build a relationship. A one-to-one relationship with a representative that offers individual specific value, exclusivity and personalisation is what customers want.

Levels of service must be exemplary because customers in this space have so much choice and have worked hard for their disposable income.

They want to be seen as special, important and part of a select club and not simply as another anonymous person in an anonymous crowd buying an anonymous product.

In the first month after purchase, our buyer received two or three calls and both times the callers were essentially going through the motions of ticking service and satisfaction boxes.

Since then he has heard nothing. Then last week he received a text message. It is enclosed here, in full.

Poorly written, too familiar and a lazy way to try and upsell a luxury product!
Poorly written, too familiar and a lazy way to try and upsell a luxury product!

Pathetic I know. And the cars listed in the text are not cheaper. We’re talking about RM350,000 (£75,000) and upwards!

Now manufacturers, dealers and salesmen are going to say that all that matters is price and discounts but that is only because you cannot be bothered to build relationships with prospects and customers.

So what should this dealer of luxury automobiles do differently? Here are 10 things they need to do and do fast:

1) Recruit the right people and train them not with generic training courses that are used for automotive today and property tomorrow, but with bespoke training relevant to your brand, your industry and your customers.
2) Use technology correctly. Text messages are not a sales tool.
3) Put in place processes and systems that must be adhered to. For instance, if a member of staff has never met a customer before, the relationship must start on a formal footing, at least to begin with. Depending on how the relationship evolves, staff may be allowed to become more familiar.
4) Telling isn’t selling. Appeal to prospect emotions by identifying individual requirements for value and matching your product attributes to those preferences. You don’t sell cars, you realize dreams.
5) Service, service, service. Every interaction with a luxury brand must be of the highest level and expectations must be exceeded every time.
6) Make the experience of dealing with the brand special, unique, glorious but never, ever assume the customer will come back.
7) Too many brands spend a fortune on marketing and then practically ignore the customer. You have a 50% chance of selling to an existing customer and only a 15% chance of selling to a new customer. But sending a poorly written text is not going to retain a customer.
8) Don’t discount.
9) Carry out a sales process audit and sales skills analysis (yes, we can do that for you) and improve the skills of your customer facing staff.
10) Don’t waste time measuring satisfaction. It offers no value.

There is talk of liberalisation of the Malaysian automotive market but the reality is there won’t be any significant changes soon. Luxury brands need to know how to build relationships and realise dreams, not sell cars.

Successful brand building is determined more by customer experiences than by slick advertising campaigns

Far too many companies, whether Multi National Corporation (MNC) or Small, Medium sized Enterprise (SME) think or are led to believe that the fast track way to branding acceptance is to spend large amounts of money on high quality TV commercials, billboards or print advertising campaigns that showcase their products or services and communicate corporate driven messages to consumers.

But just because telecommunications companies, banks, oil companies, soft drinks firms and others spend considerable amounts of money on advertising doesn’t mean that the advertising is the reason for their success or that it is right for you.

In fact quite often, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the advertising campaigns initiated by these companies. A case in point is the current Celcom campaign “Ini Wilayah Celcom” prominent on billboards across Kuala Lumpur. With current mobile penetration in Malaysia around 125% of the population, it doesn’t make sense for Celcom to be creating awareness with expensive outdoor campaigns.

Unsurprisingly, at end of many such campaigns, there is often very little change in the fortunes of the brand. Which is why many of these advertising campaigns, do little to build brands and should not be emulated by other companies.

Because a key element of whether or not your brand building is successful will depend not on what you tell consumers through paid media but on the experiences consumers have with your personnel, your business and your products.

Put simply, if you manufacture furniture and spend a lot of money advertising a new furniture range but the furniture breaks all the time, you may make some sales but your brand will suffer as consumers avoid making a return visit and worse, discuss their issues with other consumers on and off line.

Likewise if your staff are slow, rude, inattentive, badly groomed, lack product knowledge, unhelpful and poorly trained, you may make a sale but the customer is unlikely to return and you can be sure they will share their negative experiences with others.

Furthermore, these negative experiences will be spread across the Internet using social media tools and in coffee shops, bars and so on will have a negative impact on your brand. Even sales of previously successful products may be affected negatively.

However, treat customers well and they will remain loyal. In a recent survey by Spherion, 97% of those questioned said a great experience makes them more likely to buy more of a product or repeat a service. However, once they have a bad experience or their trust is lost, it’s very hard to win back. To have a chance of winning back their business, 22% want a simple apology, 10% want a complete refund, and 8% would want incentives or coupons and even then there is no guarantee.

But 46% said that it would take an apology, a complete refund AND coupons or further incentives to have a chance of winning back their business. The implications therefore on your brand, of delivering a bad experience is costly and time consuming.

For the record, 15% said absolutely nothing would atone for their bad experience.

So you can try to shape the perceptions of your products or services with advertising, PR, advertorials, nice brochures and with content across social media and elsewhere but the reality is that the success or failure of your brand will be determined by experiences and how customers discuss your brand after the experiences.

Apple for example charges a premium for its products. It sells the sort of stuff – computers, smart phones, MP3 players – that lots of other people sell yet sells them at a premium. Margins for Apple iPhones are in the region of 50% compared to a meagre 6.2% for Nokia smartphones.

Furthermore, Apple ‘only’ spends US$250 million (2009) on advertising compared with Microsoft US$1.4 billion and Dell US811 million. In terms of a percentage of sales, this equates to 2.4% for Microsoft, 1.3% for Dell and 0.5% for Apple. RIM, manufacturer of the Blackberry spends 3.6% of revenue on advertising.

New technology companies that have sophisticated digital strategies and use email to market themselves spend even less on traditional advertising. Google spends only US$11 million on advertising or 0.05% of revenue. Amazon is a little higher at US$43 million or 0.17% of revenue.

As a general rule of thumb, spending less than 2% of revenue on advertising is considered low. For the automotive industry average advertising spend is nearer 3.5% of revenue. For alcohol it is more like 7% and for packaged goods and most other industries, as high as 10%.

Firms such as Apple, Google, Amazon and others are not successful because they spend huge amounts on short term advertising campaigns to create awareness but on innovative design, quality products and excellent service that is uniformly outstanding across all customer touch points such as in stores, whether bricks and mortar or online.

Consumers will pay more for Apple products because they are guaranteed a quality product (as well as inclusion into a not so unique club of Apple users) that will not fail them. And if it does, customers know they can go back to the store and seek a replacement or have repairs carried out under warranty.

Unfortunately most MNCs and SMEs don’t appreciate just how important the customer experience is. And the increasing popularity of social media means that consumers are voicing their dissent, not just to a few friends over teh tarik at a local Kopi Tiam but now to thousands and thousands of friends and followers and to their friends and followers across communities on Twitter, Facebook and more.

So as you try to build a successful brand, a core component of your strategy must be to build relationships with prospects and customers. You must learn how to manage relationships with customers, not just offline and during office hours but also online and at weekends.

Because unless you have a unique product or service (and few companies have unique products or offer unique services today), customers may buy from you if they have a bad experience but they are unlikely to come back again. And because of increased competition, it is impossible to build a brand on a business model that relies on new customers all the time.

Make sure that at every touch point where consumers interact with your brand, the experience for those customers is a positive one. This becomes a greater challenge as a company grows and if you get it wrong, what was once a nice little niche business with a manageable group of customers who all spoke positively about the company can become, almost overnight a loss making enterprise with fewer customers and a bad reputation for over promising and under delivering.

Ensure that every sales contact, service delivery and customer service interaction that the customer comes into contact with is positive as this will have a positive impact on your brand. Even suppliers need to be treated with respect.

But even if you invest heavily in customer relationships, and even if you keep 99% of your customers happy, there will always be some who are not happy and are dissatisfied with your service. What do you do with them?

The first thing is not to ignore these important customers. Try to get them to explain to you what is the problem. Be prepared to listen and hear stuff that may sound unreasonable. Some customers will be rude, personal and even physical. But you have to make sure your people are trained to listen and empathise. Think KFC!

And where possible solve their problem in a way that is satisfactory for them, not you. I know this might be a problem for you and will certainly cost you money on that particular transaction but in the long run it will offer far greater returns.

If you try to take care of every single customer, both those that are not a problem and those that are you’ll create a positive reputation. Even if customers are frustrated with their experiences with your brand, if you show empathy and provide a solution that makes them happy, there is a good chance they will tell others that they were impressed with you and how hard you worked to solve the problem for them. And with a little incentive, you can probably convince them to come back.

Despite what you may have been told, mass advertising across mass media is not the holy grail to building a brand. Which is fortunate because it means SMEs won’t waste hard earned money on campaigns to compete with large conglomerates. But if you look after the customer and try to make every experience a positive one, you will speed up the process of building a brand.

Thanks to zendesk for the graphic above.

Effective use of Twitter to build your brand

This article first appeared in the 29th November print edition of The Malaysian Reserve

Earlier this week at the launch of the 1Malaysia Social Media Convention, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak announced that the Barisan Nasional (BN) was developing an army of BN friendly cyber practitioners to engage consumers online.

The PM said at the launch, “As a party that wants to be relevant, we have to change according to the change in time”. The Malaysian Prime Minister should be applauded for his grasp of the importance of Social Media because there are over 12 million Internet users in Malaysia and Social Media is responsible for one third of the web traffic in the country.

The Prime Minister understands that social media has transformed people’s behaviour, their expectations and how they like to express themselves. Unfortunately, although the Prime Minister is aware of the importance of Social Media, most corporations appear oblivious to the impact of Social Media on consumers and the way they learn about and share information on products.

This may be because up until recently companies have been able to manage their communications but this is changing and today, consumers no longer respect or trust slow, opaque, bureaucratic, dictatorial corporations and the structured PR and advertising they like to push out across traditional broadcast media. In fact a recent study noted that a staggering 86% of Malaysians don’t believe what advertisers tell them in traditional ads!

Consumers are fed up with the automated voicemail that greets them when they call with a product or service issue. Especially as many corporations use the inevitable waiting time to try and sell something else to a customer who is often seething at the company and is not in the right frame of mind to be sold to.

Today, consumers expect, no demand to be able to talk to the right person at the right time.

Today, successful organizations are the result of being human, responsive and transparent. And consumers will communicate with these companies across open and transparent social media communities such as Twitter, Facebook and others.

So over the next few months we’ll talk about some of the most likely social media tools you can use to communicate information about your brand and how those tools can be used for businesses such as yours.

This month we look at Twitter, what it is and how you can use it to build your brand.

Worldwide, there are now 100 million active Twitter users and daily Tweets are over 250 million. Most top actors, athletes, politicians, businessmen and artists are active on Twitter.

Every news, current affairs and sports programme proudly displays its Twitter account name. Global events anywhere in the world break first and spread faster on Twitter. While CNN is showing 2 day old sports’ scores on its ticker tape, Twitter is providing those who are interested with ball by ball updates live from the next days play.

Barack Obama has 11.2 million followers, Datuk Seri Najib Razak has 295,000, AirAsia has 245,000, Amazon has 149,000, Firefly has 47,000 and the numbers are growing fast. In Asia, Indonesia has the most subscribers to Twitter whilst there are about 1 million in Malaysia.

It is important to understand that Twitter is not another Facebook. Facebook is best described as a few to a few social network created with a goal of sharing personal information and life related stuff with friends. Only once two people ‘friend’ each other can information begin to flow. Twitter on the other hand, is a one to many social network that allows me to say follow Firefly to keep abreast of their offerings yet they don’t have to follow me back to make the relationship work.

Twitter allows prospects and customers to instantly connect with you. Brands are no longer defined by the campaigns created by marketing and PR departments within companies. In the social economy of today, brands are defined by consumers or more specifically the experiences those consumers have with brands.

Get it right and you’ll build a brand. Get it wrong, and consumers will ensure your brand fails.

One of the reasons for Twitter’s success is because consumers got fed up with the automated responses they were faced with every time they contact a company.

Twitter is a popular platform to disseminate news about your company. If you have set up your Twitter account properly, Twitter is a dynamic and inexpensive platform for you to post information relating to your brand. A well planned Twitter strategy can help keep prospects and existing customers abreast of new developments and engaged. Beware however that it is not a broadcast medium and you must know when to stop. Constantly sending out the same message will have a negative impact on the brand. It’s also important to respond to comments from consumers related to your announcements.

Twitter is an excellent platform for sourcing actionable data. Twitter lets you find out priceless information about your customers – their opinions of your brand, what they like and/or dislike about your brand, what they think of your competitors, recommendations for improvement and much more. Twitter gives you an opportunity to improving your business, often without the need for costly investments.

Twitter helps you to humanize your brand. Twitter allows you to reach, communicate and engage with consumers and match your product attributes to their requirements for value whilst other companies are publishing generic ads in newspapers or attempting to convince consumers with PR.

Twitter lets you send the right message to the right people immediately. By using groups, lists, communities and other Twitter features effectively, Twitter lets you distribute news, make announcements, inform or create awareness of special offers to the right people in real time. No more waiting a month for the magazine to come out or 24 hours for the newspaper (assuming they have the space).

Being active and effective on Twitter communicates a company at ease with technology. Being a part of the Twitter community shows that you are moving with the times, that you embrace technology and are an open and transparent organization.

Twitter case study
A frequent business traveler between Malaysia and the UK was a loyal user of Budget Rent a car. But after a 13 hour flight, the business traveller was forced to wait two hours for a pre booked car. He stayed with Budget until on another occassion he received a bill for £86 because he forgot to pay the £10 congestion charge. So he decided to look for another car hire company for his next trip to the UK.

Using a price comparison site he came across Sixt, a company he had never heard of. The company offered an attractive pick up and drop off within a 5 mile radius of the nearest showroom. But when the businessman was booking the car hire on line he couldn’t find out any information on the pick up service.

So he turned to Twitter and asked for help. Within 5 hours the MD and CEO of Sixt had both contacted him with a request for his email address so that the @Sixt customer service team could get in touch.

Arrangements were made with customer service for the pick up and as a nice touch the car hire company upgraded him to a premium car. The experience was seamless, quick and pleasant. The businessman then shared, across multiple social media platforms details of his experiences and I am now sharing his experience with readers of this Blog and across Twitter, Facebook, Stumbleupon and more.

What was the cost of the positive buzz and acquiring this new, influential customer from a competitor? In terms of time perhaps an hour at most. Financially, next to nothing.

Build a brand with the basics

Right near my office at Phileo Damansara in Petaling Jaya, a luxury German auto manufacturer has two billboards advertising its top of the range luxury autos. One is a saloon and the other is an SUV. I like this particular SUV so much that if I was still putting posters up on my bedroom wall, the SUV would be front and centre.

This company also has a number of billboards at other locations around the city of Kuala Lumpur and in the suburbs featuring a smaller version of the SUV (for which there is a 1 year waiting list) and other versions of the saloon. It also spends a lot of money on print ads and recently advertised their top end coupe in a Malaysian daily and a Malaysian business weekly.

Cars in Malaysia are expensive as import duties can go as high as 300% for luxury vehicles. The full page full colour ad with standard automotive blurb also stated the price of over RM1,000,000 (US$333,000). At that price, there are probably no more than a handful of people in the country who can afford the car. Even if there are a 100 or even a 1,000 people in the country who can afford the car, full page ads in national newspapers are probably not the most cost effective channels to communicate with those people.

Now I’ve actually approached this particular organisation in the past to ask if we can come in a make a capabilities presentation. We didn’t get past the marketing manager who basically said that as sales were very good there was no point meeting us.

Judging by recent reports, the company is certainly doing well after the launch of new models in 2008. In fact, the company claims to have been Malaysia’s fastest growing luxury car brand in that year with sales up an impressive 102%. Moreover, sales continued to climb in the first 6 months of 2010 with sales up 66% over the same period in 2009. Impressive figures and the company now claims to have about 5% of the luxury market in Malaysia.

Anyway, seeing this billboard on a daily basis with the telephone number prominently displayed, was beginning to get on my nerves. So I decided to call the number. After all, if you advertise your products on a billboard and display your telephone number, one can only assume that you want prospects like me to call you.

And if a prospect calls that number you better have the processes and systems in place to ensure that the person receiving the call passes it on to the right department. And you better have the right processes and systems in place to ensure that the next person in the process does what they are supposed to do. In this particular case, call the prospect back. Especially when we’re talking about a luxury product.

So anyway, I called the number and asked for information about the top of the range SUV. The receptionist was very pleasant and explained that she would get someone from the sales department to call me back. I gave her my mobile number and waited for the call. That was last Thursday, today is Sunday and I still haven’t heard anything. Bear in mind this vehicle costs over RM500,000 (US$166,000).

Generally the point of billboards is to create awareness. A telephone number is there in the hope that the keen, desperate consumer who wants the product so much that he will take the time to record the number and follow through with a call. Of course most of us just ignore billboards and the messages on them. Indeed, it’s rare for a prospect to call. But there are always incoming calls that may just result in an easy sale to one person who may become a customer for life so if you don’t have those basic processes and systems in place to take the information and pass it on, what is the point of advertising?

Here are some more tips that will help this company improve its profitability, the most important metric for branding:

1) The era of the global ad buy is over. Different markets require different communications strategies. Whilst it may make sense to create awareness of a luxury product via national papers in relatively wealthy western markets, it is a waste of money in developing markets where the demand for luxury products is limited to only a few.

2) Brand building is about the long term. When you launch new products they will, if you are extremely lucky, fly off the shelves or out of the showroom. But this is the exception, not the rule. And anyway, this doesn’t mean that you can become complacent, sit back, put your feet up and relax. Your competition will soon catch up and your moment in the limelight will soon be over.

3) The whole point of mass market advertising such as billboards and newspaper ads is to create awareness with mass markets. That is why weekend copies of daily newspapers are full of ads for hypermarkets, supermarkets, discount stores, sales and so on. But luxury products require more than a mass market tactic to make a sale. If you must use these old fashioned tools, use them to develop a database of prospects so that you can qualify those prospects and invite them to your showroom if you think they have potential.

4) Many companies will have a system in place to act on incoming enquiries. But who is responsible for ensuring those enquiries are acted on? The system must also ensure incoming enquiries are reported to sales management so that they can follow up with the sales department.

5) Brands are built on offerings of economic, experiential and emotional value. That journey begins with the first contact. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on advertising, if you can’t deliver that value, prospects will go elsewhere.

Now I’m going to call BMW to get more information on the X5.

Even iconic brands need to do the basics

Since the first iMac came out back in the 1990’s, I have been a loyal mac user. I’m now on my third generation of iMacs, and currently have 7 macs in my office as well as 2 iPhones. At home my family uses 3 mac laptops, 1 iMac, 3 iPods and 2 iPod touch. We also have 3 airports at home and one in the office.

Last year I convinced my technologically challenged wife to buy a mac and she now has 8 top end iMacs, three laptops and two iPhones and an airport in her office. About a year ago I referred a friend to my mac representative who sold him six iMacs and a couple of iPhones.

Service not a priority in Malaysia
Service and looking after existing customers are not a priority for Malaysian firms. But my mac representative was a diamond in the service rough of Malaysia. He would come out to my house at 10pm to replace an airport fried by one of the 250 thunderstorms we get annually in this tropical paradise.

He would bring a replacement airport, install it, reconfigure all my kit and sheepishly give me an invoice. Of course the next morning I would take the invoice straight to my accounts dept and stress that it must be paid immediately.

Unfortunately he has moved on to pastures new. It’s a massive loss to me because his service was exceptional and could not be faulted or replicated. In fact he was brilliant.

So until I find a replacement and I expect that to take some time because he truly was unique, I have to suffer the ignominy of taking my computers to the Apple store.

I did this recently after dropping a laptop. Because one of the key components of building a brand is experience, I thought it would be a good opportunity to see if local resellers were on brand.

As far as I can tell, for such a small country, the mac landscape in Malaysia is a competitive one. There are a number of stores around the Klang Valley.

Machines is probably the largest premium reseller with 6 stores across the Klang Valley and one in Johor. Their flagship store is at KLCC. You can find their neat website here

Another company is Smack. Smack is an authorised reseller. You can find their price driven site here

In fact, according to ‘where to buy’ on the mac site there are 83 resellers, in Malaysia. This includes those authorised to sell iPods. That’s a lot for a company that only has about 10% of the PC market.

So it’s a very competitive environment. One in which you would expect resellers to do what it takes to hang on to clients for as long as possible. An environment in which you would expect resellers to do what they can to take business away from other resellers.

Walkins are potential customers
I took my laptop to a mac store in a nearby mall. Now think about this, here is a relatively new store, less than a year old. In walks a foreigner with an old laptop that has a problem. He has never been to that store before. If FusionBrand were working with this retailer, he would understand that this guy represented an opportunity to gain a customer. And as he was unfamiliar and did not register when his name was entered into the database yet was a mac user, he was obviously a customer of a competitor.

I went to the counter where there were 3 or 4 guys standing around not doing much. None of them smiled so I said good morning and explained the problem. After a brief discussion the sales person asked if I could come back the next day because the technician was off that day.

I didn’t bother to ask why a technician would be off mid week. I said that as I didn’t really want to make another trip could I leave the laptop with him? Reluctantly, after discussion with his colleague he said yes but that it was company policy to charge RM100 (US$30) to carry out a diagnostic.

This isn’t much money but the salesman in me says this is the wrong way to do business. Here is a potential new customer with a long record of buying macs (they don’t know this of course because no attempt has been made to build rapport with me). Surely it would be a great idea to score some PR points by sitting down with me and getting to know me before charging an irrelevant diagnostic fee?

Anyway, long story short, I was bored by now but to put the boot in, I said I would go to the other store nearby. He shrugged and handed me the laptop.

I went to the other store in a mall nearby (next to a Starbucks with wifi, neat). Now I have been to this store before and it was where my super salesman worked but the turnover is high and I didn’t recognise the guy working there. Nevertheless, when I walked in I was greeted with a cheerful hi. I explained the problem and the guy told me to leave it with him and he would call me when he found out the problem. That was on Friday. On Monday, I got a call from him with some bad news. It’ll be interesting to see if he attempts to sell me a replacement when I go to collect the laptop.

Poor service
Now this is not a rant about poor service, I’ll leave that to others much better qualified than I. This is an attempt to show companies that branding is more than advertising, logos and so on. Building rapport, gathering data, qualifying prospects, engaging them and building towards a sale are all critical components of branding. Because many brands, especially Asian ones, won’t have the resources that Apple has.

Here are 5 things to do that will help to build your retail brand

1) Every walkin is not only a potential customer, but possibly a customer who is currently with a competitor. Be nice to them.
2) Develop 5 or 6 conversational fact finding questions that will give you the data you need to make informed decisions on how you want to proceed with the prospect.
3) The 1980s are gone and with it the concept of ‘company policy’.
4) Going the extra mile will ensure loyalty and loyalty is critical to profitable branding
5) Train sales personnel to sell because a lot of people want to buy but don’t know how to and so need a little help.

3 words that can ruin your brand in Malaysia and Singapore

If you are in Malaysia or Singapore and you sell stuff to customers, there is one phrase that can ruin your brand.

“No stock Lah.” Is repeated time again by poorly trained and disinterested staff.

This seemingly innocuous phrase should be banned in your organization. While we’re at it, you should also ban the obligatory disinterested shrug of the shoulders that normally comes with the phrase.

For the uninitiated, the phrase is common in retail outlets the length and breadth of Malaysia and still, despite the alleged sophistication of the city state, in many of the malls up and down Orchard Road in Singapore.

This simple yet powerful phrase, used with annoying regularity in both discount stores and swank boutiques of luxury brands negates every penny your organization has spent on sales training, reputation development, customer service, customer relationship management and other operational excellence initiatives.

It renders worthless the massive investments you have made in licenses, real estate, interior design, stock, utilities and more.

It erases the hard work you have put into press releases, press conferences and other promotional efforts.

It undoes all the good of the advertising campaigns you have run for years in an attempt to get a consumer or two to give your brand a chance.

In a heartbeat, it ruins every single, expensive effort, financial and otherwise you have put into getting the consumer into your store.

In short, this seemingly innocuous phrase can ruin your brand.

A is for Advertising

This is a good place to start a compendium of branding terms because unfortunately, it is where many companies start their brand building. And that’s a shame, no tragedy because it is an expensive exercise in futility to try and build a brand using advertising alone.

Advertising can be traced back to around the late eighteenth century when the first print ads appeared in the USA. However, they were rarely much more than extensions of the editorial copy and newspapers were reluctant to allow ads that were bigger than a single column. Even magazines preferred to print all the advertisements at the back of the publication.

Mass advertising only really began in the second half of the nineteenth century when firms began to produce greater quantities of more and more products thanks to improved production techniques. Soon after manufacturing, other businesses such as department stores and mail order firms jumped on the bandwagon and by 1880 advertising in the US was estimated to be in the region of US$200 million. This grew to almost US$3 billion by 1920.

In the mass economy of the 1930s to the 1990s that coincided with the growth of mass circulation magazines, advertising companies proliferated. At the same time, companies wanting to stand out from the competition determined, quite rightly that the quickest way to grow was to raise the profile and awareness of the company’s product or service by informing or reaching as many people as possible in the shortest time.

The most common way to do this was via advertising, especially via TV advertising. The business of advertising is based on a model of repetition across mass media. OK, creativity is important, initially anyway, but once you get over the wow factor, the idea is to repeat the same message through as many channels as possible for as long as possible.

Budget played (and still does) a significant part in what sort of advertising an agency may recommend. It is important for you to know that from the advertising company point of view, the size of the available budget will determine two main points, 1) who works on the project (in terms of seniority and talent) and 2) what channels will be utilised. A larger budget generally results in TV advertising becoming part of the recommendations.

Other platforms include print advertisements, billboards, lamp post buntings, banners, taxi, bus and tube trains, coffee shop tables, flyers, leaflets and more. The introduction of the Internet has seen a proliferation of banner ads, tower ads, unicast ads, contextual ads, takeover ads, interstitial ads, floating ads, and other options to an already noisy, crowded and complicated marketplace. It is important to note that none of these initiatives are branding, they are all advertising and advertising is a tactical initiative not a strategic initiative, like branding.

In the mass economy and unfortunately still to this day, once a campaign has launched, probably to much fanfare, the client waits with anticipation to see the promised sales spike. Meanwhile the agency submitted any well executed commercials to one of the numerous creative shows that offer awards for creativity.

As mentioned earlier, repetition is important and with enough frequency, and perhaps a little vague targeting, this repetition was expected to encourage enough consumers to walk into a store or other outlet and choose or request the advertised product.

The model worked, to some degree fifty years ago but in today’s crowded marketplace, using advertising alone to build a brand is leaving too much to chance. It is simply too difficult to stand out from the crowd. Can you remember the last ‘great’ TV commercial or print ad that you saw? And even if you can, have you bought the product?

Quite often, the promised sales spike didn’t happen, unperturbed and with a straight face, the agency would ask the client for more money, arguing that it is the client’s fault as it should have made more money available in the first place for increased frequency. If you have gone this route, I suggest you bin the advertising agency and call a brand consultant.

Should you still use advertising? Absolutely because advertising will help your company project a vision of the relationship you can deliver to the customer. The ads also help you to educate customers about the value that you can offer them. Advertising must also communicate trust. Unfortunately this is forgotten by most advertisers, especially in South East Asia where outrageous claims made in advertising are rarely backed up in reality. In Malaysia for example, after years of being let down by claims made in advertising, only 14% of Malaysians now believe what companies tell them in their advertising.

But instead of seeking to increase awareness of your product or service with as many consumers as possible, ensure your advertising seeks to communicate with those consumers that are most likely to adopt your product or service.

Make your advertising relevant to those consumers you have targeted. Core messages must be related to those consumers interests, needs and/or desires. So rather than a one-size-fits-all approach in your communications, it is essential for messages to be about offering value to those specific customers and making their life better as a result. How to identify those consumers and what is relevant to them will be explored in brand audits and targetting.

The goal is to ensure a consumer incorporates an offering into their personal or business lives.

Adoption will ensure your brand is seen as the best, hey perhaps even the only choice. This won’t happen on its own. It is a process built on operational excellence, superb sales incorporating ‘top of game’ customer service and the ability to match offerings to the consumers individual requirements for value, on an ongoing basis. To build a brand retention is key and retention requires relationships and without relationships, adoption is not achievable.

And this is good news for Asian companies because the fact is Asian companies, and especially those from South East Asia, simply don’t have deep enough pockets to compete with international brands using outdated one-size-fits-all, mass economy tactics.