Analysis: How Malaysian property firms tackled dwindling footfall amidst pandemic

Malaysia has launched a fresh round of economic stimulus worth RM20 billion to support the recovery process amidst the pandemic, as well as a new fiscal injection of RM11 billion by the government. The new stimulus aims to boost economic growth, support businesses and continue offering targeted assistance to individuals and sectors still impacted. In February this year, the Department of Statistics Malaysia said the country's GDP in the fourth quarter of last year dipped 3.4%, and overall, it shrank by 5.6%. According to multiple media outlets including The Straits Times, this was the "biggest contraction" since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998.

Like many industries, Malaysia's local property market has also been impacted, especially with the number of cases rising and several rounds of Movement Control Orders (MCO) being implemented. UEM Sunrise's CMO Kenny Wong told A+M that since last year, the closure of international borders also meant cutting off foreign buyers from its portfolio of customers. In the past, foreign buyers accounted for a sizeable amount of UEM Sunrise's sales. The company has a range of properties in countries including Malaysia, Australia and South Africa.

According to Wong, the biggest challenge faced was the overabundance of messages in the market, especially on digital platforms. However, due to the MCO and restrictions on the creative and video production industry's operations, creating the typical high-quality content was also a challenge for the team, he explained. This forced the team to think out of the box to create content that can resonate with audiences and customers, including its Chinese New Year #MustCariOng campaign featuring popular Malaysian content creator Harvinth Skin.

It was also made to rethink every aspect of what it presents to the customers, from reviewing its target market, to adjusting its marketing strategies which included price points, ease of entry and the product design. Meanwhile, the different stages of MCOs also deprived UEM Sunrise of utilising its show units due to lockdown regulations.

"Despite our best efforts and pivot with the 360° virtual house tours and revamping our website to further ease accessibility, the physical show units and sales galleries are still an important part of the selling process. Face-to-face interaction with the sales consultant and the show unit's physical view offer an intimate experience that is hard to recreate virtually," he explained. Furthermore, Wong said the property purchasing process up to signing of the sales and purchase agreement is still very much a face-to-face process and this put additional strain to the selling process.

Despite the challenging environment and lack of foreign investment, UEM Sunrise still saw a 330% increase in sales during the second half of last year compared to the first half. The sales momentum also continued during the second round of MCO, which was eventually lifted on 5 March this year. As was the case during the first round of MCO, UEM Sunrise, continued to focus on digital channels.

One of the things that has changed was that our marketing efforts had to be even more measured now in ensuring that our campaigns and reach are effective.

Wong explained that every single cent UEM Sunrise spends must be tied to leads that can be generated and bookings that can be finalised. "Even more so now, we are doubling our efforts to focus on lead generation, identifying and uncovering the evolving pain points and responding to them in a precise and targeted manner," he added.

Empowering local marketing teams to make decisions

The pandemic has also highlighted the power of digital. Dentsu's 2021 adspend report said that for the first time, digital will reach half of total advertising expenditure in 2021, powering overall growth at a rate of 10.1%. The report added that social (18.3%),search (11.0%) and video (10.8%) are the leading sources of digital growth.

"Today, it is digital, digital, digital. We host fewer in-person events. The virtual tour and 3D walkthrough are more important, and the in-person sales suite is less so," co-founder and group CEO of real estate tech firm Juwai IQI, Kashif Ansari said. According to him, the company was lucky to have spent most of 2019 building out new digital marketing capabilities. Hence, when the pandemic hit, it was able to move quickly.

The pandemic made Juwai IQI realise that micromanaging marketing from the central headquarters is unproductive. Hence, it empowers country leaders to make their own marketing decisions. "The challenge for Juwai IQI as a group is to identify and empower the best possible local country leaders and give them the resources they need to succeed," he said.

The company also saw the importance in empowering agents with distributed marketing and productivity tools. "While our central marketing team delivers exceptional results, no single team can be omniscient," he explained. He added that Juwai IQI's platform aims to "empower agents so they can take the best advantage of the opportunities" that they see individually. Last month, Juwai IQI made Kuala Lumpur its headquarters for global R&D and plans to build a data and tech team locally. The team is expected to eventually have more than 1,000 employees. Juwai IQI co-founder and group executive chairman Georg Chmiel said previously that Malaysia was chosen due to its larger workforce compared to Singapore, universal English proficiency and "a far-sighted outlook on its digitalisation trajectory".

Doubling down on virtual executions

PropertyGuru Malaysia's head of consumer marketing, Ryan Thoo, said gone are the days when big budgets are "inefficiently spent on offline and OOH media". He acknowledged that the online space is "highly competitive and complicated" and as a result, it has always been investing in products that solve customers' problems through technology.

For example, it hosted the first-ever Asia Virtual Property Expo from November to December last year, showcasing over 300 projects across 10 countries. Thoo, who will be taking on the new role of PropertyGuru's director of consumer marketing on 1 April 2021, said this mirrors that of a physical expo, allowing homebuyers and investors to experience local and international properties, but with just a click of their fingers.

At the same time, it has also tied up with agents and developers to focus on interactive 360° media and virtual walkthrough videos, and rolled out GuidedTours which allowed property seekers to view and tour their desired properties safely. Consumers have also shifted their priorities. Conventionally, there has always been focus on location and neighbourhood. Since then, the Malaysia Consumer Sentiment Study H2 2020 done by PropertyGuru discovered that amongst the most desired property features were low project density and spacious floor layouts. Younger consumers between the ages of 22 to 29 years old have also indicated that high-speed Internet infrastructure and Internet of Things fixtures are equally important when buying a property, as long hours are spent at home and work from home has become common.

Trends to keep a lookout for

First-party data will continue to be important, especially in an era where third-party cookies are being phased out. Understanding the importance of first party data, PropertyGuru acquired MyPropertyData last year to beef up access to real-time data. Thoo also believes that non-fungible tokens will "completely revolutionise" industries and change the way individuals consumer content and own assets, from art to music and properties. Additionally, he said that more companies will derive "a significant portion of their revenue" from financial services. 

"Even those that have nothing to do with financial services, will have the opportunity to benefit from fintech. Startups will be able to launch companies faster and more cheaply. Existing financial services institutions will be able to introduce new products quickly—and spend less on IT maintenance. And most importantly, this means more choices, better products, and lower prices for consumers," he added.

Meanwhile, UEM Sunrise's Wong said marketers should not jump on the bandwagon and follow trends for the sake of popularity, adding: 

Unless they are innovators or early adopters, jumping on trends, especially those which are overplayed and heading towards the end of their lifespan, will just bring diminishing returns as the costs involved can be high and efforts wasted.

"Content has to be fresh, appealing and relevant to the brand and products. Otherwise, they would look stale, unimaginative or at the very worst, turn into a subject of ridicule," he said.

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Photo courtesy: 123RF