An open letter to Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar on the Malaysia Airlines rebrand

I was concerned yesterday when I read your comments that rebranding of Malaysia Airlines (MAB) is not a priority. It was reported that you said, “undertaking a rebranding exercise without having a strong foundation would create a vacuum in the carrier.”

TS Azman Mokhtar
TS Azman Mokhtar

This worries me because I think you are wrong. Malaysia Airlines desperately needs to rebrand. Secondly, you are contradicting what we’ve been hearing from Christoph Mueller who said, “A brand change is a necessity.” This contradiction is only going to make Mueller’s job more difficult, as well as confuse an already confused global public and weaken trust in the ability of the company, whichever one is trying to restore trust in its ability to run a global airline.

But most worrying of all, is that if you as the respected Managing Director of Malaysia’s flagship sovereign wealth fund are making such statements, I am concerned you have been given the wrong advice about what constitutes a brand and branding. Because the structural changes implemented in a rebrand form the foundations for the business to deliver on the promises it makes at every touch point and in relationships with existing customers.

It may be that you have been told a rebrand is nothing more than a creative driven exercise based around a new identity, tagline and statement. That these are then promoted across traditional channels using traditional media in the hope that the new identity will resonate with prospects, boost sales and retention and make the world forget about the twin tragedies, poor management, questionable practices, gap between promises and reality and shallow offering.

This of course is mutton dressed up as lamb and couldn’t be further from the truth. But sadly it is not uncommon. In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, with few conduits to consumers and limited competition, this type of creative driven branding often worked. Companies such as Coke, Malaysia Airlines, Nestle and Unilever spent billions of dollars using this approach and increased sales and made profits.

Broadcasting corporate driven messages across mass media is not branding
Broadcasting corporate driven messages across mass media is not branding

Mass media, which was so powerful during this mass-market economy, was the logical vehicle to enhance the impact of creative-driven branding with a corporate controlled message and reach and repetition. In this environment, the company defined the brand and the consumer accepted that definition.

But the mass-market economy no longer exists. Today’s customers are increasingly overwhelmed with those creative images, taglines and promotions and the disruptive nature of that messaging and underwhelmed by the gap between promises made and reality. They now block out much of the noise and look instead to other consumers for information.

In this new economy, where consumers not companies define brands, the definition of a brand and how to build one has changed. Creative ideas are great, but consistency, information, knowledge and relationships are better.

Whilst every brand is different, the fundamentals of building a brand can be applied across sectors. Today Tan Sri, if you want to build a brand, as apposed to make sales, you need to develop a long-term profitable bond between you and your customer. This can only be achieved if you understand how to deliver economic, experiential and emotional value to those customers and on their terms. And you must back this up with everyday operational excellence and at every touchpoint every time.

Once respected managers of sovereign wealth funds such as yourself, our CEOs and government servants understand that this is what constitutes a brand and branding, the sooner we will be able to build world-class brands or in this case rebuild a world class brand that can once again compete with the best carriers out there.

This is especially relevant as the TPPA and AEC will see a massive influx of competition. If we don’t have any brands, our companies will struggle to stay relevant in the new economy.

Tan Sri, I do hope you read this and see my comments as feedback not criticism.

Yours sincerely

Marcus Osborne
MD Fusionbrand Kuala Lumpur
Contributor: Nation Branding: Concepts. Issues. Practice. Routledge. January 2016
Author: Stop Advertising, Start Branding. Published March 2016.