Analysis: Was it the PR stunt or contentious branding that doomed Sugarbook?

Sugarbook's woes continue with CEO Darren Chan recently charged for "inciting mischief" on social media, more specifically for "publishing statements conducive to public mischief", Bernama reported. Chan, who pleaded not guilty, was accused of committing the offence on 10 February by publishing an article titled "Top 10 Sugar Baby Universities in Malaysia". As a result, Bernama said he was charged with "intent to cause fear or alarm to the public" or any section of the public that any individual may be cajoled into "committing an offence against public order through such publication". Chan was charged under Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code which comprises a maximum jail term of two years or a fine, or both, if convicted. Sugarbook could not comment on A+M's queries due to legal proceedings.

Chan was first arrested on 18 February as part of an investigation for "publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public, sharing offensive or menacing content, and prostitution", The Straits Times reported. He was later rearrested that evening to assist with investigations into rape and prostitution cases concerning a university student, ST said. Sunway University's CEO Elizabeth Lee also condemned Sugarbook in a Facebook post two weeks ago, saying the article and infographic about the top sugar baby universities in Malaysia challenges the community's and youth's moral fabric while seeking to promote and profit from "immoral and possibly illegal activity".

Needless to say, the recent spotlight on Sugarbook is detrimental to its branding and the fact that it operates in a somewhat conservative society poses a challenge. In fact, a 2014 study by non-partisan American think tank Pew Research Centre, found Malaysia to be among the world's most morally conservative countries. Extramarital affairs were highly disapproved of by 90% of those surveyed. Homosexuality (88%), premarital sex (87%), and abortion (79%) were among the top morally unacceptable issues listed by Malaysians surveyed. It was among the 40 countries polled, including Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea and India. While the situation would have no doubt changed in 2021, it still sets a benchmark for where the nation stood just seven years ago. 

According to MD of DIA Brand Consultants in Malaysia Tania Tai, Sugarbook took a big risk when it released "the contentious infographic" earlier this month and the move was somewhat "prickly" from an ethical standpoint. Not only did the incident discredit the brand reputation of the many higher institutions based on unverified data, it also disregarded the privacy of its customers by repurposing the data for profit, Tai explained. "The biggest issue I have with this incident is the irresponsible intent of the post. By propagating the rose-tinted world of sugaring without a care for the dark reality of mental health, it is dangerous propaganda coming at a time when our youths are in need of encouragement to choose the right pathways to thrive," she said.

She added that at this point, no amount of rebranding can clean up Sugarbook's image. What is important, is to get to the root cause of the problem and that "no amount of positioning or repositioning will save a brand that flirts with morality and ethics". Tai added:

Branding is not a magic wand to right a wrong, just as marketing is not fairy dust to disguise deceit.

Meanwhile, commenting on Sunway's response, Jodh Dheensay, partner, Sambal Lab said its response was "feeble" - neither an admission nor a denial and that the university should have ignored the matter. "By deciding to put itself on the stand, even though no one demanded it, it is imperative that they deliver a clear strong message. Being vague didn’t show strength of character, or that they had taken a stand on something," he explained.

He added that Sugarbook has "definitely scored an 11/10" with its form of disruptive communication, since it has gotten everyone talking about it. The score goes up to 12/10 when Sunway decided to respond, and it was the only university to do so.

If Sambal Lab were to act on behalf of Sunway, Dheensay said the more appropriate response would be to name Sugarbook, refer to the situation, take a clear stand on the matter and move on. The statement should also establish the fact that Sunway is in no way at fault over what some students may be doing after school and off-campus, and that if the claims were true, Sunway as an institution has nothing to do with it.

Branding an issue from the very start?

Chief strategist at Be Strategic Ashvin Anamalai said that among the many well-documented reasons, the bold branding using universally taboo terms completely ignores social norms of Malaysia's conservative public and government. This is not to say that all companies are not good at steering through the terrain.

"Navigating conservative climates is somewhat of an art, and Malaysian voices have become real experts, especially in more recent times. It may have been the brand’s intention to instigate shock value," he explained. If Sugarbook's objective is longevity and growth, Anamalai said it would be wise to rebrand the terms "sugar daddy" and "sugar baby" into more acceptable ones, as the society has seen many hook-up apps branded as "networking platforms to connect like-minded individuals". "Brand perception is truly as important as brand reality," he added.

On the same thread about instigating shock value, Tanner Nagib, co-founder of Beatnk and strategic advisor of REBL, said perhaps the brand personality in itself was designed to be contentious, and hence he does not view this as a branding issue.

"I feel that as a brand, it is as transparent and honest as it gets. Sugarbook is pretty clear on what it offers and what you could get out of it, so no, I do not think it is a brand issue," he explained. In this case, Nagib said Sugarbook landed itself in hot soup due to the PR stunt "that somewhat seems exploitative".

According to him, such platforms live off the "hush-hush" needs of its users and releasing data infographics and press announcement raises plenty of questions. "Ruffle the feathers if you must and instead of its intended purpose, the announcement it got turned on its head. Or maybe that was the intent - who knows?" he said. 

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission banned access to Sugarbook about two weeks ago and raised concerns about its "marketing gimmick", which claimed that more Malaysian women, especially university students, are signing up as sugarbabies on its site. Sugarbook subsequently tried to skirt the ban by changing its URL to Sucrebook but it was clamped down shortly after.

Online mentions around Sugarbook spiked by close to 600% on 16 February, a day after access was blocked by MCMC, and again on 18 February when Chan was arrested, according to statistics from Digimind. It had more than 19k mentions in Malaysia on 16 February, and 104 mentions in Singapore on the same day. Most of the conversations came from Malaysia (99.2%) while 0.8% originated from Singapore.

A surge in interest and coverage surrounding Sugarbook can be attributed to Chan's arrest and this comprised 23% of online discussions related to Sugarbook from 15 to 25 February. According to Digimind, crutiny towards the online dating site was significantly higher in Malaysia, which accounted for 99.2% of total mentions in the same period. Kuala Lumpur also surfaced at the most vocal city, which suggest concerns around Sugarbook’s potential impact on local society is more pervasive in urban areas than neighbouring districts.

Among the list of trending keywords were "child marriage", "sugarbook founder 34yo", "students", "vip sugardaddies", "sugarbook kena banned" and v2k telegram". The V2K Telegram Group, which gained notoriety for reports of sexual harassment, infringement of privacy, and un-consented sharing of lewd content among its 40,000 members, was also thrust into the spotlight by netizens calling for the government to take similarly swift measures.

While the primary discourse around Sugarbook was focused on its controversy as a platform that facilitates solicitation of underaged female users into prostitution under the guise of “luxury dating”. Netizens also cast the spotlight on other underlying issues, such as child marriages and the exploitation of women, rising student debt and university fees, as well as the necessity of investigating Sugarbook.

Olivier Girard, Digimind's head of APAC, said the fallout surrounding Sugarbook has most certainly cast a spotlight on public perceptions of the cultural and societal values defined by authorities and accepted by the wider community.

With Sugarbook’s legitimacy and future hanging in the balance for now, Girard said it is crucial for governing bodies to closely monitor online reactions, determine if public opinion towards entities and concepts that were previously deemed unacceptable is shifting, and adapt policies going forward. At the same time, social discussions show that it has also catalysed scrutiny towards underlying socio-economic issues that are themselves exacerbated by the pandemic.

"For brands faced with deep ambiguity about public perception towards them, especially when tied to socially sensitive issues, it is important to conduct extensive research into both sides of the coin, thereby giving you a clearer picture of the challenges, risks, and opportunities in development. While it is impossible to foresee how a crisis will start and development, crisis management and PR teams can pre-emptively identify high-risk topics with higher potential for catalysing or escalating a crisis, and define a contingency plan with key personnel and processes outlined," he explained.

Malaysia is not the only country in Southeast Asia to have banned controversial sites. In 2013, Singapore banned extramarital dating site Ashley Madison, stating that its content was objectionable. Quoting a spokesperson, ST said previously that the Media Development Authority of Singapore (now known as IMDA), blocks "a limited number of sites as a symbolic statement of the types of content which the community is opposed to". The spokesperson added that it is against the public's interest to allow Ashley Madison to promote its website "in flagrant disregard of [Singapore's] family values and public morality".

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