Marcus Osborne on Country Brands and Nation Branding in Asia

Marcus Osborne of the strategic brand advisory firm Fusionbrand in Malaysia, in this interview looks at (nation) branding practices in Asia and Malaysia and how the Malaysia Airlines’ brand and reputation crisis has become an issue for Brand Malaysia in general.

Learn about:

  • Why lacking data results in guesswork surrounding strategy and other executive decisions;
  • How building a brand can be easier once a CEO understands what a brand is;
  • How place branding is not about being liked, but about being trusted;
  • Which is the most challenging part of building a place brand strategy;
  • Why the old rules of marketing no longer apply.

Marcus, which is the difference between data-driven and creative-driven brand strategies?

This is a really good question and needs to be asked in place branding boardrooms around the world. For decades, information concerning consumers, their purchase criteria and the link between promotion and purchase was either too expensive or too difficult for companies to obtain. And even if data could be obtained, it took weeks or even months for the data to flow from stores and branches or field staff back to headquarters. Often, by the time it got back to HQ, it was too late to make any difference.

As a result, to build brands, companies had to put their faith in creativity, hoping that an innovative image, tagline or promotion would resonate with prospects and boost sales. In the 1960’s to the 1990’s, with few conduits to consumers and limited competition, this type of creative driven branding often worked, especially for many place brands.

Data driven branding on the other hand, gives CEOs and managing directors accountability and ROI-based justification.

While data was slow to materialize or hard to obtain during the mass-market era, the rise of the Internet, increasing computer power, sophisticated research techniques, inexpensive data collection tools and the willingness of consumers to hand over personal information, now enables executives to quickly obtain the information and insights they require about consumers and their buying habits, interests, influencers, likes, dislikes, demographics, competitor products and actions, sales trends, promotional results, and more.

Information from data-driven branding can be used to not only determine where and when to advertise, but also other important areas critical to building place brands. These include operations, customer service, research & development, purchase frequency and preferences, logistics, customer engagement and relationships.

Data enables benchmarking, allowing companies to determine whether marketing or other promotional or sales activities are effective at a specific time.

Finally, and most important, data enables better executive decision-making. If research shows a certain segment has a preference for or is buying a product or service, executives can design strategies to pursue those specific segments, ensuring valuable funds are not wasted pursuing uninterested segments.

Basically, without data, strategy and other executive decisions are guesswork. And is guesswork a sensible way to try and build a brand? Of course it isn’t.

Who creates a brand? Is it the company or the customers?

Normally the company will create the brand based on extensive brand research that focuses on what are target market requirements for economic, experiential and emotional value. And, increasingly for many brands, including place brands – social value. The customer then defines the brand based on its ability to deliver that value at every touch point and every time.

A case in point would be the incredible India campaign that was beautifully executed but ultimately the brand was defined by the terrible experiences of female visitors. Headlines around the world carried stories of vicious rapes and murders of women. Despite huge budgets, the brand was defined by those experiences and visitor numbers dropped. What destinations need to do is move away from the traditional branding approach of the ‘big idea’ driven by communications and instead build brands from the inside out.

Which is the most challenging part of developing a brand strategy?

Because advertising agencies have done such a brilliant job of selling their industry over the last 60 years, the most challenging part of developing a brand strategy is convincing CEOs that a brand strategy is not a series of tactical initiatives driven by ads and campaigns.

Actually, building a brand isn’t that difficult once a CEO understands what a brand is. Then it’s a bit like trying to get a premier league football team to play brilliant football to win every match.

In theory it should be doable but in practice getting all the moving parts in sync can be a challenge. Get it right and you win all your games and win the league. Get it wrong a few times and against the wrong teams and no matter how much you spend on the team you win nothing.

Destination brand logo Malaysia Truly Asia
Destination brand logo: Malaysia, Truly Asia

Your thoughts on Malaysia’s country brand?

Malaysia’s country brand has taken a pounding over the last few years, for a variety of reasons. Some of those are beyond the control of the administration, but many of them are the result of sloppiness and should never have happened. But I believe the foundations are solid and the product is excellent.

There is a conflict between the political need for quick wins and the strategic investment required to develop a country brand. If this is not addressed soon and I am not aware of any efforts being made to do so, the long-term prospects for Malaysia’s country brand will diminish, especially in the face of better organized, aggressive regional competition. And this process has already begun.

The recent air tragedies with Malaysian Airlines have strongly damaged the carrier’s reputation. How can a corporation overcome such crises and again become a trustful brand?

The way Malaysia Airlines handled the fallout from both tragedies has been well documented, including by me on my blog. But Malaysia Airlines is not alone. Recently, VW tried to hide a global crisis but got caught out and the jury is still out on what the implications will be, although it looks as though the brand, thanks to the positive equity it has in the bank, will emerge relatively unscathed.

What brands must do is to have a plan in place to deal with such a catastrophic event. Those responsible for representing the brand must have the emotional and social skills required to engage with victims and their families. And those responsible must at all times show the human side of the brand. Such tragic events need a personal touch and technology must be used sparingly not as a ‘cop out’.

Air Asia also had a terrible incident in 2015 but the CEO dealt with it honestly, transparently and showed humility throughout the process. He remained accessible to the family members of the passengers who were lost and members of the press.


Does the brand and reputation of a flag carrier affect the brand of the country, for example in the case of Malaysia in relation to Malaysian Airlines?

It has a massive effect. The national carrier is a key component of any country brand strategy and needs to work closely with the team responsible for developing the country brand.

Someone once said that the national airline is “an embassy with wings” and that’s very accurate because it showcases or at least should showcase the country’s cuisine, culture, values, attitude and cuisine around the world.

It’s also an opportunity for a government to reach out to its own people. Children of friends who study in the UK talk fondly of getting on a Malaysia Airlines plane at Heathrow after a cold, wet miserable winter and immediately feeling a sense of warmth and comfort in the familiar Malaysian way of doing things.

Those countries that appear to understand the importance of the national carrier in the context of the nation brand – think Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand have built very powerful nation brands.

One issue that I see is that few national branding teams work closely with the national carrier. This maybe because many national carriers have been privatized but nation branding initiatives are still government driven.

It’s my hope that the Malaysia nation branding team responsible for restructuring the Malaysia brand and the team responsible for rebranding Malaysia Airlines are working together.

One of the sectors you have worked for is tourism. Taking into account that tourism is a multidisciplinary field and highly linked to the intangible element of experiences, do you find any differences in branding this industry compared to others?

We’ve done a lot of work in the tourism sector at both federal and state level. It’s certainly a dynamic sector although much of the industry in SE Asia is run by the government who don’t really have the capacity to compete in the industry. And many governments don’t seem too interested to encourage investment in tourism infrastructure and products, despite the significant benefits. Thailand is one exception and as a result tourism accounts for 20% of the Thai economy.

The hardest part is getting a disparate group of stakeholders to buy into the process of developing a brand and working together for the common good. Too many stakeholders in so many sectors – hospitality, transportation, F&B – believe the tourists will continue to come, no matter how badly they are treated. Many of them focus on today but pay little attention to tomorrow.

Is nation branding necessary for all countries?

I definitely consider nation branding necessary for all countries, but all countries or those tasked with building the country brand must understand what is, and what isn’t a nation brand. And once they understand that, they must then understand how to go about building the nation brand and then take the time to secure buy-in from all stakeholders.

And they must understand and be prepared for things not to go the way they expected when consumers define the brand in ways that may not sit comfortably with their perceptions of their own brand.

Place branding is not about being liked, it’s about being trusted.

You just published the book “Stop Advertising Start Branding. How to build the brand that will build your business”. Why did you decide to write this book, and which is its key message?

The book will be available from the end of March directly from me or on Amazon and other online stores from the end of June. I decided to write the book because there are too many Asian firms continuing to waste valuable resources on marketing tactics that may have worked 50 years ago in Europe or the US but are not suitable to build brands in today’s economy. It’s like 100,000 Lemmings can’t be wrong!

I thought ‘enough is enough’. I’ve shown lots of Asian firms and government agencies how to build successful brands so why not share those experiences with CEOs and other brand owners and give them the information they require to change their habits and stop wasting money? So I wrote the book.

Stop Advertising Start Branding Book Marcus OsborneThe books key messages are:

  • The old rules of marketing no longer apply
  • Stop wasting money on outdated marketing tactics and start investing in your people and relationships with your customers
  • To be successful, Brands need to deliver economic, experiential and emotional value to consumers and on their terms
  • Too many brand are acquisition focused but retention is key
  • Data is key. Collect it, use it correctly and you’ve got an inexpensive way to build a solid brand
  • Don’t do social, be social
  • Be real, be transparent, don’t try and hide
  • Treat your customer the way you want to be treated by brands
  • Building a brand has never been easier but it’s still difficult
  • Don’t be scared of technology, it’s the best thing to happen to your business

Your thoughts on The Place Brand Observer?

Reading The Place Brand Observer is a necessity for me because it is a source of insights, new ideas and solutions to problems that I encounter in Asia. But probably most important of all it helps keep me sane because every time I visit the site I realize I’m not alone in the place branding world!

Thank you, Marcus.

Connect with Marcus Osborne on LinkedIn or visit his website. Follow Marcus on Twitter

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