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.


How to brand a destination to attract investors, the right businesses, talent and tourists

The destination branding rewards are high in terms of investment, jobs, development, tourism, exports, domestic and even international influence. But building destination brands is harder today than ever before. There are over 1,000 national and regional economic development agencies in South East Asia alone and the ongoing global economic crisis, political interference and a fragmented, tactical approach to a strategic initiative all help complicate the process.

It’s also hard because most destinations attempt to build their brands on a platform of familiar marketing and advertising campaigns that include one-size-fits-all positioning strategies driven by advertising in mass media, that do little more than add to the advertising clutter increasingly ignored by consumers. And more often than not, those campaigns are led by tourism.

Tourism maybe about to become the number one industry in the world, but did Indonesia’s 2008 tourism campaign and the tagline “Celebrating 100 years of nation’s (That is not a typo) awakening.” influence South Korea’s Hankook Tire when it was looking for a location for a US$1.2 billion tyre plant? Of course it didn’t.

Hankook Tire sought a good location close to transport hubs, a secure source of quality rubber, abundant and cheap labour and probably the opportunity of an early crack at Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia is on something of a roll at the moment and is expecting as much as US$10 billion of investment from South Korea alone over the next four years. And it’s not just Korean firms that are looking hard at the country.

The steel company Arcelor Mittal is currently considering a US$5 billion investment and China Investment Corp is rumoured to be considering an investment of as much as US$25 billion. A number of other deals are also in the works but although details a sketchy, one thing is for sure, none of them will be swayed by positioning statements or slick advertising campaigns featuring white sandy beaches, azure skies and crystal clear seas.

These companies will make their destination decisions, and this is particularly true of Indonesia but also applies to other Asian destinations, on political stability, a clearly defined long term plan to invest in railways, roads, power plants and distribution networks, ports, transportation and more as well as concerted attempts to tackle bureaucratic red tape, graft, and unfriendly labour laws.

Indonesia understands this and regional competitors would be wrong to ignore this sleeping giant. President Susilo recently instructed the relevant federal and state or regional authorities to speed up spending, particularly on infrastructure. Assurances from the central bank that it would not impose outright capital controls will do a lot more to convince potential investors than any expensive tagline or one-size-fits-all positioning statement.

Don’t get me wrong, tourism has an major role to play in the development of many destinations but an international one-size-fits-all positioning statement that attempts to speak to potential investors, tourists, talent and others from diverse parts of the world with one message is not the way forward.

So what can regions, states or cities do to build destination brands that will attract investors, businesses, talent and tourists?

Once the infrastructure is in place or the blueprint outlining the infrastructural development with timelines, responsibilities and milestones is determined, destinations must carry out research to identify channels, communities and influencers within those channels and communities and develop content that resonates with those influencers and those communities.

Prospects from different industries from different parts of the world have different requirements for value. Sarawak corridor of renewable energy (SCORE) on Borneo is targetting ten core industries. Those industries are as diverse as Aluminum, Aquaculture, Fishing, Glass, Timber and Tourism. Such diverse industries with their different requirements for value, will seek information from and be influenced by completely different environments.

Identifying those requirements is mission critical, without it destinations are guessing and the success of a destination brand should not rely on guesswork. So destinations must talk to prospects and customers from each segment. Find out what value they seek and determine if the destination can deliver that value.

To avoid wasting valuable resources on advertising and marketing that is lost in the clutter, it is important to determine what online communities they inhabit and who or what influences them. Also identify why investors chose the destination. And talk to lost customers and find out why they chose another destination over yours.

At the same time, internal brand research must identify what are the core brand values of the destination and how will they be communicated internally so that the whole organization is on brand and understands the role they play in the successful implementation of the brand. And it is critical that the core brand values are developed with customers in mind and not from the destinations point of view.

The analysis and data from this key research will form the foundations of the destination brand strategy. And only once the brand strategy is developed can the implementation begin. The implementation must not neglect citizens and their communities who will be impacted by the changes to their environments.

There will be positive and negative implications for communities and these must where possible be predicted and dealt with accordingly. If they cannot be predicted, they must be dealt with in a consistent, transparent and confident manner. It is important for destinations to understand from the outset that without citizen and other stakeholder buy in, the destination will not succeed.

Increasingly fragmented media, the Internet and an increase in leisure time activities make it harder to reach consumers via traditional media. Destinations must look past the traditional broadcast approach to generate interest in the destination.

One destination in South East Asia purchased a double page spread in the International Herald Tribune to market the destination. The feature was really well written, with top quality images and provided a comprehensive overview of the destination. But the feature made the common mistake of trying to tell everyone about everything.

This approach hopes that the advertisement or feature will be seen by the right people at the right time and that they will invest the time required to read through the substantial feature in the hope that there will be something relevant to them. The problem is that there are lots of competitors doing the same thing and moreover, how many senior executives are willing to invest time reading such articles?

This particular feature also made the mistake of not including any tracking tool to identify the number of responses. Any marketing efforts must include tools to measure their effectiveness because if you don’t track the effectiveness of your marketing efforts, how do you know which ones are working and which are not?

Communications must also take into account changes in consumer behaviour and look past the traditional media channels with an emphasis on the Internet and Social Media. And this will require a comprehensive change in the thinking of CEOs and others tasked with developing a destination brand as it requires ongoing engagement with consumers rather than a traditional broadcast approach.

To be successful, destination brands must now adapt to these emerging business and customer imperatives. Imperatives that include a special emphasis on the right research and the right data collection and analysis, effective customer, channel and employee communications, operational excellence, accountability, service and the ongoing ability to meet customer requirements.

The potential rewards are huge but the stakes too are high and with competition coming from all angles, destinations will only get one shot at building a successful destination brand.

Destination branding requires innovation and integration

About 300 kilometers south of Bangkok on the gulf of Thailand, lies Hua Hin once a quaint fishing village that was transformed in the reign of King Rama VI when it became a stop on the Southern Railroad route.

In the reign of King Rama VII a Summer Palace was constructed for the royal family. Despite the many political and social changes that Siam experienced during this period, the Palace gave the Royal Family and their friends an escape from court life and 100 years later, Hua Hin is still a popular destination for high-society and the Royal Family still resides at the Palace for part of the year.

Hua Hin is also a popular location with five star resort hotels, luxury boutique residences and private beach front homes offering unprecedented levels of luxury. In Hua Hin alone, there are roughly 200 hotels, including 30 five star hotels in an area no more than a few square miles. Hua Hin has struggled for years to attract tourists and fill rooms. Throw in a global economic meltdown, the on-going domestic political crisis and civil unrest and the business of building a hospitality brand gets rather complicated, even in a country with such a reputation for fun.

And with Asia’s hospitality business looking good in these troubled times – over US$1.3 billion was invested in hotels in Asia Pacific in the first six months of 2010 – destinations such as Hua Hin have to be innovative to compete. And to do this, the town and tourism related businesses must work together, not compete, to ride out the storm.

Intercontinental Hua Hin Resort has come up with one creative idea to differentiate itself by offering a private air service to shuttle guests from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport or Don Muang Airport to the beachside city. For anyone who has had the misfortune to experience the drive from Bangkok to Hua Hin, this is certainly an attractive offer! But it won’t be enough to raise Hua Hin’s profile, increase interest and ultimately drive traffic to the resorts that will allow room rates to rise and profits increase.

Intercontinental needs to work with other products within Hua Hin to offer a complete experience to guests taking advantage of this service. A personal discussion with those using the service will allow the hotel to get to know their interests and allow the sales person to offer suggestions, not from a worn brochure at the service desk in the lobby, but in the comfort of a pre flight lounge or even in flight.

Other hotels are offering free days or more traditional tactics such as large discounts. Whilst these may increase sales in the short term, they will do little to build profitable brands. These hotels need to innovate in the same way as the Intercon, to work with other destination stakeholders to ensure Hua doesn’t become a quaint fishing village for the next 100 years.

Should destinations brace themselves for a brutal summer?

Grant Thornton has published a report that forecasts 373,000 visitors to the Football World Cup in South Africa in June. That’s a drop of 110,000 from original forecasts.

The big question is, are fans waiting to the last minute to book tickets or is this a sign of the recession? Certainly political tensions in the country may be causing fans to wait and see before making a decision on a significant financial commitment. After all it’s not just the match tickets. Fans also have to take into account the cost of flights, accommodation and internal travel which can be significant distances. Grant Thornton predicts fans will have to fork out US$4,000 each. For a family of four, that’s US$16,000 for a summer holiday in a recession! Hard to justify.

But I believe that the poor ticket sales are a result of the global economic situation. And if I am right, destinations in South East Asia could be heading for a brutal summer.

I think that free spending Europeans will forego an international holiday and instead invest in a large LCD or Plasma TV and stay at home to watch the World Cup. If they do go away, it will be either for a short domestic holiday or somewhere in Europe. I expect Eastern Europe to benefit.

If I am right, what should destinations do to soften the blow?

Well the first thing is to curtail one-size-fits-all mass market TV advertising communicating the usual white sandy beaches, tropical blue skies and azure seas. There is simply no differentiation from other destinations. Consider this comment from Qualitative research carried out by FusionBrand in the United States earlier this month,

“Watching the basketball today and an ad came on for a destination with some really nice water/resort images. It was Malaysia. But is (sic) struck me that the line Truely Asia gave me the feeling that they were trying very hard to say, “us too”. It gave me the feeling of them saying “we’re just like the other (good things) in Asia”. But the images in the ad could have been in the Carribean.”

How confusing is that?

There is no time to build a communications strategy for 2010. If it hasn’t already been done, and at least 2 countries in South East Asia don’t have a plan for 2010, it is too late. But there is still time to develop an integrated tactical approach to activity based not geographic based marketing.

Thirdly, embrace social media, NOW. Start to engage prospects and those who have visited via social media. Redistribute resources, train staff and create teams to build relationships with consumers via Facebook, Twitter, Travelocity, Tripadvisor and others. Forget about the old global buys on CNN and the BBC. Creating awareness via mass marketing wastes valuable resources and anyway, consumers aren’t listening. Reinvest that money in engaging consumers.

Fourth, don’t ignore the traditional web. Make sure your website is as contempory as possible. If you are sitting back thinking, why do we need to change or improve our website again, we updated it two years ago, the Internet is fluid. Destinations need to be seen as dynamic. Singapore is on its third design (and best so far) in two years.

Develop a plan for your digital tactics and don’t forget basic web marketing tools like SEO and SEM.

Call emergency meetings with all stakeholders – representatives of the mayor’s office from all key cities, transportation companies, travel agents, tour operators, shopping malls, hotels and so on. Identify what each has to offer and work with them to develop an integrated holistic plan to leverage their attributes and match those attributes to the requirements of target markets.

2010 is going to be a bumpy ride for cities, states and other destinations. This is an emergency and it calls for emergency measures.

Otherwise the 30% drop in arrivals in South Africa will be duplicated around South East Asia. And without the attraction of a World Cup, they could be magnified, causing many destinations to have a brutal summer.

Your communications are critical.

Malaysia getting ready to be major player in world’s largest service sector industry

One of the most interesting elements of the New Economic model (NEM) announced by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak was related to tourism.

I quote directly from his speech, “…the tourism sector has not been exploited to its potential. More can be done to attract new markets from Europe and the Americas to complement the markets from the United Kingdom and Asia.

We have some of the oldest forests in the world, rich with flora and fauna and diving experiences acclaimed to be unforgettable. Malaysia can lead in providing environmentally sustainable eco-tourism adventures that are much sought after by the advanced markets.

We should aim to provide services which will attract high-end tourists who seek exclusiveness and high value services. We must also be creative as we consider new areas of tourism. From medical tourism — a high-potential growth sector — to eco-tourism, luxury market tourism and visitors related to our growth as a regional education hub. Malaysia’s tourism future is bright if we have the vision and creativity to support its diverse growth potential.”

World’s largest service sector industry
As the PM said, Malaysia has long neglected the business of tourism, despite the fact that it is, according to the World Bank, the fastest developing industry in the world. Moreover, according to the World Tourism Organisation, 2006 (the last year before the sub prime crisis) was a record for world tourism with 842 million tourists visiting other countries, up 4.5% over the previous year. Tourism is now the World’s largest service sector industry.

Furthermore, according to the World Tourism And Travel Council (WTTC), 12% of exports, 9.3% of international investments, 8.3% of the world’s places of work and 3.6% of world internal gross product account for a share of tourism and its relevant sub industries.

Using the satellite accounting approach, which attempts to calculate the extent to which other economic sectors contribute to and benefit from tourism and passenger traffic, the WTTC also estimates that the travel and tourism industry in 2008 was valued at approximately US$5.9 trillion or 9.9% of global GDP.

Tourism is also a popular industry with governments because it impacts every level of society from the sundry shop owner who sells a tourist a bottle of water and a map to the car hire company, locally owned hotel and airline.

With hundreds of miles of pristine coastline, breathtaking islands and the oldest rain forest in the world, Malaysia should have a better developed tourism industry and it will be interesting to see what incentives the government offers investors and developers to encourage them to invest in the infrastructure and products needed to move Malaysia up the value chain in this beneficial industry.

49 million visitors by 2020
I managed to get my eyes on a copy of a report preparred by a respected international consultancy and commissioned by the government to provide data for the NEM. Unfortunately one of the key recommendations was to increase the number of arrivals to Malaysia to 49 million by 2020.

It has been a common thread in announcements made in Malaysia that volume is key and we need to be attracting hordes of foreigners to Malaysia to consider our tourism business a success. But this advice is poorly thought out. One example, imagine the impact of 49 million tourists, many of them blue collar Europeans who consider it their God given right to walk around without a shirt on (men) or only in a bikini (women) and quite often with a beer in their hands, on a place like Kuala Terengganu or Kota Bahru.

What we need to do is move away from this volume is best approach and look more at a value is best strategy that aims to attract smaller numbers of higher value visitors. This will also help with the infrastructure and talent issue as we do not have the people available to staff the 500 or 600 room hotels required to support 49 million visitors.

Breathtakingly beautiful island
One of the best natural destinations in Malaysia is Redang Island in the South China Sea. This breathtakingly beautiful island has slowly had it’s natural attractions such as the coral destroyed by boats dragging anchors, careless swimmers and greedy fishermen.

But the concept of volume over value ruled and so little was done until recently when the Terengganu state government announced that it will no longer approve any applications for cheap Chalet style resorts as it wants to make Redang a destination for high net worth visitors. This is a a sensible move that will also help save the marine environment and attempt to prevent further environmental damage.

It is a sensible move that the state government, and hopefully the federal government will offer financial support, wants to upgrade this amazing destination. But the state government should also understand that it is not just about changing the names of the resorts, upgrading facilities, spending large sums on awareness advertising and increasing the rack rate by 300%. There will need to be a significant investment in the upgrading of the resorts and also supporting infrastructure.

Here are 5 other recommendations:

1) Carry out research with stakeholders, prospects, customers and others to determine the way forward.
2) Work with carriers and others to improve domestic and international connectivity.
3) Find the right partners. Malaysia doesn’t have a domestic 5 or 6 star hospitality company that is recognised globally. Work with a globally respected and recognised resort management company.
4) Redang is a small part of the potential of Terengganu. The state must develop and implement state destination brand masterplans. The brand masterplans must incorporate measureable and relevant promotional strategies that are not based on traditional marketing techniques but leverage the power of social media.
5) In line with federal initiatives, reduce costs of doing business and offer exciting incentives for investors, above and above usual free utilities for 5 years etc.

We’ve heard about incentives for the tourism industry before but the government has never really pushed them. I have a hunch that this new administration is different and that this is a small first step in a revolution that is long overdue.

Negative brand association, real world examples

In October of last year, I wrote a piece on my blog about negative brand association. You can read the short post here

David Ansett of Storm in Australia approached the subject from a different angle and you can read his piece here

Essentially, my attitude is that if the concept of positioning a product in a consumers mind is a serious concept then it is only logical to assume that the same process can have a negative impact on the brand. Over the next few months, I will post examples that I encounter and I hope you guys will enter into a conversation with me on the impact, either positive or negative, of this brand association.

So we’ll kick of this project with a grab of a page I encountered today. I saw the question after answering another question and thought to myself that it would be interesting to see what, if any, the responses to the question might be.

As you can imagine I was shocked to see the ad right under the controversial, not to mention provocative question!

Today’s negative brand association story comes from the BBC site. This time it is a video about a drunk driver in China who is caught on film smashing into road dividers and barricades. You can see the full video here

You’ll note that the story is preceeded by a commercial for Lexus!

Here is a still image from the end of the commercial.

Actually this could also be included in brand disasters. Is it appropriate for a luxury brand such as Lexus to be associated with a drunk driver? Or does it not make a difference?

Any comments?

Case study: Use research to form the foundations of a tourism brand strategy

A powerful country brand developed from a meticulously planned strategy that has at its heart the concept of providing specific value to specific identified segments and meticulously executed and measured can yield massive benefits for investment, domestic industries and culture.

And for most South East Asian countries, tourism will have a prominent role to play in their country brand strategies. And so it should be as most governments recognize the contribution of tourism to stimulating economic growth across all sectors of society.

It also helps that tourism is also considered to be the world’s largest industry with revenue of over US$500 billion. The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates International tourist arrivals for 2009 to be at 880 million. Although this was a 4% drop over the previous year, Asia and the pacific saw the first signs of recovery with positive growth in the last 2 quarters.

Going forward, the UNWTO expects international arrivals to reach 1.56 billion by 2020. Of these, almost 400 million are expected to head for Asia and the pacific.

But because of the tendency of politicians to seek a quick fix, most Asian tourism brand strategies look no further than creative advertising campaigns that look the same as many other destinations and are soon lost in the muddle of messages currently carpet bombing consumers.

One country in South East Asia has recognized the futility of this approach and commissioned us to develop a brand strategy based on trade and consumer requirements for value. Client confidentiality doesn’t allow me to reveal the country involved however I am able to share the methodology and some of the results and findings.

The project took just almost 2 years from appointment to implementation of the strategy however some urgent recommendations were implemented earlier.

The tourism office is tasked with marketing the country both domestically and internationally. Our focus was internationally. They were facing a number of challenges including:

1) The increased effectiveness of competitor marketing strategies. All regional competitors are investing heavily in tourism products and developing segment focused branding campaigns.

2) Growing ineffectiveness of mass marketing, especially generic print & TV advertising. Increasingly fragmented media and an increase in leisure time activities are making it harder to reach consumers via traditional channels.

3) The increase in the influence of the Internet on the destination decision-making process, especially the increased influence of peer-to-peer networks. Figures released by The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) in November 2004 showed that 19% of holidaymakers booked their holiday online – six times more than in 2000. By 2008, this figure had grown to 67% (Online shopping survey). Only about 13% of those surveyed said they would use a travel agent. The Internet is also growing in importance as a communications medium through P2P networks with 34% of respondents to a Mintel survey choosing their destination on the basis of a face-to-face recommendation

4) Poor repeat visitor rates. Repeat visitors not only represent an increased return on the initial marketing investment but also tend to stay longer and spend more. Additionally, they represent a low-cost source of referrals and other word-of mouth advantages. Currently, the country has a below average number of repeat visitors compared to two main competitors which represents a threat to future growth.

5) Lack of awareness and knowledge of the country worldwide. What has been the impact of the country advertising? Has it been effective in improving the perception of the country? How much is it contributing to tourism in the country?

Our research showed that there were about 600,000 competing communities in Asia and more than 1,000 regional and national economic development agencies, all competing for visitors. This made it easy for even the most compelling messages to get lost amid all the destination claims.

We recommended to the client that in this cluttered environment, effective branding depends on data and knowledge about current and prospective visitors and not simply trendy creative campaigns featuring mass marketing tactics across all major channels.

Moreover, choosing the most effective branding strategy depended on sound market & customer research to determine current attitudes and perceptions toward the country among travel agents, previous visitors to the country and those that had never visited the country.

By understanding the sources of those perceptions and attitudes, the client would be better able to evaluate current branding efforts, develop strategies to target high-impact segments with the most potential more effectively, drive internal education and other program development, leverage the emerging medium of Web 2.0, develop benchmarks to measure branding progress and ensure that resources were used cost-effectively.

The research could also be used to pinpoint, prioritise and drive online community-based branding. A core requirement as consumers spend more time in those communities.

Other key requirements included communicating knowledge of current branding and target market imperatives among personnel, as well as ensuring knowledge and data transfer.

After extensive discussions with the research division and others and to provide a 360-degree approach to understanding the brand, FusionBrand developed and conducted a multi-phase, six-month international research project that incorporated multiple research methodologies.

These methodologies included:

• 39 focus groups (FG) in thirteen locations in twelve countries comprised of 3 segments:
o Travel Agents
o Travelers who have visited the country in previous 3 years
o Travelers who have not visited the country but have traveled long haul in last 3 years
• Online surveys
o 12 countries
o Worldwide via client website
• Mystery shops in specific countries plus home country
• Internet CGM (consumer-generated media) monitoring & analysis
o 22 million blogs
o 60,000 usenet forums
o 6,000 discussion forums
o Plus podcasts, web sites etc.
• Internal brand audit in HQ and at tourism offices worldwide
o One-on-one, in-depth interviews with domestic & international staff
• External brand audit
o In depth interviews in specific countries
o 3 segments
o Tourist operators & agencies
o Media representatives
o Local tourism associations
• Communications audit (print)
o Brand analysis of print materials
o Comparative analysis of 11 regional competitor materials
o Framework for evaluation, scoring & future design developed
• Communications audit digital
o Own sites
o Brand evaluation based on Internet & customer relationship best practices
o Social Media initiatives

The countries were located in the following regions:

• Asia
• North America
• Europe
• Middle East
• Australia

The research project completely designed by FusionBrand was not only comprehensive, but innovative as well. For example, the Internet monitoring had yet to be accomplished by any destination, while the digital communications audit looked at what is necessary to advance into the emerging era of Internet 2.0.

Output was comprehensive and extensive and included:

• Recording and analysis of relevant input in complete reports
• County-by-country reports concerning perceptions and experiences with the country, including key influencers on travel destination selection
• Brand workshops for client personnel incorporating research results to ensure a corporate-wide understanding of the country brand strategy
• Analysis of Internet and marketing collateral relevance and effectiveness in segment-based branding
• Review of social media initiatives
• Quantitative benchmarks concerning experiences, perceptions, influencers and preferences of target segments
• Detailed insights concerning five key target segments identified in conjunction with the client

Each report not only included the findings from the research, but also prioritised recommendations for addressing the issues raised by the research.

Over 300 actionable recommendations
More than 300 actionable recommendations were made. These recommendations were incorporated into a comprehensive, segment-based brand plan that was developed over six months. The brand plan had a strong emphasis on the internet and social marketing and included strategic planning for marketing, advertising, both online and traditional, public relations, direct marketing, web and other programmes and outlined goals, messages, target markets, measurements, activities, timelines, responsibilities and budgets.

The benefits include consistent messaging and images among target markets, synergy among multiple programs, and elimination of uncoordinated activities that were wasting resources. Crucially, the brand plan also provides tools to evaluate program results.

In addition, in conjunction with representatives in country, country specific brand plans were developed. The Country Brand Plans are primarily focused on specific marketing activities within those countries. These activities include, but are not limited to, PR, local trade shows, agent recruitment and communications, cultural events, advertising, segment specific publications, promotional events, etc.

Although the brand strategy was for 2009, urgent recommendations such as consolidation and improvements to web sites and the appointment of regional PR companies were implemented immediately.

A key element of branding is consistency and yet, during the communications audit, the lack of consistency was evident. A strong recommendation was made for a corporate identity brand manual to be developed immediately. The manual was conceptualized and completed by FusionBrand in 4 months, during the writing of the 2009 brand plan.

Throughout the research and planning process, workshops were designed and presented to client personnel to keep them abreast of the process and educate them.

The project has been deemed a success with many targets met ahead of or on schedule. Furthermore significant savings have been made in a number of areas such as a reduction in collateral printing and a move to print on demand. Finally the destination has appeared on more than one ‘must visit’ destination for 2010 for the first time in its history.

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!

Does Air Asia need to be a brand?

Whenever I find a brand that matches its offerings to my requirements for value, I become not only a brand loyalist but also a brand ambassador. For years I was a Marco Polo member and sang the praises of Cathay Pacific to anyone who would listen. Then about 15 years ago I moved to Malaysia. Initially I flew Cathay, even though it meant going in the completely opposite direction to Hong Kong to pick up a connecting flight to Europe. But after a while, probably around the same time as I had run out of miles and therefore could no longer get an upgrade, I looked around for someone else to build a relationship with. The obvious choice was Singapore Airlines and I dabbled for a while but the hassle of changing flights in Changi and the extra 3 – 8 hours that added to my return trip meant this wasn’t really an option.

Next I tried BA for a while but they were in the process of pulling out of Malaysia so the only other option was Malaysian Airlines. I was reluctant, really reluctant for a number of reasons. MAS was horribly managed or rather mismanaged at the time. Safety was an issue, coffee shop talk was negative, morale was at an all time low, rumours of imminent sabotage were rife and the numbers suggested a severe crisis was due. But by then I had no choice as MAS was the only airline flying directly to London.

It was a gradual process but in the first year I flew a lot of domestic and international miles. I learnt the system and was able to get the best out of the airline which allowed me to experience all classes. It wasn’t so bad and by the end of the year, I was a Malaysia Airlines loyalist.

When AirAsia arrived I dismissed it as a little upstart, out of it’s league and destined to go the way of Pelangi Air and many others. The LCC model wasn’t something I believed in. Since when was travel no more than stuffing as many bodies as possible into the smallest plane that could fly the distance required? But a couple of years later I had to fly to Macau and the only flight that matched my schedule was an AirAsia flight. I swallowed my pride, apologised under my breath to the MAS 747 taxiing past the terminal and boarded the brand new Airbus, so crisp, clean and shiny compared to the 25 year old MAS Boeings and their tired interiors.

As I boarded, I was greeted by a smiling face and enthusiastic personalities that was contagious and impossible not to like, especially compared to the glum and tired looking MAS crews. Since that December day in 2007, I’ve become a regular AirAsia customer but every time I chose AirAsia, my choices are made based on price – RM680 for my wife and I to fly to Singapore and back compared to RM1710 on MAS and so on. I justify delays by reminding myself of the price and the savings. I reluctantly accept the fact that I have to pay (more and more) to check in a suitcase. I bite my tongue at the instructions that say I cannot take my own drinks on board. And this is key, I don’t have a relationship with AirAsia. And with the exception of 2 trips where I flew the night before a meeting, none of the trips have been time sensitive. To me it’s simply buying a commodity. Perhaps this is the way the business of flying is headed. Perhaps LCCs are the new legacy carriers and this is how all flying will be.

If this is the case, then fine. But how does a LCC like AirAsia build brand loyalty and the far more profitable repeat business critical to brand building? I’m fortunate in that I’ve not been subjected to one of the delays just about everyone I know has been subjected to when flying AirAsia. But when I do, I’ll immediately look at the other LCCs plying the same routes and I will switch in a heartbeat. As far as I am concerned, there is no brand loyalty with AirAsia. So essentially, the company model is based on the hope that there will be enough demand enough of the time on enough of the routes. If this is the case, then AirAsia doesn’t need to be a brand.

Perhaps this is enough for the aviation business to survive, and perhaps thrive. But judging by the LCCs in the US, I doubt it. 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.