Case study: Use research to form the foundations of a tourism brand strategy


A powerful country brand developed from a meticulously planned strategy that has at its heart the concept of providing specific value to specific identified segments and meticulously executed and measured can yield massive benefits for investment, domestic industries and culture.

And for most South East Asian countries, tourism will have a prominent role to play in their country brand strategies. And so it should be as most governments recognize the contribution of tourism to stimulating economic growth across all sectors of society.

It also helps that tourism is also considered to be the world’s largest industry with revenue of over US$500 billion. The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates International tourist arrivals for 2009 to be at 880 million. Although this was a 4% drop over the previous year, Asia and the pacific saw the first signs of recovery with positive growth in the last 2 quarters.

Going forward, the UNWTO expects international arrivals to reach 1.56 billion by 2020. Of these, almost 400 million are expected to head for Asia and the pacific.

But because of the tendency of politicians to seek a quick fix, most Asian tourism brand strategies look no further than creative advertising campaigns that look the same as many other destinations and are soon lost in the muddle of messages currently carpet bombing consumers.

One country in South East Asia has recognized the futility of this approach and commissioned us to develop a brand strategy based on trade and consumer requirements for value. Client confidentiality doesn’t allow me to reveal the country involved however I am able to share the methodology and some of the results and findings.

The project took just almost 2 years from appointment to implementation of the strategy however some urgent recommendations were implemented earlier.

The tourism office is tasked with marketing the country both domestically and internationally. Our focus was internationally. They were facing a number of challenges including:

Challenges
1) The increased effectiveness of competitor marketing strategies. All regional competitors are investing heavily in tourism products and developing segment focused branding campaigns.

2) Growing ineffectiveness of mass marketing, especially generic print & TV advertising. Increasingly fragmented media and an increase in leisure time activities are making it harder to reach consumers via traditional channels.

3) The increase in the influence of the Internet on the destination decision-making process, especially the increased influence of peer-to-peer networks. Figures released by The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) in November 2004 showed that 19% of holidaymakers booked their holiday online – six times more than in 2000. By 2008, this figure had grown to 67% (Online shopping survey). Only about 13% of those surveyed said they would use a travel agent. The Internet is also growing in importance as a communications medium through P2P networks with 34% of respondents to a Mintel survey choosing their destination on the basis of a face-to-face recommendation

4) Poor repeat visitor rates. Repeat visitors not only represent an increased return on the initial marketing investment but also tend to stay longer and spend more. Additionally, they represent a low-cost source of referrals and other word-of mouth advantages. Currently, the country has a below average number of repeat visitors compared to two main competitors which represents a threat to future growth.

5) Lack of awareness and knowledge of the country worldwide. What has been the impact of the country advertising? Has it been effective in improving the perception of the country? How much is it contributing to tourism in the country?

Our research showed that there were about 600,000 competing communities in Asia and more than 1,000 regional and national economic development agencies, all competing for visitors. This made it easy for even the most compelling messages to get lost amid all the destination claims.

We recommended to the client that in this cluttered environment, effective branding depends on data and knowledge about current and prospective visitors and not simply trendy creative campaigns featuring mass marketing tactics across all major channels.

Moreover, choosing the most effective branding strategy depended on sound market & customer research to determine current attitudes and perceptions toward the country among travel agents, previous visitors to the country and those that had never visited the country.

Measurement
By understanding the sources of those perceptions and attitudes, the client would be better able to evaluate current branding efforts, develop strategies to target high-impact segments with the most potential more effectively, drive internal education and other program development, leverage the emerging medium of Web 2.0, develop benchmarks to measure branding progress and ensure that resources were used cost-effectively.

The research could also be used to pinpoint, prioritise and drive online community-based branding. A core requirement as consumers spend more time in those communities.

Other key requirements included communicating knowledge of current branding and target market imperatives among personnel, as well as ensuring knowledge and data transfer.

After extensive discussions with the research division and others and to provide a 360-degree approach to understanding the brand, FusionBrand developed and conducted a multi-phase, six-month international research project that incorporated multiple research methodologies.

These methodologies included:

• 39 focus groups (FG) in thirteen locations in twelve countries comprised of 3 segments:
o Travel Agents
o Travelers who have visited the country in previous 3 years
o Travelers who have not visited the country but have traveled long haul in last 3 years
• Online surveys
o 12 countries
o Worldwide via client website
• Mystery shops in specific countries plus home country
• Internet CGM (consumer-generated media) monitoring & analysis
o 22 million blogs
o 60,000 usenet forums
o 6,000 discussion forums
o Plus podcasts, web sites etc.
• Internal brand audit in HQ and at tourism offices worldwide
o One-on-one, in-depth interviews with domestic & international staff
• External brand audit
o In depth interviews in specific countries
o 3 segments
o Tourist operators & agencies
o Media representatives
o Local tourism associations
• Communications audit (print)
o Brand analysis of print materials
o Comparative analysis of 11 regional competitor materials
o Framework for evaluation, scoring & future design developed
• Communications audit digital
o Own sites
o Brand evaluation based on Internet & customer relationship best practices
o Social Media initiatives

The countries were located in the following regions:

• Asia
• North America
• Europe
• Middle East
• Australia

The research project completely designed by FusionBrand was not only comprehensive, but innovative as well. For example, the Internet monitoring had yet to be accomplished by any destination, while the digital communications audit looked at what is necessary to advance into the emerging era of Internet 2.0.

Output was comprehensive and extensive and included:

• Recording and analysis of relevant input in complete reports
• County-by-country reports concerning perceptions and experiences with the country, including key influencers on travel destination selection
• Brand workshops for client personnel incorporating research results to ensure a corporate-wide understanding of the country brand strategy
• Analysis of Internet and marketing collateral relevance and effectiveness in segment-based branding
• Review of social media initiatives
• Quantitative benchmarks concerning experiences, perceptions, influencers and preferences of target segments
• Detailed insights concerning five key target segments identified in conjunction with the client

Each report not only included the findings from the research, but also prioritised recommendations for addressing the issues raised by the research.

Over 300 actionable recommendations
More than 300 actionable recommendations were made. These recommendations were incorporated into a comprehensive, segment-based brand plan that was developed over six months. The brand plan had a strong emphasis on the internet and social marketing and included strategic planning for marketing, advertising, both online and traditional, public relations, direct marketing, web and other programmes and outlined goals, messages, target markets, measurements, activities, timelines, responsibilities and budgets.

The benefits include consistent messaging and images among target markets, synergy among multiple programs, and elimination of uncoordinated activities that were wasting resources. Crucially, the brand plan also provides tools to evaluate program results.

In addition, in conjunction with representatives in country, country specific brand plans were developed. The Country Brand Plans are primarily focused on specific marketing activities within those countries. These activities include, but are not limited to, PR, local trade shows, agent recruitment and communications, cultural events, advertising, segment specific publications, promotional events, etc.

Although the brand strategy was for 2009, urgent recommendations such as consolidation and improvements to web sites and the appointment of regional PR companies were implemented immediately.

A key element of branding is consistency and yet, during the communications audit, the lack of consistency was evident. A strong recommendation was made for a corporate identity brand manual to be developed immediately. The manual was conceptualized and completed by FusionBrand in 4 months, during the writing of the 2009 brand plan.

Throughout the research and planning process, workshops were designed and presented to client personnel to keep them abreast of the process and educate them.

The project has been deemed a success with many targets met ahead of or on schedule. Furthermore significant savings have been made in a number of areas such as a reduction in collateral printing and a move to print on demand. Finally the destination has appeared on more than one ‘must visit’ destination for 2010 for the first time in its history.

Stop your product joining the 95% club


According to an Ernst & Young study, the failure rate of new U.S. consumer products is 95%. 95%! Imagine if Boeing or Airbus had a 5% success rate! Yet despite this appalling return, companies spend approximately US$1.5 trillion on marketing, and in particular advertising, annually!

A couple of years ago, (before the explosion of social media, Dominique Hanssens, a director at the Marketing Science Institute in the US and a professor at UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management, reported that the average advertising elasticity for established products is .01. He went on to say that if one of those brands increased its advertising expenditure by 100%, it would see a sales increase of only 1%.

He used as an example Anheuser-Busch. If the firm doubled the US$445 million that it was spending at the time on TV, print, radio, outdoor, and Internet advertising, it would enjoy a 1% increase in net revenues from the then base of US$5.7 billion. Put another way, Anheuser-Busch would spend a total of US$890 million to make US$57 million.

We have to accept that mass economy models that made global brands out of such products as Coke, Budweiser, Marlboro, Sony and others are no longer relevant. And if firms continue to invest in outdated tactics that no longer work, their products will join the 95% club.

If they are to survive, brands today must address current branding imperatives. Current branding imperatives include building and maintaining relationships with customers and partners, internal communication, education, understanding and adaptation of corporate goals throughout the organisations.

Clearly defined organisational processes that are developed with the customer in mind and not shareholders or the organisation. These processes must be developed for both customer facing and non-customer facing departments, not independently but in tandem.

Communications, including advertising are important, but not the traditional one size fits all mass market approach. Communications must understand the requirements of prospects and customers and communicate with them using content that resonates with them via channels that are relevant to them.

Branding imperatives also require effective use of technology and, most important of all, ongoing feedback, measurement and improvement. These establish the foundations for identifying prospects and acquiring and retaining (key to brand success) profitable customers.

If John McEnroe were to play tennis against Roger Federer today, using the racquets he played with back in the day, he might win a few points but he is going to lose the match. It is the same for companies who fail to adapt to the branding imperatives of today.

If consultants recommend you emulate models used by such brands as Coke, Pepsi, Sony and other mass economy brands that were built when tennis racquets were made of wood, show them the door. Likewise, enormous budgets, integrated, synergistic, holistic, innovative, design or creative driven, energetic, positioning campaigns will not establish a brand.

Companies, and governments must understand that there is no quick way to build a brand. It is this obsession and belief that there is a silver bullet and it is called advertising that keeps the 95% club growing.

Malaysians haven’t changed since 2003


Omnicom Media Group (OMG) announced yesterday that newspaper advertising in Malaysia is as effective as it was six years ago. The report also states that readers ‘take note’ of 57% of newspaper ads and that this figure has not changed, I repeat, has not changed since 2003.

The sample size was 1,023 readers aged between 15 – 34 in four locations. They were tested on their recall of 15 ads in different sizes and in different places in newspapers they had read. The number of ads tested was 2,452 that appeared in 15 ‘main’ newspapers.

The agency developed what they describe as ‘three indicators of effectiveness’

1) Ad Noting or ad recall
2) Ad read or readers attention
3) Brand recall

The reports states that bigger ads perform better with a full page ad yielding 21% higher ad noting than a quarter page. Furthermore 60% of colour ads are noticed compared to 53% of B/W ads.

I got my information from this article and not from the original report which I would love to see.

So I can only go on the above data, plus some other results that don’t deserve to be published.

So what is my beef with this report? Well, in no particular order, the first issue I have is with the methodology. The report doesn’t tell us if the responses were aided or unaided. Critical. My second beef is with the ‘indicators of effectiveness’. There was a time, many years ago when newspaper advertising, with its one-size-fits-all mass marketing approach was effective. But not today. Awareness, or noting, or recall is simply not enough to turn a prospect into a tryer. And even if readers are bucking the global trend and not blanking out these and other messages but are indeed noting these ads, so what!?

Another beef is with the number of ads and the channels. 2,452 ads that appeared in 15 newspapers. That’s a lot of ads in a lot of newspapers. Most of us would find it hard to think of 15 mainstream newspapers in Malaysia. I’d also like to know which ads they were shown. For instance, were 15 year olds shown Louis Vuitton ads? They might recall it but what are the chances of them buying the product?

When we have a first meeting with a prospect, one of the first questions we ask is, “Have you read the paper today and if so, which ads do you recall?” Very, very rarely does someone actually recall an ad. And many of them were reading the paper as we walked into the meeting!

The time spent by Malaysians online went up 24% from 3 hours a day in 2006 to 3 hours and 46 minutes a day in 2008. With broadband penetration forecast to be 50% in 2010, that figure is going to rise significantly. Already, 80% of affluent Malaysians (those with a household income above RM5,000) use social networking sites. The time Malaysians spend interfacing with traditional media will suffer. But perhaps the most telling statistic of all is one that appeared recently in the Star, “78% of people trust the recommendations of other consumers, while only 14% trust advertising.”

So even if consumers are noting or recalling or whatever the latest term is, it doesn’t really matter because 86% of them don’t believe what they read in the advertisements so they’ll never buy the product!

The organization is the brand


Japan Airlines was established as the national flag carrier of Japan in 1953. The government was the largest shareholder and for over 30 years, JAL was the only Japanese domestic airline with the rights to fly international routes. In other words, as a government entity it had a monopoly on those prized international sectors.

Rather than employing professionals in the industry, the government tried to run the airline, creating bureaucratic inefficiencies that had little inclination to deliver the value customers are looking for.

Hope came in the late 1980s when the government sold it’s stock in the company and the airline was privatized. In 2002 Japan Airlines System was incorporated to manage JAL and by 2006 the airline’s daily operations had reached 192 international routes and 387 daily flights.

A new brand identity and aircraft livery themed around ‘the arc of the sun’ was created and it was hoped that ‘the identity would help JAL build a stronger global brand and position a JAL flight as a means to acclimatizing to Japanese culture, attempting to attract more international business people flying to Japan to choose JAL over other international carriers’.

In 2010, JAL is fighting off claims of imminent bankruptcy by multiple media organizations. According to etravelblackboardasia.com, JAL has experienced financial difficulties for quite some time and currently owes more than US$5.8 billion.

JAL shares plunged to a record low in Tokyo trading last week, however the airline is still positive that it will experience a turnaround with the support of the Japanese government. The site also quotes a JAL spokesperson as saying that reports that JAL was planning to cut all of its international routes to cut costs are 100% false.

Well, only time will tell but it is crystal clear that the airline is in big trouble and is surviving on bail outs from the ETIC (Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corporation of Japan).

What lessons can other legacy carriers learn from this?

Using creativity to build a brand.
When Japan Airlines and Japan Air Systems merged, the idea was to provide the foundations for a more efficient organisation to compete both domestically and internationally. Nothing wrong so far.

Next came the development of the brand image. This was to clearly communicate the fact that the merger had created a new and improved organization. According to Landor, the JAL agency, “the JAL brandmark needed to express a new business philosophy and strategy and at the same time be flexible enough to apply at every touchpoint where travelers, airline employees, and travel advisors have exposure to the brand.”

Landor also says on it’s website, “The JAL mark reaches dynamically to the sky. It is derived from the motif of a rising sun, one of the best-known icons of Japan. The mark is drawn in a modern way and is reflected in the red sun on the tail of the aircraft. In 2002, the integrated holding company was established and the JAL mark was introduced. It is now visible in advertising, ticketing, airport environments, and the combined fleet of aircraft. Implementation of the design will be gradually executed through prioritized applications.”

Sounds good, but the problem is that consumers aren’t buying that stuff anymore. Positioning products belongs in a mass economy that no longers exists. There are too many airlines essentially positioning themselves in the same way. This is because positioning and the 4 ‘Ps’ are imprinted on the DNA of an entire generation of marketers. But the market conditions have changed and it is time to bury the concept otherwise we’ll see more companies in the same position as JAL.

JAL should have focussed it’s brand building efforts, not on reaching for the sky with a motive derived directly from the sun but on providing value to customers based on bespoke relationships with existing customers, access, relevant content to relevant segments, userbility, technology and more. Sure a slick identity is important but it will not build the brand on its own.

Strategic relationships
JAL was late joining an airline alliance which meant it couldn’t offer the interconnectivity of competitors. This has had a profound impact on the airline. ANA, JAL’s competitor joined Star Alliance in 1999, eight years before JAL joined ONEWORLD.

Operations
Although once the airline was privatised, it did reduce costs by cutting staff levels and employing cheaper foreign staff, it still operated at high unit costs which had a negative impact on operating effectiveness.

The right technology
It is critical to invest in technology that is user friendly. JAL’s flight planning software is awkward and confusing.

Flexibility
Like many airlines, JAL focussed on attracting customers to the high yield spots at the front of the plane. There is a general theory (I don’t know how true it is) that if you fill business class on a 747, the flight is paid for and the rest is gravy. This is a common strategy but in the recent economic meltdown it’s not a very effective one.

Despite no longer being a government company, JAL was slow to adapt to the economic situation and suffered as a result. It is imperative therefore that airlines become more nimble and whilst a strategic plan is important, it has to be versatile enough to adapt quickly to challenging market situations. At the same time, it has to be adaptable to take advantage of opportunities.

I doubt very much that the Japanese government will let JAL fail. But what about other Asian legacy carrier established by governments to fly the flag globally? Many of them are already sucking funds out of already empty coffers. Will they be alowed to fail?

Organisational excellence required to build global Asian brands


Not too long ago, the Michigan (U.S.) State Business School reported that every US$1 (RM3.36) invested in marketing earned US$5 (RM16.80). By contrast, for every US$1 (RM3.36) invested in operational excellence, returned revenue was US$60 (RM201.75).

Despite such data, the majority of Asian firms have been slow to grasp the importance of everyday operational excellence that requires a continuing commitment to quality service, as well as processes that are effective from the customer’s point of view and advanced supply chain skills.

Many Asian firms prefer to spend fortunes on tactics to acquire customers yet very little on the operational and other strategic requirements needed to keep them. Sales and marketing growth based on increased awareness are fine and important but they are activities to be embarked on only after the operational foundations are in place. This is because an acquisition only approach is generally unsustainable.

Therefore, once a customer is acquired, it is critical to develop relationships to retain them. Firms cannot simply ‘hope’ they will come back time and time again because, with so much competition, so many alternatives, if you are not communicating with them – and selling to them, someone else will.

Customers build brands
And because customers have the power to make or break our brands, Asian companies must learn to do business on their terms. At the same time, they must become focused on creating PROFITABLE customers (on average, 15% of customers are unprofitable), ensuring those customers become our brand ambassadors, and consistently increasing their share of wallet.

Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Pan-Am, Ford and so on, represent mass-economy brands. These Western brands were successful because they shrewdly used the tools of the mass economy. They positioned themselves by repeatedly advertising in the mass media of one, two or three TV stations, one or two newspapers and knew where consumers were most of the time as there were few leisure time activities to take them away from the home.

Global markets
They also used mass production to achieve economies of scale, and they used distribution to penetrate mass markets. Global markets were opening up, disposable income was increasing, competition was limited. Customer retention didn’t really matter. Markets were growing so fast, and the mass-economy tools were so powerful, that it is was fairly easy to acquire a new customer for everyone that was lost. They also had a large, essentially one segment, ready made affluent domestic market.

But today, the mass economy is dead. The mass economy was killed by the fragmentation of the media, new leisure time activities, the Internet, greater competition, globalization, immigration, increasing number of and power of retailers, marketing segmentation and other forces.

In its place, we now have the “Customer Economy.” Companies no longer have the exclusivity to make the rules and control information by “positioning” products or promoting “brand equity” through advertising and PR like they did in the mass economy. Moreover, where in the past, prospects were segmented by demographics and geography, now they are part of communities. In these circumstances, can advertising and PR be effective to build brands? As part of a comprehensive brand strategy, yes. On their own, no.

For example, in the 10 year period to 2006, the computer manufacturer Acer spent US$10 billion (RM33.6 billion) trying to build a global brand via advertising. The effort failed. Acer withdrew from the retail market and has only recently reentered it with a new strategy focusing on individual segments.

Sony mass market failure
In 2000 and 2001, Sony spent an incredible US$2.5 billion (RM8.4 billion) on advertising worldwide. The result? The first three months of 2003 saw stunning losses, a 25% slide in the company’s share price in just two days and layoffs of more than 20,000 workers worldwide.

Unperturbed, Sony again tried mass economy tactics in 2008, spending an astonishing US$4.9 billion (RM16.5 billion) to position its diverse range of products including televisions, Blu-Ray players, music players, Laptops, PlayStation games, movies from Sony Pictures and new music from Sony Music. The approach failed and Sony is now exploring a more specific product focused niche approach.

Asian companies
Asian companies obsess with using traditional marketing tools such as advertising and PR to acquire new customers. But what good does it do to acquire customers if you have no idea how long they are going to stay and how profitable they will be? Also required are investments in operational excellence and accountability.

There is also a belief by many firms that they just have to ‘participate’ in an activity to get business. One local firm we’re familiar with collected 200 qualified leads from a trade show, yet months later those leads were still collecting dust! They were waiting for the prospects to contact them!

Another Asian company invested over US$50,000 (RM175,000) on a trade show, instructed 3 ‘top’ sales people to represent the company at the trade show and then failed to train the staff on how to behave and sell at the trade show. Moreover, there was zero investment in a lead management programme for leads generated. This meant the company was unable to measure the effectiveness of the trade show.

Finally, within 3 weeks of the trade show ending, two of the sales people manning the booth left the company, taking all the leads generated with them.

As we work to move up the value chain, the goal of every Asian company that wants to build a brand must be profitability, backed by measurement and accountability. Reaching solely for sales or market growth is no longer enough.

Repeat business
Not so long ago, in the US, to reach its sales goals, Ford offered $3,000 in rebates and other special deals off the cost of the Taurus car. Ford maintained its market share – but at the cost of losing money on each vehicle sold. Interestingly, Ford learned from its mistakes. Its next TV ad campaign in the US was based on the following line: “The highest proportion of repeat buyers of any car in its class.” What better testimonial is there? Little wonder then that in a report released by LeaseTrader.com in August 2009, Ford had the highest brand loyalty of any American automotive brand.

Despite the obvious need to invest heavily in retention strategies, ask a typical advertising agency about the branding issues faced by Acer, Sony, Ford and other companies, and what do you think the most common response will be?

Exactly. Recommendations for more ads, in more media across more platforms! They’ll promise a better creative team to provide greater creativity, but what’s really required is accountability for results! The usual agency attitude of “spraying and praying!” may have been the best strategy during the mass economy when there were a limited number of media conduits. But in the customer economy, the proliferation of media outlets and competitive advertisers now makes it practically impossible to build a brand solely based on ‘spraying and praying’.

Strategic approach required
What Asian companies need more than anything else is a strategic approach to branding that is aligned with the new imperatives of the customer driven global economy. Branding in the customer economy requires a fresh look at how the organisation engages with customers, as well as market and profitability requirements.

Rather than a simplistic reliance on logos and creative driven, one-size-fits-all, repetitive advertising, branding today demands research, data, measurement, supply chain effectiveness, customer intelligence, service AND accountability to both customer requirements and resources spent. Only once the company has identified who it should talk to and how, can it start to talk to those prospects.

Because acquisition is so expensive, and existing customers make the best brand ambassadors, branding also requires an emphasis on the identification and retention of PROFITABLE customers. This is especially true as the balance of power shifts from sellers to buyers.

The payoffs from such customer-economy branding can be substantial. British Airways calculates that customer retention efforts return $2 for every dollar invested. The clothing label Zara has thrived against powerhouses like Gap by moving from four collections a year to releasing new styles every two weeks.

So, as Asian firms attempt to move up the value chain, it is imperative companies monitor their retention rates (which fewer than 20% of companies do), because it is the best indicator of future profitability and brand strength.

Track RFM (Recency, Frequency, Monetary Value) because it shows which customers may be prone to defection and which are candidates for up – or cross – selling. Since it is likely 20% of customers are generating 80% of profits, segment customers according to profitability, and develop unique value propositions for the top 1%, 4% and 15%.

Calculate the lifetime value of clients. For instance, Ford calculates that a customer who buys his first car at the age of eighteen, upgrades it every three years and services it at a Ford dealership is worth a six figure sum to Ford over a lifetime. Cadillac estimates the lifetime value to be $300,000.

Revisit dormant customers. And optimize spending by developing marketing ROI based on actual customer profitability.

Other areas of organisational excellence that are key to building global Asian brands include recruitment and training. The retail sector is only realizing a fraction of its potential. This is partly due to the lack of training of staff and subsequent indifference of frontline staff when interacting with customers. If there is no attempt to build rapport with a prospect, why should the prospect return?

This is also true of manufacturing. One company in Malaysia we contacted recently listed 2 markets it wanted to develop as the UK and France. Yet when we called the office, no one spoke English.

Building Asian brands will take much more than basic advertising and PR. Core requirements include research, accountability, operational excellence, data management and customer equity (lifetime value of customers).

In Malaysia, according to research carried out by PriceWaterhouse Coopers, 86% of Malaysian CEOs and their Board of Directors say that they believe in the economic potential of effective brand building. However, almost the same number of CEO respondents admitted that they do not have a brand unit to integrate brand practices within their organisation. Sentiments are similar in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam

Until those C level executives take the plunge and invest in their brands by building operational excellence into their brand strategy, the concept of building global Malaysian or other Asian brands will remain just that, a concept.

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Negative brand association


Watching news videos on the bbc website. One is on child prostitution (every father’s nightmare) in the US. I won’t go into the details. The video is preceeded by a commercial for HSBC.

It reminded me of a breaking news report on a TV news channel that I saw not that long ago. The story was about a suicide bombing in Iraq that had resulted in over 100 deaths. The ad on the ticker across the bottom of the screen was for Cathay Pacific.

Surely these brands would be better off not being associated with such horrific stories and images of cruelty, depravation, slavery, carnage and murder? Stories that show the worst possible side of the human race. Or perhaps HSBC deliberately positions the commercials before such stories because the commercial projects the image of good people. This is the sort of ‘out of the box’ advice that a creative agency might give.

Is there any scientific evidence to say these associations have a negative impact on the brand?

Does Air Asia need to be a brand?


Whenever I find a brand that matches its offerings to my requirements for value, I become not only a brand loyalist but also a brand ambassador. For years I was a Marco Polo member and sang the praises of Cathay Pacific to anyone who would listen. Then about 15 years ago I moved to Malaysia. Initially I flew Cathay, even though it meant going in the completely opposite direction to Hong Kong to pick up a connecting flight to Europe. But after a while, probably around the same time as I had run out of miles and therefore could no longer get an upgrade, I looked around for someone else to build a relationship with. The obvious choice was Singapore Airlines and I dabbled for a while but the hassle of changing flights in Changi and the extra 3 – 8 hours that added to my return trip meant this wasn’t really an option.

Next I tried BA for a while but they were in the process of pulling out of Malaysia so the only other option was Malaysian Airlines. I was reluctant, really reluctant for a number of reasons. MAS was horribly managed or rather mismanaged at the time. Safety was an issue, coffee shop talk was negative, morale was at an all time low, rumours of imminent sabotage were rife and the numbers suggested a severe crisis was due. But by then I had no choice as MAS was the only airline flying directly to London.

It was a gradual process but in the first year I flew a lot of domestic and international miles. I learnt the system and was able to get the best out of the airline which allowed me to experience all classes. It wasn’t so bad and by the end of the year, I was a Malaysia Airlines loyalist.

When AirAsia arrived I dismissed it as a little upstart, out of it’s league and destined to go the way of Pelangi Air and many others. The LCC model wasn’t something I believed in. Since when was travel no more than stuffing as many bodies as possible into the smallest plane that could fly the distance required? But a couple of years later I had to fly to Macau and the only flight that matched my schedule was an AirAsia flight. I swallowed my pride, apologised under my breath to the MAS 747 taxiing past the terminal and boarded the brand new Airbus, so crisp, clean and shiny compared to the 25 year old MAS Boeings and their tired interiors.

As I boarded, I was greeted by a smiling face and enthusiastic personalities that was contagious and impossible not to like, especially compared to the glum and tired looking MAS crews. Since that December day in 2007, I’ve become a regular AirAsia customer but every time I chose AirAsia, my choices are made based on price – RM680 for my wife and I to fly to Singapore and back compared to RM1710 on MAS and so on. I justify delays by reminding myself of the price and the savings. I reluctantly accept the fact that I have to pay (more and more) to check in a suitcase. I bite my tongue at the instructions that say I cannot take my own drinks on board. And this is key, I don’t have a relationship with AirAsia. And with the exception of 2 trips where I flew the night before a meeting, none of the trips have been time sensitive. To me it’s simply buying a commodity. Perhaps this is the way the business of flying is headed. Perhaps LCCs are the new legacy carriers and this is how all flying will be.

If this is the case, then fine. But how does a LCC like AirAsia build brand loyalty and the far more profitable repeat business critical to brand building? I’m fortunate in that I’ve not been subjected to one of the delays just about everyone I know has been subjected to when flying AirAsia. But when I do, I’ll immediately look at the other LCCs plying the same routes and I will switch in a heartbeat. As far as I am concerned, there is no brand loyalty with AirAsia. So essentially, the company model is based on the hope that there will be enough demand enough of the time on enough of the routes. If this is the case, then AirAsia doesn’t need to be a brand.

Perhaps this is enough for the aviation business to survive, and perhaps thrive. But judging by the LCCs in the US, I doubt it. What do you think?

It failed once so let’s try it again


According to a Ministry of Health (Malaysia) survey carried out in 1996, there were 2.4 million smokers in Malaysia. This was a rise of 41% over the number of smokers in 1986. Today the country has about 5 million smokers, about double the number in 1996. One can deduce therefore that the number is doubling every 10 years or so. As of 2003, approximately 49% of all adult males and 5% of all adult females are smokers.

Of most concern is the prevalence of smoking among young Malaysians. 30% of teenage boys aged 12–18 years smoke while smoking among girls doubled from 4.8% in 1996 to 8% in 1999. The prevalence of smokers aged 15 and above has increased from 21% in 1985 to 31% in 2000. This compares with about 21% of the population in the UK who smoke in 2009, down from 45% in 1974.

No data is available on what smoking costs the country but we do know it costs the Canadian government around RM10.5 billion in direct health care and another RM38 billion in lost productivity. Meanwhile revenue from taxes on cigarettes totaled around RM9 billion. Canada is a good benchmark for Malaysia because in 2001 approximately 5.7 million Canadians smoked, about the same as Malaysia.

To combat the rising number of smokers in the country, a number of initiatives have been put into place. These include a rapid rise in the price of cigarettes and a number of health ministry driven initiatives to alert smokers to the dangers of smoking.

The first of these initiatives was an anti smoking campaign launched in 1991, in conjunction with the National Healthy Life Style Campaign. This extensive campaign that ran for over 10 years raised the level of awareness of the hazards of smoking among the general public, both smokers and non-smokers.

The “Tak Nak” campaign was initially launched in 2003 and consisted of TVCs, Radio, print and Outdoor (including school notice boards). Costing almost RM18 million (US$5 million) for the first year, and rumoured to cost in total RM100 million for the 5 year campaign, it was widely lambasted in the media.

This is because although the campaign raised the awareness of the effects of smoking, it did little to reduce the number of smokers. Even the Health Minister Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek said in 2005 that there was no indication that the number of smokers had gone down since the campaign began.

Despite the ineffectiveness of this campaign, in August 2009, The Malaysia Ministry of Health launched the latest (and most harrowing) installment (see video) of its anti-smoking “Tak Nak” campaign via TVCs. The TVC’s feature gruesome images of mouth cancer and lost limbs due to gangrene caused by smoking.

This campaign follows the legislation, earlier this year that all cigarette packets sold in Malaysia must carry graphic images related to smoking. These include images of the results of neck cancer and a dead foetus. Displaying these graphic images on cigarette packets is a requirement of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco control of which Malaysia is a signatory.

It’s not clear if the latest series of graphic commercials that are obviously designed to shock, and the images on cigarette packets are part of a strategic plan or two independent tactical campaigns.

I’m not sure what the goals of the latest campaign are but I am sure they do not want to simply raise awareness of the dangerous side effects of smoking. I would imagine the goals include reducing the numbers of smokers in Malaysia and discouraging young adults of both sexes from taking up the habit.

If these are the goals then one has to question whether or not this is the best tactic. Certainly evidence from previous campaigns in Malaysia and other countries suggests that campaigns featuring shocking images and graphic descriptions of the consequences of smoking using old economy tools such as TVCs, print ads and outdoor are ineffective.

Malaysia spent RM100 million over 5 years on such a campaign that was inneffective in bringing down the number of smokers in Malaysia. In the UK, after extensive research of more than 8,500 smokers over a ten-year period, the Institute for Social and Economic research found that the warnings on cigarette packets that smoking kills or maims are ineffective in reducing the number of smokers.

Likewise, chilling commercials or emotionally disturbing programs are also ineffective. The study also discovered that when a close family member become ill from the effects of smoking, the smoker takes no notice. In fact, according to the study, smokers only reduce the number of cigarettes or sometimes quit when their own personal health is at stake.

And even failing health may not persuade a smoker to reduce or even stop smoking because smoking is linked to a lack of psychological wellbeing and often failing health results in psychological decline.

I have a hunch that this campaign will not reduce the number of smokers in Malaysia. Data shows that traditional marketing tools are even less effective today than they were 10 years ago.

What is required is a data driven approach to the issue. Specific and comprehensive qualitative research with relevant targeted questions related to each segment (and each segment will be specific and targetted) that are designed to deliver actionable data. It is imperative that the audience is identified and then communicated with using content that resonates with them. It will be a long term effort. That doesn’t mean repeating the same one size fits all commercials or messages, this means developing a relationship with these partners through engagement.

Also critical to the development of the strategy will be the buy in from stakeholders such as doctors, educators, retailers and others. Discussions must be held with these key elements to determine strategies. Once research is completed and analysed, a comprehensive strategy must be developed featuring a fully integrated program to communicate with all stakeholders with specific emphasis on education at kampung level and dynamic, preventative programmes for schools. Existing smokers will be targetted individually through interviews with doctors, rather than one-size-fits all shock and awe campaigns.

Only once the strategic blueprint is ready can the implementation begin. There is no easy way to reduce the number of smokers in Malaysia. It’s going to take a long term investment in time, effort and money. Wasting money on creative driven campaigns that have not worked in the past is not the way forward.

Warning: Viewer discretion advised.

Branding blunders – updated


Despite the fact that it is breaking new ground, there wasn’t much interest outside of the energy business when Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev announced in late June 2009 that Russia was entering into a joint gas venture with Nigeria’s state oil company. Perhaps it was because it was in Africa and energy deals are quite common in that part of the world or it could have been because the deal was relatively small, in energy terms at roughly US$2.5bn.

Whatever the reason, the story seemed likely to show up briefly in the trade journals and perhaps as a footnote in the business pages of a few mainstream publications. And then came the name. Naming is, depending who you talk to, ‘a fine art’ (most agency types) or ‘yanking a word out of your butt’ (Nick Wreden).

I don’t know who was responsible for the name of this new organisation. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a team of industry brains who put their heads together for hours on end to come up with a suitable name that would position Russia as the saviour of African energy. Having been involved in similar naming projects, I suspect they studied the companies and countries involved, as well as others from different parts of the world, the competition, the industry, maps, multiple dictionaries, probably in many languages, the planets, names of extinct animals, disused road names, drilling equipment and so on.

Finally, no doubt after many arguments, late nights eating artery hardening comfort food and tantrums that would shame any precocious 5 year old, and as the deadline loomed, these exhausted creative geniuses eventually made a call and decided to play it safe. They decided to use a combination of Nigeria and gaz. Let’s call it Nigaz!

As you can imagine, Twittizens were onto the story in a flash and are still tweeting about it a month later. Meanwhile, more sophisticated trade publications such as Brand Republic announced that the name had “rather different connotations” for English-speakers. Indeed.

So as this latest branding blunder plays itself out, I thought it would be an opportune time to take a look at some others that have made us chuckle over the years. There are ten of them (including Nigaz) listed below. I’ve created a poll and you the reader can vote and decide who is the winner!

10) One of the most successful taglines for Kentucky Fried Chicken was “finger lickin’ good”. The trouble is, when translated into Mandarin (or is it Cantonese?) it becomes “eat your fingers off”.

9) When UK telecom company Orange launched their tagline “the future’s bright, the future’s Orange” Catholics in Northern Ireland were angry because the term “orange” is associated with Protestantism.

8) The Mitsubishi Pajero won a number of awards around the world for being so robust. For brand consistency reasons, they wanted to use the name in every country. Unfortunately they didn’t do enough research in Spain and after the launch had to change the name because in Spain, Pajero means ‘wanker’. (In the UK a wanker is someone who masturbates).

7) Spain gets another mention for another failed automotive branding story. This one revolves around Chevrolet. Some time ago Chevrolet decided to introduce the Nova to the Spanish market. Sales were poor, why? Because in Spanish Nova means ‘no-go.’

6) No brand mistakes article would be complete without a contribution from Pepsi. My favourite one is the “come alive with the Pepsi generation” slogan, which in Taiwan is “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”.

5) And if we mention Pepsi, it’s only fair that we mention Coke. About 5 years ago, Coke wanted to break into the bottled water business. The name chosen was Dasani. OK so far. Coke announced that its “highly sophisticated purification process” was based on Nasa spacecraft technology. Soon after it was discovered to be a reverse osmosis process used in off the shelf domestic water purification tools. To make things even worse, just as the project was about to launch, it was discovered that the UK supply was contaminated with bromate, a chemical better known for causing cancer.

4) Five years ago, Cingular bought AT&T Wireless. AT&T was considered number one in terms of poor service. After the acquisition, Cingular binned the AT&T name. Four years later, Cingular Wireless was rebranded as AT&T Wireless.

I suspect the firm’s customers would have preferred that money had been spent improving operational issues rather than being wasted on a pointless rebranding exercise. Despite the re re branding, in 2007, AT&T Wireless generated the most complaints overall and the most complaints per subscriber, according to the FCC.

3) As personal branding seems to be getting a lot of ink at the moment, one of my favourite gaffs was the one about Lee Ryan (of Blue fame) who gave an interview just after 9/11. During the interview he was quoted as saying, ‘What about whales? They are ignoring animals that are more important. Animals need saving and that’s more important. This New York thing is being blown out of proportion.’ Many industry insiders consider these comments to be the reason for the demise of Blue.

1) One of the greatest naming disasters of all time must be the attempt by Dragon Brands to change the Royal Mail of the UK from a 300 year old domestic mail only (government) institution to a multi dimensional distribution company. Dragon Brands did a lot of internal and external research over a two year period and then assessed the aims of the brand using measures that included ‘the three p’s’ – personality, physique and presentation.

Next they took three circular like shapes and filled them with words such as ‘scope’ and ‘ambition’ and apparently (I’m not making this up) this brought together ‘the hard and the soft aspects of the brand’s desired positioning.’

This remarkable process threw up hundreds of actual words as well as some that were made up. Apparently the brain storming team favoured Consignia because it included consign and the dictionary definition of consign is ‘to entrust to the care of’.

The cost of the new name was £2 million. It lasted approximately 18 months.

Since this article was written we’ve had a couple of suggestions to be included in the poll.

11) When the Citroen C4 was launched in Malaysia (and no doubt elsewhere in the Cantonese speaking world), sales were poor. The manufacturer recruited expensive research companies to determine why. Apparently, C$ in Cantonese sounds like ‘stalled’.

12) Ken Peters reminded me of the fiasco back in the late 1990s, surrounding the sports attire manufacturer Reebok who launched a running shoe for women the ‘Incubus’. According to legend, Incubus was a “male demon who had intercourse with sleeping women.”

Positioning, part two


A couple of respondents to this blog (and thank you all for commenting) have used Coke and Seven up as examples of successful positioning strategies. I appreciate they are great brands and they were built up over time but that was during an economy that no longer exists. Many sugary drinks launched in more recent times using similar positioning strategies to build the brand have failed to make a significant impact or even failed completely. Even those launched during the mass economy era, when positioning was considered the holy grail, failed.

One example is Pepsi One, a diet cola lauched in October 1998. Sales were healthy enough to begin with thanks to a hugely expensive positioning campaign and Pepsi One soon had 2% market share. However, it didn’t take long for consumers to realise that it tasted much like Diet Pepsi. Pepsi One’s market share dropped to about 1% and never moved.

New Coke was launched in April 1985, it was an unmitigated disaster and in fact, it is considered by many to be the ‘biggest marketing blunder of all time’. This despite a huge advertising budget funding a massive positioning strategy. Remember in the 1970’s, Coke had been positioned as ‘The Real Thing’ and at the time of the New Coke launch, the tagline for Coke was, ‘Coke Is It.’ So basically, Coke tried to position it as ‘The New Real Thing’ or worse, tell consumers, ‘Sorry, Coke wasn’t it, this is it.’ Al Ries said it best, ‘It was like trying to introduce a new God.’ Even Mecca cola, that should really be the number 1 cola in any muslim dominated country, hardly sells anything outside of a few cities in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

BTW Coke is acknowledged as the world’s most popular soft drink, with about 50% of the global market. I would argue, and this is really setting the cat amongst the pidgeons, that what built the coke brand was not its positioning strategy and its iconic advertising, but actually its brilliant use of the supply chain via its franchise system and its ability to distribute to just about every nook and cranny in 200 countries and territories on the planet.

Other problems I have with positioning, and I didn’t really go into this in the earlier piece, is that developing a positioning strategy is extremely expensive and impossible to measure. So essentially you spend a small fortune to play a guessing game. If you are a multi national, like Coca Cola, then this may be an option, although if I owned, the stock, I would do my best to resist such an approach. If you are a small business, or even a large Asian organisation looking to develop a global brand strategy, you are simply wasting valuable resources in the hope that consumers or other businesses will take note, remember and buy your product or service. However, as Rick Page said, ‘Hope is not a strategy’.

One person commented that lower valued brands don’t occupy any position in the minds of consumers. If by lower valued brands, he means smaller sized companies, then he is right, they generally don’t occupy any position in the minds of consumers, because 1) In today’s fast paced, complex and cluttered world, most consumers don’t have any space in their minds for anything and 2) because the communications or content do not resonate with them.

Another comment was related to who is responsible for the brand, strategic development or the creative department. Well, brand building is a strategic endeavour not a creative exercise.