Singapore-based Martin Roll has had his hand placed firmly on the pulse of Asian brand strategies since, well, before people outside of Asia even talked much about Asian brands.
He recently published the best-selling book Asian Brand Strategy and the globetrotting Denmark native finds himself in even greater demand than before as the world turns an increasingly curious eye towards Asia and her products and markets. Martin runs Martin Roll Company, and advises many of the world’s leading business leaders incl. many from Asia about branding, marketing and strategy.
Branding in Asia recently caught up with Martin to get his take on the current state of Asian brands as well as Western brands trying to better reach Asian consumers.
So, you’ve recently released a revised version of your book Asian Brand Strategy. What are some of the biggest changes in the Asian branding landscape since 2005?
The Asian branding landscape is undergoing a strategic transformation. Branding is now not anymore a nice to have, but a need to have.
With increasing opportunities and further deregulation, home markets are opening up to global brands whether local incumbents like it or not. Hence, branding is no longer something nice for Asian brands to have – it has become critical.
Most Asian firms still view branding as advertising or logo design. If firms are to benefit from branding, they must recognize that it impacts the entire business
Some brands that have become hugely successful since I last wrote this book now face new challenges. Arrogance and complacency have hit many successful organisations, weakened their leadership power, leading to danger of succumbing to the “victory disease” of hubris.
A large part of the ﬁndings and recommendations in Asian Brand Strategy has been drawn from my many years working with global management teams and business owners. Additionally, delivering keynote speeches, being a part of panels in international conferences and hosting many annual boardroom workshops globally have further distilled the ideas presented. The audiences attending these events have served as valuable sounding boards and discussion partners.
Western organizations have used brands and branding successfully to capture markets and the imagination of millions of consumers worldwide. Now it is time for Asian executives to step up to the challenge and build their own legacies through brand leadership.
You’ve often said that more Asian boardrooms are starting to realize that branding is a strategic issue. Can you talk about that? What was the mindset before?
The face of business in Asia is changing faster than one can blink one’s eyes. Asian companies that used to be back-end workhorses, manufacturing consumer goods cheaply for Western companies, are slowly realizing the beneﬁts of branding.
In a market where competition implies slashing prices on unbranded products, Asian businesses are slowly realizing the power of brand identity in capturing consumers and returning larger proﬁts on their investments. There is an increasing realization that returns can be increased through investment in brands and creating differentiation.
Most Asian firms, however, still view branding as advertising or logo design. If firms are to benefit from branding, they must recognize that it impacts the entire business – the structure, goals, attitude and the very outlook of those in the boardroom. Managers will need to see branding not as an appendage to the on-going business, but rather as an infusion which seeps through the very spirit of the organization, driving healthy return on investment.
Before branding can be implemented, it is important to understand its implications, its various shades and hues, its forms and practices, its purpose and its advantages. It is indeed a paradigm shift that executives must undertake across Asian boardrooms. How this change in thinking can be articulated, implemented and managed as successful strategies by Asian boardrooms and corporate management teams forms the core of my book “Asian Brand Strategy”.
You’re logging a lot of miles traveling the world doing seminars and giving lectures throughout the year. During Q&A sessions what are some of the more difficult questions to give answers too?
I generally find questions asked during the numerous sessions I host globally every year to be great and inspiring. Some questions are more daring, but I don’t find them difficult to answer. I believe the difficulty lies for the audience to internalize what I tell them, how they form their own judgment, and then most importantly when they go back to their offices, how they initiate those transformations I have talked about, and implement the best global practices I have shared with them.
My speaks and lectures fall under two categories: Branding & Marketing and Strategy & Leadership.
For the first category, I believe people often underestimate how difficult it actually is to build and sustain strong global brands, and to become truly brand-driven organizations. Especially Asian business leaders tend to believe that brand building is somehow a tactical exercise they can delegate to lower parts of the organization, and that results will show up quickly. They often struggle to understand the strategic nature of brand building, for which they need to direct and lead the efforts, and make profound changes to make it happen.
Another factor is that it has become more fashionable to work in Asia so there is a huge expansion of young talent in the last 10 years.
The second category relates to topics in the vast intersection between strategy and leadership. Here I often see two challenges. The first one is that companies need to define their overall purpose.
This is a very difficult thing to do and lead the organization towards. Businesses need to have a strong purpose so they have a long-term goal, but that also means they need to let go of short-term thinking. The other challenge relates to leadership. No one is asked to be a leader. Being a leader is something each one of us is expected to be – if we are capable, daring and bold enough to step up. And not everyone is up to it. My lectures therefore deal with the issue of how to become a great leader and the road to get there.
Looking at a country like Korea, where a major brand like Kakao hiring a 34-year-old CEO was viewed as “radical” by local media and observers. Is this a trend we’re likely to see continue in the age-determinant, Confucian-steeped countries of Northeast Asia?
The age of the Kakao CEO is a rarity in Asia among large organizations. For small organizations and entrepreneurial technology firms it is more common. But I believe the landscape is changing for several reasons. One key reason is that 70 percent of Asian firms are family owned in some way or the other, and the founders and leaders of many of those firms are now getting old and will have to transition leadership to younger generations.
Another factor is that it has become more fashionable to work in Asia so there is a huge expansion of young talent in the last 10 years. Some of those are returning younger generations who now see Asia as an attractive place to work.
You’re one of the go to guys on China. Tossing aside the Branding 101 playbook, give us a few on the ground branding tactics that a CMO could use to help his or her product resonate with Chinese consumers?
Can the West maintain their edge when it comes to iconic, edgy brands sought by millions of Asian consumers? Here are some guidelines:
- Western brands in Asia need to customize their offerings: Brands are about personality. Brands are about relevance. Brands are about resonating with customers. Therefore, Western brands entering Asia should be ready to adopt a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, they should be responsive to the unique needs and preference of customers in the different Asian markets. On the other, they should retain certain standardized differentiating elements like attractive packaging, a holistic brand identity across touch points etc.
- Western brands need to be more culturally\ sensitive: Despite globalization, each region in Asia has its own cultures, heritage, beliefs and value systems. Any global brand that aspires to be successful in Asia needs to be sensitive to these subtleties. McDonald’s is a classic example of how a global brand has customized it’s offering and also built a personality that reflects the local values and belief systems.
- Western brands need to collaborate with Asian brands: In this fast paced world, time is money. Moreover, there is a complex set of cultural sensitivities in Asia. With time and complexity to manage, it would be much easier for global brands to gain a firm foothold in hitherto unchartered territories by collaborating with local players who better understand the local market, customer and competitors. In China, for example, the Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive Company was formed as a result of collaboration between Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp and Volkswagen.
- Western brands need to become part of the Asian community: Companies need to ensure that they weave their brands into the social fabric and become part of the community. For Western brands this means that they have to respond to local tastes, spend on building local relationships, and react to social needs. More importantly Western brands need to be proactive towards Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which will grow significantly in importance throughout Asia in the coming years.
Forgetting the big names, how about we dive deeper down into the list of firms and give us a few examples of Asia-based brands you think are doing it right in foreign markets?
Many Asian firms are rising and building their brands. Here are two of my favorites:
Starting as a ladies footwear store in Singapore in 1996, brothers Charles and Keith Wong observed that while selling wholesale shoes provided a cost advantage, the lack of uniqueness meant limited growth. This made them realise the potential of creating a brand that consumers could identify with – leading to the creation of the Charles & Keith brand. Today, it is well-known among fashion-conscious shoppers for their distinctive designs, quick in-season turnaround that offers 20-30 new designs in stores every week. Charles & Keith has expanded its product range to include bag, belts, shades, tech accessories and bracelets, evolving from a footwear brand to a lifestyle brand. The company has expanded in Asia and is branching into global markets.
The TWG Tea Company was founded by Moroccan-born Taha Bouqdib in Singapore in 2007. The 1837 date on its logo marks the beginning of when the island became a trading post for teas, spices and fine epicurean products. The brand is present in 14 countries including Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, China and UK. In Australia, TWG Tea works with retailers like David Jones, and in the US, the brand has tea counters at Dean & DeLuca.
A version of this interview was previously published on CMO.com