Learning from the best

When building your brand, it’s often a good idea to look at how others did it before you, especially if they were successful.

One of my favourite brands in Singapore is Eu Yan Sang. It has everything a great brand needs: a great and long history – the story of how the founder came here from China and set up his first TCM shop. Over the years it has grown both in Singapore and the region. My friend Richard Eu has managed to both keep the heritage but also make it current and modern. That’s often the biggest task if your brand has a history – to make sure it stays relevant to today’s consumers’ needs.

I also like Banyan Tree – it’s a newer brand but in its positioning, starting from the name, it cleverly creates an Asianness about it, fitting into stories of famed Asian hospitality and service just like Singapore Airlines, but also keeping a green touch in its resorts and hotels.

On a smaller scale, I’m a fan of Books Actually, a quirky book store right here in Tiong Bahru. It’s probably not easy to compete with the big book chains of our times, and to find a relevant differentiator: Books Actually tapped into the quirkiness of its neighbourhood and into the local literary scene, by hosting events with local writers like Ovidia Yu. It takes the topic of local connections right into the nostalgic objects from Singapore that are on offer in the shop, and it adds a taste of mystery by offering wrapped books in a slot machine outside the door.

All these Singapore brands have found their niche, and just as importantly, they are consistent about telling their story and displaying it everywhere. This consistency may not be difficult in just one bookshop, but as soon as you have several shops or are distributed across markets in Asia, it becomes even more important to speak with one voice. We will look at these so-called touchpoints in the next episode.

But we can also learn from the mistakes that some brands make. Recently there has been a lot of debate on how Western brands can appeal to Chinese consumers, and a few have been criticized, even boycotted.

Dolce and Gabbana posted a – what they thought was funny – video about a Chinese model eating Italian food with chopsticks, Burberry showed a gloomy looking family for Chinese New Year. Even Zara was criticized for showing a Chinese model with freckles.

And while customers in China seem to be extra sensitive when it comes to Western brands trying to appeal to them, the learning is actually quite simple.

Stop trying so hard. You don’t have to out-Chinese the Chinese in order to appeal to them, to be relevant to their lives. Thinking that your ads need to be full of Chinese models and red color is a mis-understanding. Because true relevance means you understand what your potential customers need. So in this case they want Western brands for their Western heritage and – ideally – quality. Believe in who you are as a brand. And stick to it proudly. Not everybody will love you for it, but enough people will.