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How branding gets shelved in Asia

Take a moment and get out of your chair, tell your secretary you are just stepping out to do 15 minutes of research. Now walk down the street to your closest Park and Shop, Wellcome, Watsons or Mannings.

Don’t be shy, go inside and wander down one of the aisles. Any aisle packed with FMCG items will do. Cast an eye from the bottom of the shelf to the top. Now ask yourself this question: Which product on the shelf, that presumably does about the same thing as its neighbour, says to you, ‘I am the one for you’, ‘I will meet your expectations’, ‘I will fulfill your desire, your desire for a cleaner shirt, cleaner hands, a more hygienic bathroom’?

If you were lucky enough to find a product on the shelves that you instantly felt a reaction to, a familiarity with, beyond its basic function, you did well. But the company that manufactured that product has done even better, it means they have created not only a product but a true brand experience, a connection.

Craig Briggs, Asia MD for Desgrippes Gobé Group, says this is the moment of truth and many companies fail in this moment to differentiate or create a reason for a customer to choose their product over another.

“It is true that a lot of Asian clients (marketers) haven’t quite figured that out yet, and are very focused on tactical, and tactical support,” Briggs says, adding the approach is more likely to be, “ ‘Can we spend the money to get positioned properly in the store? Lets sell two for one, let’s reduce our price by 25%’,” he says.

“This short term thinking leads people to concentrate on the shorter term needs which are important, but if that is the only thing you do then you can lose sight of what makes your product different and what is going to make it compete for the long term.”

Briggs offers the example of Evian water, which sits in a tightly held highly competitive category because there is little to distinguish one bottled water from another and therefore it’s a product that, and this usually sends shivers up a marketers spine, has become a commodity. So you have to do something different and it has to stand for something.

“You put pink on the bottle, everyone else is blue and green and you have pink on your bottle. How are they able to do that? It is because they use youth as their brand idea and they visualize it. When you go to a store and you see an Evian bottle, there is no mistaking an Evian bottle,” Briggs says.

“It’s got the Alps on it, they have this pink so it is visual as well as tactile. But the Alps represent purity, and a premium, and work back to the brand idea.”

Building a brand might end on the supermarket shelf but it doesn’t start there, it starts in the boardroom. It takes a company that believes in the value of brands to create products that consumers can also believe in.

Your advertising is not your brand

Chris Beaumont, chief strategy officer, Grey Global Group/Asia Pacific and CEO Grey Global Group Japan, who is custodian of the comprehensive consumer and brand litmus test, Eye on Asia Survey, tells Marketing many Asian companies are still failing to put brands on the agenda.

A lot of the economies are about doing things cheaper and that is the complete antithesis of a brand

Chris Beaumont, chief strategy officer,
Grey Global Group/Asia Pacific and Japan


The brand proposition as opposed to a brand’s external communication – its advertising – Beaumont says, is important particularly in countries where advertising is viewed with suspicion. Advertising, according to his research, is not well respected on the mainland because “they believe it is used to subvert and it is used to tell lies”.

“’Why do people advertise that there are 12 diamonds in this watch when there aren’t any’,” he says is typical of some of the attitudes he comes across.

While not apparent on the bottom lines of traditional companies’ books the brand value should be seen as just as important, or even more important, than a company’s tangible assets.

“I think it is more important to own the people and the consumer franchise through a brand, going forward, than a factory,” Beaumont says.

“Buildings fall down, and in some areas quicker than others, but brands, if you nurture them, they can be refreshed they can grow and they can gain a premium price and that is where you add value to the business,” he says.

Briggs agrees saying: “A strong brand justifies a premium, a strong brand wins over a weaker brand of the same product, a strong brand has the potential for repurchase and repelling competitive pressure (like) the Apples the Evians the Nike.”

Admit you’ve lost it

Ocean Park Hong Kong’s executive director of sales and marketing, Paul Pei, knows all about competitive pressure. When he arrived at the park to revive its flagging image and help reverse its dire financial situation in the face of the imminent arrival of Disneyland he was shocked to discover no-one could describe what the Ocean Park brand was.

See how Paul Pei brought Ocean Park back from the brink

“I came to the conclusion that for 20 something years Ocean Park didn’t have a brand or if they did it had gotten lost,” Pei says.

What’s worse Ocean Park’s brand had moved so far off the locals’ radar, most of Hong Kong suspected the park was not long for this world. So Pei set about creating an image and a connection with the people of Hong Kong, it wasn’t only to do with a new mascot and a couple of ad campaigns, it was about instilling a sense of shared purpose in the staff, it was about continuous innovation and a little bit of old fashioned surprise and delight. It worked.

“People see us as a park that is innovating, that is hungry for business that is looking to satisfy its customers and that is willing to listen to customers,” he says.

Today if you spend half an hour with Pei as he walks around Ocean Park, to make sure inside and outside of the company the brand promise is understood and believed, then you’d know that he is the ‘truest believer’ in his brand and that that flows through the company and on to the consumers.

If the road is crowded take a different path

For insurance broker Aviva Asia’s brand and communications director, Jessica Lee, branding at its simplest is “about what your company stands for” and being able to communicate that.

She says in Aviva’s advertising she shied away from the sorts of generic tactical advertising many in the insurance category favour and instead looked at a longer term strategy built around the premise that you buy insurance because you want to protect your own future. The brand then wants to be positioned as aspirational.

“You either stick to your guns and say ‘this is the way I want to go’ and make sure that you invest your money in there and see a 10-year journey ahead of you to the point where you actually get the traction between your brand and the consumer, or you sell out and say, ‘ok let’s do an ad with the mother and daughter walking down the beach, because the consumer likes that better’,” Lee says.

Have Asia's brands gone missing?

Have Asia’s brands gone missing?

China calls the world picks up

Grey’s Beaumont believes this raises a good point as to whether the brand is the corporation or is the brand the product or service that the company produces? It certainly starts with the company and for that to happen, Beaumont says, someone has to lead the charge.

“There will be a need for some brand evangelists/advocates within the companies in Asia, there are in one and two but not nearly enough. That will have to be about creating a link between the business strategy and the brand,” Beaumont says.

Beijing based Michael Ip, Asia Pacific MD for global branding outfit Landor Associates, says this is starting to happen and is optimistic that we are not far off seeing a truly global brand come out of mainland China. It comes as no surprise he believes that brand will be China Mobile.

The company, he says, is not only doing great business but acting like a true brand driven company, in its external communications, in the products it is launching and in the acquisitions it has both already bedded down, and is eyeing off. The company is showing all the signs that it not only believes but understands the importance of brand.

He believes as the company faces off against the best in the world that the company’s attention to its brand will play a key role in keeping the company focused but also help them “become the next Vodafone”.

In China mobile’s interim 2006 annual report the group, which incidentally is growing its total subscriber base at an average net monthly rate of around 4.29 million, said it “continued to enhance brand awareness, emphasize brand differentiation and enriched brand association”.

It isn’t the rhetoric of a company which has recently found brand religion, but the language of one that knows how to hit all the brand integrity hot buttons, saying it had, in the past year, “refined its customer-oriented service systems and improved its service processes and service details. As a result, the Group solidly maintained the loyalty of its high-value and corporate customers, customer satisfaction continued to increase, brand influence widened and brand value continued to increase”.

Additionally the company’s innovation cycle is closely tracking those of western telcos with considerable investment in WAP, Blackberry, mobile IM (instant messenger) and mobile music, through its Mobile Music Club, and has been securing tie ups for data delivery with the likes of News Corporation.

“You are seeing great consistency in their messages now, you are seeing great consistency in the way they are going into the market, that says to me they are starting to see the value of a consistent communication,” Ip says.

China Mobile might be getting ready to take on the world’s telcos, but companies in the Asia Pacific which understand and are driven by brand are still something of a rarity.

Kinder, more brand friendly corporates

Grey’s Beaumont believes for more companies to embrace brand evangelism in Asia there needs to be a shift in thinking. He says the “tipping point for Asia will be when it becomes more human, humane and less of that driving efficiencies and that will happen in the next five to 10 years”.

“Within which context the brand’s got to move into the boardroom, there needs to be evangelists beyond the marketing department. The CEO,” he says, but adds there is then the confusion whether the product/service is the brand or whether, like in Japan, where he is based, the corporation is the brand.

“I think there will be more coming together of different brand architectures within companies that are more analalogous to the west, because (consumers ) will want to have a repertoire of experiences,” he says.

In this world because consumers will want more brand experiences, he says while the actual brands will be important loyalty will not. New York based futurist, Marian Salzman, who is also executive vice president, chief marketing officer JWT Worldwide, recently told Marketing this lack of loyalty is a growing phenomena which is only getting worse as new brands continue to launch.

Salzman descrbes these disloyal consumers as promiscuous and says one of the major trends driving this promiscuity is innovation overload.

“These days, innovation is no longer the exception; it is the norm. In new product areas with rapid innovation, it may make no sense to stay with a brand—especially when the underlying technologies are commodities,” she says.

But Salzman believes true brands which have the support and belief of their companies will be the ones with the best chance of prevailing and beating off competitors.

“Brand owners must ask themselves: ‘Do we have a brand with a compelling story that is rooted in truth?’ If the answer is yes, and they can live the story, they can expect loyal consumers. If they do not, then their brands are essentially just ploys—empty marketing,” Salzman says, adding this is precisely what causes consumer promiscuity.

Blame the language

If marketers and the rest of the directors who sit around a company’s board room table aren’t clear on the difference between advertising, promotion and sales and brand building, Briggs says the media needs to wear some of the blame. He thinks ‘bran’ and ‘branding’ are thrown around too loosely.

“When you read in any of the trade media ‘the new brand television commercial for brand XYZ is running, starting this week and running for six weeks’ (you think) so you are going to be branding for six weeks?,” he asks. “It is a misuse of words the language has been hijacked and the meaning has been diluted and people get confused.”

One of the most critical things to recognise is that your advertising is not your brand.

Advertising has to respect branding but it is not a substitute for branding. The word campaign is a short term word. It fills a short term need, it is not a substitute for branding.

Craig Briggs, Asia MD
Desgrippes Gobé Group

When you get it right

If you are still in doubt as to the difference between advertising and branding, Ip’s colleague at Landor, Michael Graham, MD of the Australian operation, has created a table to explain it.

As the table illustrates branding is about all the long term aspects of marketing, creating true value, real points of difference not price points and about creating an emotional attachment rather than just quick gratification.

All the things in the left column are those which can be attached to a company or even a product, to create a long term connection, those in the right are tactical, but completely necessary as well. It’s when the attributes on the right support those on the left that you will really see branding electricity.

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