Listen to consumers rather than 'boss people around via email', says Kathleen Tan

A veteran in the marketing industry, AirAsia’s former president of China Kathleen Tan’s (pictured) journey to success has not been easy. But despite all the long hours and the intensive travel required in her previous role, Tan, who officially stepped down from her role on 8 October 2018, told A+M in an interview that she is still passionate about marketing and loves being a marketer.

Having helmed regional roles at Warner Music and FJ Benjamin, Tan said it is crucial for Malaysian companies that are looking to go global to understand local markets they expand into - and the challenges. "There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all," Tan said, adding that companies also need to ensure relevance.

Don't be arrogant. When you are doing a regional job, listen to the local market and travel.

"I listened and learnt from consumers, and tried to use my experience and knowledge to help them. I walked [around] in the [local] market, instead of bossing people around via email," she said. Tan pointed out that the challenge marketers face today is, meeting the needs of a "demanding and knowledgeable" group of young consumers, who are less loyal due to the rise of technology. As such, more than ever, marketing and branding are crucial in gaining the attention of today’s consumers. She said:

Marketing is about creating a need that does not exist.

Currently, Tan has over 380,000 fans on Weibo. She says that while at AirAsia, she often read comments left by fans and consumers to learn more about their needs on her account.

“I used to tell my marketing team that if they want to learn about marketing, they should read my Weibo,” she said. Tan added that social media allows her to rely less on intermediaries or agencies to gain insights on customers, as she is able to liaise with them directly.

Agency relationships

When it comes to agencies, Tan believes that less is more. When she was with AirAsia, Tan decided to move work away from a creative agency and form an in-house team instead. “We don’t have to do things to win awards. We are an airline, we are like a supermarket, you have got to be creative and give deals all the time,” Tan said.

She was also “frustrated” at having to deal with different agencies amidst her busy schedule. “I just wished we had a full service agency with different units rather than having to meet with different units each week. I had no time to do that because I was managing a high growth company and it was really tiring,” Tan explained.

Among the things she looked out for when working with agencies are passion within the team and being knowledgeable about the client. Additionally, due to the fast paced environment, agencies are also required to be agile. Interestingly, Tan used to work at Leo Burnett before joining the client side. When asked if she would ever consider returning to the agency world, she said no. As someone who enjoys taking charge, Tan said working in an agency meant less control over many aspects, as agencies only form a part of the client’s full product marketing cycle.

Being bold and taking risks

One of the memorable marketing campaigns Tan did at AirAsia was when the airline put out a full page ad in 2010, after Tigerair accused the airline of making racist "white guy" remarks. According to multiple media reports including The Star, Fernandes said previously that he was "sceptical" about Westerners running any successful Asia-based business, adding that the Thai AirAsia is run by Thais who know the local markets rather than "a bunch of white guys".

"One of my employees had casually commented 'If a tiger can fly, god would have given it wings'. I had him repeat what he said and was inspired to use it in the full page ad. The eventual line was 'If tigers were meant to fly, they would be born with wings'," Tan said.

"This is how you seize an opportunity when it arises. But the problem in Asia is we are too scared to take on branding, but I love it!" Tan said.

She advised marketers to take risks when there is an opportunity to do so, since they are hard to come by. However, it is important to remember not to stoop low. Tan said:

When you poke fun at competitors, sell the strength of your brand. Don't attack the competitor when they are on their knees. I never do that.

(Read also: Kathleen Tan to step down as AirAsia China president)

(Photo courtesy: Kathleen Tan)