Where is Malaysia in terms of world happiness?


Sticking with the Nation branding theme of the previous post, the 2016 World Happiness report is out. You can download the full report here. Of the 157 countries that participated in the project, Malaysia is the 47th most happy country, 25 places below Singapore at 22 and way above Indonesia at 79.

Denmark top of the world happiness index
Denmark top of the world happiness index

The sample size is 3,000 and its purpose is to, “survey the scientific underpinnings of measuring and understanding subjective well-being.” One section of the methodology caught my eye, “..continued with our attempts to explain the levels and changes in average national life evaluations among countries around the world. This year we shall still consider the geographic distribution of life evaluations among countries, while extending our analysis to consider in more detail the inequality of happiness – how life evaluations are distributed among individuals within countries and geographic regions.” It caught my eye but I’m not sure what it means!

One argument in the report suggests “people are happier living in societies where there is less inequality of happiness.” Which I think means “People are happier where everyone is happy.” If I’m right, I don’t think that’s particularly ground breaking information.

However, the section on Measuring and understanding happiness is interesting and worth a look. In fact the whole report is worth a look but I won’t be taking it too seriously. Oh, and the happiest country in the world? Denmark. Why, because everyone looks out for everyone else. The government’s social policy really is social and embraces everyone which has created a civil society where everyone has the freedom and income to make their own life choices. Food for thought there.

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.

Building the Malaysia Nation Brand requires a strategic approach


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building the Malaysia brand, one step at a time


I’m a brand consultant (that’s brand consultant not advertising agency marketing itself as a brand consultant – you can learn the difference here).

We’ve worked with many elements of the Malaysia Nation Brand and were once appointed to develop the Malaysia Nation Brand. Unfortunately, due to one of those cruel twists of fate and through no fault of our own, the project was cancelled.

However we still track developments in this space and are confident once those who are currently responsible for developing the Brand realise it can’t be built using communications and traditional tools such as PR and advertising, we will be called in again.

At the heart of our approach is the need to carry out brand audits to identify perception gaps, seek data on where the country is going wrong (and right), identify organisational issues that impact the brand delivery, recommendations for improvement and more. These brand audits require both qualitative and quantitative research including talking to relevant stakeholders including citizens.

You can read more about brand audits here.

These brand audits are critical to the success of a Nation Branding exercise. There are other principles involved and for more information on those, please read this post.

In addition to the brand audits and because no private sector organisation is going to develop a Nation brand strategy, the process also requires a heavy investment by the government in something that is strategic even though most governments have a tactical outlook. Finally, a Nation Brand strategy also requires investment in new activities, tools and departments and inculcating new cultures into those departments.

One of those new departments set up by the Malaysian Government is TalentCorp. Talentcorp is tasked with attracting top talent working abroad to return to Malaysia. It was a sensible idea to set up TalentCorp and although it is finding the going tough, it is having some success.

Recently though, I came across a rather scathing letter in the combative online news portal Malaysia today from a Malaysian citizen living abroad who had been invited to an event hosted by TalentCorp in Qatar.

You can read the full letter here.

Although the letter is not very complimentary, I hope that TalentCorp will be happy to receive this feedback and will use it to improve what is, like any organisation, big or small, new or established a work in progress.

But I do find it puzzling that the writer felt the need to write to news portal rather than the company itself. Surely if one’s intentions are honourable, then any such feedback should be sent directly to the organisation? If one has issues with the way something is done, why not write, at least initially anyway, directly to the organisation and not use a popular soapbox to air one’s grievances.

TalentCorp cannot be expected to achieve miracles but it is attempting to reverse the brain drain, which by the way is not unique to Malaysia – 500,000 wealthy Brits have left or are leaving the UK. Last year a survey there said 48% of Brits would leave if they could. The first thing Aussies do when they get the chance is leave the country. Almost 4 million Canadians live abroad.

The writer comments on the Malaysian education system and other related issues. But TalentCorp is not responsible for overhauling the education system or for addressing the “systematic discrimination amongst employers” – That’s a sweeping generalisation by the way. TalentCorp is responsible for encouraging Malaysians to come home.

Another comment in the letter states, “there is bias in the Malaysian oil and gas sector that allows certain foreign nationals to dominate various technical sectors.” I’d like to know more about this point because oil companies answer to shareholders. They need the best people at the best price. 30 years ago the majority of oil industry engineers were British with some Lebanese but mostly British.

Far sighted governments in India and the Philippines may have spotted an opportunity to encourage universities to develop courses to create engineers who now dominate many industries. If Malaysia missed the boat, it’s a shame but that isn’t TalentCorp’s fault.

Nor is it TalentCorp’s fault that many Malaysian graduates ‘are not up to the high standards required by the energy sector’. If it is true, it’s also not TalentCorp’s fault that ‘there is bias in the Malaysian oil and gas sector that allows certain foreign nationals to dominate various technical sectors’.

I also don’t think it is TalentCorp’s responsibility to improve the Malaysian job market. I also don’t think it is the responsibility of the Malaysian government to challenge the private sector. The issue with employers in Malaysia is a complex one that has at its heart the belief that employees are a cost not an investment.

Part of the blame for that lies at the feet of employers but the other part lies at the feet of the employee. And for both of them to change will take time. But that too is not the responsibility of TalentCorp.

I think the writer has been harsh in his criticism which often comes across as a rant against the government rather than TalentCorp. And no matter who one votes for, we have to accept that in a democracy, as many as 49.9% of the population can be unhappy with an election result but they have to live with it.

Besides the Nation Brand is much longer term than the government of the day and any efforts by the government to improve that Nation Brand – and the creation of TalentCorp is one key element to that process – should be applauded and given the support of citizens.

Responsible citizens with honest intentions should voice their grievances to the organisation but not to a controversial and confrontational news portal. And as part of the required corporate cultural changes, the organisation – in this case TalentCorp – must be open to such feedback and see it as that and not criticism.

I think the letter has actionable data that can help improve TalentCorp and I find it positive that this citizen was concerned enough to write a letter. I hope more citizens will provide more feedback in order for these companies to improve and build the Malaysia brand, one step at a time.

In case you are wondering, I don’t work for TalentCorp and don’t have any connection with them. However as an individual I’ve had dealings with them and I must say there is room for improvement. But I’ll take that up with them directly!

Could Yuna be the face of the Malaysia Nation Brand?


It takes multiple initiatives across multiple platforms to build a Nation Brand.

And some, no many of those initiatives will require more attention than others.

And some initiatives will take root and grow immediately whilst others may take time to thrive. Many more will require a significant investment in time, money and energy and still fail.

And many of these initiatives will be individual efforts that form no part of the Nation Brand strategy yet will play an important role in the development of the Nation Brand and therefore must be integrated into the Nation Brand plan to be leveraged effectively so that the Brand grows.

The Malaysian prime minister has set up a department tasked with building the Malaysia Nation Brand. I mapped out ten Nation Branding principles here.

As the department embarks on this daunting task they will uncover little surprises that will help them build the Malaysia Nation Brand. One such surprise is a singer called Yuna who comes from Alor Setar in the northern Malaysian state of Kedah.

Could Yuna be the contemporary cultural icon Malaysia needs?
Could this be the face of the Malaysia Nation Brand?

The diminutive Malay singer/songwriter has a wonderfully natural sound that reminds me of an early Sade. Her music is simple, her lyrics are a touch naive and she doesn’t quite feel what she sings and is still a bit self conscious but she has obvious talent. With the right songwriting collaborations, it won’t be long before her songs feature on late night Hed Kandi CDs and are forming the backdrop to romantic encounters.

Yesterday Yuna appeared on Conan in the US. Conan is the most watched chat show in the US with over 4 million viewers. Crucially most of them are in the 18 – 33 range which will no doubt be most likely to buy this music and travel to Malaysia. But it will still be hard for her to break into the US and other international markets. To do so, she’ll need a lot of marketing dollars to help her succeed.

Yuna appears on Conan

I know that the Malaysia Nation Brand team are not yet in the implementation stage but to be successful they will need to be loose, flexible and adaptive. In addition to appearing in front of 4 million viewers on Conan, Yuna has 360,000 followers on Twitter and over 1,1000,000 likes on Facebook. She is a star in the making and working with Yuna will be a great opportunity to give Malaysia a foothold on the contemporary cultural stage.

Yuna’s new album is out on 24th April.

You can listen to more of her music here.

Yuna has undoubted talent and can become an ambassador for the Malaysia Nation Brand. She won’t build it on her own but she can make a considerable contribution to its success.

10 Principles to build the Malaysia Nation Brand


Minister in the Prime Minister’s department, Datuk Seri Idris Jala announced yesterday that the Prime Minister, Datuk Sri Najib Razak has a team in place and they are working full time to create a national brand for Malaysia.

Datuk Seri Idris said that the brand would involve Malaysian perspectives on national policy as well as the pattern of behaviour of Malaysians. He was quoted as saying, “If we can align these, then we can have a national brand”.

It is good to note that Datuk Seri Idris isn’t suggesting PR and advertising will drive the process. However, I don’t quite know what he means by “the brand would involve Malaysian perspectives on national policy…”, but I am sure he knows what he is doing.

One concern I have is that his statement might give some people the impression that building a Nation Brand is a relatively simple process and that it can be managed and controlled by internal forces.

Whilst the behaviour of Malaysians will have a distinct bearing on the success of a Malaysian Nation Brand, the process will also require significant investment in many other areas, many of which cannot be controlled by internal forces.

And as mentioned above and repeated later, Nation Branding is not a communications process. We cannot convince potential investors or tourists that Malaysia is the place to invest in, move to or visit.

We can influence the reputation of the country by building relationships and delivering on promises – multiple promises to multiple sectors – but we will never convince anyone of anything.

To help the PM and his team develop the Nation Brand, I’ve come up with ten key principles for a strategic Nation branding initiative. Although there isn’t a standard formula for building a Nation Brand because of course they all start from a different place, these principles will help form the foundations of any Nation brand strategy.

The same model should also be applied to government ministries, departments and agencies. And of course, these stakeholders should also form part of the internal element of any Nation Brand initiative.

• Nation Branding is a collaborative process
The best news to come out of Malaysia is that the Prime Minister is driving this initiative because without the CEOs buy in, any branding initiative is doomed. His involvement makes a statement to all those who will be involved that this is very important.

But the PM will need assistance from government representatives in each of the states and from other stakeholders. Most successful destination branding initiatives come from situations where key constituents move beyond turf protection/building, put aside their political affiliations and step out of their comfort zone and show some originality and courage.

Nation branding is difficult, requiring planning, support and coordination from a wide array of public and private entities. But even the best plan in the world will not succeed without buy-in from Nation brand stakeholders.

The most important step to ensuring buy-in is involvement in the research and planning process. As much as possible, brand stakeholders that are involved in implementation must have the opportunity to add their input to the plan.

Such buy-in has two advantages. First, it allows valuable perspectives and experiences to be incorporated into the plan, making the brand plan stronger and more effective.

Next, it facilitates better, more effective execution. If all the parties involved have a complete understanding of the entire plan and their role in it and what its success means to them, then redundant efforts can be avoided and resources maximized.

(I didn’t say this was going to be easy!)

• Research and data are fundamental
Sadly too many Nations (and companies) see Branding as a creative driven process of repetitively pushing government defined tourism and other messages out across traditional media, ad infinitum. The hope is that the message will resonate with someone or enough ‘someones’ to make it worthwhile.

Historically, this process has been the responsibility of the tourism board with support from other departments/agencies such as the agency responsible for inward investment and the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Often the tourist board drives the Nation Brand

The tourism board delivers its message with a combination of slick, well-produced communications across mainly traditional media, PR and familiarization trips, trade shows and other trade related initiatives.

But just because the concept of carpet-bombing consumers with slickly produced commercials and PR messages worked (although this is contentious) for athletic shoes, automobiles, breakfast cereals and toothpaste in the mass economy (which incidentally no longer exists) of the post war years, doesn’t mean it is the way forward for the Malaysia Nation Brand.

Now, more than ever, step two in the Nation Branding process must include extensive qualitative and quantitative research with multiple stakeholders, both internal and external and from previously identified sectors.

Without research and data, branding decisions are no more than guesswork and the Malaysia Nation Brand is too important to base strategic decisions (or, any decisions) on guesswork.

The right research is vital for uncovering perceptions, attitudes and requirements for emotional, experiential and economic value, the three key elements of a successful Nation brand. Research also provides benchmarks for measurement and accountability.

Most perceptions about countries have been formed long ago but they can be changed, despite what Simon Anholt says! But the way they are changed in America will require a very different approach to the way they are changed in France, UK or Germany.

And of course the requirements for value of an automotive manufacturer from Detroit looking for an Asian country to set up a manufacturing base, will be very different to the value requirements of a financial institution from the city of London.

You’ll also need to know what target industries/segments think of you and also what they want from you, who/where they get their information from and what are their hot buttons.

It will be tempting to develop a common approach for these and other targetted yet diverse industries, but the reality is that each one will require information that is different and therefore more emphasis will have to be placed on relationship building than any communications.

The research will also allow you to identify what firms or institutions you should be going after and which ones you should not. And this is where the balance between the Nation Brand and the immediate success factors critical to political survival become entwined.

Because some industries are more attractive than others but if a firm from a controversial industry waves a couple of billion dollars in your face, the short term political benefits maybe significant but the long term branding benefits may be few, if any.

Of course it will require a very brave CEO to eschew those short-term political benefits for the long term benefit of the Nation. But such decisions will have to be made and to make them more palatable, they must be leveraged effectively for the benefit of the official and the government of the day.

• It is impossible for a Nation Brand to reach its greatest potential using creativity alone
Too much is at stake – both in terms of a country’s brand and resources invested – to depend on a creative-driven branding campaign (and that’s all it is because it is impossible to sustain) to form the foundations of your brand.

Furthermore, a creative campaign is best suited for mass markets and mass media – we’re back to running shoes, shampoo and so on.

Consumers are being inundated with so many messages they've stopped listening

Think of a TV commercial for a country or enterprise zone (you probably won’t be able to remember any, even if you are looking for one). They all say pretty much the same thing – how good the accessibility is, how great the country is, how special/unique their incentives are, how well educated their talent pool is, how extensive is their public transport system and so on.

But the reality is that if you are looking for somewhere to relocate to, the first thing you will do is get on the Internet and use a search engine to explore options.

Increasingly, the information you review will come from consumer generated media across social media platforms. It doesn’t matter how much a country spends on a cool logo or pushing a creative driven message out across traditional media, prospects will still go to the Internet and look for real world experiences.

Another issue I have with the creative driven approach is that it is essentially an acquisition driven model and doesn’t take into account existing prospects and investors.

But most damning of all, this approach leaves the strategy for the Nation in the hands of the advertising agency not in the hands of the CEO and executive management.

• Plan your work and work your plan
Once you have carried out your research and aligned your stakeholders, you can start to map out a Nation 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. And you have less control over the Nation Brand than ever before but that doesn’t mean you should forgo a well-researched brand plan and let consumers define your brand. In fact the 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 (more on SMEs later).

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 be flexible and open to the implementation of the plan. Let events influence the plan and be ready to adapt to events and opportunities.

• The essence of the Malaysia Nation Brand is more important than the brand guidelines so beloved of advertising agencies
It is common practice for companies to spend a great deal of money and time producing, communicating and training personnel about brand guidelines and how to police those brand guidelines.

What they really should be doing is spending those resources on building and nurturing a national appreciation and understanding of the brand and what it stands for, and developing a culture that will deliver a consistent brand across all touch points.

A great example is the South West of England that spent more offering free customer engagement and relationship training to key visitor facing companies than it did on advertising.

• Segmentation enables differentiation
Despite, or because of the power and sweep of globalization, which has Malaysians wearing the same fashions as Italians and Aston Martins in hot demand from Brazil to India and China, each country has its own requirements and world-views.

Once research has revealed the differing characteristics of various audiences, branding must be devoted to tailoring messages, media, channels and activities to the specific values and requirements of target markets.

Such segmentation not only ensures more receptive targets but also easily ensures differentiation from competitive countries trying to be all things to all people.

Social media and the voice of the consumer will drive online discussion and it is imperative that a social media strategy is initiated and integrated with the brand plan.

But communications are not enough. Relationships will be the key to successful development of a Malaysia Nation Brand. The successful implementation of these relationships will require unique and diverse talents that will be able to go out and sell the country. And it is important to match the right level of personnel with the prospects.

• Nation branding is a marathon, not a sprint
There is no quick win or quick fixes in any branding and this applies especially to Nation branding. Even in these technology driven times, establishing a Nation brand may take as long as a generation to develop.

For example, the current view of Japan as a nation famed for its precision and electronics is not based on its weak economic performance over the last decade. Rather, the seeds of Japan’s current nation brand were planted more than thirty years ago, when it began exporting transistor radios and two-cycle engines overseas.

But because it invested heavily in the development of the Japan Nation Brand, it has withstood the effects of the ‘lost decade’ and in fact, many argue that the Japan brand has improved, despite the economic impact of that lost decade and the terrible Tsunami of 2011.

Just as Malaysia launched its Vision 2020 program in 1991 to become a developed nation by 2020, the country must adopt a similar long-term view for Nation branding. Malaysia must look at establishing a Nation brand not for us – but for our children.

The good news is that signs of improvement and the benefits of investing in the Nation Brand development process can be enjoyed more quickly as witnessed by countries such as Croatia, Slovenia and to a lesser extent, Bosnia. These countries have invested heavily in research, product development, training and communications and as a result are building promising Nation Brands.

• The private sector, and in particular SMEs must carry its weight
The Government of Malaysia has tried to develop policies and funding and other resource allocation for SMEs to build brands. The Brand Promotion Grant was one such initiative.

However what would work better for the SMEs would be Brand development grants because Malaysian SMEs, supposedly responsible for as much as 97% of the economy, need to build brands before they can promote them.

The Malaysian government has tried to do a lot for the Nation brand – but it cannot do it alone. The private sector and SMEs need to start pulling their weight.

One way of doing this that would also generate a lot of positive publicity for the government would be to commission a reality TV programme that looks to find 25, 50 or 100 companies with the potential to make it globally.

Every season viewers vote for the SME they think has the most potential and the winner is given the opportunity and significant resources to become a global brand.

This would give SMEs a clear roadmap to success and fast track ‘country of origin’ development for Malaysian products.

Global sporting events will also help to build the Malaysia Nation Brand. It is probably not the right time to suggest Malaysia host the Olympics (although personally, I think Malaysia should be exploring the possibility of co-hosting the event with Indonesia. This would also do wonders for relationships with its neighbour).

Other private sector initiatives can range from promoting country of origin on foods and industrial goods, as Australia has done, to helping to fund trade missions to even good business ethics.

Tourism shouldn’t be neglected but if there is a strategy, it needs to be reviewed because current communications are very tactical and fall into the ‘me too’ category with little differentiation from competitors.

1Malaysia is a good concept but it needs more structure and strategy, not least to protect it otherwise it’s strength and potential will be diluted. It also needs to be better sold to Malaysians.

• Measurement and evaluation
Why should money or resources ever be spent without knowing the return? Wherever possible, perceptions, activities and processes must be measured, ideally with quantitative benchmarks.

Such measurement and evaluation must be used to establish accountability and to ensure continuous improvement.

But don’t rely on polls such as the Nation Brand Index. Such a tool, whilst perhaps relevant to Western countries offers little value to developing countries. People are too worried about their own situations to worry about Malaysia.

The western world is looking to Asia to drag it out of the economic quagmire. We may never get such an opportunity again. The timing of this initiative by the Prime Minister is perfect but we need to move fast.

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.