Building the Malaysia Nation Brand requires a strategic approach

The development of a Malaysia nation brand has been discussed for a number of years. As part of the Industrial Master Plan (IMP3), a National Branding Task Force was established and tasked with building the Malaysia Nation Brand. In 2008, through the Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) and after extensive research and a nationwide tender, the project was awarded to a brand consultancy.

After a letter of award was issued to the consultancy and the project team was mobilized, the then Prime Minister stepped down and six months later the project was cancelled. Soon after the National Branding Task Force was disbanded.

Since then there hasn’t really been any organization established to develop a Malaysia Nation Brand. Some of you will say that 1 Malaysia was a Nation Brand but it wasn’t.

At the end of 2011, some firms were invited to “submit slogans for a new Nation Branding project”. Of course a slogan isn’t a Nation Branding project but it was considered a start.

The slogan chosen was probably “Endless Possibilities” because this was used during the World Economic Forum in Davos to promote Malaysia as a South East Asia location for investment and tourism.

Without any warning, a sixty second TV commercial aired on CNN in March 2013. If you have a weak stomach, I don’t recommend you read any of the reader/viewer comments below the video.

It’s hard to identify who posted the video but there is reference to a brief with the comment, “The brief from the Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia was to promote Malaysia as a dynamic country with well developed infrastructure and an aggressive economic growth plan for the future.”

More recently, the Prime Minister was spotted wearing a badge with a design that has been described as “a starburst in red, yellow and white against a blue background.” Malaysia, in a custom font is underneath the logo.

The new Malaysia logo (thanks to
The new Malaysia logo (thanks to

In late August 2013, a local news portal reported that Prime Minister Najib Razak will launch a new national branding effort and that the national branding effort comes with the slogan or tagline, “Endless Possibilities”.

This is exciting news, so what should we expect from the Malaysia Nation Branding project?

It is important that Malaysia doesn’t fall into the trap many other countries fall into – jumping head first into a well produced communications campaign in a misguided attempt to build a brand.

India is famous for its ‘Incredible India’ advertising campaign launched in 2002. By 2009, India was spending US$200 million advertising the country. In November 2012 India announced that a new advertising campaign headlined, “Find what you seek” would be launched to build on the Incredible India efforts.

The new Indian minister of tourism announced that the new campaign highlighted to consumers that ‘they will find whatever they are looking for from a holiday in India.’

The goal of the new campaign was to increase international arrivals by 12% annually till 2016. Unfortunately, little more than a month later, a woman in Delhi was brutally gang raped and left for dead on a public bus. The story made headlines around the world.

Four months later, a Swiss woman was gang raped whilst on a cycling tour of Madhya Pradesh and soon after, a British woman was attacked in Delhi and only avoided potential death after jumping from a hotel window to escape.

Within a matter of weeks, instead of announcing increased interest, tour operators were reporting a 35% cancellation rate from women and a 25% drop in all arrivals with multiple cancellations from the lucrative markets of Australia, the UK, Canada and the United States.

Meanwhile, FDI dropped 29% in 2012 despite the ongoing advertising campaign. An advertising campaign, however good, isn’t going to change perceptions caused by crime or reverse FDI declines caused by the global economic situation. So years of the Incredible India campaign, if remembered at all will now be replaced with harrowing tales of the treatment of women in India and depressing economic data.

What nation brands have to understand is that today, not only are constituents in target markets more segmented and more knowledgeable, they also live their lives very differently, source their information more socially and in many countries, no longer believe corporate driven messages anyway.

But most important of all, in today’s dynamic, fluid social, Internet fuelled world the corporate driven message, created after months of brain storming by consultants and the like and communicated to all and sundry at enormous expense repeatedly can be undone in a moment and replaced with harrowing tales of criminality and economic woe.

Building a Nation Brand is a strategic initiative not a tactical one. A communications campaign is a tactical activity and it is not possible to build a Nation Brand with a communications campaign, especially one that is created to convince both internal and external stakeholders of something that is hard to prove.

Today, building a Nation Brand requires multiple elements that are critical to the success of any such project. However there are two in particular that will make or break the Malaysia Nation Branding project.

The first is that the community must be involved in the development of the Nation Brand and agreed values must be clearly defined and understood by all stakeholders and integrated into their lives and applied to every touch point.

Sure there must be a CEO with the knowledge, strength and unbiased objective viewpoint to drive the project but without this early stage buy in from stakeholders, the chance of success are very low.

And the second critical element is that promises made must be kept. It is simply not good enough anymore to say you are something or you are going to do something without delivering on that promise at every touchpoint.

I don’t know the full extent of this project and how the community was involved but in the video aired on CNN, the Prime Minister says, “Malaysia is the unique place where the best of Asia comes alive.” That’s a bold statement that will require buy in from all Malaysians and will be tough to deliver to all stakeholders.

So let’s hope the Prime Minister and his team pulls it off because in the current economic climate, a well defined brand that has the buy in of key constituents, resonates with target markets and delivers on promises made will give Malaysia a significant edge over competitors in an increasingly competitive environment.


Malaysian and Asian SMEs should look at communications when building brands

I have a lot of respect for small businesses and their owners, especially here in Malaysia and all over South East Asia. The odds are stacked against them as they try to build a business in an environment that should favour them but because of conservative attitudes and the legacies left behind by unscrupulous operators in the past, they are up against it and many of them don’t make it. Even those that do make it do little more than survive.

Furthermore, competition is growing, not just from local competitors but from international ones as well. Rents are rising and real estate is expensive; banks are reluctant to take any risk, no matter how low, talent is hard to find and quite often entrepreneurs are unable to communicate in English due to ever changing education policies or a vernacular education. Plus, here in Malaysia, government subsidies on fuel and other commodities are probably going to be lifted or even abolished. Finally, AFTA means the market may be swamped by cheap products from other regional, less expensive countries.

But despite these and many other issues, depending who you listen to, small and medium sized industries, enterprises and businesses represent up to 99.2% of the Malaysian economic establishment and these organisations are therefore the engine room of the economy. And although the SME contribution to gross domestic product has been almost flat for the last 8 years, rising from 29% in 2000 to 31.4% in 2008, the sector still has a major role to play in the economy.

This is particularly true of the service sector which is the most progressive in terms of SME development. So it is good to hear that the National SME Development Council has approved the establishment of a special unit responsible for SMEs at a number of agencies and ministries. Under the Integrated Action Plan 2009/2010, 354 programmes will be implemented this year with financial commitments totalling RM6.02 billion (S$2.48billion).

Roughly RM3.3 billion has been allocated for the development of SMEs in the services sector in line with the government’s aim of developing Malaysia into a high-income economy.

So should these SMEs be bothered about brand building? Well, in many ways the concept of branding is even more important to small companies than it is to big companies. But obviously they don’t have the resources of a Multi National Corporation (MNC) so they need to be selective on what they address. One area that SMEs can improve significantly with very little investment is their communications. There is a lot of truth in the saying, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So your communications must leave a positive first impression.

Another mistake SMEs make is that they believe volume is best. They believe that they must have a database with as many names as possible. And once they have that DB they must blast out the same message to everyone on it on an almost daily basis! Negative. The first step in your prospecting process is to qualify all leads to determine any interest level. There is no easy way to do this. It takes old fashioned hard work. Fortunately in Asia privacy laws are limited or even non existent so cold calling is acceptable but of course you need to have a strategy to get past gatekeepers.

Spend some time writing an introductory email. It doesn’t need to be long but if it is targetted and well written, even if the service or product offered is not required, the email may be stored in a resources folder for later reference.

Once you’ve identified your prospects and segmented your DB, use email not to try and sell a product but to make an appointment. Few people are going to buy from a mass email but you may get a reply to the email or some recognition when you follow up the email with a call.

The worst mistake any company can make, SME or MNC is to start their brand development with an advertising campaign. Branding is a journey, advertising is a pit stop on that journey, nothing more. Now I know you want to see your name on a billboard on the highway or a full page advertisement in the national newspaper so that you can announce to all your friends, business associates and clients that you have arrived but think about it, how effective is this going to be? Do you really want to waste that money? (There are exceptions to this rule, but very few).

If you do intend to advertise, make the copy relevant to the consumers you intend to communicate with and only use channels that users of your product are familiar with and engaged by.

If you follow these simple suggestions, you may have a chance of being one of the few SMEs that survive and possibly even thrive.