Recovery branding for Tourism in Malaysia. A Q&A with Marcus Osborne


I was invited to participate in a conversation on Recovery Branding for Tourism. You can watch the video here.

I think the video is worth watching, but if you don’t have time, I’ve added my responses to the questions below

Introductions

On the personal front I’m Marcus Osborne. I’ve lived in Malaysia since 1994, I’m married to a Sarawakian and have 3 kids all born in Kuching and they all are very proud of their heritage.

On the professional front, I co-founded Fusionbrand in 2003 after a career in marketing & sales in Europe the Middle East and SE Asia.

We founded Fusionbrand because we saw how the branding landscape was changing and that although branding was becoming more complex and necessary, most firms thought it was related to positioning, taglines, logos etc.

Then and even now, most firms see branding or rebranding as a cosmetic tactical exercise like changing a logo, developing a tagline or creating a new advertising campaign. We also noticed that a lot of businesses were stuck more in a trading mentality and didn’t invest enough in the brand experience or technology to assist them with brand building.

We determined that with an economy growing at up to 9% a year, this didn’t matter but we realized that as growth slowed and the world was getting smaller, more dynamic, more competitive, that cost was no longer a good enough differentiator and that building brands around delivering value would not only block local and international competition but also lower operating costs and increase profits.

So we established Fusionbrand and built the business around two primary pillars

  1. THE BRAND
  2. BRANDING

The Brand

A brand is the visual, historical, topography, environmental and cultural assets of the business or destination. It’s important you base these not on what you want the destination to be but on the reality of what it has to offer. For destination brands today, authenticity is key so it’s about leveraging the natural assets into something that’s of interest to key segments.

This becomes the destination’s DNA and it must have at its heart the goal of consistently delivering memorable experiences to consumers at every stage of their journey from the initial research to becoming part of the consideration set and then to become the chosen destination, through the visit and afterwards as well.

It’s really important therefore to have the buy in of all stakeholders, especially the front liners who often benefit the most. If stakeholders aren’t on board, it doesn’t work. This is often the hardest part, especially when, if they won’t adjust, then they have to be excluded.

Branding

Branding is about how we bring the brand to life, throughout the customer journey. Both through the narrative we create around the destination and its assets and how we encourage others to participate in the development of that narrative.

The narrative can take many forms and be communicated through multi channels but the DNA has to be consistent in terms of how the brand is represented. This consistency is more important than how creatively it is presented.

Most campaign driven marketing projects are a straight line whereas smart branding uses technology to connect with the consumer from the outset using a variety of tools and build a relationship that includes staying connected with them long after their first visit.

To be successful, you need to have a solid brand in place before you attempt branding. There’s no guarantee of success but technology allows us to measure the effectiveness of everything we do.

And you need a fair amount of luck as well.

The benefits of branding are significant – lower acquisition costs, better reputation, improved visitor numbers, higher repeat visits or purchases, increased investment and more.

Fail to do it and at best you get left behind which is why most Malaysian states aren’t attracting visitors, even those with outstanding natural assets.

At worst you spend millions every year trying to develop a creative campaign that will stand out in a crowded market place dominated by destinations with far deeper pockets.

And of course if something like a pandemic or other disaster happens, everything you’ve spent on traditional media is essentially wasted.

  1. From your perspective, could you give us the overview of the current situation in our Tourism Industry?

The industry has been hit hard, really hard. Look at hospitality, even before the MCO, in the first 3 months of the year 170,000 hotel bookings were cancelled.

The hotel industry alone is reported to have lost RM3.5 billion in the first 6 months of the year. That’s unsustainable. All related industries have been impacted and it’s not over yet.

But you only need to look at the social media pages of the minister to see she is working tirelessly to stimulate domestic tourism & its working because there has been a fair amount of revenge tourism since the MCO was partially lifted although that has been a double edged sword because a lot of destinations and hotels weren’t ready for the surge in visitors.

Moving forward, what I’d like to see is a more strategic approach to stimulating domestic tourism. There needs to be a plan outlining initiatives as well as new incentives from the government to stimulate demand and regular briefings from the communications team at MOTAC on what is being done and its impact.

From Sarawak’s perspective, I can see that STB is trying hard to stimulate domestic demand & I like how quickly the Sia Sitok programme was developed although if I’m not mistaken, its only available for those living in Sarawak. If this is still the case, I suggest it is extended to West Malaysians.

At the same time STB seems to be moving away from mass advertising to developing branded content. This long term focus will help the state rebound quicker once the pandemic is over as potential visitors will be increasingly familiar with the state.

Because the way destinations are researched these days means experience related content is critical as it drives visitors to a website or blog which allows a tourism board to start the relationship building process through the use of email marketing and other tools. It also allows tourism boards to develop revenue streams by using affiliate marketing.

There’s a real possibility that as governments look for ways to reduce costs, pay for COVID economic stimulus packages or decide agencies now have to generate their own revenue streams, technology will help tourism boards achieve this.

Used correctly, technology allows tourism boards to have more control over their messaging. When visitors to a website or blog don’t sign up for newsletters or leave contact information they can still be reached with retargeting, allowing the destination to stay relevant for longer.

I also think the private sector needs to understand that it’s not just the job of the government to drive visitors to Malaysia, the private sector needs to contribute as well. This is going to require a mindset change.

            2. What are the prevalent branding practices during this pandemic (tourism or other industries) and what do you think of them?

On a Sarawak level, there seems to be a pivot away from international markets to domestic ones. This is necessary but I think content creation related to experiences needs to be ramped up. And improvements can be made to how social media is used.

On a national level there doesn’t seem to be much marketing with the exception of Desaru that is advertising a lot online but the website is buggy and doesn’t provide enough information or seamless opportunities to purchase products. Desaru could learn from the One and Only marketing experience.

From what I can see, just about every other state seems to have gone into its shell. This is sad because destinations can use the pandemic to forge long term bonds with domestic tourists now that could last for years, even generations.

Digital is underused & under appreciated

Digital can be used to build interest in destinations, forge relationships with travellers and close deals. But it’s important to appreciate that digital is not a broadcast platform. It’s a platform for connecting with people. This requires structural change and a move away from how things have been done for the past 40 years.

Today, destination brands must be constantly connecting with audiences to get the most out of social media. There is the potential to build DTC relationships that will benefit destinations in the long run. But this means digital infrastructure has to be changed as the old rules, even before Covid no longer apply.

Industry wide structural issues

However there are other structural issues that have to be addressed as well. There are not enough ‘best in class’ products in Malaysia. My theory is too many products are created from the wrong perspective. The goal is not to create a product. The goal is to create an authentic experience that delivers economic, experiential and emotional value.

For example a homestay is not about creating a building in a kampung and calling it a homestay. A homestay is about creating an authentic experience. Everything about it should mirror the reality of the kampung. If it doesn’t it fails.

            3. What are the new norms for tourism branding?

COVID has given us an opportunity to evaluate the national and state tourism industry as well as the agencies that are responsible for the development of the industry and the marketing of Malaysia and states.

And this is timely because there’s a problem with the industry. Tourism arrivals have been flat for ten years. Unsavoury practices within the industry are destroying Malaysia’s brand equity and need to be addressed because they won’t go away. Now is the time to take a long hard look at who manages the industry, how it is managed and where it is going because things must change.

A road map for investment needs to be developed around pillars that will drive the industry forward for the next 20 years. I think one pillar that should be explored thoroughly is tourism investment zones.

Until there’s a vaccine, it’s going to take a long time for international travel to pick up. Corridors will be the first step and marketing teams will have to adapt. We’re already hearing about a corridor between Perth and Langkawi. That’s a great development but it’s a small step.

With the right approach, we could see charter flights into Sarawak from certain locations but we need the products to attract visitors from those sources. This requires a pivot away from what we’ve done for the past 20 years.

Transparency is a critical success factor

Transparency is going to be really important. Who knows what the psychological impact of covid is going to be but we can sure that with all the uncertainty around the pandemic and the poor handling of the fallout by many important sources of visitors to Malaysia like the UK, transparancy will play a big part in generating traveller confidence in a destination.

Other new normal branding initiatives will be the use of visitor tracing apps in the supply of information. Leverage on the excellent work done by the Ministry of Health by providing information on health and safety in marketing collaterals and define protocols while providing easy access to real time information.

Those travellers who are exploring medium and long haul trips will look for ease of access to COVID related information around a destination. And they’ll cross reference it against what they can find online. Those that are transparent and open.

So destinations that use a multi channel approach to their branding and provide real time COVID updates, provide hot lines for visitors, seamless advice on what to do if there is a surge in numbers etc on a regular basis will build trust and give potential travellers the information they need to make travel plans. And once travel begins, make sure it’s a touchless travel experience to further build confidence.

These are new norms and confidence is key. Building confidence takes time. Now is the time to start.

On a tactical level, I think we’ve seen the end of the hotel buffet which is probably a good thing!

            4. What essential element(s) should industry players be aware of when strategising their recovery branding?

Well the pandemic should go away but it won’t be an on/off lightbulb moment. It’s more likely to fade away, so there’s time to get ready. If they haven’t done so already, industry players should be doing or do the following:

  1. Review your operations, especially marketing departments and how they operate
  2. Review existing products & determine whether they are fit for purpose for a post Covid environment
  3. Build a strategy around what you have, not what you or stakeholders want to have
  4. Use down time to reskill your teams around delivering memorable experiences at every stage of the customer journey both online and off
  5. Look to renovate, invest in new materials, equipment etc. The industry will come out of this and when it does, the competition will be intense
  6. Create a brand plan. If you don’t have a plan everything you do is guesswork. Fusionbrand, a destination brand consultancy has noticed that firms with a brand strategy that incorporates a crisis plan are dealing with the COVID environment better than those who don’t have a plan
  7. Government & the private sector must move away from mass media marketing to creating content that builds organic narratives and collect data
  8. Data will be key. The post COVID travel environment will be different, so invest in data collection tools and use data to build direct relationships with target markets. Especially important for those destinations or products that don’t have the massive marketing budgets of competitors
  9. Reduce the number of stakeholders in the industry
  10. Industry players should be objective in their decision making. Collaboration between stakeholders is important to get out of this. This is not the time for stubbornness!
  11. Explore tourism investment zones, ideal for places like Sematan in Sarawak for instance
  12. Stay fluid. Community managers will play a big role as they keep followers involved and informed on developments in the relevant destination
  13. The fastest way to restore traveller confidence is by being accessible and transparent. Put protocols in place now to deal with a surge in social enquiries

         5. New norm vs conventional ways. Do you think industry players would return to the conventional ways of doing things once this situation died down?

I hope not! We’ve been doing it wrong for some time. Which is why visitor numbers to Malaysia have remained around 25 million for the last 10 years.

The majority of people who visit, love Malaysia but products are not good enough to encourage return trips. There are exceptions but overall the quality and variety is simply not there. And many of the products are not marketed properly.

Moreover, regional competitors are constantly creating new offerings while Malaysia’s tend to stay the same. Plus the management of many of Malaysia’s tourism products leaves a lot to be desired.

Moving forward, there are not enough new products coming onto the market. This needs to change. Let’s hope it isn’t ignored once things get back to normal.

And there needs to be more synergy between TM & state tourism boards. Local destinations don’t market themselves aggressively enough.

And moving forward, I want to see the private sector investing more in the industry. If this requires policy change then so be it.

            6. How can branding for a destination like Sarawak be done effectively now during the pandemic and after it has blown over?

It’s important to appreciate that branding is a strategic initiative. So although COVID has taken a toll on every destination, there should still be a road map in place to drive the industry forward and build the destination’s reputation. Much of that will remain although if the marketing focus was on mass media, that needs to change.

Tactically, getting West Malaysians to visit is the right approach for both the long term and the short term but it’s going to take time and they need to be nudged repeatedly before it’ll start happening.

But Sarawak can’t ignore international markets. I understand a new tourism master plan is being developed and this is good news for the industry. It’ll have to be ruthless as currently there are too many stakeholders in Sarawak so this master plan should streamline this and it needs to move away from the campaign approach of small tactical initiatives to a long term strategy.

And that strategy must be built around a clear brand proposition that is authentic and they must use this to unlock growth around 3 pillars, products, content & relationships. Those products should be built around 5 – 10 niche sectors, invest in them to ensure they are best in class.

Substantial investments need to be made in the tourism infrastructure. New products created for the right target markets.

Sarawak has a lot of potential but not as a shopping/mainland Chinese mass tourism destination. There will be business from China but not volume business. It’ll never be a mass market destination for anyone & shouldn’t try to be.

Sarawak will never have the accessibility that other destinations have but that shouldn’t stop Sarawak from becoming a globally respected destination. Something it could be in 5 – 10 years.

More importantly, the tourism master plan must propose a task force is created to implement the master plan because too many plans have been created only to gather dust on a shelf.

Adding value to Malaysia’s commodities & making the move from original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to original brand manufacturer (OBM)


This morning, I read with interest Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah’s comments about the price of pepper.

You can read the full article here but the crux of it is that he’s talking about the dramatic price drop and appears upset (rightly so) that the solution offered by the Primary Industries Ministry and the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB) was to plant more pepper.

He said that he had asked for the Federal government to provide subsidies for pepper farmers but no allocation was included in the Federal budget so the State government would have to provide the bail out instead.

Unfortunately the Minister’s solution isn’t right either. Sure, it may assuage the farmers in the short term but in the long term, the problem will return every time the price drops.

And with pepper production rising in many countries, the price is likely to remain depressed which means the farmers will require more handouts next year.

Black pepper sold as a commodity only RM8,820 per ton

This leads to a dependence on the government because farmers will grow used to being bailed out. This is not effective use taxpayer’s hard earned cash and will slow the state growth, let alone build a globally competitive industry or for that matter a self sufficient industry.

Mature economies look to add value to their commodities. So that when the price of the main ingredient fluctuates, they have a buffer. One potentially lucrative way of adding this value is building global brands.

Sarawak Pepper is acknowledged as the best in the world and 90% of Malaysia’s pepper comes from Sarawak yet it is basically sold as Malaysia Pepper. Sarawak pepper still has some existing brand equity but it is rapidly being eroded.

Black pepper ‘brand’ sold at Kuching airport RM41,950 per ton

The commodity business is a zero sum game. It’s like the Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) business, whereby firms manufacture equipment for other firms who then use their branding skills to sell the product at a premium.

This has proved to be a popular business model in Malaysia but as the country is now finding out the hard way, you can make money in the short term, but in the long term OEM is little more than a commodity business with very low margins and little growth potential.

But the biggest drawback is that there is always a competitor somewhere who can produce the same thing as you at a cheaper price and who can get it to market quicker.

Because the only relationship is a contract based on a cheap price, customers have few qualms about moving to those competing companies or countries offering cheaper deals.

We’re already seeing how Malaysian commodities such as Palm Oil, Rubber, Timber and Pepper, as well as OEM, especially in the electronics sector are finding it ever harder to compete in the face of competition from aggressive challenger economies such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Black pepper sold as a European brand in a Malaysia supermarket RM379,000 per ton

The time has come to start adding value to the commodity and OEM sectors in Malaysia. Companies in more mature Asian markets, such as Japan and Korea saw the lack of a future in competing on price.

In the late 1990s, when Eric Kim was executive vice president of global marketing at Samsung, he saw the writing on the wall, “We were nobody. We were down at the commodity level.” Samsung understood that they had to make the move from OEM to Original Brand manufacturer (OBM) and make it fast.

Moving from a commodity grower or Original Equipment manufacturer to a grower of ingredients for a global brand or becoming an Original Brand manufacturer (OBM) has huge benefits not only for the company but the country as well.

Today, Korea is admired and Samsung is imprinted on consumer DNA as one of the world’s leading brands. In flat-panel screens, Samsung is the market leader. In smart phones, Samsung sold 300 million units in 2017, compared to Apple’s 200 million.

Huawei, Haier, LG Electronics, BenQ, Lenovo and other firms have accomplished what many Malaysian firms need to do – make the jump from OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to OBM (original brand manufacturer).

The motivations are clear. Brands are more profitable. According to one report, the world’s top 100 consumer goods and retail companies generated sales of US$3.6 trillion recently and profits of US$228 billion.

Meanwhile, the top 100 OEMs in the Asia Pacific region that supplied products to those top 100 companies reported a relatively meagre US$85bil in sales, with total profits of US$4bil in the same year.

A pepper brand in Europe selling at RM581,000 per metric ton, compared with RM8,800 in Sarawak

Making the move to OBM will also help with Malaysia’s bold attempts to move the country up the value chain to developed status. Other advantages include greater national employment and influence, increased opportunities for strategic alliances and leverage to open new markets.

Compared to the brutally competitive world of OEM, OBMs also have greater control over their destiny. How many Malaysian OEM’s have folded in the last 10 years after a major customer has sought lower costs elsewhere?

What happens to Sarawak’s pepper farmers if the Koreans and Japanese confectionary manufacturers source from Vietnam?

The good news is that thanks to long-established relationships with such major Western brands as Motorola, Dell, Texas Instruments, Ralph Lauren, Airbus, Tommy Hilfiger, Marks & Spencer and many more, Malaysian OEMs have the manufacturing, logistical and quality control potential required to compete in world markets.

But more Malaysian firms have to take the plunge otherwise they will lose out. And the government needs to focus not on bailing out farmers but showing them how to build brands that can conquer the world.

However, making the jump from commodity producer, the global branding dominance or from OEM to OBM is not as simple as spending millions on advertising.

A USA brand of pepper that could be from Sarawak sells at RM251,000 per metric ton, compared with RM8,820 in Malaysia as a commodity

It requires a substantial commitment of time and resources to establish channel relationships and share-of-mind in target markets. And the move is not without risk. Remember when Acer tried to breach the US market but had to withdraw, wasting an investment of almost $10 billion.

Key success factors include:

Change government & corporate thinking: Although Asian consumers are the most brand-conscious in the world, Asian Ministers and business owners devote much more time to advertising and discounting than branding.

Branding is seen as a cost, not an investment, and branding initiatives don’t get much further than billboards, TV commercials and annual sales (4 times a year).

Think long-term: There is no quick fix. It took Samsung five years to move from commodity to brand. Five years is a minimum, although specialty B2B markets may only require three.

Understand branding: Many Asian leaders believe that a new logo, large discounts and heavy advertising is branding. Actually, branding requires the ability to develop emotional and experiential as well as economic relationships with customers.

Ensure execution: Quality is a given. But is the distribution broad enough to support a national branding campaign? Where do consumers call for support? Are staff trained to deal with unhappy customers? How are returns handled?

Commit the resources: Consumer branding doesn’t come cheap. In 2016, Samsung spent US$10 billion on marketing its brand and products to consumers all over the world.

Bertolli, the global Virgin Olive Oil brand regularly spends US$10 million on advertising in the USA where its brand holds a dominant share (37%) of all the olive oil consumed in America and a market worth over US$1 billion. You do the maths.

Start with niche markets: Haier tried to break into the US market using a traditional advertising campaign. After a fortune in advertising driven branding was wasted, they carried out a brand audit as recommended by Fusionbrand.

After the audit, Haier spotted a gap in the hospitality and student markets and started selling small refrigerators to college students and hotels in the US. Now it sells all types of white goods, and in 2017 paid US$5.6 billion for GE Appliances.

Understand targeting and segmentation: The mass market is dead. Now there are as many markets as there are satellite TV channels, ranging from Chinese, Malay, English to Islamic. As a result, one-size-fits-all branding campaigns will not work.

Learn from failure: Honda’s first effort to export motorcycles to the U.S. ended in failure when Americans didn’t like the design. It carried out a brand audit, incorporated the feedback and successfully re-entered the U.S. market.

Invest in design and innovation: Copying existing products is a ‘strategy’ destined to failure as it faces pricing and branding obstacles. We all know how Apple became the biggest company in the world but it didn’t invent the smartphone or for that matter the tablet. But it made them good through innovation and design.

Malaysia is at a monumental cross roads. It has to move from grower and exporter of commodities and from OEM to producer of some of the world’s greatest brands.

The Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak could save the tax payer a lot of money, make the Sarawak farmers very rich and do his government a big favour. Not by giving hand outs to farmers. But by helping them make Sarawak pepper a global brand.

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Marcus Osborne is CEO of Fusionbrand, Asia’s leading data driven brand consultancy headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.

These videos suggest there is a disconnect between what Malaysia Airlines says and what it does


In the mid 1980s, I was working in the Middle East and when it came to taking leave, we had 2 travel options. Head West for Europe or East for Asia. Whichever direction, the airline recommendations were always the same – try to fly on Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific or Malaysia Airlines.

Why, because those airlines offered top quality service. Something the European carriers, with the exception perhaps of Swissair, were unwilling or unable to do.

Emirates arrived in 1985, Oman and Qatar Air in 1993, Etihad in 2003. Prior to that, the only Gulf carriers were Saudi Airlines and Gulf Air. Thanks to their owner’s deep pockets, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar accelerated the establishment of their brands with massive investments in brand experiences.

Since then, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have done their best to compete but Malaysia Airlines (MAB) was left far behind and today, is a mere shadow of the great brand it once was.

To many, if it wasn’t for the Business and First class offerings, it’s essentially already a low cost carrier. Nevertheless, in its communications at least, Malaysia Airlines continues to give the outside world the impression it sees itself as a world-class carrier.

In March 2018, Malaysia Airlines launched a campaign titled “Malaysian Hospitality Begins With Us”. The campaign aim was to ‘reinstate and demonstrate MAB as the national icon and represent Malaysian hospitality on behalf of the nation to all its guests and customers.’

MAB’s group CEO Izham Ismail said during the launch “that the airline’s diversity, heritage and culture are the foundation and reference of the brand promise, and that MAB aims to provide a Malaysian experience in travel through Malaysian hospitality.”

These bold and practically impossible to live up to statements were supported by the usual professionally produced advertisements and videos shot in high definition with smiling cabin crew in brand new aircraft telling us about ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and how it is a culture that ‘runs through the organization’.

The website, the first destination for many potential passengers has a special section for ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and in this section announces “Welcome’, or as the locals would say, ‘Selamat Datang’. That’s how it begins, the experience that is our hospitality. Warmth and generosity are the hallmarks of how we treat anyone we meet. That’s what we’re known for as Malaysians, and more importantly as an airline.”

It goes on to say, “Our hospitality begins with our experience. As we strive to deliver the best experience possible, everything we do is guided by our principles of hospitality.”

Now in some ways I think this is quite clever. Because if Malaysians are known for their warmth and generosity, then they only need to leverage on the natural capabilities of employees to deliver a potentially world class experience.

But it also means that every crew on every flight, will have to be on top of their game non stop if they are to deliver a high level of service at every touch point, every time. And that delivery must meet the very diverse needs of very diverse passengers.

And of course, the concept of ‘warmth and generosity’ may be difficult to deliver. Warmth yes, but generosity? What does that mean? Do you hug every passenger and give them a US$100 bill? Or do you upgrade everyone who asks?

Don’t forget, the aim is to ‘represent Malaysian hospitality on behalf of the nation to all its guests and customers’. With such a promise, there can be no half measures. And of course you can be sure plenty of people will be waiting for the first fail.

Is Malaysia Airlines delivering on the promises above? Despite the glossy high-end corporate videos, two videos have emerged recently to suggest it isn’t.

On their own, these videos could be dismissed as ‘one off’ rants by disgruntled customers but watched together and added to the explosion of negativity on the MAS Facebook page and a pattern seems to be emerging.

This suggests to me that whatever training cabin crew are receiving is not linked to the big promise and whoever is responsible for measuring the effectiveness of that training, isn’t doing their job properly.

Let’s take a look at the videos. The first one was uploaded to YouTube on November 20th 2018 by travel and aviation vlogger Josh Cahil who is based in Germany and has 23,000 followers on Instagram and close to 10,000 followers on Twitter.

His YouTube video where he claimed he was bullied by “extremely unfriendly” MAS cabin crew on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London has been viewed more than 280,000 times and generated more than 2,600 comments.

International media in the UK and Australia picked up the story as well and in Malaysia it was covered by Says.com not to mention other news portals.

The second video was circulated around Malaysia via Whatsapp towards the end of November 2018. This video was created by controversial travel hack, entrepreneur and author of “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?: Confessions of a First-Class A**hole” Justin Ross Lee.

I have a suspicion this video was created some time ago because it features the Malaysia Airlines A380 and as far as I know, they aren’t using that aircraft on the London sector any more.

But what both these videos do is show how Malaysia Airlines is unable to deliver on the bold promises it makes in its marketing. They also show the futility of spending large sums of money on big ideas and not linking that promise to the departments responsible for delivering on that promise when all it takes is one passenger to have a bad experience and share that experience across social media and the whole expensive, one size fits all campaign is ruined.

This mass economy approach more suited to 1988 than to 2018 is built around the belief that with a large enough investment, an airline can make potential and existing passengers believe each bold statement it makes and that if it doesn’t deliver on that statement during their particular interaction with the brand, the passenger should just be grateful anyway.

Following the Josh Cahil video, Malaysia Airlines initiated an investigation and according to Cahil, the group CEO sent him a template apology and offered him a refund, which he asked them to donate to a charity supported by them.

The problem was that by this stage, the story was dominating social media conversations. Even corporate driven tactics on social media were being ambushed with negative comments.

In fact the majority of MAB’s attempts to use social media in a positive way are being hijacked by negative comments. And when this happens, the firm doesn’t seem to grasp the link between what the commentators are saying online and what is happening offline.

Malaysia Airlines attempts to build brand equity on social media

However, brand experiences are not meeting expectations & negativity is hijacking campaigns

This is the dangerous spiral many brands are finding themselves on today. They don’t invest in the right training to deliver the experiences consumers demand offline.

There are a variety of reasons for this and some of them sinister. Most common is that the scope of work for a campaign is created in isolation and by people who don’t understand the importance of delivering a ‘best in class’ customer experience.

Which means that if the scope of work for the project is wrong, it is doomed to failure before it even starts.

In despair or because they now have a channel in which to express their frustrations, consumers go online where they passionately vent those frustrations. And often they do it in the very space the company thinks it owns such as on a Facebook page, further diluting the ability of the brand to deliver on the brand promises made in the very expensive corporate driven messages it believes are defining its brand in the way it wants to be defined!

And if that wasn’t bad enough, when passengers vent those frustrations online, the people tasked with representing the brand simply don’t have the skills or for that matter the responsibility to respond in a suitable manner.

This exasperates the negativity around the brand, causing brand equity to plummet to such an extent that it can be almost impossible to escape the spiral into brand obscurity.

So what can Malaysia Airlines do? If they are serious about building a national brand that can compete with Asian and Middle Eastern competitors then it needs to understand the following

1) Forget about the big idea
Smart Brands understand the concept of the big idea belongs to the 1970s and much as the world has changed significantly since then, so should the way brands engage. Malaysia Airlines must focus budgets not on telling people they deliver Malaysian Hospitality but on showing people they deliver Malaysian Hospitality.

This requires a comprehensive overhaul of the marketing, advertising, customer relationship and social media strategies. Fusionbrand recommends this be carried out through a brand audit as soon as possible.

2) The right experience training
Judging by these videos and the comments across Social Media, Malaysia Airlines see training as a box to be ticked. A review is required to identify if there is an understanding of what constitutes world class service.

If the training providers have been hired for the wrong reasons and don’t have the skills to deliver the type of training required to compete with sector leaders, how can Malaysia Airlines cabin crew and for that matter ground crew, deliver a world class service?

3) Social Media
There’s no escaping social media but too many brands don’t give it suitable attention. Malaysia Airlines must start investing funds in social media instead of big idea promises it cannot keep.

I don’t know what’s happening at MAB, but too many companies think social media is the perfect place for interns because they are young and have an Instagram account themselves. After all, what could be hard about posting on Facebook and Twitter, right? Wrong.

Social Media is about many things. For brands, it’s about cultural, social and other nuances. Being responsible for a brand online is not something you do, it’s something you are.

Malaysia Airlines needs to link what it says and does offline with what it says and does online. Quickly, before it’s too late.

As Europe struggles to come to terms with Brexit, Asean celebrates 50 years


Citynationplace is one of the most respected nation branding forums on the Iot and is also the organiser of the must attend place branding conference held in the UK in November every year.

This month they’ve asked a number of brand consultants in Asia about Asean@50 about the state of nation branding in the region and the potential of Asean countries to work together to drive tourism and investment to the region. You can read the full article here

As I was one of the consultants interviewed, I thought I’d have a look at what Asean is doing to drive visitors to the region as part of the Asean@50 celebrations. The primary goal of the campaign is to encourage visitors to look at visiting more than one ASEAN destination.

The introduction to my comments on nation branding in Asia
The introduction to my comments on nation branding in Asia

As part of the celebrations for its 50th anniversary, ASEAN has created a theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World”. There is also a collaborative tourism campaign: “Visit ASEAN@50: Golden Celebration”.

I’m yet to see this campaign in Malaysia or Singapore but a new website has been created however it doesn’t seem to feature too much information. On the events page, there were no events for Malaysia in March and none till October.

For visitors to use the site, there needs to be plenty of the right information
For visitors to use the site, there needs to be plenty of the right information

There’s also another tagline for South East Asia “Feel the warmth”. This is featured on the Asean Tourism website. I couldn’t find a Facebook page however the hashtag #visitasean50 has appeared on Facebook but there doesn’t appear to be any structure to any of the communications.

There are a couple of videos on YouTube, one of which has been shared about 40,000 times on Facebook but again there doesn’t seem to be any strategy behind any of the postings.

A Twitter page was created in July 2014 but it appears inactive.

I don’t have the full details on the project and we are only at the end of the first quarter of 2017 so the strategy maybe to start later in the year although many in the northern hemisphere will be planning their holidays now so the digital representation needs to be improved and improved quickly.

Calling the second terminal at KLIA LCCT2 is a terrible idea


The irrepresible Malaysian entrepreneur, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes has another mega deal on the table, this time he’s reported to be getting ready to divest Asia Aviation Capital Ltd, his aircraft leasing company for about US$1 billion.

Despite this big deal on the cards, he hasn’t stopped having a go at Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB) over the last couple of weeks. Last Friday, June 10th he was reported to be ‘shocked to see water pouring out of a ceiling at the relatively new airport in Kota Kinabalu.

Please do not call an airport terminal LCCT2
Please do not call an airport terminal LCCT2

And then on 13th June he berated MAHB again, this time for denying Kuala Lumpur International Airport terminal 2 was a low cost terminal and that the name didn’t mean anything.

He was quoted as saying, “To me, klia2 doesn’t mean anything. LCCT2, on the other hand, is synonymous with low-cost. It’s a brand we built up together with Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd and it shouldn’t go to waste.”

I’m not sure why any brand would be pleased their product was synonymous with low cost. AirAsia might be called a Low Cost Carrier but everyone knows it isn’t. In fact there are times when it is the most expensive of the 3 main carriers in Malaysia. Certainly on some domestic routes.

He went on to say, “As we grow towards becoming the Dubai of Asia, we want the world to know that the best value fares are here in Malaysia.” Hang on a minute, what are we selling here? If we name an airport terminal LCCT2, how will the world know that the best value fares are here in Malaysia?

Social Media wasn’t impressed either. One wag was rumoured to have posted on Facebook “Low-Cost Carrier Terminal 2 (LCCT2)? “I spent 6 months training to do the walk to Everest base camp once but my elderly mother and I weren’t prepared for the long trek through empty airport halls and past retail outlets, in the long pre-journey, journey from check-in to our boarding gates!”

Another in keeping with the Himalayan theme, is reported to have said, “I was flying to Bangkok and on my way to the departure lounge I passed Sherpa Tensing coming the other way. He looked exhausted but still managed to tell me he had given up before he got to the gate.” Apparently it was just too far.

But joking aside, why would you want to call an airport terminal ‘Low-Cost Carrier Terminal 2 (LCCT2)?’ I mean for a start it isn’t Low Cost Carrier Terminal 2. It’s LCCT1 because there currently isn’t an LCCT1. I think anyone reading that would think it was the name of an airline and that the airline had sponsored the terminal.

Why can't we do what everyone else does and have the airport name followed by the terminal number?
Why can’t we do what everyone else does and have the airport name followed by the terminal number?

No airline aspires to be cheap and no terminal aspires to be low cost. But more importantly, what is a non English speaking mainland Chinese person, Korean investor or Australian traveller to make of that moniker?

Is it going to help them navigate through the maze and warrens of Kuala Lumpur’s terminal 2? Of course it isn’t. Is it going to help make an already stressful experience even more stressful? I’d bet the farm on it.

Bearing in mind the airport has been known for a long time as KLIA, now that they’ve built a second terminal at the same airport, wouldn’t it make more sense to name the terminal ‘Kuala Lumpur International Airport Terminal 2’ or KLIAT2? I do appreciate this would require Klia1 to be renamed but that’s a necesity as well because what does Klia1 mean? Is it referring to the terminal? It’s position or what?

Klia 2 doesn't really mean anything so we need to change it
Klia 2 doesn’t really mean anything so we need to change it

KLIA should be like every other airport in the world that is designed with the passenger in mind. Think Heathrow Terminal 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, Dubai Terminal 1, 2 and 3 or Singapore Changi terminal 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Surely that makes it easier for everyone concerned? Calling it LCCT2 really is a terrible idea.

Another example of how consumers are building destination brands


This interactive ‘heat map’ shows which tourist attraction at every destination around the world is photographed the most.

There are as many as 1,000 photographs in some countries with New York’s Guggenheim Museum the most photographed landmark in the world.

The most phtographed landmark in the world
The most phtographed landmark in the world

In Singapore the Merlion is the most photographed landmark whilst in Kuala Lumpur it is, rather unsurprisingly the Twin Towers. In Bangkok it’s the Wat Sraket Rajavaravihara and in Kuching it is the Sarawak river.

The Merlion, popular with tourists in Singapore
The Merlion, popular with tourists in Singapore

What does this site mean to the business of destination branding? Well primarily it will drive traffic away from tourism board sites and their carefully choreographed images to consumer sites and there peer to peer content.

Those destinations that continue to focus their funds on corporate driven strategies or groups of tactics instead of encouraging engagement across social sites and consumer generated content will lose business which in turn will lead to reduced revenue for the many businesses that benefit from tourism.

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

Case studies of how two Malaysian brands used technology in a crisis


This article looks at two high profile situations in Malaysia and how these very different institutions used technology and social media to communicate with and engage stakeholders during a crisis.

Case study one: Syabas
Syabas (pronounced Sha-bas) provides water to the state of Selangor, the largest and most developed state in Malaysia. Following a diesel spillage on the Selangor river (a major source of water) at the end of August 2013, Syabas shut down four treatment plants, essentially cutting off water supply to nearly 1 million homes. I was personally affected by this issue and was without water for over 24 hours.

When my taps ran dry, the first thing I did was go to the Syabas website where I was greeted by a pop up press release telling me there was no water. I also found a 1800 number. I called the number and a recorded message told me to go back to the website. I revisited the website which told me that I was living in an area that was affected by the shut down. This wasn’t really very helpful as I new this because my taps were dry.

Not really helpful
Not really helpful

So my next stop was Twitter. I found the Syabas Twitter feed and fired off some tweets asking for more specific information that would allow me to plan for my family of seven who could not shower, flush toilets, wash clothes and make contingency plans for our open house scheduled for Sunday 1st September.

None of my tweets generated a response. I was stunned to find Syabas has over 10,000 followers on Twitter but doesn’t follow one person. I appreciate that not many companies have the resources to listen to what their customers are doing all the time however, one of the key reasons for being on Twitter is to be able to quickly identify conversations and trends about their business, their brand and their services.

No followers makes it hard to use Twitter effectively
No followers makes it hard to use Twitter effectively

This then allows brands to address issues in a transparent, prompt and empathetic manner and also leverage positive comments and discussions, join in with the conversation and encourage engagement.

So after trying the 1800 number, the website and the Twitter page, my last resort to try and get some actionable data to help me plan ahead was to go to the Syabas Facebook page.

No luck on Facebook because Syabas had disabled the comments function which meant that I could follow them but couldn’t make any comments! As they were only reposting the press releases posted on the website, this was pointless. So I was unable to source any information that was relevant to me or get specific answers to specific problems.

Please listen to us but don't ask us anything
Please listen to us but don’t ask us anything

Incredibly, Syabas was on every social media platform yet was using those platforms not to engage with consumers but to broadcast only the messages it wanted consumers to hear. All Syabas seemed to want to do was push generic and pointless press releases to consumers. Yet the whole point of these platforms is to allow consumers to interact with the brand and get closure on personal issues.

And this is particularly relevant when it comes to negative issues or complaints. During a recent stay at the Marina Bay Sands, I complained on Twitter. Within 30 minutes the MBS was following me and asked me to follow them back so that they could send me a Direct message. Not only did this make me feel someone was listening, it also allowed them to take my complaint out of the public domain. The Marina Bay Sands has 8,500 followers and follows almost 1,700 people.

The irony of this situation is that Syabas actually dealt with the physical problem very efficiently and the water was back online to over 650,000 consumers within 36 hours. But by then it was too late and what could have been a PR success turned into a social media nightmare as frustrated consumers turned to forums, online newspapers and social media to vent their anger.

Case study two: Sekolah Sri Cempaka
Sekolah Sri Cempaka is a private school in Malaysia. It quickly embraced the arrival of technology in the classroom and places a great emphasis on communicating with students via its digital platform, Schoology. On Saturday 7th September 2013 a fire broke out at the school in the exclusive neighbourhood of Damansara Heights in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur.

Within an hour Twitter was awash with chatter and soon after images of the fire were all over Twitter and Facebook. This fire could not have come at a worse time for the school with students busily preparing for critical exams.

The school quickly announced the fire simultaneously on Twitter and Facebook. The school then expanded its reach on both Social Media and the school Intranet to communicate with concerned students and parents.

Openness and transparency, success factors for social media
Openness and transparency, success factors for social media

Throughout the next 36 hours numerous rumours developed and began to spread however, the school was quick to inform stakeholders of the real situation. By acting quickly and in a transparent, engaging manner, students and parents were reassured and potentially damaging rumours were negated, before they got out of control.

As the crisis unfolded, the school maintained contact with students and parents. Sharing with them the important developments – news of the damage, the fire department inspection, plans by the school, discussions with the education ministry and so on. This gave concerned and busy parents a regular stream of credible information which allowed them to plan ahead.

cem2

The new technological landscape is here to stay. Here are five things you must do now to prepare your company for a crisis:

1. Every company, government department and institution should have a clear, transparent, policy on social media and a clearly defined social media crisis management strategy to address comments/posts on the website or social media pages during the crisis. And this should be part of a grater social media plan.
2. Make sure you have enough properly trained staff to administer your social media pages and respond to issues raised by angry consumers.
3. Unless there is a potential threat to your organisation or your staff, transparency is key.
4. Always, always, always engage. Ignoring consumers or shutting down conversations is the worst thing you can do.
5. Have a back up solution ready for such situations.

These two institutions responded very differently to a crisis. One got it right, one didn’t. Which one best represents your brand?

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.