Branding requires you to get to know your customers


This is the start of an ad hoc series of personal experiences I have with brands and some recommendations to help improve the experience.

Running a small retail business is tough, particularly in today’s climate. It’s even tougher in the competitive retail wine business in a small muslim country with high taxes on alcohol. Key to building a profitable business will be the relationship between the company and their customers.

Yesterday evening I walked into my local wine shop where I have shopped off and on for 5 years and was greeted with a “Hi, we haven’t seen you for a long time.” I mumbled a reply and the clerk nodded and carried on reading her magazine. This is not the first time I have gone ‘AWOL’ but the reason for my absense is the same. I haven’t been there for a while because about 3 months ago I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse and bought 5 cases of wine from another company.

Although I got a great deal on the wine there is no reason why my regular wine shop couldn’t have given me the same deal. But of course they didn’t know about it because they don’t make an effort to collect data on me. They just hope that I will come by every now and then and buy something. And if I don’t, never mind, there will be other new customers to replace me. To a certain extent this is true but wouldn’t it make more sense to look at ways to encourage those people who are already customers to come back again? And get to know those that come on a regular basis to increase share of wallet and develop brand ambassadors?

Here are 5 useful tips for any small retail business looking to be more profitable

1) You have a 15% chance of selling to a new customer and a 50% chance of selling to an existing customer. Distribute your resources accordingly.
2) Invest in database software that will allow you to store data about your customers
3) Don’t be afraid to ask for contact information from new and existing customers
4) Invest time in keying in customer data that you can use to determine buying patterns, product preferences and so on
5) Train your staff to get to know your customers.

Asia is the darling of luxury brands


As the effects of government stimuli wear off and with the global economy heading towards a double dip recession that will impact the traditionally wealthy economies of Europe, the US and Japan more than most, luxury brands have been looking to Asia for salvation. And they’ve probably found it.

Despite the recession, the consultants, Bain & Co predicts luxury industry sales of €158bn in 2010, up 4% after a drop of 8% in 2009. And these sales will, on the whole be driven by Asian operations.

25% of worldwide sales
Shiseido, Japan’s largest cosmetics company anticipates sales of high-end cosmetics to grow 20% a year in China over the next 3 years. In fact, China is driving the luxury business and is now the second largest market for luxury goods, accounting for 25% of worldwide luxury sales. More than the US, Europe and Japan who each account for about 20%.

According to Capgemini there are more than 345,000 Chinese millionaires and many of them are keen to snap up luxury products that offer a little bit of exclusivity and heritage.

India crucial for long term success
But the Chinese market is not the only market helping luxury brand ride out the recession(s). In India, Porsche Design recently opened its first store in New Delhi, joining Prada, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Mont Blanc who are all setting up operations in the capital of the republic. Louis Vuitton now has 5 stores in India.

Luxury jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co reported recently that sales at Asian stores open more than 12 months, with the exception of those in Japan, rose 21% during its most recent quarter. The Asia-Pacific region is driving expansion, with stores scheduled to open in Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

China has the highest sales per square foot
Mainland China is at the heart of Tiffany’s Asian expansion, with the number of stores there due to rise from the current 12 to as many as 30 by 2015. Chinese stores have the highest sales per square foot of US$3,800 compared to US$3,000 in other stores.

French luxury giant Hermes reported strong growth in sales in the first quarter of 2010, boosted mainly by sales in Asia but not including Japan.

LVMH, the company behind luxury brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton and Moët Chandon recently reported a 11% increase in 1Q 2010 sales. Watches and jewellery sales rose by 33%, wines and spirits by 18% and fashion and leather goods by 8%. Sales of Dom Perignon and other LVMH owned champagnes shot up by 33% in the same period.

Watches and timepieces, there is a difference you know, have also had a bumper start to 2010 and the mood at Baselworld, the world’s largest watch and jewellery fair, was bullish after positive announcements from Bréguet, Blancpain, Omega and Longines whose sales were up 46%, 48%, 50% and 49% respectively in January and February 2010.

Mobile phones
Due partly at least to the fact that it doesn’t have many high end high margin devices, Sony Ericsson has been plagued by declining sales for years and hasn’t made a net profit since 2Q 2008.

However the firm moved quickly to develop high end phones and launched the Xperia X10 and Vivaz last year. The result, the company reported a net profit for 1Q 2010 of €21 million, compared with a €293 million net loss a year earlier. Analysts were expecting a €128 million loss.

US leather goods maker Coach has relied for years on the domestic market and Japan. However, after a slow start, it is ramping up operations in Asia and expects sales in China to rise to US$250 million by 2012, up from almost US$100 million this year.

Luxury brands will have to make significant changes to the way they operate in Asia. And they must learn to understand Asian consumers, learn how to build relationships with them, what are their influencers and how best to engage them. If they, they will find salvation not in the short term, for some time to come.

How to sustain a family retail brand


The picture below was taken in 1912 in Oxford, UK a city about 60 miles to the North West of London. It features Gill & Co, an ironmongers and a branch of J. Sainsbury, a food store.

Gill & Co was established in 1530 during Henry VIII’s reign. At the time it was the first ironmonger in the country. It has been in business ever since and has witnessed the English Civil War, two World Wars, a couple of global economic depressions, three recessions, the birth of the railway, the car, powered flight, electricity, the Internet and more.

Originally the firm supplied ironware and related products for Oxford residents however as times changed it tried to reinvent itself and also stocked equipment for chimney sweeps (think Mary Poppins), farming equipment, tools and gardening supplies. Although Gill & Co moved locations, it was always a one store operation in Oxford.

In 2010, after 480 years in business Gill & Co is closing down, beaten into submission by large DIY and home improvement suppliers like B&Q the 3rd largest DIY retailer in the world, largest in Europe and the largest in China and Homebase.

Sainsbury’s, at a mere 141 years old, a relatively new brand was established in 1869 in Drury Lane. Although now at the centre of the theatre district, this was once a very poor area of London.

Sainsbury has also witnessed much, including 2 world wars, 2 depressions, a couple of recessions, the automobile, manned flight, the moon landings and more. Sainsbury soon became an institution, offering high quality products at low prices. By 1882 Sainsbury was selling it’s own label brands.

Although lacking the heritage of Gill & Co, Sainsbury invested heavily in its staff, employing women as managers when it was unheard of in the early 20th century and developing its own training school to train managers.

Sainsbury also invested in new stores and although at times it has had a rough ride, today it employs more than 150,000 people, has 800 stores in the UK and there are on average more than 19 million customer transactions in Sainsbury’s stores every week and the company has a 16% market share.

It has diversified into non-food products and services and non-food is growing 3 times faster than food. It has a bank with operating profits of £19million and its Internet home delivery shopping service is responsible for 100,000 deliveries every week.

Asia has many small family businesses. In fact in Malaysia, Small Medium Sized Enterprises (SME’s) make up 99% of Malaysia’s total registered businesses. Hanoi in Vietnam has over 90,000 SMEs.

These organizations have a critical impact on the business of a country. In Japan, known for its heavy industry, approximately 70% of the Japanese work force is employed by small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) and half the total value added in Japan is generated by SMEs.

Asian SMEs, many of them well established with years of heritage cannot sit by and hope that they will be safe from bigger, more aggressive retailers. They need to start planning for the future now before it’s too late.

Here are 5 recommendations for Asian SMEs to help them become a Sainsbury

1) Keep an eye on retail trends, especially in your space
2) Talk to your customers, not just about the weather/politics/sport. Ask them what their needs are, what they would like you to stock, when they would like you to open and so on
3) Build a database of customers and their preferences. If you do sell up, this will help you secure a better price for your business
4) Leverage what you have against the big retailers in your space. You can’t compete on price and probably can’t compete on choice but you can compete in other areas – convenience, personalization, customization, free alterations, returns, speed of delivery and more
5) Develop a brand strategy that includes succession planning. If you have sent your kids to university overseas, are they going to come back and work in your hardware store? If you don’t think so, look to create strategic relationships with other players in your space now before it is too late.

Even iconic brands need to do the basics


Since the first iMac came out back in the 1990’s, I have been a loyal mac user. I’m now on my third generation of iMacs, and currently have 7 macs in my office as well as 2 iPhones. At home my family uses 3 mac laptops, 1 iMac, 3 iPods and 2 iPod touch. We also have 3 airports at home and one in the office.

Last year I convinced my technologically challenged wife to buy a mac and she now has 8 top end iMacs, three laptops and two iPhones and an airport in her office. About a year ago I referred a friend to my mac representative who sold him six iMacs and a couple of iPhones.

Service not a priority in Malaysia
Service and looking after existing customers are not a priority for Malaysian firms. But my mac representative was a diamond in the service rough of Malaysia. He would come out to my house at 10pm to replace an airport fried by one of the 250 thunderstorms we get annually in this tropical paradise.

He would bring a replacement airport, install it, reconfigure all my kit and sheepishly give me an invoice. Of course the next morning I would take the invoice straight to my accounts dept and stress that it must be paid immediately.

Unfortunately he has moved on to pastures new. It’s a massive loss to me because his service was exceptional and could not be faulted or replicated. In fact he was brilliant.

So until I find a replacement and I expect that to take some time because he truly was unique, I have to suffer the ignominy of taking my computers to the Apple store.

I did this recently after dropping a laptop. Because one of the key components of building a brand is experience, I thought it would be a good opportunity to see if local resellers were on brand.

As far as I can tell, for such a small country, the mac landscape in Malaysia is a competitive one. There are a number of stores around the Klang Valley.

Machines is probably the largest premium reseller with 6 stores across the Klang Valley and one in Johor. Their flagship store is at KLCC. You can find their neat website here

Another company is Smack. Smack is an authorised reseller. You can find their price driven site here

In fact, according to ‘where to buy’ on the mac site there are 83 resellers, in Malaysia. This includes those authorised to sell iPods. That’s a lot for a company that only has about 10% of the PC market.

So it’s a very competitive environment. One in which you would expect resellers to do what it takes to hang on to clients for as long as possible. An environment in which you would expect resellers to do what they can to take business away from other resellers.

Walkins are potential customers
I took my laptop to a mac store in a nearby mall. Now think about this, here is a relatively new store, less than a year old. In walks a foreigner with an old laptop that has a problem. He has never been to that store before. If FusionBrand were working with this retailer, he would understand that this guy represented an opportunity to gain a customer. And as he was unfamiliar and did not register when his name was entered into the database yet was a mac user, he was obviously a customer of a competitor.

I went to the counter where there were 3 or 4 guys standing around not doing much. None of them smiled so I said good morning and explained the problem. After a brief discussion the sales person asked if I could come back the next day because the technician was off that day.

I didn’t bother to ask why a technician would be off mid week. I said that as I didn’t really want to make another trip could I leave the laptop with him? Reluctantly, after discussion with his colleague he said yes but that it was company policy to charge RM100 (US$30) to carry out a diagnostic.

This isn’t much money but the salesman in me says this is the wrong way to do business. Here is a potential new customer with a long record of buying macs (they don’t know this of course because no attempt has been made to build rapport with me). Surely it would be a great idea to score some PR points by sitting down with me and getting to know me before charging an irrelevant diagnostic fee?

Anyway, long story short, I was bored by now but to put the boot in, I said I would go to the other store nearby. He shrugged and handed me the laptop.

I went to the other store in a mall nearby (next to a Starbucks with wifi, neat). Now I have been to this store before and it was where my super salesman worked but the turnover is high and I didn’t recognise the guy working there. Nevertheless, when I walked in I was greeted with a cheerful hi. I explained the problem and the guy told me to leave it with him and he would call me when he found out the problem. That was on Friday. On Monday, I got a call from him with some bad news. It’ll be interesting to see if he attempts to sell me a replacement when I go to collect the laptop.

Poor service
Now this is not a rant about poor service, I’ll leave that to others much better qualified than I. This is an attempt to show companies that branding is more than advertising, logos and so on. Building rapport, gathering data, qualifying prospects, engaging them and building towards a sale are all critical components of branding. Because many brands, especially Asian ones, won’t have the resources that Apple has.

Here are 5 things to do that will help to build your retail brand

1) Every walkin is not only a potential customer, but possibly a customer who is currently with a competitor. Be nice to them.
2) Develop 5 or 6 conversational fact finding questions that will give you the data you need to make informed decisions on how you want to proceed with the prospect.
3) The 1980s are gone and with it the concept of ‘company policy’.
4) Going the extra mile will ensure loyalty and loyalty is critical to profitable branding
5) Train sales personnel to sell because a lot of people want to buy but don’t know how to and so need a little help.

3 words that can ruin your brand in Malaysia and Singapore


If you are in Malaysia or Singapore and you sell stuff to customers, there is one phrase that can ruin your brand.

“No stock Lah.” Is repeated time again by poorly trained and disinterested staff.

This seemingly innocuous phrase should be banned in your organization. While we’re at it, you should also ban the obligatory disinterested shrug of the shoulders that normally comes with the phrase.

For the uninitiated, the phrase is common in retail outlets the length and breadth of Malaysia and still, despite the alleged sophistication of the city state, in many of the malls up and down Orchard Road in Singapore.

This simple yet powerful phrase, used with annoying regularity in both discount stores and swank boutiques of luxury brands negates every penny your organization has spent on sales training, reputation development, customer service, customer relationship management and other operational excellence initiatives.

It renders worthless the massive investments you have made in licenses, real estate, interior design, stock, utilities and more.

It erases the hard work you have put into press releases, press conferences and other promotional efforts.

It undoes all the good of the advertising campaigns you have run for years in an attempt to get a consumer or two to give your brand a chance.

In a heartbeat, it ruins every single, expensive effort, financial and otherwise you have put into getting the consumer into your store.

In short, this seemingly innocuous phrase can ruin your brand.

Luxury branding in developing markets requires a different approach


Patek Philippe, the eponymous luxury Swiss watch, or should I say, timepiece brand is known for running the same advertising campaign for years. Although the images may have changed, the tagline “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” has remained consistent, usually along with a jaw droppingly handsome and immaculately dressed and coiffured ‘father and son’ portrait.

For the target market, the aristocracy and the wealthy of the world, and those that aspire to the class, the ads say many things, including ‘buy one and you’ll be like us and ‘You have class and you know class’.

The ads are a wonderful example of luxury branding – a great product manufactured with precision engineering, immaculate heritage, an aristocratic client base and creative genius in the advertising that communicates on a level that the target market will connect with and explains, in the limited time available to garner interest, the timeless character of the brand. And I am sure the quality of service at the point of sale will be equally as impressive.

PP has recently launched a new global print advertising campaign that focusses on the values of the company established by two Polish immigrants, Frantisek Czapek and Antoni Patek in Geneva in 1839. I’m not sure if this campaign is to replace the old one. I for one hope not.

The latest campaign revolves around the personal letter concept and has the current president, Thierry Stern waxing lyrical about the steps involved, the time taken and care and attention to detail invested in the production of a PP timepiece. He talks about ‘polishing steel wheel teeth and pinion leaves with wooden leaves and countersinking wheel holes’ and the fact that these efforts are ‘inspired by functional not just aesthetic objectives’.

He goes on to mention the Patek Philippe Seal, an ’emblem of horological excellence’ that appears to be an internal ‘quality benchmark’ that claims to be ‘beyond existing standards of the Swiss watch industry’.

The ads are set to appear in ‘quality daily newspapers and influential trade publications’ around the world and will also appear at the point of sale.

The first ad (I think) appeared in Malaysia in the New Straits Times on 15th April 2010. I can understand (although I don’t agree with the tactic) the mass market approach of running an ad in the New York Times or the London Times, South China Morning Post etc or any other developed country where there is significant market potential.

But I can’t understand the purpose of running the ad in a developing country such as Malaysia. A quick search of the net finds a rather old PWC report, that states ‘the mean monthly gross income per Malaysian household increased from MYR2,472 in 1999 to MYR3,011 in 2002, denoting average growth of 6.8% per annum’. So if we use that growth rate to bring us up to 2010, the mean monthly gross income per Malaysian household is now roughly RM5,096 or US$1,358. Don’t forget that is gross and does not take into account the impact of the economic crisis.

Another search of the Internet would suggest that the cheapest PP watch is around US$4,000 and the most expensive sold some time ago for about US$11,000,000 (that’s RM36 million in real money). The majority of PP watches appear to be in the US$10,000 to US$35,000. At those rates, the potential market in a country the size of Malaysia is tiny and an ad for such a luxury product in a daily newspaper is essentially a waste of money.

Just to put things into context, the ad after the PP ad is for Honda and the ad after that is for Panasonic household appliances such as an Alkoline ionizer, hair styler and hair dryer and men’s shaver (inner Blade and outer foil).

So what should PP do in developing markets like Malaysia?

Here are 5 suggestions

1) Rethink the one-size-fits-all mass market approach to building a brand, especially in developing markets. The consumers who can afford your products can be engaged much more effectively in other ways.
2) Build a database of prospects and customers. But all markets require different strategies and data collection techniques will be different.
3) Build relationships with your existing customers. Existing customers are often ignored by companies scared of asking too many probing questions. And certainly timing is important. But well trained luxury retail staff can build relationships with wealthy customers who are likely to be successful businessmen and politicians and their opinions will carry a lot of weight with prospective customers.
4) Advertising is important, but choose your channels carefully. Mass circulation newspapers and magazines are for shavers and hypermarkets.
5) Content is important too. I’m not sure anyone really cares what is hidden away inside the shell of a product with almost 200 years of heritage. After all, if the quality was a given in the previous campaign, why must it be addressed now?
6) Integrate your digital commuications with mobile channels to engage with prospects and customers interactively when they are on the move.

Building a brand is hard enough. PP has done it successfully for 200 years. But treating every market the same and using mass marketing tactics that belong to an era that no longer exists, will make it hard to do it successfully for the next 200 years.

Tips for building a retail brand


In terms of service, Christmas shopping this year has been a roller coaster ride from the highs of the interactions in the luxury stores of Pavillion to the lows of the interactions in the wannabe Malaysian fashion store in Mid Valley.

And even though approximately 85% of the interactions have left me frustrated, I want to be positive during the festive season and so am offering free advice to those retailers in Malaysia who want to build a profitable brand.

1) Teach your staff to smile when a customer walks into your shop. It costs nothing and instantly makes the customer feel welcome.

2) If you are a clothes store, get your staff to wear your clothes. If you are not a clothes store, develop a company policy on dress and stick to it. It may also help if you are responsible for laundry, that way the clothes will get washed.

3) Make it a company policy that all customer facing staff must have a shower and brush their teeth EVERY day, before coming to work. This is especially important in restaurants.

4) Teach your staff to approach the customer and say ‘good morning/afternoon’ etc with a smile on their face.

5) Teach your staff to understand how to respond if another customer interrupts a transaction. Essentially, teach them how to say no.

6) If you are a luxury or high end store, make it a company policy not to allow staff to drink from plastic bags when customers are in the store. Actually, make it a company policy not to allow staff to drink from plastic anything, ever.

7) The same goes with food. I walked into one store as a member of the staff was eating at the counter. He was on his own so came to serve me. I walked out 9 seconds later with half his samosa on my lapel.

8) The opening line, “Can I help you?” Begs a negative response. Teach your staff to try something open ended, such as “Are you looking for shirts or trousers?”

9) Sales staff are not order takers. If a customer, despite all the attempts by your staff to prevent him from making a purchase, insists on buying something, teach your staff to show something that goes well with the purchase. You never know, you might actually sell something else.

10) Listen carefully, the statement, “NO STOCK LAH!” is being used by many staff to get the prospect out of the store so the staff member can go back to sending sms messages to his friends. Teach your staff to apologise profusely for the fact that they just sold the last piece 15 minutes ago. Teach them to then explain that they will be happy to call other branches to see if they have the relevant product/size/colour. If you don’t have other branches, then teach them to ask nicely for the prospect’s number and explain that your customer service representative will call the prospect as soon as the correct product/size/colour comes in.

11) If someone buys something they have gone from being a prospect to a customer. Remember all that money you spent on launch party/PR/mailshots/leaflets/brochures/billboards/print ads etc? Well, you did all that for this moment. It wasn’t to create awareness, it was to drive this person to your store. And now he’s bought something, what are you going to do? Well, most of you let him walk out the door! Are you nuts? You have a 5% – 15% chance of selling to a prospect and a 50% chance of selling to an existing customer. So what is the point of letting a new customer walk out the door? It’s criminal! I’m serious! Be nice to this person, flatter him, spoil him, kiss him, do whatever it takes to get his contact information because he is now a customer. He is familiar with your product, your store, your staff, despite their best efforts. Your job now is to get him back into the store, preferably tomorrow!

12) Not every white person is a tourist. And not every tourist is a white person, but that’s another story. Just because a customer looks like a tourist, doesn’t mean he is one. Moreover, if he is wearing a suit, he probably has a white collar job which means, in Asia that he is probably paid well. Even if he is visiting, he may be back or he may be lonely so ensure your staff engage him.

13) The needs of a Saudi are different to those of an Englishman. And the needs of an Englishman are different to those of a Korean. You get the point. Invest in some training that teaches your staff to be able to develop rapport with different nationalities.

14) Pay your staff a commission on sales. If you don’t where is the incentive to sell your products? Without a commission, all the staff are doing is increasing your energy bill and destroying your brand.

15) While we are on the subject of remuneration, I suggest you pay your staff more. Every sales person I spoke to complained about their salary. One was earning RM550 per month, with no commission. That is slavery. Sales staff are an investment, not a cost. They represent your brand and, with the correct training, can multiply your profits enormously. And good ones are worth paying for. And before you tell me about the lack of loyalty, please don’t bother. If you create a nice environment with good pay, your staff will stick with you.

If you implement the above into your corporate strategy (if you have one, and many of the stores I visited over the last week can’t even spell it) then I guarantee you will increase your sales and move toward a more profitable brand.

I’ve got about 100 more of these but I’ve got a plane to catch. Happy Christmas!

What happens if a brand no longer means quality?


I spotted an interesting bit of research carried out in the UK recently by PWC.

The study analysed the durability of clothes available on a typical UK high street. The study tested 10 pairs of jeans ranging in price from £7 (RM38) to £123 (RM680) and ten polo shirts ranging in price from £12 (RM66) to £85 (RM470).

PWC wouldn’t divulge the names of the ten retailers because, well they represent most of them but it did disclose that on the whole the cheaper versions of the jeans and polo shirts fared better than the designer brands.

The garments were put through 15 different trials to analyse the strength of their seams, if they shrank, and if so, by how much, their colour fastness and how they resisted abrasion. The study focussed on how well made the clothes were and the quality, not the fit, brand name or how fashionable the garments were.

The best performing jeans, in terms of cost were

1) Jeans priced at £9 (RM50)
2) Jeans priced at £18 (RM100)
3) Jeans priced at £9.50 (RM53)
4) Jeans priced at £123 (RM680)
9) Jeans priced at £40 (RM222)
10) Jeans priced at £25 (RM139)

It was a similar story with the polo shirts. The top two versions cost £12 (RM66). A polo shirt costing only £4.50 (RM25) came in an impressive 3rd. The £85 (RM471) came in fifth.

From a branding perspective, this study is interesting because consumers often justified paying a high price for a fashion brand because they felt that if it was expensive, it must be of good quality.

Does this mean that this is no longer the case?

If we can no longer trust brands to produce quality products, do we need brands?

Or are we able to get fashionability without the price tag?

What do you think?

Luxury branding in Malaysia & Asia


Despite the global economic meltdown, the development of the retail sector in Malaysia continues at a phenomenal pace with over 1,000,000 square foot of additional mall space becoming ready this year. Passing almost unnoticed however is the proliferation of international luxury brands in many of those malls. Familiar international names such as Asprey, Giorgio Armani, Prada, TOD’s, Van Cleef and Arpels and so on, have all entered the local market in recent years, encouraged by the success of exclusive names such as Bulgari, Cartier, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Rolex and other famous names already familiar to KL shoppers.

Unusually in Malaysia, The Pavilion has clustered its luxury boutiques into a high profile area facing Bukit Bintang. Globally, this clustering of stores is nothing new. For centuries stores have organized themselves into districts based on what they sell – think Saville Row in London (tailors), Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris (designer boutiques), Deira in Dubai (jewelry), and so on. The cluster approach allows the rich and famous to be dropped off in front of the store, rush in and make a purchase that would make a small African country drool and then rush out into the safety of the limousine without having to rub shoulders with the rakyat.

With its double story street facing façade the luxury section or ‘couture precinct’ of the Pavilion is an exciting development in the evolution of the retail sector in Malaysia. But there is one thing missing from this development. That is a luxury Malaysian brand.

And as Malaysia moves from an Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) economy to an Original brand manufacturer (OBM) economy, and the government rams home the need to move up the value chain, the retail sector, where so many Malaysian OEM cut their teeth, should be at the forefront of this step up the value chain. Especially as according to the MasterCard Worldwide Insight report, the value of the market for luxury products and services in the Asia-Pacific region will jump from US$83.3 billion in 2007 to US$258.7 billion in 2016. Not a bad segment.

What’s more, there’s already a ready made market because the largest number of tourist arrivals to Malaysia is from ASEAN countries, followed by Japan and China with India and the Middle East not far behind. And the burgeoning middle classes from these countries are notoriously brand conscious.

This interest almost obsession with brands is likely to continue according to Radha Chadha, author of “The cult of the luxury brand”. She believes that the Asian interest in luxury products is because of the massive changes – social, cultural, economic and political that have been affected by the traditional attitudes to who you are and where you are in the societal food chain.

She believes that over the past 50 or so years, many of the traditional cultural indicators of social standing in Asia – profession, family, clan, caste have been eroded by the onset of globalization, migration and education. Free of rigid social hierarchies, mass migration and the development of urban areas, more people are making money and making it faster. The way to differentiate oneself is by purchasing a luxury product that shouted, “I’ve got money, respect me.”

Displaying one’s status through outward appearances of rank and wealth is nothing new but Asians seem to have taken to it like the proverbial duck to water. And those LV bags, Chanel suits, Jimmy Choo shoes aren’t simple female indulgences, they are part of a new world order that identifies the wearers position in society. Indeed, these luxury brands are a modern set of symbols that Asian consumers are using to redefine their identity and social position.

The Japanese have been devouring brands for years. 94% of Japanese women in their twenties own a Louis Vuitton bag. In fact, the Japanese as a whole are the most brand conscious and a staggering 92 per cent of Japanese women own a Gucci bag, 57 per cent own a Prada one, and 51 per cent own a Chanel bag.

In fact, Japanese passion for luxury brands is so huge that they account for over 40 per cent of worldwide sales for most major luxury brands. Meanwhile, Asia accounts for a third of Louis Vuitton sales worldwide whilst Cartier depends on the region for half of its worldwide sales.

And what of China? According to the China Brand Strategy Association, 175 million Chinese people can now afford to buy luxury products. By 2010 their number is projected to reach 250 million. Already, Chinese consumers are responsible for about US$10 billion of global luxury sales. Following the announcement of the US$586 billion stimulus that is expected to encourage increased spending, 70% of consumers confirmed that they will spend more in the next 6 months than they did in the previous 6 months.

Rolls Royce, the iconic British luxury brand owned by BMW, expects to double annual sales volume from 1,000 to 2,000 when the new, smaller ‘Ghost’ is launched in 2010, many of the early enquiries for the yet to be launched model are from Asia. Not bad considering each car will cost over US$200,000.

So, with all this new found wealth in Asia, the time is ripe for the development of Malaysian luxury brands. And the good news is, Malaysian firms know how to manufacture quality products. They’ve been doing it for years for iconic brands such as Apple, GAP, Guess, Ralph Lauren and other well known global brands.

But developing a luxury brand is also like raising a family – it requires a long-term commitment and investment, attributes that don’t sit well with corporate Malaysia. It also requires limited production, value over volume, even with a successful line. It also requires quality, not only in production but also in marketing and service, especially service. Training of staff is key. Walk into the Cartier store in Kuala Lumpur and the staff will assess you based on a number of pre-determined factors. Pass the test and they’ll offer you a bottle of champagne to anesthetize the pain of the purchase!

Ongoing research is also critical to the long-term success of the luxury brand. Back in 1837, when Hermes was building its brand, the founders lent new products to customers to get feedback on how the products could be improved. Zara applies the same tactics today. If a new line doesn’t sell, it is pulled off the shelves immediately and replaced with a new range based on customer feedback on styles.

One mistake many brands make is that they ignore existing customers, preferring to always acquire new customers. The successful luxury brands have an ongoing relationship with their best customers who become brand ambassadors and grow the family.

And for those cynics who don’t think Malaysians can build luxury brands or that there is any money in luxury brands, think of Jimmy Choo, the closest Malaysia has come to a luxury brand. Six years after Jimmy Choo sold his 51% stake in his own company for US$25 million, TowerBrook Capital Partners recently paid more than US370 million for ownership of the iconic brand named after the charming cobbler born in Penang in 1961. And with annual sales that have grown since 2001 at a compounded rate of over 45% to more than US130 million today, the purchase looks like good value.

Another British based private equity group, Permira, paid US$3.5 billion a couple of years ago for the Valentino Fashion Group. This was one of the most talked about acquisitions of the year because although Valentino is a well respected brand in Europe, it does not have the penetration in Asia of say Giorgio Armani. This is reflected in the global sales of US$340 million for Valentino compared with US$3.1 billion for Giorgio Armani.

There is also a strong argument to suggest that luxury brands are recession proof. At the end of last year, when the American economy was in free fall, Saks Fifth Avenue had a massive sale, offering huge 70% discounts on iconic brands such as Manolo Blahnik and even Prada. However, at the Louis Vuitton shop inside the luxury department store, nothing was reduced. Recently, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton announced that sales in its fashion and leather goods division, which includes Louis Vuitton, increased by 11% to $2.1 billion in the first quarter of 2009.

So, as the average tourist spends only 22% of his budget on shopping in Malaysia compared with 50% in Hong Kong and Singapore, the time is ripe for Malaysian firms to start building brands that can take pride of place alongside Canali, Ermenegildo Zegna, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Versace in places like the Pavilion, Star Hill and other prominent malls in KL.