“The defender of the brand is not the marketing guy, it’s the CEO,” says Ho Kwon Ping, founder and executive chairman of the Banyan Tree Group.
While for many CEOs in the corporate world, the economic downturn was a rude awakening to the vital role they play in brand building, Ho knew right from the start that whatever he does or creates will have significant bearing on the brand identity and image.
And although the marketing team at Banyan Tree is fully in control of what they do, Ho sets the vision for the company – a vision adhered to not just by marketing but every department.
A senior marketing executive tells me Banyan Tree never uses the word luxury in its marketing collaterals – a directive set by Ho.
“It stems from his experience at the Lamma Island of simple living,” Ho says.
“It’s not luxury but the tranquility of Banyan Tree properties that he envisions to portray, making the experience of guests a unique one.”
(The name Banyan Tree comes from the fishing village on Lamma Island in Hong Kong where he and his wife lived for three years before joining the family business.)
What then in Ho’s view makes a brand? A slick advertising campaign and a catchy logo do not, comes the reply.
“A successful brand is the culmination of many things, from concept to execution of the product or service, from design and aesthetics to technology and functionality,” he says.
And to achieve that end, Ho believes, every department has to have the “brand” as the key imperative. “That relentless focus is the job of the CEO.”
Ho’s perspective on the role marketing plays in brand-building is rather strict.
“I have always said that good marketing delivers the brand to the mind of the customer, but the brand is independent of the marketing. It exists in and of itself,” he says.
“My job has been to drum that message into everyone, and to also focus everyone's work towards promoting the brand equity.”
His is not a typical rags-to-riches kind of a story, but one full of unusual twists, turns, setbacks and success. A youth activist in his time, Ho Kwon Ping has protested against the Vietnam War, written controversial articles as a journalist as a result of which spent two months in jail and spent years on an island in Hong Kong before becoming the business tycoon that he is today.
Ho’s vision for Banyan Tree was simple – to create a socially responsible and sustainable brand which would originate in Asia, contain the best of Asian culture and values, and spread successfully to the rest of the world.
So far the growth has been impressive. From its beginnings in Phuket in 1994, the company now boasts 30 resorts and hotels, over 60 spas and 80 galleries; as well as three golf courses. The Group also
manages and/or has ownership interests in niche resorts and hotels and has plans to expand to the Middle East, Central America, Europe and Africa.
But despite the growth the brand has seen over the years, Ho calls it initial days for Banyan Tree and because it is still young and quite small, it has the values of a start-up.
“Closely knit, adventurous, passionate about what we do, and able to actually do what we talk about,” he says.
As with any business, with high growth comes high risk of brand values getting diluted or diminished but Ho is crystal-clear about managing growth. He believes brand values are preserved, protected, and propagated by people living the brand every day.
“Our brand ambassadors are our associates and they ensure that our values are intact,” he says.
An example of this is its commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Its CSR programmes with the community always involve its associates.
“Another is the commitment to the belief that our success is due to our associates – we are the only hotel group in China which insists that service charges are fully paid out to associates.”
According to Ho, the company refuses to manage any hotel which does not distribute service charges.
“When a brand has emotional resonance with its stakeholders and is not just a value proposition, it will be sustainable and grow over time.”
The journey for Ho and his businesses has been impressive but not devoid of failures and he admits such instances have been aplenty.
“Too many failures to pinpoint any single one,” he says, adding that the most rattling one, however, was in the ’80s when they ventured into the oil rig building business and nearly lost everything. (Those were his early days in his father’s business which he joined after the latter suffered a stroke).
“That (the oil rig business) was the most disastrous one, financially.”
But that taught him a lesson. “My father once told me when considering any project, think not about how much money you can make, think about how much you can afford to lose.”
From then on until now, Ho has not only seen success in his career but also become actively involved in civil society, donning various chairmanship, directorship positions and membership on the boards of various international and Singapore organisations.
One such occupation of his is his role at the Singapore Management University. Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan in 1997 tapped Ho to lead the effort to establish a new national university which would be autonomous and based on an American-style of education.
“I was the founding chairman and was tasked to create the concept of a new university from a blank piece of paper. The first pioneer team was housed in the ground floor of Banyan Tree House.”
The founding team, Ho says wanted to achieve something fresh and new, which could prove that young Singaporeans are capable of being as articulate, creative, and resourceful as any of the counterparts in the world.
“And I think we achieved that goal – and more.”
With the myriad changes he has seen in his career and life, what’s the one mantra he lives by?
“When you enjoy what you do, you’re likely to succeed. When you stop enjoying it, get out.”
“Good marketing delivers the brand to the mind of the customer, but the brand is independent of the marketing.
It exists in and of itself.”