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


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

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

Introductions

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. THE BRAND
  2. BRANDING

The Brand

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

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

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

Branding

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

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

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

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

And you need a fair amount of luck as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital is underused & under appreciated

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

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

Industry wide structural issues

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

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

            3. What are the new norms for tourism branding?

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

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

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

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

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

Transparency is a critical success factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why it’s dangerous to hire the wrong freelancer


Even before the arrival of COVID19, the bottom had fallen out of the freelancer market in Malaysia. Once upon a time, freelancing was seen as the best of both worlds, work to your own routine, don’t have to answer to a dictatorial boss while only taking clients you wanted. Sadly life is rarely so simple and many freelancers have suffered.

A frustrated freelancer described the business to me like this:

Freelance graphic designers get friends asking them to do wedding invites for RM500, 3 days before the wedding. Even though the freelancer knew his friend was getting married, he didn’t ask for the business in case he was rejected. The friend getting married didn’t ask earlier because he’s disorganised or assumed his friend would do it. Plus he’s a guy and leaves everything to the last minute.

The freelancer is happy to get the job but 2 weeks earlier he’d won a RM5,000 job and had been paid RM1,000 but hadn’t started work on it because, well he’s a freelancer and works to his own schedule but the deadline is a week away and he was intending to work 3 days straight to catch up but now he’s got the wedding job so focusses on that because it’s for a friend and he can’t let a friend down and it’s a wedding, so he can’t push the deadline back!

As a result, the RM5,000 job gets put aside but he is too shy to tell the client. As the deadline approaches the client starts calling more and more often. Because he doesn’t know how to speak to clients, apologise and explain a new timeline, he ignores the client’s calls till he’s finished the wedding job which he does. His friend is really happy and pays RM250 and promises the balance later, blaming the wedding costs etc for the delay.

It’s his wedding and he’s a friend so the freelancer has to say no problem. Then he calls the RM5,000 client who ignores his calls because he’s got fed up and has taken the RM5,000 job and given it to someone else. Now desperate he starts looking for work but can’t find any.

He can’t chase the wedding guy because they are friends and it’s too embarrassing to ask friends to pay their debts. Besides, what if he tells other people in the kampung? He’ll never get another wedding job.

Meanwhile the RM5,000 client has found a freelancer willing to do the RM5,000 job for RM3,000 so even after writing off the RM1,000 deposit he paid to the first freelancer, he’s actually saving RM1,000 which should make his boss happy and his boss is more happy when money is saved than when value is created.

However, the freelancer who is doing the RM5,000 job for RM3,000 doesn’t put much effort into the job because he’s only getting 3k and it’s a lot of work and should really cost RM5,000 plus he didn’t get anything in advance because the client is pissed off with the first freelancer but why should he be punished?

I forgot to mention the original freelancer who did the wedding job used the RM1,000 deposit he got for the RM5,000 job for a downpayment on a 50 inch TV from Harvey Norman and desperately needs to make the next payment or suffer the humiliation of his neighbours seeing the TV taken away a month after it was delivered.

So he goes out and gets a RM5,000 job by offering to do it for RM1,000 with 50% up front so he can pay the next instalment on the TV. But after paying off the TV he’s got nothing left and TNB cuts off the power to his house so he can’t work. The client is calling him so he turns off his phone and goes back to his parents.

Meanwhile, all the companies that thought using a freelancer would save them money have seen deadlines and opportunities missed, brand equity reduced, reputation tarnished and large amounts of hair pulled from heads.

Across town in Damansara, a mother of three who markets herself as a social media guru because she’s got 10,000 questionable followers on IG and gets free products for promoting unknown skin care brands, suddenly realises that there’s more to social media than sharing 12 second videos of cats saving babies from falling off motorbikes in the suburbs of Boise, Idaho or ducks doing handstands. But she charged RM1,000 to develop a social media strategy for a government company with impossible to achieve follower targets because organic takes forever and she doesn’t have any budget to promote the posts which is probably a good thing for the rest of us because it’s less crap content clogging up our feeds!

So if you are thinking of becoming a freelancer or hiring one over a consultancy or an agency because they are cheap, think again. Think past cost and think about value. Cheap can often cost far more than moderately expensive. There are some good freelancers out there. But you need to find them. Not all of them are created equal and it can be very dangerous if you choose the wrong one…

10 ways to ensure your business becomes a brand in 2020


This is not a piece about the latest technological advances, gimmicks toys or 5G, 8K, robotics, foldables, AI and other buzz words. It’s about preparing your business to compete in 2020 and beyond!

So what will be the big branding shifts in Malaysia in 2020? Here are ten developments that will help you take your company from innocuous business to sustainable brand:

1) Seismic shift away from using traditional media to create instant sales to relationship branding to ensure long term success: In 2014, in a global attempt to unseat Apple at the head of the consumer electronics table, Samsung spent a heart stopping RM50 billion, yes RM50 billion on marketing with a large chunk of it on advertising. It failed.

For twenty years Proton spent in the region of RM10 – RM25 million annually on traditional creative driven marketing. During that period, Proton’s market share fell from 85% to 16% and it had to be bailed out by the Chinese.

In 2018, Unilever slashed RM1.2 billion dollars from it’s annual marketing budget. The impact on sales? Zero.

And then there’s Malaysia Airlines. In the lead up to the tragic events of 2014, Malaysia Airlines spent over RM1 billion on traditional media telling us about Malaysian Hospitality. In fact it is still using hospitality to sell seats but lost nearly RM800 million in 2018.

Everywhere you look, businesses that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a traditional, creative driven approach to marketing are struggling to stay competitive, repeatedly bailed out by the government or have already gone out of business.

In 2020, the old rules of marketing will no longer apply. Replaced instead by relationship branding. Relationship branding focusses the organisation on establishing a personal relationship at every touch point with every customer, all the time.

Based around a business with a deep understanding of the organisations’ abilities (and limitations), relationship branding will seek to build deep, meaningful relationship with prospects and customers by delivering outstanding individual value and memorable experiences at every touch point throughout the customer journey and beyond.

2. Co-creation is the new innovation: Fusionbrand, one of Malaysia’s most established and respected brand consultancies is working with a local fashion house to build a community around it’s best customers. Each customer is encouraged to participate in the design process by voting for designs online.

Designs that ‘win’ will be developed and marketed in the same way as designs developed in house. This simple but effective example of co-creation will help build relationships with prospects and customers while encouraging participation in the success of the brand and at the same time, generate discussions that will be far more effective than traditional advertising.

This more collaborative and transparent approach to branding is nothing new but it’s rarely done properly. Yet ask yourself, if you are in a positive, fulfilling relationship, where your partner treats you as a partner, are you likely to end it? Of course not. In 2020, successful businesses will look to build relationships not sell products.

3. Develop social media strategies to leverage its power, not treat is as a tactical after thought: 2018 was the year Malaysians finally understood the power of the internet and in particular, consumer generated media (CGM) when they used it to peacefully topple an authoritarian government that had ruled for more than 60 years.

In 2019 Malaysians experimented further by repeatedly challenging the newly elected government while flexing their muscle on numerous issues such as the economy, education, immigration, transportation and taxes.

The taxi industry, utilities providers and other monopolies incurred the wrath of the increasingly confident Malaysian consumer. They and many others are under increasing pressure to perform and will come under further pressure throughout the year.

One Malaysian property developer saw its reputation practically destroyed because of the power of social media and more importantly, its inability to represent its brand effectively online in a crisis.

2020 is barely a week old and social media has already contributed to the downfall of a minister. As the year unfolds, Malaysians will use social media to vent their fury on any business that treats them like fools.

This provides an outstanding opportunity for businesses that understand social media and how to develop a strategy to leverage its power. To do so, firms will need to be more genuine, authentic, accessible, transparent and human. One way to do this is by creating and managing online communities where customers interact with each other, often to the detriment of the brand. Attributes that don’t come easy to Malaysian CEOs but they really don’t have a choice.

The irony is that such transparency and collaborative approach is beneficial to the brand. The Ogilvy Loyalty Index found that such customers are worth six times the value of a “typical” customer while a McKinsey study found that these customers accounted for two-thirds of online sales.

4. Enhanced customer connectivity: With consumers increasingly choosing to shut out the more than 5,000 messages they receive every day, companies must accept that they need to look for more innovative ways to engage with and stay connected to customers if they are to stay ahead of the competition in 2020 and beyond.

The good news is that consumers are more willing than ever to share information and this, coupled with the increasing affordability of tools that provide better capabilities for segmented messaging mean there is no longer the ‘no budget la’ excuse for not integrating technology into any brand strategy.

Moreover, advances in geolocation collection and activity-tracking, mean that companies can provide personalised, custom content and offerings as well as anticipate needs and potentially prevent potential issues at a fraction of the cost of even 5 years ago.

A word of warning though. Enhanced connectivity means more interactions so personnel need to know how to represent the company and what tone of voice to use. Marketing automation and chatbots are not a solution on their own. It’s how you use them that matters.

5. Social branding: Increasingly, companies will understand that brands have social as well as economic value. This is a lesson that companies such as the Body Shop, Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s have long recognized. Think #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Movember for examples.

In 2020, companies will increase sponsorships of a wider variety of social movements. Sights like RankABrand are sharing information on how sustainable brands are. Expect Malaysian companies to pay greater attention to corporate governance, recognizing the strong effect that transgressions can have on their brands.

6. Product placement will not go away: As advertising becomes less effective, better enforcement of the PDPA act, do-not-call lists and more robust spam filters, companies will have to work smarter to get their products in front of consumers. Look for an expanded emphasis this year on product placement, not only in TV and movies but also in songs.

7. Blogs will get the recognition they deserve in 2020: Blogs are hardly new but they aren’t used properly in Malaysia or rather they weren’t up until 2018 when they helped bring down the government. An online tool powerful enough to help influence and change the voting habits of Malaysians while making obscure Swedish gamers international superstars and multi millionaires will be used extensively in 2020 to move product.

While there are many bloggers in Malaysia, not many of them are consistent. In 2020, we’ll see blogs begin their rise as a cost effective tool for internal and external community relationship builders.

Smart brands will recognise the power of good blogs such as syedoutsidethebox, Bangsarbabe and of course this one! The power of Blogs to fuel word-of-mouth, which accounts for 30-50% of all brand switching will be truly recognised.

8. Training and upskilling: 2020 will be a tough year economically, making competition even more intense. Moreover, international brands are now targetting Malaysia making it harder to find talent willing to join Malaysian businesses.

This means Malaysian companies will have to invest more in their personnel, treating them as an investment not a cost.

9. Brand audits will become fashionable: In 2020 smart companies will invest in hard hitting brand audits that identify what is right (and wrong) with the brand and provide a benchmark for future strategies.

Understanding where is the brand today, providing a clear vision and mission as well as making sure everyone within the organisation understands what is the brand, its values, what is its purpose and what their role is in delivering memorable experiences will be the key to moving from price driven businesses to brands so expect to hear a lot of talk in 2020 about brand audits [LINK].

10. Fast-forward to the end of 2020: Keep an eye on immersive communications. Talked about since 2005 or so, immersive communications has struggled to cut through the noise, mainly because businesses don’t want to make the investment, preferring instead to try and shout louder than everyone else because everyone else is shouting.

Branding is often not about new stuff, it’s about doing the fundamentals better than anyone else. Get that right, while delivering on promises made and you’ll see your brand succeed where others fail in 2020.

If you’d like to learn how to make your business a brand, contact us today

Another C level executive leaves Malaysia Airlines


According to marketing magazine, group CMO of Malaysia Airlines Arved von zur Muehlen lasted 6 months in the role before jumping ‘ship’ and joining a Canadian carrier.

This despite Malaysia Airlines crediting him with being “instrumental in restoring the airline’s position as a leading international carrier and developing its innovative customer-centric services.”

Only yesterday, Group chief executive officer Izham Ismail announced in a bullish interview with Bernama that things were improving at the carrier and the five-year Malaysia Airlines Recovery Plan (MRP) was seeing impressive results across the board.

Err, you don’t say! “the key focus in year 2018 included driving revenue.”

He said “…customer experience had also improved with market-driven metrics based on the company’s customer survey and net promoter measures showing significant positive gains over the last two financial years.” I don’t quite understand what that means but I do understand that this latest departure and the barrage of abuse the carrier is getting online and on an almost daily basis (See this earlier report with hugely embarrassing videos) suggests things are not so rosy down there in Sepang.

But one thing seems to be for sure. Despite the CEO saying things are really, really good, Malaysia Airlines is a springboard to better positions in more solid Western carriers because Muehlen is about the fourth Western C level executive to bail out in the last couple of years.

These videos suggest there is a disconnect between what Malaysia Airlines says and what it does


In the mid 1980s, I was working in the Middle East and when it came to taking leave, we had 2 travel options. Head West for Europe or East for Asia. Whichever direction, the airline recommendations were always the same – try to fly on Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific or Malaysia Airlines.

Why, because those airlines offered top quality service. Something the European carriers, with the exception perhaps of Swissair, were unwilling or unable to do.

Emirates arrived in 1985, Oman and Qatar Air in 1993, Etihad in 2003. Prior to that, the only Gulf carriers were Saudi Airlines and Gulf Air. Thanks to their owner’s deep pockets, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar accelerated the establishment of their brands with massive investments in brand experiences.

Since then, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have done their best to compete but Malaysia Airlines (MAB) was left far behind and today, is a mere shadow of the great brand it once was.

To many, if it wasn’t for the Business and First class offerings, it’s essentially already a low cost carrier. Nevertheless, in its communications at least, Malaysia Airlines continues to give the outside world the impression it sees itself as a world-class carrier.

In March 2018, Malaysia Airlines launched a campaign titled “Malaysian Hospitality Begins With Us”. The campaign aim was to ‘reinstate and demonstrate MAB as the national icon and represent Malaysian hospitality on behalf of the nation to all its guests and customers.’

MAB’s group CEO Izham Ismail said during the launch “that the airline’s diversity, heritage and culture are the foundation and reference of the brand promise, and that MAB aims to provide a Malaysian experience in travel through Malaysian hospitality.”

These bold and practically impossible to live up to statements were supported by the usual professionally produced advertisements and videos shot in high definition with smiling cabin crew in brand new aircraft telling us about ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and how it is a culture that ‘runs through the organization’.

The website, the first destination for many potential passengers has a special section for ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and in this section announces “Welcome’, or as the locals would say, ‘Selamat Datang’. That’s how it begins, the experience that is our hospitality. Warmth and generosity are the hallmarks of how we treat anyone we meet. That’s what we’re known for as Malaysians, and more importantly as an airline.”

It goes on to say, “Our hospitality begins with our experience. As we strive to deliver the best experience possible, everything we do is guided by our principles of hospitality.”

Now in some ways I think this is quite clever. Because if Malaysians are known for their warmth and generosity, then they only need to leverage on the natural capabilities of employees to deliver a potentially world class experience.

But it also means that every crew on every flight, will have to be on top of their game non stop if they are to deliver a high level of service at every touch point, every time. And that delivery must meet the very diverse needs of very diverse passengers.

And of course, the concept of ‘warmth and generosity’ may be difficult to deliver. Warmth yes, but generosity? What does that mean? Do you hug every passenger and give them a US$100 bill? Or do you upgrade everyone who asks?

Don’t forget, the aim is to ‘represent Malaysian hospitality on behalf of the nation to all its guests and customers’. With such a promise, there can be no half measures. And of course you can be sure plenty of people will be waiting for the first fail.

Is Malaysia Airlines delivering on the promises above? Despite the glossy high-end corporate videos, two videos have emerged recently to suggest it isn’t.

On their own, these videos could be dismissed as ‘one off’ rants by disgruntled customers but watched together and added to the explosion of negativity on the MAS Facebook page and a pattern seems to be emerging.

This suggests to me that whatever training cabin crew are receiving is not linked to the big promise and whoever is responsible for measuring the effectiveness of that training, isn’t doing their job properly.

Let’s take a look at the videos. The first one was uploaded to YouTube on November 20th 2018 by travel and aviation vlogger Josh Cahil who is based in Germany and has 23,000 followers on Instagram and close to 10,000 followers on Twitter.

His YouTube video where he claimed he was bullied by “extremely unfriendly” MAS cabin crew on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London has been viewed more than 280,000 times and generated more than 2,600 comments.

International media in the UK and Australia picked up the story as well and in Malaysia it was covered by Says.com not to mention other news portals.

The second video was circulated around Malaysia via Whatsapp towards the end of November 2018. This video was created by controversial travel hack, entrepreneur and author of “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?: Confessions of a First-Class A**hole” Justin Ross Lee.

I have a suspicion this video was created some time ago because it features the Malaysia Airlines A380 and as far as I know, they aren’t using that aircraft on the London sector any more.

But what both these videos do is show how Malaysia Airlines is unable to deliver on the bold promises it makes in its marketing. They also show the futility of spending large sums of money on big ideas and not linking that promise to the departments responsible for delivering on that promise when all it takes is one passenger to have a bad experience and share that experience across social media and the whole expensive, one size fits all campaign is ruined.

This mass economy approach more suited to 1988 than to 2018 is built around the belief that with a large enough investment, an airline can make potential and existing passengers believe each bold statement it makes and that if it doesn’t deliver on that statement during their particular interaction with the brand, the passenger should just be grateful anyway.

Following the Josh Cahil video, Malaysia Airlines initiated an investigation and according to Cahil, the group CEO sent him a template apology and offered him a refund, which he asked them to donate to a charity supported by them.

The problem was that by this stage, the story was dominating social media conversations. Even corporate driven tactics on social media were being ambushed with negative comments.

In fact the majority of MAB’s attempts to use social media in a positive way are being hijacked by negative comments. And when this happens, the firm doesn’t seem to grasp the link between what the commentators are saying online and what is happening offline.

Malaysia Airlines attempts to build brand equity on social media

However, brand experiences are not meeting expectations & negativity is hijacking campaigns

This is the dangerous spiral many brands are finding themselves on today. They don’t invest in the right training to deliver the experiences consumers demand offline.

There are a variety of reasons for this and some of them sinister. Most common is that the scope of work for a campaign is created in isolation and by people who don’t understand the importance of delivering a ‘best in class’ customer experience.

Which means that if the scope of work for the project is wrong, it is doomed to failure before it even starts.

In despair or because they now have a channel in which to express their frustrations, consumers go online where they passionately vent those frustrations. And often they do it in the very space the company thinks it owns such as on a Facebook page, further diluting the ability of the brand to deliver on the brand promises made in the very expensive corporate driven messages it believes are defining its brand in the way it wants to be defined!

And if that wasn’t bad enough, when passengers vent those frustrations online, the people tasked with representing the brand simply don’t have the skills or for that matter the responsibility to respond in a suitable manner.

This exasperates the negativity around the brand, causing brand equity to plummet to such an extent that it can be almost impossible to escape the spiral into brand obscurity.

So what can Malaysia Airlines do? If they are serious about building a national brand that can compete with Asian and Middle Eastern competitors then it needs to understand the following

1) Forget about the big idea
Smart Brands understand the concept of the big idea belongs to the 1970s and much as the world has changed significantly since then, so should the way brands engage. Malaysia Airlines must focus budgets not on telling people they deliver Malaysian Hospitality but on showing people they deliver Malaysian Hospitality.

This requires a comprehensive overhaul of the marketing, advertising, customer relationship and social media strategies. Fusionbrand recommends this be carried out through a brand audit as soon as possible.

2) The right experience training
Judging by these videos and the comments across Social Media, Malaysia Airlines see training as a box to be ticked. A review is required to identify if there is an understanding of what constitutes world class service.

If the training providers have been hired for the wrong reasons and don’t have the skills to deliver the type of training required to compete with sector leaders, how can Malaysia Airlines cabin crew and for that matter ground crew, deliver a world class service?

3) Social Media
There’s no escaping social media but too many brands don’t give it suitable attention. Malaysia Airlines must start investing funds in social media instead of big idea promises it cannot keep.

I don’t know what’s happening at MAB, but too many companies think social media is the perfect place for interns because they are young and have an Instagram account themselves. After all, what could be hard about posting on Facebook and Twitter, right? Wrong.

Social Media is about many things. For brands, it’s about cultural, social and other nuances. Being responsible for a brand online is not something you do, it’s something you are.

Malaysia Airlines needs to link what it says and does offline with what it says and does online. Quickly, before it’s too late.

Enrich is not a channel to sell as much as possible, it’s a channel for the brand to build relationships


So I’m checking in online for a flight on Malaysia Airlines and I noticed that my Enrich membership (that’s the MAS Frequent Flyer Programme (FFP)) has been downgraded from gold to silver.

That in itself is hardly a surprise because I rarely fly with them anymore (the 3 – 4 business class business trips I take to the UK from Malaysia each year are now on a competitor carrier where I’m a gold card member) but what surprised me is the way my demotion was, or in this case, wasn’t communicated to me.

After going through old emails, I don’t think I received any communications telling me I would be or had been downgraded. No gentle nudge or reminder to travel to retain the gold status. No email to ask what could MAS do to help me remain a gold card holder. Nothing. Just a stealth like downgrade. And I presume that’s standard operating procedure for anyone downgraded?

I can’t remember how long I’ve been a gold member but I suspect it’s around 10 years, maybe more. But as I’ve documented extensively elsewhere in this blog, I’ve been flying with Malaysia Airlines for more than 30 years and was one of the few to fly MAS in the days after MH370 went down. So I feel, perhaps wrongly that I have some relational credits in the bank.

Now I’d like to reiterate that I’m not complaining about being downgraded because I knew it was coming. I’m just reminded how few brands understand the concept of loyalty, of retaining a customer once they’ve acquired them. Of doing what they can to salvage a customer before they leave.

Harvard Business Review would argue that not all customers are worth keeping. And Malaysia Airlines most probably would argue that I’m definately not worth keeping. Even though I manage the travel budget of my family of five as well as my company and influence a number of other business owners.

According to Harvard Business Review, “acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.” Meanwhile Accenture reports that 80% of ‘switchers’ feel the company could have done something to retain them.

I switched my long haul allegiance to another carrier years ago and am definately one of the 80%. Malaysia Airlines has done nothing to stop me switching. And has done nothing to try and win me back once I have switched.

They put a lot of effort into encouraging travellers to join Enrich, the Frequent Flier programme. But once a member, communications are fairly standard and lack personalisation. Even a customer experience email sent to me after a flight was addressed ‘Dear Sir/Madam’.

Malaysia Airlines needs to move away from a transactional approach to branding

The email was written in an old fashioned style (who says ‘we will duly respect your style?”), littered with grammatical errors and despite stating the survey was only valid for 7 days, the link which was sent to me on 8th October 2017, was working today 10th April 2018. The email offers me an opt out option if I don’t want to receive the surveys but there isn’t a link to make this happen.

The email signed off ‘We are professional, progressive, connected and open‘ That’s a bold, ambitious statement, very hard to measure and almost impossible to live up to.

I get a lot of emails from the frequent flyer programme and they are almost always trying to sell me flights, packages, destinations, discounts on third party products and services and I get that but these are all transactions. The airline is simply carpet bombing the database with offers and hoping that enough of them will stick.

The focus seems to be about selling enough of everything to as many people as possible and in the shortest period of time. There is zero attempt to build a relationship with the recipient despite the fact that it’s the FFP. It simply reduces MAS to nothing more than an object or a commodity.

But as Malaysia Airlines should have realised post MH370, objects can’t be differentiated emotionally and besides consumers have no emotional connection or loyalty to objects.

I am sure MAS understands this because that’s why it has a FFP programme. Unfortunately, it’s stuck in the past when it comes to using the FFP. Malaysia Airlines needs to stop looking at members as customers and start to see them as partners.

What are the lessons for MAS and other brands? If you collect customer data, store it and use it properly. Instead of trying to sell something to everyone, use the data base properly. Link offers to customer value requirements. Preempt negative situations. Don’t simply downgrade members, find out how to keep them happy. Personalise correspondence. Encourage participation.

Instead of selling to them, collaborate with loyalty programme members. Build relationships by providing solutions to members’ needs. Successful brands are built on openness and Malaysia Airlines says it’s an open company. Prove it.

How to reduce the number of smokers in Malaysia


In an ongoing attempt to reduce the growing use of cigarettes in Malaysia, the price of a typical pack of 20 is now more than RM21 (US$5). Still way below the US$15 in the USA or US$10 in Singapore but way up from about RM3.20 in 1996.

In a survey carried out by the Ministry of Health (Malaysia) in 1996, there were 2.4 million smokers in Malaysia. Despite such price hikes, tens of millions of dollars spent on advertising and numerours articles about the dangers of smoking, there are reported to now be nearly 5 million smokers in the country, about double the number in 1996.

Globally, according to WHO, tobacco deaths cost the world US$1 trillion while revenues from tobacco taxes generate US$269 billion (2013 – 2014).

According to WHO, smoking kills six million people annually, more than HIV/AIDS, accidents, homicides, and suicides combined.

No data is available on what smoking costs Malaysia but we do know it costs the Canadian government around RM10.5 billion in direct health care and another RM38 billion in lost productivity.

Canada is a good benchmark for Malaysia because in 2011 approximately 5.8 million Canadians smoked, about the same as Malaysia.

Locally revenue from taxes on cigarettes totaled around RM9 billion in 2015. However, one of the biggest problems in Malaysia is the black market in cigarettes.

According to the Confederation of Malaysian Tobacco Manufacturers (CMTM) 57% of cigarettes sold in Malaysia are bought on the black market which according to the Star newspaper makes Malaysia number one in the world when it comes to trading illicit cigarettes. This costs the treasury at least RM2 billion a year.

According to the Star, Malaysia is the centre of illegal cigarette sales

The recent price hike is the latest in a series of initiatives that are supposed to stem the rising number of smokers in the country as well as increase revenue for the country.

In addition to the rapid rise in the price of cigarettes, a number of Health Ministry driven initiatives about the dangers of smoking have also been tried.

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. But the numbers continued to rise.

Then came the “Tak Nak” campaign in 2003, consisting of TV Commercials, Radio, print and Outdoor (including school notice boards).

Malaysia’s Tak Nak campaign

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, once again it did little to reduce the number of smokers.

Even the then 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 next (and most harrowing) installment (see video – viewer discretion advised) 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 followed the legislation, earlier that year that all cigarette packets sold in Malaysia must carry graphic images related to smoking. These included images of the results of neck cancer and a dead foetus.

Throughout the years, the Ministry of Health has tried its best to reduce smoking in Malaysia and the fact that it wants to do something should be applauded.

But it’s not having the desired effect. I can’t help but think the efforts seem to be independent tactical campaigns based on the fact that there is a budget, rather than elements of a strategic approach to a clearly defined goal. And these campaigns rarely have the frequency required to make an impact.

We see this a lot in the private sector. A budget for advertising is approved and an advertising agency is appointed and the board sees the ads and the billboards and thinks that’s job done.

But unless the goal is to put out ads it isn’t job done. And if the ads don’t resonate with the target markets, and research shows anti smoking ads don’t resonate with target markets, then the job is far from done.

Evidence from previous campaigns in Malaysia and other countries suggests that campaigns featuring shocking images and graphic descriptions of the consequences of smoking using Television commercials, print ads and outdoor ads are ineffective.

Malaysia spent RM100 million over 5 years on such a campaign that saw an increase in the number of smokers in Malaysia. To put it bluntly and despite best intentions, that’s a fail.

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. In fact, the study also discovered that when a close family member become ill from the effects of smoking, the smoker takes no notice!

According to the study, smokers only reduce the number of cigarettes or sometimes quit when their own personal health is at stake.

But 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.

So how can a country like Malaysia reduce the number of smokers and why should it involve a brand consultant?

The problem with using an advertising agency to solve a complicated issue such as this is that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Advertising, no matter how creative isn’t going to reduce smoking. What is required is a data driven approach to the issue. Specific and comprehensive qualitative research with relevant targeted questions related to each clearly defined micro segment must be developed to deliver actionable data.

These segments will be ex smokers, existing smokers, those who have smoked all their lives and tried hundreds of times to stop.

Celebrities, doctors, educators, retailers (especially retailers) coffee shop owners, customs officers, even smugglers and the police and other enforcement officers as well as others will need to be interviewed.

The data from this research will form the foundations of the blueprint to reduce the numbers of smokers in the country. It will be a long term initiative. Solutions may include communications campaigns but they won’t be based around one size fits all commercials or messages.

Hard, actionable data is required to develop a branding strategy to reduce smoking in Malaysia

Instead they will be developed to resonate with each specific segement. And they will require consistent implementation over a long period of time and the commitment of the authorities.

They will require collaborative efforts that look to improve the psychological wellbeing and confidence of smokers. Environmental changes must be made to ensure it is more difficult for smokers to find an amicable environment.

Existing smokers will be targetted individually through interviews with doctors, rather than one-size-fits all shock and awe campaigns. It’ll also require a triage like approach that ignores the 35 year veteran smokers and instead targets their children and their grand children.

Talking of which, there must be a specific emphasis on education at kampung (village) level and ongoing, dynamic, preventative programmes for schools.

Laws banning the sale of cigarettes to minors must be strictly enforced. Other solutions will include more investments in and better enforcement by customs and enforcement officers rewarded for contraband seizures. Rewards (and protection) for whistleblowers should also be offered.

They will also require the buy in of all stakeholders. On a recent visit to a Police station following a traffic accident, I was interviewed by a Policeman in his office while he chain smoked his way through half a box of Gudang Garam.

Malaysian civil servants must set a good example

Outside his office was a no smoking sign. Civil Servants must not be allowed to flout laws that forbid smoking in Government buildings.

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 increasing prices will only see more contraband sold. Creative driven campaigns that have not worked in the past will not work in the future.

But the rewards are considerable. Not only in a reduction of the amount spent on smoking related healthcare, but also in a healthier, happier nation.

Advertising agencies haven’t solved the problem. It’s time to give the responsibility to a brand consultant. I have one in mind!

Advertising DOES NOT build brands


Here’s a very well written and very passionate article about the Devaluation of creativity. It’s written by Bob Hoffman best-selling author and one of the most sought-after international speakers on advertising and marketing.

His profile on Linkedin has some impressive testimonials.

The article is particularly relevant here in South East Asia where creativity is increasingly seen by CEOs and business owners as nothing more than a commodity. Something that can be bought at the cheapest price, or quite often in the case of successful ideas – and I’ve thought hard about this – stolen.

But I don’t want to talk about creativity, I want to talk about advertising and in particular, what it does. Because I stopped reading the article when I reached this part “We need to convince marketers once again that the most effective way to build brands is through the unique and unmatched power of great advertising ideas.”

Sorry, but first it’s wrong to make such sweeping generalisations about branding and secondly, it’s no longer 1979. Advertising doesn’t build brands. Sure it might draw attention to brands and it might influence opinions. It might even help sales of brands. Advertising might, on occassion encourage repeat purchases but it it isn’t enough to build brands.

According to Ernst & Young approximately 25,000 new products are launched every year and most of them by companies such as Unilever who spend around US$10 billion a year on advertising yet 22,000 of those products fail to make it to the second year. Despite all those billions spent on advertising.

The very reason so many brands fail is because they are convinced that the unique and unmatched power of great advertising ideas builds brands. The ability to deliver value – economic, experiential and emotional value (and increasingly, social value) – is what builds brands.

Your organisation needs to be in a position to deliver that value at every touch point and every time, before it even thinks about advertising. And actually if you manage to reach such a pinnacle, you probably won’t need to spend money on advertising.

As Europe struggles to come to terms with Brexit, Asean celebrates 50 years


Citynationplace is one of the most respected nation branding forums on the Iot and is also the organiser of the must attend place branding conference held in the UK in November every year.

This month they’ve asked a number of brand consultants in Asia about Asean@50 about the state of nation branding in the region and the potential of Asean countries to work together to drive tourism and investment to the region. You can read the full article here

As I was one of the consultants interviewed, I thought I’d have a look at what Asean is doing to drive visitors to the region as part of the Asean@50 celebrations. The primary goal of the campaign is to encourage visitors to look at visiting more than one ASEAN destination.

The introduction to my comments on nation branding in Asia
The introduction to my comments on nation branding in Asia

As part of the celebrations for its 50th anniversary, ASEAN has created a theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World”. There is also a collaborative tourism campaign: “Visit ASEAN@50: Golden Celebration”.

I’m yet to see this campaign in Malaysia or Singapore but a new website has been created however it doesn’t seem to feature too much information. On the events page, there were no events for Malaysia in March and none till October.

For visitors to use the site, there needs to be plenty of the right information
For visitors to use the site, there needs to be plenty of the right information

There’s also another tagline for South East Asia “Feel the warmth”. This is featured on the Asean Tourism website. I couldn’t find a Facebook page however the hashtag #visitasean50 has appeared on Facebook but there doesn’t appear to be any structure to any of the communications.

There are a couple of videos on YouTube, one of which has been shared about 40,000 times on Facebook but again there doesn’t seem to be any strategy behind any of the postings.

A Twitter page was created in July 2014 but it appears inactive.

I don’t have the full details on the project and we are only at the end of the first quarter of 2017 so the strategy maybe to start later in the year although many in the northern hemisphere will be planning their holidays now so the digital representation needs to be improved and improved quickly.