Marketing Excellence Awards 2023 Singapore
Michelle Yeoh: A better fit as brand ambassador for HK or MY?

Michelle Yeoh: A better fit as brand ambassador for HK or MY?

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Malaysian born actress Michelle Yeoh whose career really shot off in Hong Kong, has gotten the marketing industry talking as to whether or not she is better suited as an ambassador for Hong Kong tourism board or Malaysia tourism board.

In her award acceptance speech at the Oscars, where she made history as the first Asian to win an Oscar in the Best Actress category, Yeoh paid tribute to both her home in Malaysia, and Hong Kong where she started her career in the film industry.  Not long after, news broke that the Hong Kong government was said to reportedly be eyeing Yeoh as tourism ambassador to promote the city in its mega tourism push. At the same time, conversations in Malaysia also begun to emerge around Yeoh's representation with the nation and her time at Hong Kong (along with a kerfuffle as to who came up with the tagline Malaysia, Truly Asia).

A quick poll on A+M's telegram channel also found that a majority of the respondents (56%) at the time of writing, thought Yeoh was better suited to fit the ambassador role for Malaysia, and 36% thought neither Hong Kong or Malaysia were the right fit. Around 11% voted for Hong Kong. 

Commenting on the brand ambassadorship, Sharon Koh, managing director of Digital Studio by APRW said that in this instance, there isn’t a “suitable “ or “ideal” country for her to take ambassadorship.

At the end of the day, it is the story that Yeoh would like to share with the world with the move that matters.

“Her success has been a journey of her tenacity and resilience as an Asian woman in the entertainment industry.  Along the way, many opportunities have come along her way across the world to bring her to where she is today,” she said.

So, be it Malaysia, Hong Kong or even the US, Michelle Yeoh’s story serves as an inspiration for all Asian Women, that it is possible for them to achieve great things and be recognised at the global level, learning from the attributes that Michelle has displayed through her life journey.

“Michelle Yeoh shouldn’t have to choose which city or nation suits her better. They are both a part of her identity - and that is a beautiful reflection of the modern, multicultural world that we live in,” added on Alice Dall, senior strategy director from Superunion.

“Globalisation, immigration and the fluidity of capital are constantly changing the notion of identity. Who we are, and where we’re from,” Dall said. Dall added that Yeoh’s formative years, education and glittering career has seen her call many parts of the world "home" for a time at least and fans would support that. Moreover, with geopolitics in flux across the SEA region, where you choose to represent a nation says a lot about you and your political values on a global stage.

Moreover, when countries and cities choose ambassadors, they need to be aligned more through a cause.

“Let politicians and monarchs be the face of a nation. Now is the time for Michelle Yeoh to stand up for a cause or a brand that she believes in - in the same way the First Lady of the USA launches an initiative such as Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ educational programme to tackle childhood obesity,” Dall added.

Anish Daryani, CEO of M&C Saatchi Indonesia added that whichever place she chooses to represent, she doesn’t run the risk of alienating or disappointing consumers. “ We live in a more inclusive world. And her fans would be proud of her irrespective which country she draws allegiance to. She’s arguably the most famous celebrity Malaysia has ever produced, and a symbol of Asian women’s empowerment,” he said.

Being the face of Hong Kong, as such, should make her “home”country proud because her endorsement wouldn’t mean any disrespect to her country of origin. She has always publicly acknowledged her Malaysian roots. At the end of the day, when working on destination marketing campaigns, authenticity and relevance are key attributes that must reflect from its choice of brand ambassador, said Daryani.

“As long as the individual has a connection with its people, shares the same values as the majority of its society, and lends credibility – from his/her achievements, as well as understanding of the country in question – it makes for a good match.”

Whether someone is a brand ambassador or a celebrity endorser depends on their engagement and pattern of behaviour, explained David Mayo, founder of ADNA. He added that it is ambitious of Hong Kong to be considering Michelle Yeoh to be a brand ambassador as she is no longer a symbol of any one place.

“This might be what Hong Kong is looking for but it may be too late,” he said. Mayo added that:

Increasingly we live in a nationless world so questions of nationality could arguably play second fiddle to the reach, impact and affinity for a certain famous person.

Adding that Yeoh is now an “affirmed global superstar” with a journey encompassing of both Hong Kong and Malaysia, her role would be purely aimed at raising the profile of the brand - she could support either country. Moreover, Mayo is of the view that both Hong Kong and Malaysia probably need Yeoh more than she needs them.

“Picking one over the other could cause a lot of debate – it is the kind of discussion the media loves - and this could detract from the brand that is Michelle Yeoh,” he added.

When considering a brand ambassador for a nation, he added that culture is a key consideration. Additionally, tourism bodies need to keep things fun and never mix tourism with business. “Find commonality among the differences that exist and work on that and once that homework has been done - then go and look for the people who best support what you want to say,” he said.

Team Malaysia?

“Michelle Yeoh to me is synonymous with Malaysia by far. While Hong Kong has been a conduit for her initial foray into movies, associating her with Hong Kong would be like making Henry Golding an Ambassador for the US versus Sarawak where he’s originally from,” said Fiona Bartholomeusz, founder of Formul8.

“Everything from her accent, work ethos and general persona is very Malaysian and I would it difficult to associate HK with her,” she added. However, like the rest of our industry players, Bartholomeusz added that she doesn’t risk alienating fans.

“She’s done so much for promoting Asian talent as well as championing older actors and I don’t think any one country can stake its claim over her success. She earned it all on her own and her fans should just be happy she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves,” she added.

At the end of the day, likeability, authenticity and alignment of brand values is what is most needed when choosing an ambassador today. Moreover, in this day and age, having a strong social media presence is also important in selecting an ambassador because visibility not just at events but also on various social platforms which is key to publicity and connecting with their target audience.

Meanwhile, Austen Zecha founder and CEO of ISC which has been often credited in as the marketing agency coming up with the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tagline, said that many in Malaysia would feel passionately about Yeoh representing the nation but at the same time, “an individuals achievement should not detract from his or her individuality, more than even where he or she comes from”. 

“The individual's achievement is paramount. Where he or she comes from secondary. As Usain Bolt's achievements are his as an individual. The fact that he comes from Jamaica is second,” he said.

The creation of “Malaysia, Truly Asia”

In Malaysia, conversations have also emerged, not just on Yeoh’s promotion and representation of the country, but also spilled on to who the creators of  “Malaysia, Truly Asia” campaign truly are. In an argument supporting Yeoh’s representation of Malaysia, adland veteran Tan Sri Vincent Lee said when the campaign was in its early days started by his agency Naga DDB, Yeoh was paid nothing as the tourism ambassador – to which he bore witness to.

However, Lee’s claims were soon refuted by marketing agency ISC International who said that ISC was the agency contracted by Tourism Malaysia from 1999 through 2010 to “conceive, develop, produce, launch and roll out” the campaign under four Tourism Ministers – Datuk Seri Kadir, Datuk Seri Leo Michael Toyad, Tengku Datuk Seri Adnan and Datuk Seri Azalina Othman.

Tourism Malaysia has not yet responded to A+M’s queries on who the originators of the tagline are.

Nonetheless, in a conversation with A+M, Malaysian politician Dato' Seri Mukhriz Mahathir shared that he was a director at ISC during the launch of “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tagline. He added that he vividly recalls a tender pitch being put out, and because ISC had experience in the tourism sector, the agency felt well positioned to take part in the pitching process.

Explaining the thought process behind the campaign creation that he experienced, Dato Mukhriz said that given back in the day, travel wasn’t as accessible, tourists didn’t really consider Southeast Asia as strong a travel destination as compared to China, India or the Indonesian archipelago.

“With our campaign pitch, we wanted to show that in Malaysia you have all of the best bits of Asia. I recall sitting in a number of brainstorming sessions with Austen Zecca. But it was in fact his brother Alwin Zecha who came up with the idea of Malaysia having all the strengths of different parts of Asia,” he said.

Content 360 is back on 10-11 May 2023 in Singapore. A hugely popular event over the years, Content 360 brings the most influential content creators to inspire you. Across two days, you can connect with 300+ brightest minds in the industry and learn how to overcome challenges to make your content stand out among the crowd. Tickets are on sale now, register today:

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