STB: A hard talk on dollars and sense

Singapore - In 2011, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) wanted a more targeted approach to market the country, choosing to hire Sophia Ng (pictured), with her considerable experience in consumer marketing. Ng came from years of experience marketing across various consumer categories for the likes of Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble.

It was around that time the STB had been reworking its marketing strategy around three key pillars - taking a consumer-centric approach, placing leadership emphasis on marketing and instilling a more scientific and data-backed perspective to its marketing; many values of which Ng carried over from her days at P&G.

She describes herself as more of a pragmatic marketer rather than a creative one and talks about how her time in the private sector taught her to put the consumer first.

It (consumer-centric approach) is something she has relentlessly tried to focus on. "You do not choose a single touch point, but you decide that based on the media habits and patterns of the consumer to know what the best way to reach them is."

Secondly, the strict, bottom-line driven mentality of the private sector governs her marketing approach. "Everything you do in marketing has to solve a business problem," she says adding that conversion is of prime importance. "You do not just drive awareness and leave it at that, but you take the consumer all the way through the entire journey. These are the business fundamentals that I have applied when I came on to STB."

A seasoned FMCG marketer, Ng peppers her answers about STB's marketing strategies, with the word "consumer-centric". What this means for the government board is an individualised market approach, instead of a broad-based campaign to market Singapore as a destination.

While a national campaign would have the NTO speaking the same message to every single market, popularly known as destination marketing approach, a consumer-centric marketing approach allows you to customise your message to the needs of the market, she says.

"What Singapore means to a visitor from India, Indonesia or China would be vastly different." Media investment

This pragmatic approach runs down into her media strategy as well. While the mention of a major tourism campaign would conjure images of lush TV ads showing beautiful land or cityscapes, Ng would like to break that mindset.

"I think this industry is very conditioned to have big TVC ads and there's this expectation of the NTO to run big TV productions. But if you go back to the consumer-centric approach, the search and planning for travel happens a lot in the digital realm."

While video best brings to life the destination, there is a lot of wastage on TV and commercial media buys, she reasons. Video assets are still important, but now the STB distributes it differently in an environment where consumers are actively taking in information from multiple sources.

Then the challenge is convincing its agency partners that there may not be a TVC as many are concerned with the media buys they handle. "It takes awhile for them to understand that we can still reach out to consumers that we want without big budgets," she says.

Does this mean the STB has tapered its budgets down? I ask. "No, I think this means we have reallocated our budgets to where it matters," comes the answer. Instead of producing a TVC, the investment goes into social media, its digital strategy, content distribution network, whether it is mobile or advertising.

For example, the STB ran a campaign in Indonesia without a TVC, but with a mobile-friendly website for its mobile-savvy consumers.

Because of such a shift it has seen over the years, the STB spends a whopping 40% of its budget on digital, where most travel decisions are made.

It will also increase its spend on search marketing (people don't remember URLs, she says) to complement its public relations strategies. "Whatever we generate in terms of PR we have to make sure we have a decent search strategy to be able to capture the interest that is generated by it." (PR makes up 10-15% of its budget, estimates Ng.)

Trade marketing is another area of focus - its road shows and trade fairs to reach out to consumers after generating leads from marketing efforts. Agency relations She starts talking about her take on agency relationships, and wants to debunk the impression of government agencies changing agencies every two years.

"It's a misinterpretation."

"For us we have always gone for a longer term contract, which is why our project value for a tender is so huge - we're talking about a four year relationship."

"I mean you take one year to get to know each other, the second year is where you start to do work with each other, by the second year we will be able to assess whether the chemistry works and if the chemistry works then why not go on with it," which is why there is usually an option to have the contract go on for another two years, she says. So far, the STB's agency relationships have gone on for more than two years, she adds.

"If you view agencies as partners in growing your brand, there isn't a reason why you should be changing partners all the time."

For the full interview, read December's issue of Marketing Singapore.