Economics: Commentary:

For Developing Nations: Why Branding a Nation is the Key to Bolstering Exports in the Current Economy

By Dr. Seamus Phan

A short opinion piece on national branding and reputation building, in the context of developing and newly-developed nations in the Asia Pacific region.

If you are a subscriber to cable television, or if you travel frequently and like to surf through news channels such as CNN and CNBC, you will find advertisements which reach out to you seemingly with the sincerest hopes to entice and seduce you. No, we are not talking about the latest fast cars right out of the doors of Porsche, or the latest sleek computers from Apple. We are talking about countries advertising themselves, including the likes of Thailand and Malaysia.

For example, Malaysia has run several variants of television advertisements hosted by popular actress Michelle Yeoh (of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame). The advertisements share a single theme, "Malaysia, Truly Asia". And the imagery points to reinforce the theme.

Thailand's government has also been as aggressive as Malaysia, and through its television advertisements, has painted Thailand as "Amazing Thailand." Of course, the imagery brings out the feeling of transforming the mundane lives of everyday individuals into amazing resort-filled lives.

Other countries aggressive in painting the right imagery to attract visitors include South Korea, Hong Kong SAR and Japan.

Divergence and the problem

However, some countries seem to diverge from this path. For example, Singapore runs some television advertisements on its local channels that paint Singapore as the high-tech hub of Asia, attempting to attract skilled foreign professionals to make Singapore their homes. However, much of these advertisements do not run head to head with competing television advertisements from developing nations such as Malaysia and Thailand. This is a serious shortcoming that has ramifications.

First, Malaysia has recently become rather aggressive in promoting its cost-effective seaport (and eventually air transport) services, and has successfully attracted some large logistics companies to move house to Malaysia. Likewise, Thailand is emerging as the South East Asian gateway to China, since it is a neutral ground, unlike Hong Kong SAR, and is in immediate proximity to China. Also, Thailand is as cost-effective as Malaysia in offering decent cost of living, and low business costs.

The escalating cost of living in Singapore is fast becoming its weakness, since infrastructure is only a temporary competitive edge that can be emulated. The human advantage, which Singapore still holds to a certain degree, lies in the people's reasonable command of English in business, and the percentage of reasonably qualified and educated locals to service foreign companies and local enterprises alike.

However, the human advantage in Singapore is eroding, since countries such as China and Taiwan are fast strengthening their command of English when they were admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO), while countries such as Malaysia and Thailand also began to embrace the Western investors more seriously through business-friendly legislation, taxation, and of course, cost of doing business and daily living. The people of these developing nations are also warming to the idea of English, and it is increasingly easier to find employees who can at least converse in some degree of English at the frontline level, while it is certainly more than possible to find executives and managers with a good command of English.

So then, why would national branding work and why should countries in Asia care?

It is all about image

Brand building, or image creation, and all other vehicles of marketing, are all tools to garner attention that should culminate in a "purchase decision." Likewise, when a nation advertises itself through an extensive branding program, it is to get initial attention from prejudiced, ignorant, or somewhat knowledgeable folks to begin to form a better understanding about the nation.

For example, to an American who may not have ventured out of his or her own country, the image of Thailand may cook up all the wrong connotations, simply because the wrong image has been propagated in populist media. However, only if this American takes a trip and begin a reasonable length of time to study Thailand, it would be difficult to right this perception. Such preconceived and prejudiced views permeate throughout every culture, and every nation falls prey to some degree of prejudice. But just because there is prejudice, a nation should not turn a deaf ear and pretend that nothing is happening. A more assertive and pro-active approach toward educating ignorant people should result, and a consistent publicity campaign aimed at providing subtle and convincing "sell" to persuade these people to change their views.

Brand building for a nation should be holistic, and should not simply be about a small vertical concept. In the case of Singapore, the use of Singapore as a high-tech hub is perhaps thrilling and exciting to young upstarts who are itching to travel from the West to land a personal challenge, but may not paint a holistic picture necessary for older and more experienced (and certainly more skilled) professionals with a larger family to move over here.

However, the branding programs of Malaysia and Thailand provide a more warm, personal, and holistic approach. The concept of human warmth and friendliness is not alien to any culture, Westerns or Asians. Therefore, Westerners with families are more likely to want to relocate to a place where a holistic approach to life is portrayed. Of course, once the family relocates to such a country, the family will expect the delivery of that approach, and countries should deliver on the advertised promise no doubt.

In the case of Malaysia, infrastructure is being built at a feverish pace, similar to what the likes of China is preparing for the upcoming Olympics. As we have mentioned earlier, infrastructure is merely a mechanical construction that can be emulated as long as you have the right financial resources, and people to build them.

Malaysia also possesses some of the friendliest people around, and they do speak English for the most part. Thailand has a slight disadvantage in the command of English, but if you have been to Thailand, you know that people will treat you well in various hospitality and shopping establishments.

The human culture is the engine behind branding

The cornerstone to the human element has to be Japan. Much as Singapore tries to position itself as a service-driven economy, the locals have not been educated intrinsically like some of the neighboring cultures. Much of the service "culture" in Singapore, as with many of the infrastructure, are later induced, and it is sociologically that much harder to get people to deliver service from the heart. When you go to Japan, frontliners are willing to go out of the way to serve you, even if they speak only a few words of English.

For example, I was in Akihabara, the consumer electronics-shopping district in Japan, and entered a store to look at MP3 players. I found one that was neat and small, and asked a frontliner, a middle-aged gentleman, if the device would work for my computer. He apologized for his poor command of English, and asked if I could stay for a short moment for him to call his colleague from another store several streets away! I said yes, since I had the afternoon free. A short while later, a younger frontliner appeared, and after a brief exchange, he said that he would need to test my selected product to make sure it would work for my computer. He asked if I could shop around and return to the store in one hour. I left and returned about an hour later. The young gentleman was still testing the MP3 player through various programs, and reported that the model I selected would not work for me. He asked if I would consider something else, but despite his superb service, I simply could not find something I liked. I left the store with a great feeling about the trouble two salesmen went through, and were genuinely courteous and apologetic for not being able to serve me well. By the way, the device only costs around US$100, not exactly a big-ticket item.

Another personal example, and there are many more where that came from, was a taxi trip when I was invited to speak at an event in Tokyo. The taxi driver was an older gentleman and I gave him the address of the hotel where the event was held. He apologized in Japanese that he would need to call his office to find the hotel. Finally, he had an idea where the obscure hotel was, and drove to the location. At the location, and mind you, it was about 10 degrees Celsius (rather cold), the older gentleman apologized again, and stepped out of the taxi in his thin jacket, to ask around the neighborhood. After a minute, he dashed back and told me he found the exact location of the hotel. I arrived at the hotel, gratified that the elderly taxi driver was willing to go out of the way to get to a location.

If you visit Singapore, on the other hand, be prepared for many possible negative service encounters. I have frequented many electronics stores in Singapore, and most of the time, the salespeople were not willing to serve me well, or tag behind me like hungry dogs. I am a willing spender, and if I get the right service, I would certainly spend my dollars right here. And if you take a taxi, all too often, you get frustrated because some of the taxi drivers seem to emerge right out of hell and you are in an alternate universe of suffering.

What does it mean? Does it mean that these frontliners were not trained in customer service? Certainly not. Many of these stores have in-house or outsourced customer service training programs, but you have to have an ingrained service aptitude and attitude before you can do well in these jobs. Many of these frontliners take up service jobs simply because they can't find jobs of their liking.

Therefore, when branding is created, the background work is even more important. You do not want to give the impression that everything is merely a facade and nothing else. Visitors, who may certainly be investors or potential immigrants to boost the economy, may make occasional trips of leisure to a country. If he or she, and the family, are well served, the branding would stick in their minds, and it would be that much easier as a subtle and all-important persuader.

In difficult times, the concept of branding, coupled with the all too important delivery, are the keys to lifting a nation out of the doldrums, and stay competitive. No high-tech machinery, fancy highway, electronic gadgetry, or bright lights, will move people to relocate their businesses and families here, or to boost the investment climate. Only people with a genuine and forthcoming mission and heart will create the brightest and smartest branding campaign that delivers the promises and more.

Singapore-based Dr. Seamus Phan is a regular contributor to this Journal with his series of articles on Internet Security and also serves as an Adjunct Professor and Lead Faculty of the Department of Media Studies at the Hawaii-based International University of Professional Studies.

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