Strategy : Asian Branding

Nick Wreden, MA, MS, is managing director of FusionBrand, a brand consultancy in Malaysia and the author of "FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future" and "ProfitBrand: How to Increase the Profitability, Accountability and Sustainability of Brands." (The latter is published by Kogan Page and is available on Amazon)

Visit his website or contact him by e-mail

This is one of a fortnightly series of continuing subscription-based commentary based on the book:"FusionBranding: How To Forge Your Brand for the Future".

As every high school student knows, sonnets are the strictest form of poetry -14 lines of iambic pentameter, structured by one of two rhyme schemes. But sonnets also represent some of the most beautiful poetry ever: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

Like high school students, some agencies chafe under the structure of a well-defined brand theme. Just because they tire of the format, they mistakenly believe that the brand is ‘tired’, in need of a ‘refresh,’ or, worst of all, a ‘re-positioning.’

But Ian Batey, now chairman emeritus of Singapore agency Batey Ads and author of ‘Asia Branding: A Great Way to Fly,’ understands the power of a consistent brand framework, poetically replayed over time. Batey, of course, is the mastermind behind the Singapore Girl. For more than 30 years, while competitive advertising campaigns have crashed and burned, the Singapore Girl has been an icon, epitomizing grace, comfort and service on one of the world’s premier airlines.

After his effort to run a restaurant ended in failure, Batey started an agency that wound up pitching for the Singapore Airlines account, then a new airline. The board of directors asked him: ‘You have never run a business before, so why should we trust you to competently run our large, complex advertising business across continents?’

‘I was stumped. I didn’t have a rational answer,’ he writes. ‘As a kind of knee-jerk reaction I blurted out, ‘Just give me a 12-month contract and if I don’t perform to your satisfaction in that time, I’ll rebate you all the commission that I’ve earned from the airline.’

Batey got the business. And he admits that ‘even today, I still shake my head in awe at the guts of those 1972 airline decision-makers who entrusted a tiny team of youngsters to crusade their global advertising battle, rather than taking the safe route with a large, experienced world agency.’

Batey has similar personal stories to tell about many of the world’s great brands. Singapore. Raffles Hotel. Swatch (a ‘clever, wildly passionate’ creative director couldn’t find the NY photographer’s studio because he was looking in Venice). United Overseas Bank (UOB). Shangri-La Hotels.  And many more.

Several principles fuel his work. All advertising is brand advertising. Creative advertising contains a ‘unique, relevant, compelling proposition,’ ‘unique’ visual statement, ‘unique’ icon or property and a ‘unique’ appealing personality. He outlines the ‘Batey Brand Balance.’ In this ying-yang equation, emotional brand values are lined up on one side, and rational brand values are lined up on the other. The combined assets are then summarized through a brief statement that reflects the ‘enduring core appeal’ he advises.

Although such off-the-shelf phrases from any agency cookbook seem unlikely to have sparked great advertising, the clarity of long-term brand vision comes through. Here is an advertising template from the 1970s dictating rules for all Singapore Airlines’ advertising. ‘The Singapore Girl appears in just about all media passenger advertising - sometimes as the centerpiece, sometimes as the small sign-off picture. She is always beautiful in her Asian way. We try to preserve a natural warmth and charm that is an integral part of her personality. She is slightly Baptist in the type of people she mixes with - we never see her with young bucks or older men who think they’re young bucks.’   

Batey’s love and in-depth knowledge of Asia show through on every page. Within the first four paragraphs, he correctly states, ‘above all else, the 21st century will be Asia’s century.’ Globalization, an emerging well-educated, well-traveled middle class, youthful demographics (with the exception of Japan), and rising incomes will eventually generate powerhouse brands that will eclipse Western mainstays.

In the middle third of the book, Batey goes on a country-by-country search for the Asian brands that will be among the World’s Top 50 Brands by 2020. Among the predictions: Australia’s Oliver Footwear for boots, China’s Haier,  Konka and Lenova for appliances and electronics, Indonesian coffee, Singapore’s SingTel for telecommunications, Malaysia’s Boh Tea, Thailand’s Wacoal for women’s undergarments, Filipino marble and India’s Taj Hotels. All that’s needed to elevate these brands to global powerhouses, in his opinion, are ‘imagination, money and guts.’

Batey displays a fine strategic eye; his comments on the Philippines are the most concise and insightful I have read. But, unfortunately, the book is flawed by an unapologetic yearning for the days when creative giants like Ogilvy, Burnett and Bane walked the earth and CEOs bowed low before the god of ‘great advertising.’ Success, in his mind, are ‘reliant on the sharpness of an advertiser’s 3Fs: the game is Fast track, Flexibility and Flair.’ What about customer relationships, sustainability or, heaven forbid, profitability?  He recommends that Asian-based ad agencies evolve into ‘Brand Marketing Consultants (BMCs).  Such BMCs will offer services where ‘creative solutions remain king,’ based on global consumer understanding that ‘should be the envy of the commercial world.’

‘And once this happens, I feel we will witness an explosion of wonderful creativity and a quality of imaginative advertising not seen before in Asia, nor in the world since the 1960s. Advertising will be back in the hands of those who believe it is both a religion and an art’ he concludes.

Few things are more enjoyable than meeting old hands like Batey at the local watering hole and hearing the stories about outrageous stunts, improbable events and characters with IQs that range from sub-zero to superlative. But magic like the Singapore Girl is hard to re-bottle. Yes, the 21st century belongs to Asia, but the path to success is not down the memory lane of 1960s advertising and strategies.   

 (c) 2004 Nick Wreden. All rights reserved.

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