Brand Singapore and Nation Branding Post-Covid-19: In Conversation with Buck Song Koh

Brand Singapore: what makes it stand out from its peers, and what will nation branding look like after the coronavirus pandemic? Buck Song Koh‘s most recent book, “Brand Singapore – Nation Branding in a World Disrupted by Covid-19” answers those questions. TPBO caught up with Buck Song to find out more about the book and Singapore’s approach to nation branding.

Buck Song, what inspired you to write Brand Singapore – Nation Branding in a World Disrupted by Covid-19?

This third edition of Brand Singapore is a little ahead of schedule, as my ongoing long-term plan is to take stock – every five years or so – of where brand Singapore stands in the world, and to offer an update with a new edition of this book. One prompt for a refresh was that the second edition (published early 2017) was almost selling out… but I’m just kidding.

Seriously, jokes aside, the impact of the many major developments in Singapore and abroad since 2016 needed to be assessed and taken into account. These developments include the launch of a new country brand concept “Passion Made Possible” and the election of a game-changing new President in 2017, Singapore being showcased globally in the hit Hollywood movie Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, the intriguing Singapore Bicentennial in 2019, marking 200 years since British colonialism first arrived in 1819, and the politically significant General Election of 2020. At the same time, the global backdrop had also seen much fundamental change, with worldwide forces including the rise of nativism and deglobalisation.

The new book also analyses the initial effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the key takeaways from how Singapore responded, and the challenges and opportunities ahead. The insights surfaced may be useful for other countries as well. Altogether, this third edition adds 30 per cent more content than the previous one.

Which are the key insights you gained from writing the book, on how nation branding has been affected by the pandemic?

Right now, the world is in a state of suspended animation. But in the recovery phase after the pandemic finally recedes, I believe place branding will become even more important than ever.

Before Covid-19, when business was booming, marketing had comparatively greater effect than brand-building, so people might opt for short-term deals and discounts, or defer their travel, trade, investment or relocation decisions. But the pandemic has made people prioritise what is of deepest value and utility to themselves, and so, to appreciate much more the essential characteristics of place brands: of the countries they visit, do business with, or might want to live in.

Thus, perceived value will, all the more, become paramount, in the world after Covid-19. When international travel eventually resumes extensively, the places that are considered safe, trustworthy and welcoming will recover first – if they have all the necessary infrastructure and administration ready for relaunch. Such key brand attributes derive from the character of a place brand, hence the enhanced importance of place branding.

With deglobalisation, hard power has tried to reassert itself in many parts of the world. But soft power remains crucial, and may even have gained more of a winning edge. For example, those nations that are now trying to deal more bilaterally than multilaterally – such as post-Brexit Britain and Trump’s USA – will still need soft power, and more than they perhaps realise. This because they will have to enhance their place brands all on their own, instead of being able to leverage the brand equity of a region, or draw on continuity from the past track record of their brands.

New economic trends such as more work being done virtually will mean a need to rely even more on the draw of soft power, as hard-power, brick-and-mortar considerations and constraints are levelled more and more in the online economy.

This being the third edition, which key changes have you witnessed since you published the last edition, in 2017?

Let me cite three key changes. For the overall country brand, Singapore’s current brand concept “Passion Made Possible” (launched in 2017) is, in my humble opinion, the most effective so far – showing not just what people can DO in Singapore, but, more importantly, what they can BE. The key differentiator is profiling real people as citizen/resident brand ambassadors, each with their authentic real-life stories and examples, instead of the conventional advertising method of employing actors to re-enact imagined scenarios.

In terms of key brand attributes, Singapore’s X factor – multiculturalism – is gaining even more value amidst the rising waves of cultural divisiveness across the globe. Just as important is the country’s resilient social harmony. The symbolism of Halimah Yacob, a Muslim woman, as elected President must surely have invited people around the world to take a deeper look into the multicultural nature and foundations of Singapore society.

Politically, as the General Election of 2020 showed, Singapore has taken significant steps forward as a maturing democracy. A more discerning electorate is seeking a refinement of checks and balances, for a more stable and sustainable equilibrium in the political system. This is deserving of closer study by external observers, some of whom still hold outdated misconceptions about politics in Singapore.

How does Brand Singapore stand out as a nation branding example in the current situation? What makes it unique?

Reliability is one of Singapore’s chief assets; it has always been known as a place where (almost) everything works (almost) all the time. There was a time when the qualification “(almost)” was unnecessary. But the city-state is still much admired for the way it is governed, managed and maintained – not only for today, but always with a far-sighted vision and proactive initiatives to make tomorrow even better, that people are usually confident will be realised and delivered. For example, a US$72 billion plan is being implemented to mitigate the long-term effects of climate change. Similarly, Singapore’s Covid-19 pandemic response reflects its capacity to marshal public and private sector resources, and citizen participation.

Nimble adaptation to change is another advantage. To adjust to, and prepare for, a post-Covid-19 world, many measures are now underway, not only in Singapore but also internationally. Innovations abound in areas ranging from diversifying and strengthening supply chains for food, medical supplies and other essential goods, to putting in place “travel bubbles” for travel to and from countries that have also managed the pandemic well. Abroad, Singapore is exercising leadership through free trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, recently signed by 15 Asia-Pacific nations.

Underlying all this is Singapore’s unusual quality of social cohesion, a key place brand attribute that enabled the country to contain the spread of Covid-19 better than most other nations. This was possible only with longstanding trust in the government and public service, a culture of citizen cooperation and public-private sector collaboration, and substantial funds drawn from prudent management of state finances since independence, with hardly any need for additional funding from loans.

Looking forward, what will the future of nation branding look like, in the years after the pandemic?

In the initial years after the pandemic, nation branding might come to be appreciated like never before. After the severe cutbacks of the pandemic years, there could be intense competition for a limited supply of foreign spending, whether this comes through in tourism, trade, investment or immigration. The countries that will do well will be those that have continued all this while to enhance their brands.

As everything settles, what nations need is not only physical items like attractive products or enough serviceable aeroplanes and hotel rooms preserved well through months of disuse. More importantly, overcoming the economic setbacks from this pandemic is also about building up brand attributes, such as earning trust in general safety and security, including public health and medical facilities; and nurturing ordinary citizens, not just customer service staff, to be welcoming towards foreign visitors.

In the future, one shift caused by the pandemic could be customers and audiences becoming more discerning about what they would spend their harder-earned money on, or what they would take health risks to experience in person, once again. To excel, nation branding will have to be even more engaging. Only what is genuine and unique will truly resonate.

Thank you Buck Song.

Connect with Buck Song Koh on LinkedIn or learn more about his work in his TPBO interview.

Here our list of recommended books for place brand managers.

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