The spat between AirAsia and Malaysia Airports is damaging both brands and the Malaysia Nation brand

Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, the charismatic founder of Air Asia acknowledged this week that despite threats to do so, he has no right to change the name of Malaysia’s low cost terminal from klia2 to LCCT2.

Tan Sri Tony Fernandes. Charismatic but controversial and ill informed
Tan Sri Tony Fernandes. Charismatic but controversial and ill informed

This U turn is a relief to many because his spat with Malaysian airport operator Malaysia Airports over the naming of the second terminal at the country’s main gateway was becoming increasingly petulant and was yet another controversy Malaysia’s damaged brand could do without.

Nevertheless, the outspoken entrepreneur hasn’t given up on the project and is scheduled to meet the Malaysian Minister of Transport today, June 29th.

Tan Sri Tony was quoted recently as saying, “I’m doing a marketing campaign and the minister knows that. There is nothing wrong with it.”

He added, rather confusingly “It’s freedom of speech. I’m allowed to do any advertising I want. Why are we always bullied? We are trying to do business here, to create jobs, to attract tourists.”

“Penalties, fines, that’s old fashion (sic). Aren’t we (AirAsia and Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad) doing the same business together? Isn’t this good for Malaysia?”

“If anyone can tell me this is bad for the country, then I’ll stop,” Fernandes said, adding: “Let us work together to build something in this economic season.”

Well Tan Sri, what you are doing IS bad for the country and it’s bad for you and your airline as well. In addition to having a negative impact on the nation brand, these very public spats between an airline and an airport operator do not inspire confidence in either organisation.

Malaysia's transport minister
Malaysia’s transport minister

Furthermore, and I apologise in advance for being so candid but your rants are confusing, misinformed and contradictory. Promoting the nation’s second airport terminal as LCCT2 isn’t marketing, it’s illogical.

And confusing naming with a marketing campaign whilst suggesting you are a victim might gain you some sympathetic traction somewhere but it only detracts the reader from your stated aims.

Southwest Airlines, the largest and most successful low cost carrier and one I’m sure you are familiar with hasn’t tried to rename any of the terminals it has successful flown out of since 1971.

Newer low cost carriers such as AirArabia in the Middle East and IndiGo in India as well as the more established Jetstar in Australia and Gol in South America don’t fly in and out of terminals called LCCT, they fly in and out of terminals named terminal 1 or 2 or main terminal.

Other low cost carriers such as Air Arabia haven't tried to change airport names to LCCT2
Other low cost carriers such as Air Arabia haven’t tried to change airport names to LCCT2

It’s also a bit naïve to suggest that changing the name of terminal 2 to LCCT2 would ‘reinforce Kuala Lumpur’s position as the leading low cost gateway to Asia and beyond’.

Firstly, the concept of positioning is outdated and irrelevant in today’s social media world where consumers are more knowledgeable and no longer need to rely on the word of the corporation. But even if it was relevant, who are you positioning it to?

AirAsia is responsible for something like 90% of the passengers at Malaysia’s second terminal. If you haven’t already sold your passengers an onward flight, do you think the name of the terminal is going to make any difference? No matter how much you spend on positioning the terminal, it won’t make a difference.

Secondly, where is LCCT1? Just because you know it doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean a young Beijing based Chinese travel writer travelling to SE Asia for the first time doesn’t know. But if he’s confused, he’ll write about it and I guarantee that’ll have more impact than any positioning campaign.

Thirdly, is it really possible to ‘reinforce Kuala Lumpur’s position as the leading low cost gateway to Asia and beyond?’ Irrespective of the fact that nobody else is trying to position Kuala Lumpur as anything or the fact that positioning doesn’t make sense, who is going to drive this? Have you got buy in from other stakeholders? And who is going to fund it? And how?

And what about the future? Which other airlines are going to use the LCC terminal? Already Malindo has moved to the main terminal. Do airlines really want to be associated with a LCCT? Especially when the experience of using the second terminal is not one passengers are enamoured with.

There is definately a need for consistency in the naming of the terminals at KLIA. It is logical to name the terminals one and two. Preferably KLIAT1 and KLIAT2.

And the next one can be called KLIAT3 and so on, just like Changi, Heathrow, Los Angeles, Sydney and just about every other easy to use and successful airport in the world that has chosen logic and the user experience over everything else when naming their airports and terminals.

Once the naming has been addressed logically and in line with global best practices, we can move onto the marketing of Kuala Lumpur and the airport and the freedom of speech and all the other stuff TS Tony mentioned. But only then.

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!

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.

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.

What Malaysia must do to build a Nation Brand

Traditionally, Tourism Malaysia has had the responsibility of raising the awareness and promotion of Malaysia. And Tourism Malaysia has worked hard to build awareness of the country as a tourist destination and on the whole, it has been reasonably successful.

But in an increasingly competitive world, Malaysia is not just in a global competition to attract tourists. It is also in a global competition to encourage talented Malaysians to return to the country, international talent to live in the country and international investment. Malaysia also needs to move away from its image as a supplier of commodities to the provider of more valued added products and services and increase its influence in Asia and on the world stage. As if there weren’t enough, it is also in a domestic battle to forge a national identity bought into by multiple races!

A strategic tool to achieve the goals of attracting talent, increased revenue through expanded tourism and more valuable exports is Nation Branding or country branding. Australia, India, Norway, Oman and Qatar are all making a concerted effort to attract the world’s attention, interest and revenue by embarking on Nation Branding initiatives.

In this competitive environment, complicated by bickering politicians and individual agendas, tactical rather than strategic initiatives, fragmented and outdated communications, a lack of integration and communication between organisations and dwindling global funds available for investment, Malaysia has a lot to offer.

It is a progressive, innovative and stimulating country in which to live, work and visit. Malaysians are enthusiastic for development and have a natural ability for entrepreneurship. Individual races have capabilities in specific areas important for the growth of the country. For such a young country, it is remarkably open and many times it has been called a model Islamic country. It has numerous natural resources that should ensure quality of life can be high. Residents and visitors can enjoy the benefits of increasingly advanced infrastructure combined with a vibrant, diverse culture and a reasonably well trained and educated work force.

But, unfortunately, Malaysia does not have a clearly defined image or the visibility internationally that it deserves. Part of the reason is that it lacks a national Brand that resonates with Malaysians and enjoys wide acceptance internally and is effectively and consistently communicated externally.

As a result, international perceptions vary widely. Some believe it is an undeveloped country rich in such natural resources as rubber and timber; others look at the Petronas twin towers and fail to see many differences between Taipei, Shanghai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and other Asian metropolises. This lack of a consistent Nation Brand persists despite the efforts of successive Prime Ministers, international events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the 1998 Commonwealth Games and increased visitors to the country.

The need for successful Nation Branding is recognized at the highest levels.

Most recently, the Prime Minister, via his website and with the assistance of Tony Fernandes, CEO of Air Asia has outlined the need to shape the country moving forward and asked for help from citizens. Although technically not a citizen, I have three children growing up as Malaysians so I have a vested interest in the success of the country.

So what should Malaysia do to start building the Malaysia Nation Brand?

Five key factors are required to achieve the prime minister’s goal as an international “corporate nation.” These include:

• Widespread agreement and acceptance on what Malaysia stands for, and what makes her unique in the community of nations. The agreement and acceptance is based on communication and understanding among all levels of government and all facets of society.

• The identification of industries most likely to complement Nation Branding initiatives and a clear process for investing in and sustaining that investment and developing those industries.

• Clear, consistent and coordinated communications to domestic and international audiences by public and private sectors. A long-term plan with goals and measurements is critical. Ideally, these communications must be tailored to specific segments.

• Successful execution of brand messages. This is not just a communications exercise. The public and private sector must facilitate international and other economic involvement, while tourist-related industries and areas must perform according to expectations.

• Leadership. Current branding efforts are hampered by a variety of uncoordinated tactical efforts, each promulgating a different message. Leadership is required to ensure that Malaysia both speaks “with a single voice” and has the necessary long-term commitment.

The following are the key steps required in the development of the Malaysia Nation Brand and they are as follows:

1) Carry out a brand audit. Who do we think we are? Who do our stakeholders think we are? What do we have? What do we want to become? What do we have? Do we have the skill sets required to sell it? Are our communications communicating this effectively? Does the content of our communications resonate with target markets or are we using a one-size-fits-all strategy to communicate with everyone? Are we using the right platforms? Who are key stakeholder influencers? How do we communicate with them? What do stakeholders want from us? Can we deliver? If so how?

2) Analyse and review the data collected in step one and identification of key industries to help drive the Malaysia Nation Brand.

3) Develop the nation brand framework. This stage includes the development and articulation of the vision, mission and values of the brand as well as the development of a positive & competitive identity that offers economic, experiential and emotional value to each target audience

4) Develop a holistic and comprehensive visual and verbal brand. Sadly this is where most nation brands start. Using a creative driven approach, they look to spray advertising across as many platforms as budgets will allow and pray that it sticks in at least some of the places. This ‘spray and pray’ approach to branding is destined to fail nearly every time.

5) Develop the brand strategy. Only AFTER the above steps can the brand strategy be developed. Normally a plan to drive the brand forward, it outlines how to position Malaysia as a unique, different and attractive country for key stakeholders such as tourists, investors, strategic partners and talent and includes, branding, marketing, sales and other imperatives as well as measurement, budgets, responsibilities and more. Individual country brand strategies should also be included for key markets. The brand strategy also outlines requirements to clearly communicate relevant messages to the target constituents and stakeholders in multiple countries.

6) Make sure all initiatives systemically connect the Nation Brand to Malaysia’s core industries, corporate brands and Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector brands

7) Measure, improve, refresh and keep relevant.

Building a nation brand is not easy. It requires commitment and perseverance and the will to stick with something even when it may not be going according to plan. Follow the elements above and we will have a much better chance of building a Malaysia Nation Brand.