Thinking out of the box – The fallacy of experience

Thinking out of the box – The fallacy of experience

Thinking out of the box

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
History is replete with examples of people who went on to do great things without any formal training or experience in their eventual discipline. Lennon-McCartney, despite being self-taught, went on to compose some of the greatest songs in the modern era. Their musical compositions are even offered as electives for study in many Universities around the world, and not just in the Music Faculties.

Esperanto, the most widely used artificial international language (as opposed to a language that evolved naturally) was devised, not by a linguistics professor, but by a Polish medical doctor called Zamenhof, who demonstrated it in his work Linguo Internacia in 1887. Since, he called himself, Doktor Esperanto, meaning Doctor Hopeful, Esperanto became the name of this modern language. With its own magazines, translations, radio & TV programs and conferences, Esperanto has grown so popular and spread worldwide, thanks to its easy grammar and phonetics, with every letter corresponding to its actual sound.

Samuel Morse went to England to study painting and returned to America to work as an apprentice portrait painter. However, in 1835, he introduced the world’s first electric telegraph. The funding to set up the telegraph system came through only eight years later. So it was in 1844 that the first message was sent from Washington DC to Baltimore. Soon telegraph poles and wires became part of the International landscape.

Italian born Antonnio Meucci immigrated to Havana, Cuba at the age of 25, becoming a theatre mechanic before moving to the USA to open a candle factory. He had the idea of a telephone in Havana itself and since he could not raise the funds for the project, he took out a patent for 2 years for his invention. When Alexander Graham Bell applied for a similar patent for the telephone, Meucci instituted legal proceedings. The court ruled that the invention for the telephone was his, but unfortunately, he could not obtain the funding required to exploit his invention before the expiry of his patent rights!

How are the above stories relevant in Branding Malaysia? As a Contender country brand, we have to be able to think out of the box, to bring a fresh insight to the issue of country branding. Sometimes the problem is not so much about getting new innovative thoughts, but rather how to get the old ones out! This brings us to another very interesting characteristic of successful Contender brands.

There is a popular myth that is probably perpetuated by the HR departments of established companies. Because, it has never been refuted, it has passed down from generation to generation.

Conventional HR wisdom tells us that job and trade experience is invaluable, in fact essential. Very often, when you view job vacancy ads, experience is invariably listed as an important pre-requisite. There is a natural tendency for companies to think of its area of business or category as being special, with its own set of practices and rules that are exclusive to their trade or category. In some respects, they are correct. Often-times things are shaded a little differently as far as production schedules, consumer purchase cycles or distribution structures are concerned.

Yet, we have the Tony Fernandes’ and Richard Branson’s of this world who lack any experience in their chosen category. Both Fernandes and Branson came from the music industry and successfully ventured into the airline business (Air Asia and Virgin Atlantic, respectively). Fernandes, in fact, brought his core team who had been with him in the music industry, into Air Asia. Together, they transformed a loss making airlines into an entity worth RM3 billion in record time!

Michael Dell realized that he could beat both IBM and Compaq, by focusing on the delivery system rather than the product, whilst still a student in Austin Texas. Today, Dell Computers is worth in excess of US$15 billion.

Howard Shultz was selling kitchen equipment before he acquired Starbucks, which was then a little retail store in Seattle selling gourmet coffee beans displayed traditionally on the floor of the store in gunny sacks. He changed it into a coffee shop, and changed forever, the way the world viewed coffee shops and coffee drinking.

Anita Roddick has taken it another step further – in building up the Body Shop into the natural cosmetics juggernaut that it currently is, this ex-housewife claims that she had consistently and deliberately done the exact opposite of what her industry does!

A good local example would be Laura’s Chocolates. Ms Laura Tan had gone directly from the insurance industry into chocolate production. Using the finest ingredients from Belgium, what sets her chocolates apart from the imported ones are the fact that her chocolates come exquisitely wrapped or packed into individual little designer boxes – taking presentation another step further! It is no small wonder why her chocolates are popular items from corporate events to Royal parties.

I could go on and on as the world is full of successful Contender brands headed by people who did not have any experience in the chosen industry. Could we say that they succeeded in spite of their inexperience in the category or because of it? Let us examine the issue further.

To the consumer, whether the principals or managers of a business is experienced in that industry or not is mostly irrelevant. Often-times, if a consumer or focus group were to be asked what exceptional features they would like to see in a particular industry, they would frequently cite a pleasant experience that they had in another industry. For instance, if they could find an airline that treated them as well as their village restaurant, they’d be a loyal passenger.

This is the reason why the market responds so strongly to the many Contender brands listed above. Far from being a drawback, these Contenders can bring a fresh perspective and vitality to their industry that was not there before – Perspectives that the old hands have grown too close to see. There is an old adage – You can’t see the forest for the trees!

Haven’t we all experienced this phenomenon ourselves? Didn’t we see the possibilities and issues more clearly in the first few months into a new job than, say, sixteen years later? In the first few months, we can see so clearly and are so focused and absorbed in the questions and available opportunities, as yet uninfluenced by the industry givens and uncluttered by the petty details that obscures our judgment and vision later on. It all appears so simple then. We open up our minds instead of closing it down. We ask the open-minded “Why Not”, instead of the close-minded, restrictive and apprehensive “Why”.

Thus it is Contenders who see opportunities that the established brands will fail to see. Seeing them requires that you see them through clear, innocent eyes. Realizing them depends on divesting oneself of all the baggage that a brand can accumulate over the years. So, it would be prudent even for established brands to think like a Contender.

However, many established brands find this hard to do, especially those with substantial brand equity that is not yet in critical decline. It is only human for us to want to preserve what has taken us so long to build up. Studies have shown that we are not so much risk adverse as loss adverse. Consequently, the more you have, the greater will be your inclination not to gamble it. This is the reason why the risk taking entrepreneurs tend to be the ones who start with nothing.

But established brands have to ask themselves this, however counterintuitive it is. If the advertising and brand equities are so good, then why are we not further up the pecking order?

Malaysia as a Contender brand has much to gain. In the same way that the gap between ambition and resource is often-times the best thing that can happen to a Contender brand, Malaysia should have the courage to abandon the historical equity if a re-branding exercise can accelerate and propel Malaysia to the ranks of the developed nations by 2020.

Sometimes, starting late in the national branding effort can also work to the advantage of the Contender country brands. Apart from a shorter learning curve, the Contender can avoid the pitfalls, mistakes and misadventures of the less successful national brand campaigns. In the same way that factories, plant and equipment of fast developing countries are usually state of the art and reflective of the latest technology, Contender country brands do not need to fear their inexperience in running a national brand campaign. After all, the first foundation of a strong Contender brand is not experience, but rather innocence. The ability to step back and challenge all the old precepts and assumptions, and then inject a fresh insight into the issue, is the hallmark of a healthy Contender country brand. THE END

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