It’s never too late to right a wrong. Chinese goods have had to fight a worldwide perception of low quality. In a clear demonstration of the Chinese government’s commitment to building up its country brand, no less than six government departments are currently working in concert on several national branding initiatives and activities. The Chinese brand Haier, originally state-owned and producing low-quality electrical goods for the domestic market, is a great example of reversing the poor image of Chinese goods. Haier’s business philosophy and policy rested on three planks: Brand First, Innovation and World Class Quality. It now commands an impressive market share in the US with the manufacture of high quality white goods. As a Chinese brand, Haier helps elevate the perception of Chinese goods.
Malaysia is involved in a Vision 2020 effort, which hopes to put Malaysia in the echelons of developed nations. To achieve the brand vision, the “Made in Malaysia” label should carry connotations of quality, excellence and innovation, while at the same time capture the Malaysian spirit.
Malaysian manufacturers such as Proton, Perodua and Naza have shown a remarkable commitment to quality, design and innovation. Malaysian services companies, especially insurance companies such as MAA, have been very innovative with their insurance products. MAS, which together with the Malaysian Tourist Promotion Board has since its inception been the main standard bearers for brand Malaysia, has received multiple awards for its in-flight service.
Malaysia has also given the world celebrated brands including shoemaker Jimmy Choo, actress Michele Yeoh, the Shangri-La Hotel chain, YTL Corp, and Sapura Corporation—clear proof that Malaysians and their corporations can compete on a global stage.
Malaysia’s tag is currently “Malaysia, Truly Asia.” The tagline was chosen to offer the tourist a multi-cultural experience. However, some have argued that the top of mind recall of Asia is one of dirt, grime and cheap labor. Others have pointed out that tourists who are seeking a culture experience will go to the birthplace of the culture—e.g., India, China. Yet others have observed that Hong Kong has also used the same message calling itself “Asia’s World City,” while Singapore has used the tagline “New Asia.” Indonesia carries on the same theme with “Endless Beauty of Diversity.”
The key to successful branding is the perception of a difference between competing brands. With so many countries in the region selling the same message, Malaysia may appear at first sight to violate this essential principle of branding. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The campaign has resulted in increased tourist arrivals.
According to Tourism Malaysia, nearly 8 million tourists visited Malaysia in 1998, the year before the campaign began. Figures for 2003 show 13.3 million tourists, and already +10 million tourists have visited in 2004 (figures from January through August). Ministry officials are upbeat that the total figures for this year will exceed 15 million, which they translate into earnings of US$ 8 billion, compared with 6.8 billion from 2003.
But there is still plenty to do on brand Malaysia. The government should set aside a budget for a think tank or a national branding council to oversee development of Malaysia’s brand. This group should encourage a culture of a singular commitment to world-class quality and innovation among Malaysia’s companies and people. To achieve this important mindset will require a massive change management and communications program aimed at all stakeholders, ranging from the private sector and the population at large, right up to every staff member of the statutory bodies. Malaysian manufacturers should be encouraged to move up the quality chain, as other countries have done. For instance, Germany mobilized its traditional craft guilds to emerge from the ravages of World War II and is now globally recognized for its automotive excellence.
In view of the fact that Malaysia has numerous states, the brand architecture of this campaign has to be carefully planned. Brand architecture is how each sub-brand should fit in with a “master brand.” A case in point would be Canon, National and Sharp. Although they market different categories of products, every product still carries the name of the master brand. A different approach to brand architecture can be seen in fast moving consumer goods manufacturers such as Nestle and Unilever, which assign a different brand name to each product.
In the case of Malaysia, each state will have competing and, sometimes, conflicting tourism objectives and agendas. States may be motivated to attract visitors to their own region since it will benefit their local residents and businesses. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, if the branding effort could be coordinated and integrated with the national branding campaign, the states will emerge as winners along with the national brand. In turn, every product or service emanating from each state will equally benefit. The national brand in turn gains from these synergistic and symbiotic relationships. Such an approach will also prevent duplicity of efforts and wastage of resources.
Another critical success factor is the concept of inclusion. Without widespread buy-in from every stakeholder across every government department, the private sector and every citizen, all national campaigns are doomed. Even parliament and the courts have a role to play. The best tourism advertising campaign will be hopeless if an innocent tourist, upon entry, has an excessively unpleasant experience at the immigration and customs gates. Similarly a taxi driver who fleeces a tourist will also undermine the national branding effort.
Singapore, for so long considered a case study in nation branding, almost nullified decades of exemplary national brand management by something as seemingly insignificant as their parliament banning chewing gum and their courts meting out excessive punishment to an international student for a minor infraction. The current image of Singapore as a cold and clinical place was not entirely accidental—in a sense, it was self-induced. That is why multi-national corporations place so much emphasis on brand management. (Singapore’s current administration recognizes this and has set out to ameliorate the situation and repeal the regulation.)
A clarion call should go out to all Malaysians, from musicians, artists and corporations, to emulate the brand ambassadors and venture out. Every individual success will add value to Brand Malaysia and will, eventually, help make Malaysia a significant global economic force.
Branding is, after-all, a mind game. A brand, whether it is a product or a nation is a collection of perceptions. However, we know that to the target market, this perception is reality. If the country manages these perceptions well, a more vibrant, confident and dynamic Malaysia will emerge.