Endless possibilities have ceased to be endless

It’s official, the new tagline that was supposed to launch the Malaysia Nation Brand will not now be used. The official launch for “Endless Possibilities” was supposed to be yesterday however it was cancelled. You can read more about the cancellation here.

Oops

My sources tell me that McKinsey, Futurebrand, Leo Burnett, McCann Erickson and O&M were all involved although I haven’t confirmed this. Ignoring the fact that not one of them bothered to Google the phrase “Endless Possibilities” before giving it the Prime Minister and causing him much embarrassment, my main concern is that the whole sorry process will be repeated once again and we’ll see them trying to retrofit the Malaysia Nation Brand around a tagline.

This is not the way to build a Nation Brand. You can get insights into how to build a nation brand here and here

5 lessons to be learned from the “Endless Possibilities” Branding blunder

On the 5th September 2013, I reported that the newly developed tagline for Malaysia “Endless Possibilities” would not be used. You can read the full story here. The official launch was supposed to be on 17th September 2013 but this has now officially been ‘postponed’. This is a hugely embarrassing situation.

Malaysia tagline: Dead in the water
Malaysia tagline: Dead in the water

Background
According to an article in the Malaysian Insider on 12th September 2013, “…the campaign and tagline was refined by two foreign consultancies and a market research firm after discussions with officials from the Prime Minister’s Department.”

The article goes on to say, “”The consultants refined it from the phrase ‘Endless Opportunities’ which was used in a speech to ‘Endless Possibilities’.”

An advertising agency was then called in to create the logo, which the Tourism Ministry used together with the tagline last year before it was used in Davos.”

This process began in December 2011 and the new tagline was given its first outing by the Tourism Ministry in Dubai in 2012. It was due to be launched officially on 17th September 2013, almost two years after the project was initiated. You only need to read this blog or those of any other destination branding experts to know this is not the way to build a destination brand. So what can we learn from this nightmare?

Here are 5 general lessons we can learn to ensure that next time the Malaysia Nation Brand project is executed properly:

1) If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, YOU CANNOT DEVELOP A TAGLINE AND THEN RETROFIT A BRAND AROUND THAT TAGLINE USING ADVERTISING AND PROMOTIONS. It is a fundamental of branding. If you are responsible for developing a Nation Brand you must understand this. I don’t care if someone gives you a tagline and tells you to build a brand around it. It simply is not possible and you have to stand your ground.
2) A tagline is not a brand. Let me say it again, A TAGLINE IS NOT A BRAND. Too many taglines have made promises the Nation couldn’t possibly keep, have left potential customers underwhelmed, have been lost in the clutter of advertising noise or have been ruined by an event beyond the control of the Nation. Moreover, we live in a social economy. What is the first thing a prospect will do when he hears a tagline? He will look to the Internet to find out what is being said about the country. If he sees more negativity than positivity, he’ll believe what others are saying, not what the Nation says. It won’t matter how much you spend on corporate driven messages pushed out across mass media that try to convince him otherwise.
3) Ask yourself how many great ads you remember from yesterday or the day before. Not many, right? Even those in the industry find this a tough question. There is so much advertising noise that it is very hard for a campaign to be seen, let alone remembered and acted upon. There is a place for advertising countries, but not for using advertising to gain traction for the brand.
4) Just because you hire a research company to do your research, doesn’t mean you’ll get the right research. And if you are starting with a tagline and trying to retrofit your brand around that tagline, your research is going to be flawed before it even starts. After all, how can you develop the right research methodology if you are starting from the wrong place?
5) If you insist on starting with a tagline, Google it first before you do anything. A Google search of “Endless Possibilities” throws up 13 million results including destinations that have already used it – Mongolia, Israel, Sagada, corporations – BHS India and conferences, t-shirts, singers etc. Every stage of every element of any brand development should be checked and double checked again.

13 million results requires some investigation before acceptance
13 million results requires some investigation before acceptance

There are other, more specific lessons that can be learned from this issue but there is nothing to be gained by outlining them here. Let’s just hope that to avoid any more lost time and money, the project will now be carried out the way it should have been in the first place.

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.

Why the tagline “Endless Possibilities” doesn’t matter

Those responsible for developing the Malaysia Nation Brand have come in for a lot of flack since the announcement by the Prime Minister that ‘Endless Possibilities’ was the new Nation Brand tagline.

And then, after several days of negative comments, respected news portal the mole reported last Thursday that the official launch of the tagline may be scrapped or at least delayed.

Frankly I’m stunned to hear there may be a U turn on this project almost before it has begun because the tagline has a minor role to play in the context of nation branding and what it is doesn’t really matter.

Because whatever tagline is chosen will have very little impact on the success or failure of the Nation Brand project and furthermore, it will be forgotten sooner rather than later.

Does anyone remember “Indonesia: Admit It You Love It”? Or for that matter the globally ridiculed and grammatically incorrect “Celebrating 100 years of Nation’s awakening.” Of course you don’t yet Southeast Asia’s largest economy has achieved growth of more than 6% in four of the last five years. That’s four of the last 5 years since 2008 when the world went into economic meltdown. Remarkably, in April – June 2013 the country attracted US$6.5 billion of FDI, up 19% over the same period last year.

Tourist arrivals to Indonesia have also shown significant growth and in the first half of 2013, the number of foreign visitors was up 7.18% to 4.15 million from 3.87 million in the same period in 2012.

Some time ago Germany, normally the poster boy of well thought out strategic initiatives came out with the bland, pointless and rather unlikely “Germany, affordable Hospitality.” Nevertheless, the country is the rose amongst thorns of European economies.

Some of the best and iconic country taglines are those that evoke a sense of the place they describe such as “New Zealand 100% Pure”, “Switzerland Get Natural” or “Montenegro Wild Beauty.”

And who can forget ‘cool Britannia’ introduced by the British Labour party in the late 1990s and created to communicate Britain as a vibrant, trendy and cool country. There was a similar backlash to the one in Malaysia and the UK tourism authority disagreed with it so much they went off on their own and created “UK OK” as a tagline. I doubt anyone reading this remembers either tagline but it hasn’t stopped the UK becoming the leading European destination for foreign direct investment, securing 1,559 investment projects that created 170,000 jobs. In fact, while global FDI inflows declined by 18%, FDI inflows into the UK rose by 22%

As Malaysia has discovered, finding a superlative that hasn’t been used is not an easy task but choosing one that has been used doesn’t mean it can’t be used again.

In fact, one could argue that the very fact that so many countries and companies have used “Endless Possibilities” could be considered proof that in fact the opposite is true and that this is a good tagline.

Endless Possibilities has endless potential

The response to the “Endless possibilities” tagline has been, as one would expect when discussing a Nation Branding project, emotionally charged.

Much of the focus has been on whether or not the tagline has been used by Israel or for that matter Mongolia. In fact, it would seem the tagline has been used not only by both Israel and Mongolia but also Sagada in the Philippines.

sagada-2010-marlboro-country-endless-possibilities

And while we’re at it, “Endless possibilities” has also been used by a lot of companies such as BHS in India who used it for an advertising campaign and by Florian pearls. It’s also the name of a thrift shop in the USA, a change management company in the UK and it also appears on a tee shirt underneath an infinity loop.

But most commentators and those members of the public who have cast scathing comments in blogs, forums and on social media sites are missing the point. There may be questions around the chosen tagline, how it was researched and why it was chosen but the reality is, the tagline doesn’t really matter. Yes it is a bit embarrassing that it has been used by other countries but it’s important to understand that this is not the Malaysia Nation brand.

It is a tagline. And like the majority of taglines, it will soon be forgotten. In fact, taking a macro view it will have very little influence on the success of the Malaysia Nation Brand project.

Sadly, it is not unusual for organisations to launch a brand strategy with the creative side of the project. This is wrong but unfortunately it is common. What will make or break the success of the Malaysia Nation Branding project is what the strategy consists of and what comes next.

This will be mapped out in a well researched, comprehensive brand plan that will not only form the foundations of attempts to drive the brand forward but also be the glue that keeps stakeholders together.

The world is loose, more fluid and more collaborative than ever before. As a result, nations have less control over the Nation Brand than they are used to but that doesn’t mean they should forgo a well-researched brand plan and let consumers define the brand, something that may already be happening in Malaysia. The Nation Brand plan is more important than ever as it serves as a blueprint for all stakeholders to adhere to.

Specifically, the Malaysia Nation Brand plan must communicate a positive and dynamic personality with economic, experiential and emotional values that reflect target audience requirements.

The brand plan must be holistic and comprehensive to enhance export promotion, economic development, tourism, foreign direct investment and other key national initiatives.

It must also communicate the intended message to the target constituents and stakeholders in multiple countries and at the same time, it must lay guidelines to strengthen the strategic, communications and visual impact of the Nation Brand.

The blueprint must also systemically connect the Nation Brand to the country’s core industries, corporate brands and Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector brands.

This must be established via a systematic, holistic process that accommodates the requirements of both national and international stakeholders. This process must not only be effective to optimize the Malaysia Nation Brand, but also maximize limited national resources.

But at the same time, the team tasked with this project must be flexible and open in the implementation of the plan. Let events influence the plan and be ready to adapt to events and opportunities.

The new Malaysia logo (thanks to thestar.com.my)
The new Malaysia logo (thanks to thestar.com.my)

But right now, all we have to go on is the tagline, a logo, a website and a commercial featuring the Prime Minister that was aired on CNN a few months ago. There is a Facebook page for Visit Malaysia Year 2014 that features the new logo but the site hasn’t been updated since March 2013.

VMY 2014 FB page
VMY 2014 FB page

The Facebook page features a link to a competition but this actually goes to the Ministry of Tourism website. Such competitions will help drive interest in the country and there is no reason why a competition can’t be created for businesses that may want to invest in or relocate to Malaysia.

The message of the TV commercial was to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) while the message of the website is “Whether your passion is food, culture, sports or art; whether you’re a traveler or entrepreneur; Malaysia has something amazing to offer. The journey starts here”.

The malaysia.my home page
The malaysia.my home page

One might be forgiven for thinking that sounds like a tourism message however the site features a number of feel good stories about successful Malaysian entrepreneurs, achievements, news, activities and more.

As the website evolves, it may need to focus or at least segment activities more clearly and provide refreshing and new content that is of interest to stakeholders and not repeat content that is already in the public domain. This new content will create interest in the country, be picked up by search engines and robots and drive traffic to the site.

The team tasked with the responsibility of making the Malaysia Nation Brand project a success will also need to engage stakeholders on an ongoing basis and not just use digital platforms to broadcast corporate driven messages.

Right now, a search of “Endless Possibilities” on Youtube doesn’t send visitors to any Malaysia site. The Brand plan will also map out tactics for driving users and search engine robots to original content.

you tube search of 'endless possibilities'
you tube search of ‘endless possibilities’

The launch of the new Brand strategy is set for 17th September and we should know more about the project then. But I believe, done properly and based on a comprehensive Nation Brand plan, “Endless Possibilities” really does have endless potential.

How to make the Malaysia Nation Brand strategy successful

Let’s get something straight. A catchy tagline, symbolic logo, pretty colours that symbolize the ‘personality’ of the brand and a custom designed font are not Nation Branding.

Glossy advertisements that push the creative envelope and consist of content that is impossible for stakeholders to buy into or live up to, is not Nation Branding.

Expensive brochures and other marketing collateral that use light gray colours on white backgrounds and font sizes impossible to read is not Nation Branding.

Hugely expensive billboards that create awareness but do little else and are soon lost in the fog of the tens of thousands of messages consumers are exposed to every day is not Nation Branding.

It might have been possible to use such creative-driven branding to build a Nation Brand in the 1960s – 1990s, when countries and their advertising agencies focused more on getting attention than getting results.

But this is a different era. There are now so many channels to consumers, so many competitors all with a similar offering and so many distractions that it is no longer possible to build a Nation Brand in this way.

Furthermore, too many taglines have made promises the Nation couldn’t possibly keep or their marketing or PR collateral has left potential customers underwhelmed. This may not have been the fault of the Nation or it may be the result of poor internal implementation but it has resulted in a delivery failure that has negatively impacted all efforts till then. A case in point is the Incredible India campaign and the multiple attacks on women over the last year.

Moreover, engaging (not reaching) target markets through traditional channels with traditional tools is virtually impossible today. Especially in the digital age when consumers are more knowledgeable, have more choice and are more demanding.

So how do we make the Malaysia Nation Brand successful?
Reach, awareness etc are all irrelevant. Nation Brands today are defined based on the economic, experiential and emotional value they deliver to all stakeholders.

What will make or break the success of the Malaysia Nation Branding project is the work that has gone into determining what are the key elements of the Malaysia Nation Brand.

Identifying and understanding what we have, what is unique, who are the stakeholders, what are we are going to do to get their buy in, how we identify target segments, the knowledge we learn about them and their requirements for value and deliver value to target segments (all of whom are very different and have very different requirements for value and must therefore be engaged with content that resonates with them), how we build our relationships with them, how we work with them and provide solutions to their problems.

The ability to build lasting relationships with stakeholders, a highly trained team capable of matching country attributes to those stakeholder requirements and the ability to consistently deliver value are required.

External communications battles are not fought on the right hand pages of national newspapers, during commercial breaks on terrestrial TV or on the outside back cover of business publications. They are not even fought on the pages of digital media or on corporate websites.

The battles for the hearts and minds of prospects are fought in the comments sections of blogs, on third party sites through user experience comments, through account manager emails, forums, search engines and ongoing personalized relationships.

If the people responsible for this project can match your Nation Brand to the value customers are looking for, they may have a chance of building a successful Malaysia Nation Brand.

I am reliably informed the Malaysia Nation Brand project has a budget of RM30 million. But it’s not known what that covers. If it is simply for a communications campaign then it will not be money well spent and the project will fail.

However, if it is for a comprehensive brand audit and Nation Brand plan (which will have been developed once the brand audit was completed and will focus on internal and external stakeholders) that outlines how to deliver value as defined above and based on the “Endless Possibilities” tagline, then that will be terrific use of taxpayers money and the country will benefit for many, many years.