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Building a brand and losing your shirt
Kristian Gotthelf

Brand building has long been the rage in industrialized countries and now the buzz has reached Asia. Gurus are preaching to Asian entrepreneurs that they should build their own brand names rather than copy someone elseís ideas.

Innovate rather than imitate seems to be the thing to do. Great examples are offered: Sony, Nike, Orange. All prime examples of profitable products made successful through brand building. Through years of advertising these brands have become recognizable symbols to nearly everyone on the planet.

Although the investment put into consulting and mass communication media is high, the long term benefits are worth it, right?

Sure - if you have an enormous budget itís fine, but when branding is pouring money into a big black hole and waiting for the long term effects, many Asian business people will prefer to keep copying already established products and hope for brand diffusion rather than differentiation. If the concept of creating brand equity equals a money spending exercise, who will do it? The basic purpose of marketing is still to bring profit to the organization and maybe a basic viewpoint and the use of available resources is what is needed in South East Asia right now.

In countries where competition, individual achievement and standing out from the rest are not among the most important values, there are typically few well known brands. Still, Asian marketers have always understood the need to persuade and compete in their advertising messages. So in the past decades, where strong brands have proven to be money makers, the Asian business scene has naturally started taking notice. At the same time advertising agencies and consultants in the region have been keen on stressing on advertising as the only way to truly create a brand. Clients are told that in order to create awareness they need to make some noise and therefore spend money.

The role of advertising itself is changing rapidly, due to emerging media technology such as mobile phones, the internet and point of purchase advertising. Ad agencies are desperately trying to catch up with the new media. Meanwhile back in the industrialized world, many industry experts are questioning big advertising budgets. John Kuraoka believes that clients "are seduced by the Big Splash approach". He says that big spending on "silly copywriting" worked well in the 90's, because times were good and money was made regardless. According to William J. McEwen, agencies are more concerned with their fees than selling products. He says the power of advertising is exaggerated and cites Starbucks as an example of how a brand can be established without massive spending.

In some product categories in South East Asia, spending on brand building is already established. One example is the lucrative energy drink market in Thailand. In a bid for market share several advertisers are spending heavily on traditional media such as TV and billboards. This particular market has switched from being use oriented to being user-oriented, and linking a well known spokesperson to the brand has been the preferred method. Presenters, mostly rock stars, are promoting new brands or old brands that have been revamped. One new entrant to the market claims spending the equivalent of 11 million US dollars for advertising in 2003. The question now is whether producers with smaller budgets can try to promote innovative products to consumers through brand building and not loose their shirts. There is hope for Asian entrepreneurs who want to want to build a unique brand without taking huge financial risks.

Since the global trend is shifting from excessive spending on mass media to more focused promotional activities the companies can look in their own back yard for the answers. In Thailand events and promotional activities are effective and popular. If girls with silver skirts and microphones canít get peoples attention, what can? New technologies such as mobile phone messaging and the Internet can also be good communication tools. Demonstrations using skilled demonstrators are a way to create short term product trial as well as promoting the brand. Point of purchase marketing can communicate branding now at bus stations, malls, train stations, inside taxis outside taxis and, yes, even toilets. These are relatively inexpensive ways of communicating a message that could build a brand. Nobody says the building of a brand has to happen overnight. The cheaper options will take longer time for the brand to be built Ė that has to be admitted. But the point is that brands require innovation not only in the product development stage but also in methods of finding low cost media. Of course the choice of media will always depend on the target customer. Finally, another important issue besides the execution or choice of media channel is the original idea for the brand and how that idea is perceived by the target audience.

Kristian Gotthelf
Research Institute of Bangkok University
Rama 4 Road, Klong Toey
Bangkok 10110
Phone +66 2 350 3500 #772

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