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.

SIX tips from Fusionbrand on how to avoid the same fate as Tourism Malaysia


Yes it looks like an irresponsible adult allowed a petulant child with a grudge against the creative fraternity loose on a very old software programme and yes, it should never have made it past the idea stage. It’s the creative equivalent of a train crash featuring trains carrying toxic chemicals or nuclear weapons. But does it matter? In the short term, perhaps. Long term, maybe. But it never have happened.

I’m talking of course about the Tourism Malaysia VMY2020 logo (see pic) launched at the end of January 2018 by Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, the Malaysia Minister of Tourism and derided by much of Malaysia, graphic designers worldwide and respected media organisations such as the Daily Telegraph, the BBC and the South China Morning Post.

How to make sure you don’t end up with one of these

Despite the negative reaction of, well everyone, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the reality is the new logo (if it survives and I don’t think it will) won’t have an effect on visitors contemplating whether or not they should visit Malaysia in 2020 (and the years before and after 2020).

In fact after being featured on social media and a host of international news channels and publications, it may have provided Malaysia with yet more free publicity.

Admittedly not the kind of publicity Malaysia really wants but it’ll take more than negative publicity about a crap logo to attract or stop foreigners from visiting the country.

Nearly every business/school/institution and many individuals have a logo. We see logos on business cards, buildings, billboards, buses, lamposts, food packets, print ads, TV ads and just about everywhere else you can stick one.

And they sell computers, clothes, cars, cosmetics, finances, food, schools, fashion and fags, alcohol, appliances, airlines and holidays, and just about anything else in between.

There are good logos and bad logos, some change on a regular basis, think Google, others stay pretty much the same for years, think Apple or Nike. We’re told logos must be unique yet instantly recognisable.

They must have colour because certain colours convey certain meanings yet they must be instantly recognisable and have the same impact in black and white.

We’re told that each element of the logo has meaning. A logo designed with sharp, straight lines communicate a strong, trustworthy brand.

Curved lines on the other hand communicate a caring and supportive product or service. The rationale for combining curved and straight lines is an ambitious company.

And we’re told that everyone should have a logo because they represent the brand and make you stand out from the crowd. But crowds behave differently today and are influenced in different ways.

The illustrative style that we recognise as logos today is nearly 150 years old and harks back to a time when Western civilisations moved out of the fields and into the factories. Most of those factories are now here in Asia where we’re living our lives a little differently today than we were back then.

The main role of the logo, traditionally anyway, has been to create awareness about a business or in this instance, a destination (and not the country) and help to build a positive image about the business/destination.

Logos evoloved to become a symbolic reflection of what the busines/destination wanted to communicate to audiences. And when logos changed, it was meant to be part of an overall strategic shift in direction for the brand and would be one of many elements of that new brand strategy that had to be communicated in a joined up, integrated manner.

But over the last 20 years, businesses have got lazy or perhaps greedy. Too many businesses have changed logos in isolation, without incorporating the change into a new strategy.

They’ve updated the brand identity and called it a rebrand without making any improvements to the organisation. And then they’ve watched, surprised when nothing changes.

The London 2012 logo dodged a bullet

Sometimes when a logo changed slightly and the reaction was negative, the brand got away with it. Remember the London Olympics logo? Other times, such as the GAP logo change in 2010, the consumer response was deafening and GAP had to backtrack quickly. But overall, because these changes were ad hoc or tactical, they made little difference to the business delivery.

Another classic example is oil behemouth BP. Back in 2000 the firm decided they wanted a new logo that communicated ‘green growth’. Despite spending over US$200 million it was considered a massive failure because the opinion of most people was that there was nothing green about the business of oil. No matter what the company tried to make us believe.

Our new logo tells you we’re not in a dirty business so you must listen

And then in 2010, the largest offshore oil spill the history of the oil business put paid to the concept of the green growth oil company communicated via its logo. For many, that’s when logos lost their relevance.

With the proliferation of countries competing for the same visitors, too many destinations play safe and compete with the same look and feel, making it difficult for potential visitors to differentiate them.

Add to this mix the powerful impact of social media on the travel industry and visitors now use the Internet for research purposes and get most of the information that influences their decision making from content generated by people like them and not logos.

The rise of the ‘me too’ destination logo dilutes the importance of the logo in the visitor’s decision making process

The focus has shifted away from the identity of the destination to the experiences of other like minded people in that country. Against this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising then that the importance of a logo will not be what it was.

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), global tourism generated $7.6 trillion for the global GDP. More than 105 million international visitors arrived in South East Asia in 2015 and that figure is growing at an average of 8% every year.

Many of those visitors will visit Malaysia not because of the logo but because Kuala Lumpur International Airport is an increasingly important hub for low cost carriers servicing destinations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and more. And any trip to SE Asia will include visits to other countries in the region.

So in terms of the impact the logo will have on visitors to Malaysia, it will be negligible. However, it will help shape perceptions of Malaysia as a country and much of the debate across social media was how embarrassing the logo is for Malaysia.

So in terms of the reputation of Malaysia, there will be a perception impact and that will probably add to the negativity about the country. If most of the content consumers read about Malaysia is negative, then perceptions will become negative. And those perceptions can only be influenced and changed with a brand strategy that includes all stakeholders and not with tactical activities such as a new logo, advertising or events.

For Malaysia, what’s done is done. What can other countries, states, regions, cities or towns do to ensure their efforts aren’t ridiculed in the same way?

Here are 6 lessons that can be learned from this fiasco. They should be applied to any destination branding initiative.

1) Set up a nation branding task force.
Every country or state/city/place should have one. Malaysia used to have one and in 2008 the task force commissioned Fusionbrand to develop the Malaysia nation brand but the plans were canned when a new administration took over and a new department was set up under the new Prime Minister’s Office. This department embarked on a badly researched project about 5 years later that revolved around a tagline and a logo and not a strategy and as a result, lasted little more than a month.

2) Nation branding is strategic not tactical.
Nothing related to the nation brand can be done in isolation. To avoid similar failures, anything related to the nation/state/region/city brand must go through the nation branding task force. And that includes important ministries such as the Tourism ministry. Even state tourism boards and other stakeholders must share with the nation branding task force.

3) Test identity concepts before launch.
No man is an island. But sadly in Malaysia, if a senior person proposes something it is rarely challenged internally, even by marketing professionals hired supposedly for their knowledge. Anything creative should always be tested internally and with multiple consumer segments and the task force. I know it’s time consuming and expensive but which is worse, a delay in the launch or becoming the laughing stock of the world?

4) Have a plan for your identity launch.
Don’t expect to wing it. And be prepared for serious back lash from consumers because most of us hate change. Not many new logos were well received initially. But many of them are now very familiar, think Pepsi, Citi, Accenture, Qantas. After a certain amount of fumbling, the Minister stated, “I have launched it. Nazri Aziz never backtracks. This is what will be used for the world, only one logo, no other logo.” Would a clearly defined, sensible rationale have been a better way to announce the new logo? Absolutely.

5) Social media is your friend not your enemy.
I get the impression, perhaps wrongly that Tourism Malaysia was completely unprepared for the reaction to the logo. Especially on social media. Social Media CAN effect change so learn to work with it. But remember it is not a soapbox. Simple consumer research at the logo development stage on Facebook and Twitter would have saved Tourism Malaysia and the country, a lot of embarrassment.

6) Logos / taglines etc should not be confused with branding.
Malaysia has had a tough time over the last few years with the country struggling to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive environment. It’s hard to find current arrivals figures but the general consensus of opinion is that visitors from wealthy countries or high spending tourists are not visiting as they used to. A lot of this is because there is confusion over what constitutes branding and the Malaysia tourism brand has little differentiation. Brand identities / taglines / positioning statements / advertising campaigns and other marketing tactics are not branding. They may create awareness but that rarely convert to arrivals.

As I’ve stated already, I don’t think this farce will have much of a positive or negative impact on arrivals. But it’s impact on Malaysia’s brand? That worries me but that’s a discussion for another day.

Fusionbrand is Malaysia’s premier strategic brand consultancy. For more information on how we can help you get your branding right the first time, please call +60379542075.

Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysia nation brand


Place branding is a generic term for all the elements of a nation or country brand, cities, states and regions and even destinations within those areas. In South East Asia alone there are more than 600,000 destinations competing for investment, talent and tourists. In an effort to match their destinations to stakeholder requirements for value, smart places are developing brands that investors, talent and tourists embrace.

Our company Fusionbrand is working on a brand for one state government in Malaysia and in the past have worked with other state governments, tourism boards, enterprise zones and the Malaysia Tourism Board. It’s always a privilege when we win a destination or place branding project because such projects have a major impact on society.

Many nation brands are victims of the politicians need for quick wins
Many nation brands are victims of the politician’s need for quick wins

The Place Brand Observer heard about our work and got in touch with me in February and suggested an interview. The Place Brand Observer is a fantastic resource for anyone responsible for branding nations, cities, states and regions, public diplomacy and reputation management.

The site features insights into the industry, interviews with experts in destination branding from around the world as well as tutorials and case studies of successful branding of countries, regions, cities and destinations. It’s a meeting place for the brains and the brawn of the place branding industry. If you are involved in place branding or simply want to know more about the industry, I strongly recommend you sign up for their excellent news feeds.

You can read the full interview here . I thought it was a really good interview and we discussed data driven branding, country brands, Malaysia airlines and the link between the legacy carrier and the country. I hope you find the time to comment, good or bad!

I hate Thailand


Tourism accounts for about 10% of the Thai economy, employs hundreds of thousands of people and generates as much as US$65 billion in foreign currency.

But the ongoing political crisis that saw the military junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) take power and the brutal murder of two British tourists in Phuket has seen arrival figures plummet.

According to Reuters tourist arrivals dropped 10.3% in the first 9 months of this year and 2014 will see negative arrival growth for the first time in years. The authorities have moved fast to stem the hemorrhaging with a crackdown on widespread crime, corruption and inflated costs encountered buy all but the most savvy visitors to the country.

In Phuket many of the illegal buildings, sunbed conmen, intimidating food and drink vendors, dubious boat operators and unscrupulous taxi operators have been yanked off the beach and a certain calm has returned.

Initial attempts to get tourists to come back included ramping up mass advertising and a travel insurance scheme that provided visitors who couldn’t get insurance because the country was under martial law, with insurance.

Unsurprisingly these didn’t have much of an impact. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) changed tack and came up with what it calls “A romantic comedy short film.” TAT initially released the video as consumer generated media but soon found itself having to explain the film was actually an advertisement for Thailand even though TAT wanted to create an ‘unbranded’ advertisement because ‘they receive more interest than conventional commercials.’

The spot is a counter intuitive attempt to show a more hospitable Thailand by featuring a young British tourist who has had his bag stolen and does the British thing of ranting at everyone as a result and finally declaring “I hate this place. I hate Thailand.”

Then he meets a beautiful Thai girl and a bunch of other people who rally round and help him. Sure enough, after some beautiful sunsets, scenes with kids and wonderful encounters his bag is returned with his passport and money still inside.

Counter intuitive differentiation is a brave model to use to sell a destination. But it’s also a model from a different era. An era when brands controlled the message and pushed it out across billboards, full page ads with tear offs in the corner and press releases. An era when consumers took those ads at face value and believed what brands told them. An era without the Internet.

The video is a fun piece that has received 1,500,000 views in 10 days with 21,000 Likes on YouTube. But here’s the rub. TAT should have been upfront about the video. As it is, they have given the impression it is consumer generated and that is wrong.

The video has also received more than 1,625 comments and the majority of them are not very complimentary. In fact some of them are downright hostile, talking about robberies, threats of violence, policemen that don’t speak English whilst others say the video is a scam and wrong.

One Thai commented, “Its too good to be true. No one would come by and give you a drink like that and Thai people wouldn’t give you sleepover at their house, especially in the tourist area.”

Another focused more on the deception, “How you will discover the truth by watching a fake video where the first words are already a lie. His name is not James. His name is Oliver Smith and he got paid by TAT to make this video. Look around yourself and consider how many real friends are left if you are out of money. This is not a Thai related issue it is everywhere around the world the same story. No money no honey. Same same but different. I love Thailand but I definately hate liars. And using lies to portrait (sic) a countries (sic) image is a mistake and an insult to all the honest Thai citizens. If they just made a short statement at the end of this clip that this is a TAT promotional video I would give my congratulations for that nice pink tinted heart moving clip.”

TAT is going to have to work harder than creating a video and passing it off as genuine consumer generated media to restore faith in the country.

It’ll need to work out a strategy and communicate that strategy effectively with multiple proof points. And if it wants to use social media and create influencers it needs to do it properly. There are no shortcuts in branding.

Back to the drawing board for Brand Malaysia


Word reaches me from reliable sources that “Endless possibilities” the Nation Brand tagline chosen for Malaysia and scheduled for an official launch on 17th September will not now be used.

The tagline was panned from the outset, primarily because it was used by Mongolia and Israel. Trying to communicate a Nation brand promise in a few words or sentence, which is essentially what a tagline does, is becoming more and more complicated, not least because most of the best superlatives have already been used up but also because we live our lives very differently today and we’re not easily convinced by contrived messages anymore.

What most destinations fail to understand is that a tagline is not the first step in developing a Nation brand. Because what this creative driven approach aims to do is create a slogan, build an advertising campaign around that slogan, cross your fingers and hope that target markets will see it, buy into it and act and it will then become a brand. But this approach ignores what are the foundations for any destination brand strategy – stakeholder buy-in.

Unfortunately, because such a slogan is often created by an advertising agency there will be beautifully produced print and TV ads that woo key officials who immediately believe what they see in the slogan and of course buy into it themselves.

As we can see with “Endless Possibilities” this model does not work. So what should be Malaysia’s next move? The first thing is to establish a Branding Malaysia panel or task force. This panel should not be lead by someone with a creative background because this is not a creative exercise.

This panel will be tasked with carrying out extensive internal and external research to identify what Malaysia has to offer to what I hope are already identified target markets and sectors. Subjectivity and a grip on reality are required to make this stage work. I know it’s not sexy and requires a lot of boots on the ground but this phase is critical to the long term success of the project. Once research data is compiled and analysed, a blueprint to present the nation to the relevant audiences and not to the whole world will be created.

This blueprint will lay out the implementation process and feature clear timelines and responsibilities, communications strategies and channels, influencer relationship development, budgets, targets and possibly and only if necessary, a tagline.

This is a brief overview of how to build the Malaysia Nation Brand. A mistake has been made, never mind, let’s get it right the second time.

Destination branding – turning a bad story into a good one to protect your brand


Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world and gets over 44 million tourists a year. Tourism is estimated to generate revenue of £120 billion (RM600 billion) per year.

It’s a lucrative industry and one that needs protecting. So the last thing they need is a negative story that could drive visitors away.

Recently, 4 British tourists visited Rome and were forced to pay £54 (RM270) for four ice creams. Now I know Italian ice cream is supposed to be the best in the world but it isn’t THAT good.

Stunned, the group paid but later complained to an Italian newspaper and soon after the story made the front pages of many newspapers in the UK.

Mindful of the impact negative stories have had on other countries such as India where brutal gang rapes of female tourists have resulted in a 25% drop in arrivals, tourism officials were quick to react.

They got in touch with the tourists and invited them back to the city as guests of the mayor. This time they were flown to the city, met at the airport, given free accommodation at the luxury Jumeirah Grand Hotel – rooms from £500 (RM2,500) per night, free meals and free tours of the city.

No trip to Rome is complete without a trip to Harry's Bar
No trip to Rome is complete without a trip to Harry’s Bar

They were treated like kings and shown around the Piazza Navona, Capitoline Museums and archeological remains of ancient Villas. And of course they stopped off at Harry’s Bar on the Via Veneto for a drink.

The response from quick thinking Italian tourism officials has turned a negative news story into a positive one and ensured the story did not escalate into something that could have had a detrimental effect on the lucrative tourism industry. Simple but effective. In the event of something similar happening to you, do you have a plan in place to do the same?

Good consumer generated content will build destination brands better than any corporate commercials


It’s well documented how numerous companies waste huge amounts of money on ineffective advertising. Generally the advertising is ineffective because it is poorly written, isn’t tested or has been developed to appeal to as many vastly different segments as possible.

This is especially true of country brands. If I had £1 for every ‘me too’ destination advertisement that I’ve seen on TV, heard on radio or seen on a website, I’d be a rich man. Time and time again I see beautifully executed ads for destinations such as Thailand, Egypt, Malta, Malaysia, Bali and others that are all selling the same things – beautiful white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and cloudless blue skies.

These ads are pushed out across traditional media in the hope that enough people will see them, buy into them and eventually visit the country. If the campaign doesn’t work (and no one knows whether they work or not), the agency is generally sacked, a new one appointed and the whole process starts again.

Basically this model uses Hope as a strategy – hope the timing is right, hope it will be seen, hope it will be liked, hope it will be remembered, hope it will influence viewers enough to reject previous choices, hope the destination will be researched, hope the inevitable competitors that are seen at the same time will not influence viewers, hope this and hope that.

But it doesn’t need to be like that anymore. In the social media era, when consumers not countries define brands and the Internet provides copius amounts of information from other like minded consumers to help influence the decision making process, destinations need to be reaching out across this channel and leveraging consumer produced media to market themselves.

This approach requires a massive mindset change and will revolutionise the traditional organisational hierarchy but it has to start soon or destinations will lose the increasingly brutal competition for heads in beds.

To illustrate this point, I came across one video that is an outstanding advertisement for Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. It didn’t cost the Malaysian Tourism Board a penny and is a far better advertisement than any advertising agency produced Television Commercial.

Tourism Malaysia needs to have a community team scouring the web for such content and must then distribute such content across multiple channels to generate buzz and interest. This content will allow destinations to engage directly with influencers and other consumers in a way that traditional media does not allow them to.

This really is an impressive video. I suspect that after you watch it, Malaysia will go to the top of your list of must visit destinations.

Enjoy!

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Kuala Lumpur DAY-NIGHT from Rob Whitworth on Vimeo.

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To engage consumers, Jakarta needs to improve its communications


As the world attempts to shake loose the shackles of the economic meltdown, competition for tourists from both established and new markets is gathering pace.

But the new environment is an even more competitive one. There are almost 200 countries worldwide and over 100,000 places in Asia alone, actively seeking to attract and retain tourists.

As a result, it is increasingly important that destinations seeking domestic and international visitors have a well researched, structured, long-term strategy for increasing visibility & engaging the right segments to generate arrivals.

One relative newcomer to this tourism marketing battleground is the city of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, located on the island of Java and the capital of Indonesia. If you haven’t been to Jakarta I recommend you go as soon as possible because it is a fascinatiing destination.

I spotted this ad in a Malaysian daily recently.

Does this ad make you want to get more information on Jakarta?
Does this ad make you want to get more information on Jakarta?

It would appear that the people at the Jakarta tourism and culture department are looking to attract visitors to Jakarta with the promise of great shopping. However, as a consumer, without knowing anything about the rest of this campaign I can tell you that this ad needs work.

Firstly, what is the headline trying to tell us? Is it telling us that time is irrelevant? This is an existential argument and possibly true but in this situation not relevant. Perhaps it is saying, “don’t worry about time when you go shopping in Jakarta”? Or to be more specific, when you go shopping for shoes because after looking at this ad, am I wrong to assume Jakarta is a great place to buy shoes?

There is no call to action, the image of the shoe boxes looks photo shopped onto the main image and there isn’t a website address to gather more information.

So I took it on myself to google (other search engines are available) “Enjoy Jakarta” and arrived at the official Jakarta travel website where I couldn’t find any information on enjoying Jakarta, shopping or even shoe shopping.

Not the best introduction to what Jakarta has to offer
Not the best introduction to what Jakarta has to offer

I spent some time on the site and for what it’s worth, I found the site very slow, difficult to navigate with limited information and English that needs proof reading before pubication. When I clicked on the “Why Jakarta” tab on the drop down menu, the information provided was hardly compelling and unlikely to attract investors. And talking of investors, is this a tourism site or a business site?

Not the most compelling of arguments
Not the most compelling of arguments

Moreover, I found the information above the fold didn’t match the information below the fold and when I clicked on Wine and Dine in the footer, all I got was a list of restaurants which to a first time visitor would mean nothing.

This won't mean much to anyone
This won’t mean much to anyone

Today, audiences rely less on traditional media to source information, making them increasingly hard to reach. Furthermore, consumers are less inclined to see or be interested in a corporate driven message delivered across traditional media.

But as the reliance on traditional media diminishes, opportunities arise in new and social media. Where before, companies were dependent on content from the media owners, today they can create their own content that resonates with specific consumers and their interests.

Consumers too are developing their own content and it’s important that destination brands such as Jakarta understand this and provide channels for consumers to create and share content.

It is good to see Jakarta looking to encourage visitors to this exciting city but it will take more than the print campaign and website reviewed in this article to be successful.

Destination branding for small cities


Back in 2007, Destination Branding consultant Bill Baker released one of the best ‘how to’ books for city branding practitioners, mayors, planners, governors and anyone else tasked with or interested in the branding of cities.

‘Destination Branding for Small Cities: The Essentials for Successful Place Branding’ was so successful that he has updated it and you can find the updated version on amazon here

Bill Baker, defining the city branding process from the trenches

Bill understands better than most that city branding is much more than a logo, tag line or a communications exercise. With more than 30 years experience branding destinations, Bill outlines and explains the complexities of developing a place brand, the research needed, the stakeholders involved and the importance of developing a well defined strategy.

With plenty of case studies and comments from other practitioners (My contribution is below), this book should be required reading not only of practioners and government servants but also of students of marketing and branding.

Here’s my contribution to the book:
Singapore and Hong Kong have built internationally respected brands. This was achieved not by using creative taglines or cool advertising campaigns, but through their holistic approach to the process of branding.

Other Asian cities can benefit by emulating their practices through a better understanding of the elements required to build a destination brand and by having a more customer-centered approach.

Unfortunately, when it comes to destination branding, too many Asian cities have a top-down focus with a fixation on taglines or a brand essence or a one size fits all communications campaign that develops what it thinks is an interesting message that tries to speak to everyone, but really speak to no one.

As an example, in an attempt to boost tourism, the State government of Perak in Malaysia announced that the state capital, Ipoh would be known as the ‘City of White Coffee’.

Ipoh – city of white coffee. Would this tempt you to visit Ipoh?

A State executive said at the time, “Ipoh should have its own identity and branding just like Shenzhen (China) that is known as the “Shoe City” and Paris which has long been known as the “City of Fashion”. This shows a lack of understanding of what is destination branding and is an unrealistic expectation and hardly a concept to drive significant tourism growth.

I wrote an article about how to brand Ipoh, a beautiful city with massive potential and only a couple of hours north of Kuala Lumpur at the end of 2010. You can read the article here.

Similarly, the large Indonesian city of Surabaya has developed the tagline, ‘Sparkling Surabaya’ in an attempt to communicate the sparkling of the city as a centre for jewelry.

Surubaya tagline

In addition to being rather naive, the idea was controversial because citizens felt that the concept did not fully represent their city. A more thorough branding process might have helped avoid this situation.

On the other hand, the branding of the city of Zamboanga in the Philippines as ‘Asia’s Latin City’ has gained wide endorsement because it speaks well to the city’s culture and strong Latin influence, and appeals to external audiences as well.

The globally accepted principles of place branding are certainly valid in Asia however, the level of their application is very patchy at best.

Few demonstrate what can be considered ‘best practice’, and too many are influenced by basic misunderstandings concerning the practice and processes required, and how a city brand should be communicated and perform.

In general, too many see city branding as simply a tourism driven creative advertising campaign or a new slogan pushed out across traditional media.

Simon Anholt comments on the Public Relations efforts of Malaysia


Simon Anholt, the originator of the term nation brand and for many years an authority on managing national identity was interviewed by BFM radio in Kuala Lumpur recently. You can hear the interview here.

The interview was also covered by the online media and you can read about it here.

My thoughts on this issue are as follows

No disrespect Datuk Seri, but Malaysia and her future is much bigger and more important than Datuk Seri Najib Razak, UMNO and BN. Indeed, I am sure Datuk Seri Najib would be the first to agree with me.

Politically, the facts are that citizens of Malaysia voted for the government and gave that government a mandate to rule and represent the people. If about 35% of the population didn’t vote for a party within the government coalition and voted instead for another party (assuming they did vote – if they didn’t they should keep quiet) they have to accept that their party lost, and get on with working to build a global nation for their children and grand children.

Recently, the Malaysian government, elected by the people to manage the country on behalf of the people, decided to use traditional media, as part of what I hope is an integrated, multi pronged country brand communications strategy to help improve the image of the country.

It is unlikely this is an isolated tactic but part of multiple, integrated initiatives that are planned and coordinated by a plan that measures and leverages results.

If the government decides to work with a company that appears to have impecable credentials (and FCB media have them in spades) but appears to mislead the government then that government must dispense with such companies and its services, which is exactly what the Malaysian government has done with FCB media.

It is an unfortunate event but I sincerely believe that the government is not to blame for the debacle.

What perhaps should be questioned is not that the goverment tried to improve the image of the country – how can that be a bad thing and show me a country that doesn’t want to improve its image – but what were the justifications for using FCB media, what were the channels used and are they as effective today as they were say 25 years ago, what was the scope of work, what did FCB promise, was it necessary to pay such large sums of money to FCB, what did FCB use that money for and what metrics were used to calculate ROI?

On the face of it the amount spent appears to be excessive but without a breakdown of the expenditure we can’t be sure. And although it is not justification for spending so much money, show me a country that doesn’t waste taxpayer’s money? Only today, the UK has announced it wasted £11.5 BILLION on a National Health Service project that has been abandoned despite the huge sums spent.

Personally, I’m surprised that Simon Anholt has chosen to make such damning comments about one tactic that is, I assume part of a larger more integrated and holistic Malaysia country brand strategy.

I’m also surprised at his suggestion that countries can only make themselves more relevant by ‘making themselves more useful’. And the way to do this is by tackling a list of predictable issues – climate change, women’s rights, terrorism and financial insecurity – currently being addressed by many countries already.

I also think it is a little naive to think that Malaysia isn’t playing its part in some or all of those issues already. In fact, one could argue Malaysia has successfully combatted terrorism for longer than many countries except perhaps Northern Ireland.

I’m also surprised that he cites becoming a ‘widely recognised and widely appreciated country’ as goals. These are rather wishy washy goals and probably irrelevant as it wouldn’t be difficult to identify millions of people worldwide who recognise Malaysia and the country is probably ‘widely appreciated’ by hundreds of millions of people already.

You can read my earlier post on how Malaysia should build a nation brand here