Branding Singapore Softly, Quietly

No cheesy slogans, an emphasis on soft power and reconnecting with the emotive aspects of Singapore’s national identity – the next phase of nation branding for the little red dot is all about sweet persuasion.

Few countries currently dominate international headlines as much as ascendant superpower China. But its ubiquity on the world stage also proves that, when it comes to nation branding, a higher profile comes with intense scrutiny.

For every article about its stunning new architectural wonders and powerhouse economy, there are more about dire working conditions in factories and suppression of dissident voices.

The recent detention of artist Ai Weiwei is a case in point – this outspoken critic of the Chinese government was an artistic consultant for the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a role that further heightens international interest in his current plight.

The Beijing Olympics, an exercise in nation branding and highly praised for its spectacular ceremonies, was already full of dissonant notes. China was criticised for clamping down on press freedom and human rights.

“The Beijing Olympics did not feel inviting, like you were going to visit friends,” says Gregor Halff, associate professor of corporate communication at Singapore Management University and former managing partner of communications consultancy Publicis.

By contrast, Japan’s strong country brand seems impervious to negative factors like its ailing economy. “It used to be a nation that does cheap knockoffs but it is now a symbol of creativity, technological advancement and quality,” says Mr Chris Lee, founder and creative director of noted homegrown design studio and retail company Asylum.

This was demonstrated clearly when the recent earthquake in Japan inspired an outpouring of posters and merchandise by international designers for aid campaigns. Many designs boasted a clean, minimalist aesthetic that clearly drew on the signature spare elegance of the Japanese artistic tradition. When other cultures can quote the trademarks of a nation’s brand so eloquently, and in the service of that nation, that surely must be rated a success in nation branding. The differing images of these two Asian countries are useful lessons for Singapore as it embarks on a new phase of nation branding. Ultimately, says Prof Halff, there is only so much branding can do.

“With any nation branding, there is always more communication about you than there is coming from you. What a country can do is make its broader reputation in tune with the values of its brand, because a brand is only a small slice of your reputation,” he says.

“Countries like Switzerland don’t do much branding, but its reputation is very strong. A country like Qatar, which brands itself as the most open society in the Middle East, is founding new universities and a breathtaking museum of Islamic art, which is all in tune with what they want to stand for.”

In other words, it would be counterproductive to harp too much on the magic of branding, and neglect the real essence of what makes a nation memorable to others – its policies, practices and people.

Why Branding Matters

As a marketable, quantifiable concept, “nation branding” arrived on the scene in 1996, courtesy of British policy advisor Simon Anholt. Today, a country’s “brand” – which encompasses perceptions of its economy, government, citizenry and culture – is frequently assessed in international polls and indexes.

In practice, however, “nation branding” is much older. History is what happens; nation branding is simply what we make of it. In this more organic sense, nation branding has been around for about as long as there have been nations.

This is particularly true of countries born under exceptional circumstances, which had to define themselves in a hurry to justify their existence. Singapore, thrust unexpectedly into independence as a resource-poor, economically vulnerable city-state, is certainly exceptional in this case.

In his new book Brand Singapore: How Nation Branding Built Asia’s Leading Global City, Singaporean writer and consultant Koh Buck Song argues that nation branding has been crucial to Singapore’s economic success since the earliest days of independence, with key government agencies attracting foreign investment by conveying an image of a safe, efficient and corruption-free Garden City.

Drawing investment continues to be a strong focus today, but the type of investment has shifted somewhat as Singapore transitions to a knowledge economy, and it needs to adjust to the new environment, including doing more to project its soft power. Increasingly, multinational companies and foreign talent are likely to place as much emphasis on a vibrant arts scene and creative labour force as on security and convenience.

Ms Karyn Lim, director of business consultancy A.S. Louken, says that in her 10 years of consulting for local enterprises, she has observed that for certain clusters, nation-led branding efforts have helped companies build positive brand perceptions of their products.

“In China, Singapore’s traditional Chinese medicine such as bird’s nests are prized for quality and safety. As such, they’re able to command a price premium over other countries’ similar imports. The Singapore mark of trust in the HACCP (a food safety assurance programme) and even the Merlion seal have become a powerful brand endorsement of local food manufacturing brands moving overseas, in light of recent high-profile food safety scares in Asia.”

But it is not the same in creative and fashion circles. “With the exception of local brands like Charles & Keith, alldressedup and BICE, Singaporean fashion brands are not known to gain traction amongst international pundits in the last 20 years,” she says.

Creative talent like fashion designer Ashley Isham may have done well internationally, yet one does not immediately associate his work with the Singapore brand. This could explain why the little red dot is working so hard to market itself as a creative hotspot to foreign audiences.

Says Ms Carol Tan, director of the Resilience and Marketing Division at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA): “Singapore faces intense competition as more countries make tremendous efforts to strategically reposition themselves. We’re in a ‘brand lag’ situation where the perception of what we have to offer does not match reality – while we continue to embody our existing core strengths, we have transformed ourselves in recent years.”

Not A Campaign Or Slogan

In essence, this is the message being sent to the international audience: Forget about chewing gum and Michael Fay already, and embrace a new Singapore that is softer, sleeker and sweeter.

To that end, the inter-ministry National Marketing Action Committee was formed in 2006 to align communications efforts across different agencies.

Last year (2010), a new national marketing platform was unveiled after a nine-month consultative process that included feedback from Singapore’s public and private sectors as well as international stakeholders.

Called “the Spirit of Singapore”, the key brand attributes of this new platform are: Nurturing, transforming, collaborating and daring-to-dream.

In the Brand Singapore Messaging Guide, these four attributes are acknowledged to be at least partly aspirational – this is rather unusual for a brand message, more often an idealised distillation of national traits, but seldom projected as work-in-progress.

These attributes are not meant to be repeated as slogans for any explicit branding campaign, but to drive future work in policies and communications, and to inspire and guide agencies crafting their own marketing materials. In other words, the next phase of marketing Brand Singapore is all about soft-sell.

Searching For Identity

In his book Brand Singapore, Mr Koh writes: “Identity is character, a set of characterisations that flesh out someone or something. This becomes a brand only when effort is put in to communicate it to target audiences, and to sustain this messaging over time.” In this conceptual framework, a brand is a sustained positioning of an identity to internal and external audiences.

Internally, a short history means an identity still in flux. In the early years of independence, Singapore was trying to build a shared national identity for its own citizens even as it was trying to project a cohesive image for the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, brand and identity have not always turned out the same.

For instance, while advertising Singapore as a paragon of colourful multi-racial harmony to outsiders, the State has often raised the spectre of past racial riots to its citizens to underline the fragility of this harmony.

Potential for dissonance is arguably greater today, as Brand Singapore forges ahead with a shiny cosmopolitan image even as two out of three of the 2,016 Singaporeans interviewed in a 2010 Institute of Policy Studies survey indicated concern about the impact of foreigners on national unity.

Hence, to effectively converge identity and brand is one of the greatest challenges facing the Resilience and Marketing Division. The Resilience side of the division addresses local residents, while the Marketing side’s target audience is the international community. Both teams work closely to ensure that locals and foreigners are not ‘seeing’ two vastly different Singapores.

Mr Chan Yeng Kit, Permanent Secretary (MICA) tells Challenge: “How the world sees us and how we see ourselves have to be congruent and authentic, and therein lies the challenge and importance of the work we undertake."

A strong national identity not only unites our people, but also enables them to become our best ambassadors, when overseas or when interacting with visitors to Singapore.

Hence, the same soft-sell approach is being used increasingly to communicate with citizens.

In recent years, Singaporeans are increasingly being wooed with more emotive national identity initiatives that tug at your heartstrings rather than hit you over the head with slogans. Think the series of ads espousing family values commissioned by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (read our coverage in Challenge Sep/Oct 2010) in recent years, which use the aesthetic of arthouse films in the service of government campaigns.

Justin Zhuang, a contributing editor for the Design Society Journal and the founder of the Singapore Visual Archive website, also cites the 2010 Project Singaas a successful example of a national identity initiative.

Supported by the Singapore Kindness Movement, this project invited corporations, local artists and members of the public to submit their own designs for the well-known courtesy mascot, Singa the Lion. “The concept basically confidently left the designs in the participants’ hands. The message from the organisers is that this is not our mascot, this is your mascot.”

Stills from the Home music video launched by Nexus to celebrate Total Defence Day in 2011. Pictures from Ministry of Defence.

To celebrate Total Defence Day this February, a Home music video launched by MINDEF’s national education arm Nexus starred 39 local artistes from different generations, ethnic backgrounds and musical genres, performing a song composed by Dick Lee and first sung by Kit Chan in 1998 as a National Day song.

Ms Chan mooted the idea and was the project’s executive director. The video was the latest instalment of annual Total Defence campaigns that had become “increasingly emotive, reflective and personal”, says Colonel Lim Kok Siong, then Director of Nexus.

The appeal to nostalgia and patriotism, wrapped in a stylish package, garnered more than 250,000 views on YouTube, and was shown on national TV and the cinemas. More importantly, the campaign had Singaporeans responding with more than 800 of their own Home videos.

Living Up To Aspirations

Underscoring the inextricable link between nation branding and national identity, the Brand Singapore messaging guide explains that besides having an economic and growth perspective, branding aims to inspire a sense of pride among Singaporeans, particularly youth, who are “constantly bewildered by others’ lack of understanding of Singapore.”

But it may not be so easy to convince Singaporeans, as Asylum’s Mr Lee points out: “Both STB and EDB have done an excellent job in positioning us. (But) perhaps we have done too well in creating an image that we need to live up to. I don’t think we’re as exciting as we seem to be.”

After all, becoming known as a cool, creative city requires those living here to first walk the talk. Says Mr Lee: “What we need is to reflect so that we understand who we are and how are we to change before we project a certain image of ourselves. We do not become creative or hip just by saying so.”

He suggests a bold, out-of-the-box move: “Perhaps we should appoint a creative director for the nation. That will be a first for any country and a great initiative to show the world that we mean business. It will also ensure consistency in all our creative efforts.”

Ms Lim of A.S. Louken says another way to nurture local creativity is for the Government to tap Singaporean talent for high-profile projects, as is done in Thailand, nurturing Thai creative brands for the world’s fashion runways.

Prof Halff notes that large accounts in public relations and advertising very often go to international companies, much more so than in places like Hong Kong, Japan and Shanghai. “Give local creatives a chance to highlight their own work. They have more knowledge of the product and their involvement is a testament to the brand you are selling.”

This has already started happening. Mr Zhuang cites the 2010 National Day Parade, for which local design collective Farm was appointed the first NDP branding director. “The gift packs, posters etc, were all very uniform in design and chosen with great care,” he notes. “Of course, you shouldn’t pick a local team just for the sake of going local, that would be an insult to creatives here. But pick the cream of the crop, and leave the creative decisions in their hands. It’s a way of involving people who are living here so that they feel a stake in this nation.”

The ultimate test of successful convergence between identity and branding may well be when the messages being conveyed directly by citizens become the best advertisement for Brand Singapore – say, for example, when a film submitted for a Nexus competition is used to promote Singapore at an international conference.

After all, a branding initiative becomes more effective the more authentic and unfiltered it is. Prof Halff says a good way for state-led branding to get its bearings is by listening to what citizens tell their foreign friends about Singapore. “There is a lot of truth in those conversations that gets at the core of a country’s reputation, and it is easy to tap into this market research.”

Beyond Branding

Indeed, the importance of the citizen as the most trusted brand ambassador of the country has become clear. In a recent Straits Times article (April 4, 2011), Koh Buck Song points out that the citizen on the street is Singapore’s missing ingredient in successful nation branding.

While our iconic buildings may line us up with other countries in the “global branding race”, it will be the people who give the vital boost to Brand Singapore.
The Civil Service College’s Institute of Policy Development points out in a paper, Nation Branding and National Identity, that Simon Anholt, who has been dubbed the ‘father of place branding’, argues that citizens need to ‘live’ the brand.

But a 2005 Anholt Nation Brands Index study indicated that Singapore scored lower in self-image than almost all countries with top country brands. This led the paper’s authors to question if more fundamental issues of national confidence and self-identity need to be addressed.

So, rather than just ask what branding could do for a country, perhaps the real question is what a country – including its business sector and ordinary citizens – is doing to nurture the qualities that its branding envisions.

Editor: What are your thoughts on nation branding? Do we need it? How can we do it better? Email us your views at
    Jul 18, 2011
    Hong Xinyi
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