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!


Malaysia Airlines to consider not serving alcohol?

The National Union of Flight Attendants (Nufam) represents all cabin crew at Malaysia Airlines. As we all know they’ve had a tough few years as the carrier let go of more than 6,000 staff. So they need to get their teeth into a worthy cause.

Recently the Muslim MP Ghapur Salleh who is the MP for Kalabakan constituency in Sabah, suggested Malaysia Airlines start charging for alcoholic beverages on all flights. I’m not sure where he got the inspiration for this suggestion but surprisingly Nufam took umbrage and said its not right for him as a Muslim to encourage Malaysia Airlines to charge for selling alcohol.

Try to stay with me.

Nufam’s justification for this statement was that it is a highly sensitive matter for Muslim workers who make up the majority of cabin crew at the airline. According to Nufam, many of the Muslim crew previously objected to the serving of alcohol on flights and that the matter was even raised with the government.

The guilty party

Nufam went on to say that MAB is a fully fledged airline and can’t charge for drinks. Nufam said the real discussion should be about discouraging or even excluding the drinks list from in flight menus because the alcoholic drinks were listed alongside halal food.

Seriously? Is Nufam suggesting that having a list of alcoholic beverages next to halal food will make the food non halal?

Large financial sacrifices have been made by the tax payer to bale out Malaysia Airlines. Thousands of people have lost their jobs and families have been torn apart as a result of job losses.

Despite a lack of funds and resources, employees are working desperately hard, often with old equipment to turn Malaysia Airlines around and the people who represent the cabin crew are focussing on taking a list of alcoholic drinks off a menu because the food listed on that menu is halal?

But that’s not the end of it. This article reports that Nufam suggested Malaysia Airlines start charging for water, even though it has already said that being a full fledged airline, it can’t charge for products the way LCCs do.

One can only assume the lunatics have taken over the asylum! I genuinely feel sorry for Peter Bellew!

Are you wasting good money on bad advertising?

I wrote a blog post recently about print ads and how I was convinced that print advertising was in decline. You can read the post here. I also shared the post on the Advertising Copywriting group on Linkedin and it generated a lot of comment, most of it ridiculing my stand. You can see the thread here.

A lot of people, especially those from the advertising industry were not very happy with what I wrote. And some of them quoted, rather predictably the mighty advertisers Coca Cola and McDonalds. Yet despite spending US$1 billion on advertising in 2014, McDonalds profits were down 15%! And are now lower than they were 5 years ago. Samsung spent US$14 billion on marketing in 2014 and suffered 3 straight quarters of losses for the first time ever.

And I asked how much have Nokia and Blackberry spent on advertising over the last 10 years to get them to the brink of extinction?

Others looked at the quality of ads, with one copywriter stating, “Quite frankly, the quality of most print ads is abominable. They are either badly written or designed, or so “avante garde” that the company’s name and logo are hidden.”

And this is a huge problem in South East Asia where, on the whole what constitutes a good ad – a strong headline or call to action, unique image, and well written copy is often lost in the charge for fast turnaround of materials, low budgets and the habit of marketing professionals not challenging bosses, business owners or even their spouses!

The results can often be catastrophic as immediately forgetable ads that fail to connect with target markets, don’t deliver the right information, are too confusing or worse, look like other ads appear across newspapers and magazines.

The following ads illustrate the approach to advertising in Malaysia over five years of five different companies from telecommunications, hospitality and insurance.



Share or reconnect?
Share or reconnect?


Much of the copy is weak, the messages, if there are any are obscure or try to do too much and the calls to action, if they can be called that, don’t make sense and there are more than one!

But most tragic of all, they have all used the same image to try and connect with their audience.

These ads will accomplish little and are a waste of money. They have very little value for the company and will most likely be ignored by consumers. I suspect they were done in house and no doubt the image is a free download from an image bank.

I cannot imagine any professional marketing director allowing these ads to go out so one can only assume they were approved by bosses who don’t know the importance of a good ad.

Firms wonder why advertising doesn’t work and question why they should have to pay for advertising agencies. Well this sort of advertising is not the solution. Until firms appreciate the importance of a good ad, they would be better off throwing money down a drain.

5 reasons why advertising doesn’t work

I recently wrote an article on the state of advertising which you can read here. The post went viral and I have been criticised a lot, especially on Linkedin and you can read the comments here.

I still don’t think advertising is effective. Here are 5 more reasons why advertising doesn’t work

1) I’m not looking to replace advertising. Advertising needs to get its s*** together because it is losing credibility. Moreover, much of it is ignored by consumers who spend their lives multi screening and simply tune out when they see ads.

2) Far too many companies advertise for the wrong reasons, often simply because of their ego. They get a kick out of seeing their brand on a billboard or their friends telling them they saw their brand on a billboard.

Or they advertise because everyone else is advertising but for most of them their advertising never makes an impact. I’m not talking about Unilever, Nestle and the other 8 companies that own 80% of the world’s brands because they have the kind of deep pockets most firms can only dream of. I’m talking about the rest of the companies that make up most economies.

3) My personal belief is that because so many advertising campaigns are too short and don’t run for long enough, the vast majority of advertising is a complete waste of money and that money would be better spent on brand building rather than advertising.

4) Technology has changed the way we live our lives yet we’re still doing things (in terms of advertising) the way we always did. Airlines continue to sell themselves with pretty girls and big smiles and white teeth and with a pretty child holding a teddy bear (OK no child with teddy bear in this example but you get the point).

Exotic destinations use white sandy beaches, purple seas and clear blue skies, banks use ridiculously handsome couples and children and cars use all of the above. It’s boring, unbelievable and doesn’t match the experiences of others who have been there.

And we can read about their experiences online or from our friends. And those experiences, not advertising influence our decisions.

5) Firms would be better off focussing on core branding competencies – a) strategic (inspire & aspire) – trust, credibility & communities, leadership & segmentation. b) Communications – building the narrative collaboratively and social engagement through multiple platforms. c) Execution – on brand organisation able to deliver on promises, data collection and use, monitoring &messaging and d) connection, engagement and collaboration with relevant communities and influencers.

How we do that depends on the organisation, the industry, the customers and budgets and other constraints. Advertising is bandied around as a silver bullet. Want to increase awareness? Advertise. Want to change perceptions? Advertise. Want to increase sales? Advertise. Want to increase share of wallet? Advertise. Got a crisis? Advertise. But there is no silver bullet.

Building a brand takes a strategic approach to multiple actions and requires commitment and buyin from everyone. Advertising is a tactic and for most brands – there are some exceptions, such as a new movie launch, or an exhibition or property launch – it simply doesn’t work and money spent on advertising would be better spent on building a brand.

Customer loyalty builds brands

One of my favourite branding blogs is truly deeply from Australia and I recommend it to anyone even if you are not based in Australia.

This morning the author David Ansett Tweeted a link to a post from last year called customer loyalty, the holy grail for brands. It’s a short, thought provoking post.

We want to be part of all the brands we live with
We want to be part of all the brands we live with

It never ceases to amaze me that despite all the stats pointing to investment in retention and loyalty are key to building a profitable brand, most brand owners invest the majority of their marketing dollars in acquisition tactics that belong to a world that no longer exists.

The belief that advertising can build a brand in the social economy is laughable yet where do brand owners go when they want to build a brand? The nearest advertising agency. it’s ludicrous because if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Advertising agencies only have advertising so all roads lead back to advertising and the problem with advertising is that NO ONE IS PAYING ATTENTION.

And this is where I disagree with David’s comment that “It is increasingly difficult to build long term relationships with hard won clients and customers”. I disagree because it has never been easier!

We know where everyone is, physically and digitally, we have their names, their addresses, both digital and physical, we know what they like, what they dislike, we know who their friends are, who they like, who they don’t like, who influences them, we know what winds them up and most important of all, we know that they want us to be part of their lives.

Yet most brands ignore building loyalty or give it a cursory nod in the form of generic, meaningless loyalty programmes that often provide ‘deals’ that are worse than what the customer can get himself.

Good customer service builds brands
Good customer service builds loyalty

Firms prefer instead to focus on acquisition and then, when there is a problem and brands fail to address the issue or worse, ignore the customer completely or address it in an amateurish, arrogant manner, brands wonder why those customers leave and angrily share their frustration across social media.

It has never been easier to build long term relationships with our clients and customers to improve loyalty, it’s just that most brands are going about it the wrong way.

Should you pay those who influence others?

This article asks a really pertinent question related to branding today – Should influencers be paid? The answer is an unequivocal yes however you need to be able to deliver on the promises you make otherwise such a tactic will come back and bite you.

Should influencers be paid? (via

As content marketing has risen, so has the value in attracting and securing the attention of brand influencers in your market.  These people can often hold considerable sway in their particular niche, and as a neutral and impartial voice can be particularly…

Continue reading “Should you pay those who influence others?”

Brands, it is no longer about you

Whilst researching a chapter for my new book (you can get an idea of how the book will go by reading this article here) I came across a fascinating company called Undercurrent.

One of the key players in the firm is a guy called Aaron Dignan. You can follow him on Twitter here.

I was impressed by much of what I read on their website but whilst continuing my research, I also found this quote from Aaron:

Do you really understand Facebook?
Do you really understand Facebook?

This simple quote sums up the new world order of branding. It is not about you. Consumers really don’t care about you and your brand. There are so many brands out there that consumers are no longer buying into brands in the same way as they did before.

There are exceptions but on the whole, the world is changing and brands can no longer expect to have the loyalty they used to take for granted. Do you agree?

Great tips for using email to build your brand

More and more firms are using effective email campaigns in association with their social media initiatives to build brands. This is because an email campaign allows you to know who is opening your emails, which links they’re clicking on and how many of your them are forwarding your emails to their friends. The right product also means you will only pay when a recipient clicks through to the offer.

Malaysian firms are slowly waking up to the benefits of a good email campaign. Let me put that differently, Malaysian firms are waking up to the fact that email is an effective marketing tool. Which is good timing because according to a recent report from MarketingProfs, email returns the highest return on investment (ROI).

The problem is that too many Malaysian firms are trying to do their email campaigns ‘on the cheap’. often they do it inhouse or if they do outsource, they outsource to the cheapest company.

This means they often send out poor quality emails that can damage the brand. it is important to get the email and the content of your email right. Because this is the first interaction a potential customer will have with your brand. It is a great opportunity to make a good impression and start building the foundations you need to earn their trust and eventually make a sale.

Unfortunately, it is also a great opportunity to make a bad impression. And once you’ve made a bad impression, it is very dificult to build trust with a consumer who is already forming a negative opinion of you and your brand.

Not only should your email campaign resonate with your target markets, it also needs to be well written and to the point. If it is full of poor English or grammatical errors, you will create a bad impression with the recipient.

Below are two examples of emails I received recently. Although I haven’t included the subject line, take it from me they were almost as bad as the copy.

poor proof readingterrible email copy

How to create a good email campaign
When you prepare an email campaign, the subject line is the most important element of the exercise because this is the first thing the recipient will see.

If there are spelling mistakes in the subject line, the reader will not have any faith in what you say from there on in. If you make outrageous claims in the subject line, the email will go straight to the trash.

Finally, if the subject line doesn’t state its point concisely, it will be ignored. Accept that it is impossible to include content in a subject line that will appeal to everyone on your mailing list. It may take more time but it is better to break up your database and rewrite different subject lines and body copy for different segments.

Once you get to the body of the email, a good rule of thumb is that less is more. Don’t waffle on and on about how great is your product or use textbook marketing jargon that confuses the reader and drives them away from the product.

Keep the email simple. Remember, you are not trying to make a sale, only get the recipient to interact with your brand. Explain what you have to offer, where the recipient can get it or gather more information, who you are and why they should buy your product or service.

Finally and most importantly, focus more on the benefits of your product not the features.

Get the message right, and email is an effective and inexpensive way to make sales, grow your customer base and build a valuable, profitable brand. Used wrongly and it is a complete waste of your time and the recipient’s time and instead of making sales and building your brand you will actually damage your brand.

The only brand worth having is a profitable brand (even if it means losing customers)

Looking through the ‘archives’ of some of our early branding blog posts, I came across a reference to an article in Fortune Small Business.

The article talked about three companies that had for years pursued a traditional sales and market growth approach that saw them investing more in acquisition than retention whilst paying little attention to profitability.

One case study was of Skelton Tomkinson (now known as Skelton Sherborne), a heavy-machinery shipper based in Brisbane, Australia. At the time the company had one office in Brisbane and one office in the U.S. where Caterpillar was a major customer.

In 2000, because he was seeing little growth using a traditional sales and market growth approach, the owner deliberately raised fees on his least profitable customers, hoping they would leave. Some of them did and revenues dropped dramatically, from US$20 million per year to $8.2 million.

But profitability increased 98% and total revenues slowly returned to $20 million. Tomkinson’s motto: “I run my company with this saying: Volume is vanity, and profit is sanity.”

And it must be working because today, the company has 11 offices, up from 2 in 2000. The new offices are in South East and North Asia, with one in the Arabian Gulf.

Far too many companies believe that they must pursue sales or market growth and this generally means ‘spraying and praying’ – basically the act of spending as much money as possible trying to reach as many people as possible.

What they should in fact focus on is profitable growth, which most often results from identifying and retaining profitable customers and not trying to sell to evey Tom, Dick and Harry.

Another mistake companies make is wasting valuable resources finding out what their customers are doing and then wasting even more valuable resources fighting or trying to block or undercut those competitors.

This is an exercise in futility because in today’s dynamic, always on, constantly evolving world, the only focus should be on identifying the right prospects, creating the right customers (and getting rid, yes getting rid of unprofitable customers) and delivering value to profitable customers through engagement and personalisation.

The great branding graveyard in the sky is full of brands that played the volume game – think Rangers FC, Viyella, Blockbuster, Silverjet, Swissair, Habitat, Mobikom, MegaTV, Pelangi Air, PanAm – they all took a traditional approach to building their businesses yet they all ended in failure.

Seeing your name on billboards or in print ads everywhere and reaching lots of people may make you feel good but focussing on profitability will keep you sane.

Branding, corporate or political, is an organisational issue

One of the problems faced by brands and branding are the attempts to simplify it. Fortuitously this approach has yet to gain traction with the aviation industry!

The business of building brands takes time. And as the business of brands and branding has evolved and the waters have become increasingly muddied, the only constant has been the influence consumers now have over the success or failure of brands.

As a result, the role of the brand manager is increasingly irrelevant because her attempts to control everything related to the brand are obsolete and pointless because consumers are crafting the messages that are heard not the marketing department or the advertising agency.

These are lessons that need to be learned in the political space as well. In Malaysia, the Prime Minister DS Najib Razak has a powerful personal brand but he cannot be expected to single handedly win an election. The key is to get all the other elements on brand. And anyway, as Tun Abdullah Badawi knows too well, a high approval rating is no guarantee of a big election win.

Historically, creating clearly defined messages and broadcasting them across traditional media was enough to build a brand or political party but today, this model alone, can no longer be relied on to educate, inform and convince.

Today, the first thing a consumer will do, assuming they hear the message through all the clutter, will be to determine if the message fits in with their own experiences. If it doesn’t, they will discard the message immediately. Secondly, consumers will discuss the message with others who they know and respect and explore their experiences and perceptions. Thirdly, consumers will seek the opinions of those they may not know. This is normally done across social media.

Only once consumers have absorbed all the information will they make a decision. If the promises defined by the organisation, whether it be a political or corporate one do not match the consumers own experiences or those of her friends or acquaintences, the message will be discarded. No matter how much money is spent.

If the response is favourable, the consumer may seek to experience a physical interaction with the brand, perhaps through a retail outlet, website or political rally. If any of these experiences are negative, the consumer will walk away from the brand, and it will take a superhuman effort to get them back.

A brand, whether political or business, requires every division, department, individual – from the tea lady to the CEO, or from the branch leader to the state leader to the divisional leader etc – to know and understand what they have to do to achieve clear strategic goals.

Only then will the brand survive and thrive.