Branding and Gandhi

Branding and Gandhi


by LS Sya

Sya is a member of the Asia Pacific Brands Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of branding standards in the region. Widely acknowledged as the originator of the concept of “Brand Malaysia” and described as “a phenomenon in branding and marketing” by the Financial Times UK, he is now a Brand Identity specialist with London BrandMagic. Major clients include the Athens Olympics 2004, Citigroup, Airbus, Honda, Lufthansa and Davidoff. He can be contacted at

Born into a respectable class in colonial India and educated as a lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi could have enjoyed a comfortable upper class life. But like others whose efforts are seen as visionary leadership after the fact, Mr. Gandhi met up with circumstances that brought him face-to-face with the injustice of class rule and prejudice.

He set aside his upper-class, comfortable lifestyle, rejected the status quo, and started a non-violent revolution that ultimately resulted in the independence of India from British rule. Rather than advocate for violent revolution, Mr. Gandhi stimulated a grassroots movement based on non-violent protest. Despite several assassination threats and attempts, as well as political harassment and the occasional jailing of both himself and his wife, Mr. Gandhi persevered, rejected violent methods, and continued to speak out on behalf of India’s independence.

He was indeed assassinated in 1948, but not before his words and movement inspired many around the world, and still continued to do so. “If my faith burns bright, as I hope it will be even if I stand alone,” he said, “I shall be alive in the grave, and what is more, speaking from it.”

How does this story relate to Brand Malaysia? We often talk of brand leadership as if there is only one Brand Leader. However, in reality, there are two – the Market Leader which is the biggest brand and the Vision leader which is the brand everyone talks about! Malaysia is not yet a Country brand Market Leader. However, that should not stop the country from aiming to be the Vision leader, as far as the country’s brand is concerned.

Let us examine the characteristics of a Vision leader. Whilst it may not be the biggest, the Vision leader is usually the brand that is making waves! Picking up momentum, it normally gets the most attention, eventually entering popular culture. In the distant past, the existing Market Leader was just this brand. With few notable exceptions, most brands stop becoming very newsworthy after attaining Market Leadership.

Consequently, brands that are currently not Market Leaders, should aim to be the brand that everyone is talking about. The brand that is perceived to be dynamic and causing quite a few ripples in the market.

Most successful Contender brands do this not just through innovation and advertising but by their planned behavior – by selectively breaking one or two of the prevailing conventions in their category. Very often this break is forced upon the Contender brand, primarily because they are late entrants but also because of limitations in their own resources. Typically, a brand in a hurry, the Contender brand will usually have limitations in their advertising budget, distribution base or the luxury of time. Yet it is precisely this forced change that precipitates the very convention breaking behavior that seduces and intrigues the consumer.

In Malaysia, Digi was a relatively late entrant into the mobile telephony market. By the time Digi entered the market, Celcom and Maxis were already deeply entrenched in the industry and had virtually cornered the industry. Perhaps due to their lack of the luxury of time, Digi chose to break with convention and focus on the pre-paid market. This proved immensely popular especially with migrant workers and transient visitors as well as students who could not afford the monthly subscription of the normal mobile networks. Today, Digi is widely acknowledged as the market leader in pre-paid calls.

There is no doubt that marketing conventions are usually shaped by the established brands. For instance, bottled water is always sold in clear plastic bottles so that the perceived purity of the water can be clearly seen, and to propagate the illusion that it is more than just water. Since France had always been regarded as the home of mineral water, Ty Nant the Welsh mineral water brand did not attempt to justify the provenance of their water. Instead they packed their water in cobalt blue bottles. This aroused tremendous curiosity and an emotional relationship began to be formed with their brand and their consumers. Apart from restaurants, fashion shops and hair salons from its native Wales to Los Angeles began to display the empty blue bottles in their shop windows.

Perfumes and cosmetic products are usually packaged in elaborate and ornate packaging in an effort to represent female luxurious pampering and to lend a little glamour and status to the product. Anita Roddick of Body Shop decided not to play by the packaging rules and instead packed her products in cheap plastic bottles. She tied little leaflets to her bottles that focused on playing up her philosophy of using only natural ingredients and aligning the brand with environmental issues.

By changing the conventional relationship between the packaging and the product, both Body Shop and Ty Nant are signaling to the consumer that a new kind of brand has arrived.

TV Networks, by convention, branded themselves using their initials or numerals such as CNN, ABC, TV3, NBC, 8TV, or CBS. Consequently, the original plan for Fox was to name their fourth US TV network as FBC. Fortunately for Fox, before the name could crystallize, the branding team reconsidered. By choosing to be a brand rather than just another TV Network, Fox has perhaps changed forever the way TV networks will differentiate and brand themselves.

Airlines normally have self reverential names such as United Airlines, British Airways or Cathay Pacific. What did Richard Branson do? He founded the company as a record distributor just a few short years after he had been prosecuted for using indecent language in a leaflet for a women’s clinic that he was helping to promote. The offensive words were “Venereal Disease”. If these words, which were essentially a medical term was considered to be something that the British public required protection from, to select a name like Virgin was to invite shock and top of mind recall. The rest, as they say, is history! By choosing to extend the Virgin name to his airline, Branson has ensured that the airline will continue the identity and attitude that has defined his business success.

Conventional advertising can be very expensive. So the Contender brand faces a dilemma. Do they choose to advertise in such media in order to be seen as a legitimate player and accept the inevitable low share of voice because of the presence of the established brands there? Or do they leave the well trodden path by looking for unconventional media? Very often, the decision is forced on the Contender. They cannot afford conventional advertising.

Fashion designer Vera Wang, at the outset, could not afford the traditional career launching high-end fashion show. The cost for such a show can run to half a million Dollars and she did not have the half a million. What did she do? She produced an “Image Book” with the words “Vera Wang” inscribed in bold letters on the jacket. In the book she featured 28 photos of models wearing her designs. With no jewelry and props, the quite confidence of the book attracted considerable attention from the 7,500 fashion press, retailers and regular customers that the book was sent to.

The basic tenet of certain martial arts such as judo and aikido, are premised on using your opponent’s strength to your advantage. Similarly, Contender brands have to find a uniquely innovative insight into what would be attractive to the consumer, and then play to it by taking one or two conventions and deliberately breaking them. This offers drama and gives the Contender a natural point of leverage as it enters the market!

I was at the LA Olympics in 1984. I remember walking with my family to the LA Olympic Stadium which was built like a post modern version of the Colosseum in Rome. As I approach the stadium, staring at me from the walls of the buildings near the stadium were colossal paintings of Nike endorsed athletes – massive and colorful figures of well built athletes dominating the skyline. My impression, and certainly the impression of most people is that Nike is an Official Sponsor of the Games. Only Nike wasn’t the sponsor; Converse was. Whilst Converse had to pay millions, Nike stole the branding march on them by breaking conventions and grabbing the glory.

Product experience is another way in which a Contender brand can break conventions and become the Vision leader. The golfing industry is replete with examples of Contenders who go on to dominate their field by daring to break convention. For instance, before Ping came up with a Putter with the distinctive sound, all putters were designed to just do the job of squaring the putter-face to the golf ball. Ping gave the golfer instant audio feedback when the ball is struck on the sweet-spot and with a square putter face. The company never looked back and the company went on to break more conventions and revolutionize the game of golf by introducing perimeter weighting into golf club-head design. Along came Eli Callaway who realized that there must be a big market for the novice and hacker, who were all after the holy grail of extra distance. Most of the distance is lost as the novice is, unlike the pros, unable to hit the ball consistently on the sweet-spot. He broke with convention and designed the Big Bertha which was a Driver with an extra big head. With the extra mass, the effective hitting area and sweet spot would be enlarged and the club is now more forgiving of miss-hits resulting in increased distance. Callaway went on to virtually corner the golf market in the mid-nineties with even the professionals taking to it. The industry continues to be a good reflection of the power of a Contender mentality and Vision leadership. New materials from the aerospace industry such as titanium are continually being experimented with and being introduced from time to time. Each new revolutionary idea results in the Contender being catapulted into market leadership.

The distinctive roar and exhaust note of the Harley Davidson gives the rider a unique product experience. At a more sophisticated level, Starbucks has turned the traditional coffee shop into a destination and lifestyle statement.

How can we apply these ideas to Brand Malaysia. For a start, the government could encourage our private sector to change their mindset to think like a Contender and aim to be Vision leaders. Further, the government can also look at ways in which the public sector could adopt and adapt the use of these ideas to help brand the country effectively. Take the Immigration Department, for instance. Immigration entry points all over the world are staffed by stern and unfriendly looking immigration officers and are characterized by long serpentine queues. Consider for a moment, the branding implications if the Malaysian Immigration was to think out of the box. What if our Entry points are staffed by Officers trained to think and behave like Customer Relationship Officers. Think for a moment, the national branding capital the nation would acquire if the Immigration Department was to adopt Tesco’s policy of “Only one in Front”, which was Tesco’s promise that a new counter would be opened whenever there’s more than one person in the queue. Malaysia would be the talk of the traveling world! There’s no stronger brand endorsement than word-of-mouth advertising!



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