According to Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Cabinet minister and CEO of the Performance Management and Delivery Unit, the Government is in the midst of a major exercise to rebrand the country and promote a more vibrant image abroad.
A national branding unit with a RM30mil budget and a dedicated team of officers has been established in the Prime Minister’s Department to spearhead the project.
International management consultants have also been hired to give strategic advice and assist in the rebranding exercise.
Malaysia has undoubtedly had its successes. Dynamic development strategies, successful investment promotion, innovative tourism marketing, a reputation for racial and religious tolerance, an innovative foreign policy and world-renowned corporations like Petronas helped make Malaysia a respected name globally.
However, during the past decade in particular, a series of unfortunate developments has left brand Malaysia in tatters, as I noted in this column more than two years ago (“Brand Malaysia reeling from a thousand cuts”, Feb 4, 2010).
Racial and religious extremism, corruption scandals, significant outflows of local capital and talent, a lack of transparency and accountability, intense and highly divisive politicking and a perceived democracy deficit have taken a ruinous toll.
And all this at a time when it has become far more challenging to sustain national brands.
In a world of real-time communications and social media, global opinions are shaped before local policy makers can even react.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for example, recently expressed concern that xenophobic comments and postings on the Internet by Singaporeans were damaging Singapore’s international reputation.
Furthermore, where previously national branding was centred mostly around tourism, today a cutting-edge global reputation hinges upon quality of life, business environment, justice and good governance as much as anything else. Orang utans and pandas don’t cut it anymore.
Malaysia has not fared too well in this new branding environment. We were ranked 43rd out of 113 countries that were measured for brand strength by FutureBrand, one of the branding industry’s pioneers and a collaborator in the Malaysian rebranding exercise.
With the exception of culture and tourism, Malaysia did not score highly in any of the other categories (value system, quality of life, good for business, etc.) that FutureBrand considers in assessing a country’s overall brand.
The Government’s move to take stock of how we are presently perceived by the world at large is, therefore, timely. We might also need to consider repositioning our nation beyond the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tourism specific brand that served us well these past years.
To be effective and productive, however, the rebranding exercise must be grounded in a realistic appreciation of what branding is all about.
Branding can help focus and project the essence of a nation, its values, its culture and the unique qualities it brings to the world. It cannot serve as a substitute for sound policy or camouflage obvious weaknesses. Merely developing a nice jingle or a catchy phrase by itself will not substantially improve a nation’s image.
It should come as no surprise that the countries with the best and most recognisable brand names are countries with free and open societies which have found a way to empower their people, ignite their creativity and marshal their talents.
As FutureBrand explains on its website, “from progressive politics to a sense of openness and freedom of speech, a country that is geared around its people … will always score highly”.
Countries like Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, the United States and Sweden, therefore, did well while Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Cambodia did poorly.
We don’t, of course, need expensive foreign consultants to tell us all this; it’s common sense and already obvious to most Malaysians.
What we do need, more than anything else, is the political will to address the underlying causes of our declining national brand.
There can be no doubt that if we seriously tackle the very issues that regularly make headlines in our own media, our international image will improve dramatically. The unique and amazing strengths of Malaysia, after all, remain undiminished; they just need to be given proper expression.
We also need to keep in mind that building and sustaining a successful national brand requires long-term consistency, commitment and attention to detail, something that we don’t seem to be particularly good at.
Take, for example, the KL International Airport (KLIA). We spend time and money to promote it as a world-class airport only to see these efforts undermined by repeated heists at the airport. According to local media reports, there were three major heists at KLIA in the last few months alone.
It doesn’t take an expert to tell us that if KLIA is perceived as lacking in security, it will never realise its full potential as a competitive regional hub.
The bottom line, therefore, is that if we want a better international image we must start by cleaning up our own act. Foreign consultants can help with spin, packaging and presentation, but it is up to us to make the policy changes that alone can build and sustain a successful national brand.
[Dennis Ignatius, Diplomatically Speaking, The Star, 30th August 2012]