Friday, June 26, 2009

Engaging Citizens for Nation Branding

In modern politics, the personality of a country’s leader is an important factor in the successful development and implementation of the Nation Brand.

So let’s take a look at how some well-known political personalities are working to develop their particular Nation Brand.

There is no question in the minds of most people that Brand America has benefited from a new president in the White House. And it’s just as well because Brand America was on a fast track to the nation brand graveyard.

But it’s not just horrific and culturally and religiously insulting images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay that have damaged Brand America. It’s also the question marks around the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq, the ineffectiveness of it’s supposedly sophisticated emergency services during Hurricane Katrina and more recently, the dubious behaviour of people working at the ‘great’ financial institutions that have practically brought the world to it’s knees.

What’s interesting, from a Nation branding perspective is that despite the Bush administration spending US$1 billion a year polishing the image of the US around the world, polls continued to show anti-Americanism had risen to record levels, especially in Muslim and Arab nations, where, incidentally, the bulk of the funds were spent. Further proof, if it were needed that creativity is not enough to build brands.

But then came Obama. The first black man elected to the presidency of a country where whites have a majority. But in a country where as recently as 30 years ago, it was illegal in some states for a white woman and a black man to marry, race didn’t seem to come into it. When push came to shove, it appears that the colour of his skin meant nothing as the American people voted for the person best suited to the job.

America, and perhaps more importantly, the world believe that Obama can change things for the better. They believe that he can shape history to such an extent that the troubling events of the last 20 years will be put behind us forever. And it seems that to do this, Americans understand that rather than the traditional domineering, almost dictatorial American approach, it must have a smarter, more engaging strategy from its leader to bring the American Nation brand back from the brink of the graveyard.

And early indications are that over the next 4 to 8 years, Obama will shape the image of Brand America in the eyes of the world by engaging those previously considered not worthy of American face.

The concept of Nation Branding is relatively new in Asia. Very few Malaysians think of their country as a brand. But the fact is we have an image in the eyes of many people and many governments around the world. Although there have been efforts to develop a Malaysia brand, primarily by Tourism Malaysia, the image of Malaysia has been created in a fragmented way, by both good and bad events in the country.

So where does that leave brand Malaysia today? Right now, Brand Malaysia is in the hands of all us. But the CEO has well and truly bought into the brand. There is a common thread running through the strategies of Obama and Najib , and that is one of engagement. And engagement via the internet is especially critical to both men. Obama engages Americans via, Najib is accessible via

And in the digital economy, this is of course a smart move . Indeed Najib understands that he has to reach out to and engage the 15.9 million internet users, 3,024,000 friendster, 758,000 facebook and 735,000 my space unique visitors from Malaysia (May 2008) .

So Obama and Najib continue on different yet similar paths, especially in terms of how they shape their respective Nation Brands.

The Malaysian public is being offered a forum to contribute to the future of their country. It will be interesting to see how Malaysian citizens use this forum to share thoughts and ideas with the Prime Minister.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wake up Malaysia, we’re in trouble

PEOPLE of Malaysia, wake up! We are in big trouble! The world is collapsing around us. When the world comes out of this global depression, the world will be a different place. If we don’t get our act together, there won’t be a place for us in the new world order. We will not only miss the boat, we’ll miss the lifeboat and the life raft. As a result, we’ll drown.

For years, we exploited the natural resources that bless this great nation. At the same time, we offered a stable and cheap alternative for global manufactures looking for a cheap production base to keep costs low in an effort to remain competitive. These manufacturers were critical to our development. We believed that if we offered these manufacturers low costs, cheap labour and other favourable concessions they would direct their foreign capital to us and not to more expensive competitors. And for a while, although lots of them preferred more expensive locations nearby, many of them did invest in Malaysia.

And this FDI helped change the country from a commodities based economy to a country on the fringes of becoming a developed country. Because not only did these manufacturing giants bring significant investment with them, they also employed thousands of Malaysians who injected the wages they earned (wages sourced from foreign countries and then repatriated here by the manufacturers) back into the economy.

But the problem is, those days are over. We are no longer a cheap destination for those foreign manufacturers. There are now very few financial advantages for them to outsource their production to Malaysia.

And it’s not just Malaysia that is affected, the US Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai reports that one in five companies are contemplating shutting down their factories in China and moving them to Bangladesh, India and Vietnam, where factory wages for unskilled workers are around RM147 a month compared to RM800 in Malaysia.

These countries, as well as Cambodia, Laos, Burma (eventually) and other countries are the new low cost bases that Malaysia once was. So what does it mean for Malaysia? It means that Malaysia cannot compete on a cost basis. It’s a battle we simply cannot win. Just take a drive along the LDP near the Motorola bridge and look at the empty factories. More examples can be found around section 14 in PJ and further afield in just about every state.

And this is why the PM wants us to change and move up the value chain. Because, if we don’t change, what will we become? We’ll be back where we started and the world will pass us by. We’ll become poor again, a commodities based economy selling Palm Oil and our few remaining barrels of Oil. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll become the dumping ground for the world’s dirty industries. In fact, they are already knocking at the door.

We wont have the money to buy quality products so we will be left with what the rest of the world doesn’t want anymore. Our kids will have no future and over time, our country will no longer exist. So we have no choice, we have to change but we’re not very good at change, but change we must.

It doesn’t matter who or what you are. It doesn’t matter what race you are or whether you are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and so on, or even if you have no faith at all; this is your problem, this is our problem and you and I cannot let any more time go by. We have to understand the need for change and be committed to change.

And this colossal change in mindset will have to come from all of us Malaysians: Indian, Malay, Chinese, Iban, Milanau, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kelabit, Kenyah, Penan, Sebob, Chebob, Dusun, Kadazan & Orang Asli. All of us will have to be united if we are going to pull through.

We will have to lose our natural suspicions of anyone or anything new. We’ll have to leave the comfort zone that previous administrations have provided for us. We will have to learn to take risks. And some of us will fail. But they will have to learn how to deal with that failure and pick themselves up and try again.

And we will have to work hard, to get rid of the ‘tidak apa’ mentality that is endemic in our society. We will have to make sacrifices that benefit our children and not us. We will have to accept that we won’t agree with every policy that comes out of Putrajaya. We will have to accept that we might not like everyone who represents us in parliament. And even though many of our opinions of those representatives or their wives are based on what we hear in coffee shops, we will have to accept that this is not about personalities, this is about the future of the nation, not our nation, but our children’s nation.

This change is going to require a dedication and commitment that we don’t even know if we have. But it’s got to happen because the people in Putrajaya cannot do it by themselves.

And we have to accept that until the next election, the current administration is going to lead us because more people voted for it than any other party. And if these people can prove that they are ready to get out there and lay it all out on the line for a better Malaysia then we must give them the chance to do so. And if they don’t, then they will lose the next election.

But if we adopt a wait and see approach – wait and see if they mean it, wait and see if they honour election commitments made, just sit around and complain and whine and wait and see till the next election, and don’t do our part then we’ll get a new government but it will be too late for that government because the lifeboat will have passed Malaysia by.

Challenges of building the Malaysia nation brand

AS Najib Razak looks to gain buy-in for his 1Malaysia concept, the foundations for the development of a Malaysia nation brand, I begin my blogging career with a look at nation branding and the likely challenges we will face as we build the Malaysia brand for the children of our great country.

Every nation is a brand. Think of the associations that France, Great Britain, Kenya, Russia, and even tiny Tahiti have. While it seems obvious now, the concept of nation branding is relatively new, not emerging until the late 1990s. Prior to this period, nation brands were relatively static.

Nation brands were formed by literature, economic and/or military power, industrial development, geography and sometimes even centuries-old conflict. In the mid 20th Century, with the onset of mass tourism, newer Nation brands were determined by the ability to offer something ‘unique’ such as white sandy beaches, azure skies and tranquil tropical blue waters.

But now globalization, increasing worldwide mobility, interdependence and integration (eg, EU, NAFTA, AFTA), competition, growing wealth and, of course, the Internet have changed the arena for building a nation brand. The “earth is flat” phenomenon – the decreasing importance of distance and markets becoming first regional then global and leveling technologies such as the Internet – now make it possible and necessary, to develop, refine and grow a nation brand.

I believe that a nation brand is comprised of two interrelated elements. The first is image and perception. Communities worldwide have varying impressions of countries based on history and/or current events, personal and/or national experiences, citizen-to-citizen interactions, product experiences, trade, arts, heritage and culture, sports, diplomacy and word-of-mouth. The second is execution. How well does a country and its products perform? Do those products provide value for multiple markets with different requirements for value? What experiences do a nation’s people provide? Through engagement, do people develop trust in an offering, and, more importantly, are they willing to recommend it to their friends?

Like many other countries, Malaysia’s brand has evolved significantly in the 20th century. 75 years ago, Malaysia was known for its Tin, Rubber and to a lesser extent Oil, which was not intensively drilled until the 1970s. But these activities, certainly Tin and Rubber, were located on the West coast of the Peninsular where the immigrant population was dominant.

Far sighted leaders in the early years of independence saw the need to promote industrial activities in less developed states. Manufacturing, primarily for export, was seen as the engine of growth to propel Malaysia forward and this is reflected in the first Malaya plan of the 1950s and the New Economic Policy of the early 1970s. This focus on manufacturing, and to a lesser extent palm oil and tourism, was the core strategy of the government right up to the Second Industrial Master Plan (1996-2005).

However, there is always someone who can manufacture something cheaper and deliver it to customers faster than you and Najib Razak understands this better than most. From 2000 or so onwards, FDI was flowing more into competitors coffers than it was into ours and it’s hardly a surprise therefore, that the Third Industrial Master Plan (2006-2020) lays out policies to focus on services as the next engine of growth. But evolving Malaysia’s brand from that of a manufacturing location to that of a service based economy will be a major challenge as it will require much effort and buy in, not only from politicians and the corporate sector but also citizens of Malaysia.

But Najib has taken on the responsibility of transforming the Malaysia Nation Brand with a passion, enthusiasm and dedication that we haven’t seen in the government for years. From the moment he took office, he has hit the ground running by addressing multiple international issues that range from ‘building bridges’ with important neighbour Singapore to his recent visit to key trading partner China.

Domestic efforts include reviews of the ISA and the NEP and the ongoing and open debate on education reform. He’s also attempted to fast track public transport development in the Klang Valley, is looking into reforming the Royal Malaysian Police, introducing KPI’s for government officers and making the government more transparent. He’s encountering resistance, especially from the warlords in UMNO who have forgotten that they are elected by the people and serve at the pleasure of the people rather than being their God given right to rule.

But on the whole, these are promising signs because, whatever you may think of the PM and his administration, the fact of the matter is that whether we like it or not, the Barisan National has a mandate to run the country for the next three years and ten months at least. But he is under no illusion that he has his work cut out. Which is why his team is moving fast, confidently and knowledgeably to reposition Malaysia in the world order.

But whilst Najib focuses on the internal brand architecture, another critical element in the successful development of a nation brand is the contribution of both the private sector and citizens. There will have to be a long-term behavioural change at home because we will not be able to build a long term, strong and sustainable Nation Brand if these key elements do not buy into the concept.

Other challenges include:

  1. How to position Malaysia as a unique, different and attractive country for tourists, investors, strategic partners, businesses and other stakeholders?

  2. Malaysia has a reputation for lacking service sector skills in its workforce. This thorny issue will need to be addressed in a similar manner to the way other controversial issues are being addressed

  3. The development of a positive & competitive identity that offers economic, experiential and emotional value to each target audience

  4. The development of a holistic and comprehensive brand to enhance the new positioning whilst not ignoring export promotion, economic development, tourism, foreign direct investment and other key ongoing national initiatives

  5. Clearly communicating relevant messages to the target constituents and stakeholders in multiple countries

  6. Strengthening the strategic, communications and visual impact of the evolving Nation Brand

  7. Systemically connecting the Nation Brand to Malaysia’s core industries, corporate brands and Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector brands

  8. Integrating the new positioning across multiple touchpoints.
    In the face of intense regional and global competition, if the government tackles these issues there is a chance that we can build a Malaysia Nation Brand that our children will be proud of.