Don't Be Too Brand Conscious

Pay attention to being authentic too, says Colin Goh.

Whenever I hear the word “branding”, I immediately think of applying a red-hot piece of metal to a cow’s behind. Of course, this is because I grew up in an era when the act of distinguishing one’s product from those of one’s competitors was simply called “marketing”.

At this point, I’m sure all you professionals out there will jump up and educate me about the distinction between “branding” and “marketing”, and that branding isn’t just some bland packaging exercise, it’s about crafting an experience, a personality, even an identity. Okay, okay, whatever. Full marks for paying attention during your seminar/MBA.

Sure, creating a distinct and appealing professional identity is crucial in today’s increasingly crowded market- place, whether you’re a corporation, an individual, and now, it seems, a country. But I have very mixed feelings about it.

I owe my ambivalence to the Government’s anti-Singlish campaign. At the time it was launched, I was stuck in New York doing a graduate degree and the sounds of Singlish were a balm for my homesick soul. I was baffled that people wanted to wipe out something that was giving me (and my friends) so much pleasure.

While I appreciated the good intentions of wanting us to improve our ability to communicate with our global clientele, the so-called “Speak Good English Movement” overreached by trying to eradicate Singlish in informal and even fictional settings. (Remember how the producers of Phua Chu Kang were pressured to have him sent for remedial English classes? I certainly can’t forget how a trailer for one of my films was banned from TV because it had Singlish in it – apparently on TV, you can’t have dialogue that reflects how we actually speak.)

I was greatly cheered when there was a huge backlash from the public, because most of us know Singlish isn’t just pidgin; it’s full of humorous, inventive, cross-cultural wordplay and may be the only bit of our culture that is actually uniquely Singaporean.

What the brouhaha proved was that branding is useful for one’s professional image, but it’s a mistake to believe your marketing persona can be a true reflection of yourself or that you should contort everything about yourself to fit your hype.

This is because branding is a product of pragmatism. The brand you concoct must be based on what works to extract the bucks from your target audience, but that’s all. Because contexts change, in which case, a new persona is needed. If you’re a startup, it might suit you to be perceived as a nimble maverick. But when you become the market leader, to continue posing as an iconoclast is like being an auntie in a miniskirt.

So one must have a sense of proportion when you’re seeking to “brand” a country, which is more than just a simple corporation. Frankly, living in New York for the past decade has shown me that people like a place that’s more than just what’s touted in its bland tourist brochures. No matter how the authorities try pitching New York as a tourist-friendly destination, no one is fooled when they land and have to negotiate the filthy subways, the rude cashiers and the hucksters. When Mayor Giuliani tried mounting a Singapore-style courtesy campaign, he was the butt of jokes. Anyway, visitors soon realise that New Yorkers’ snarky attitude is very much what gives the city its unique energy.

If there’s a lesson for Singapore, it’s that authenticity is always more interesting.
Singapore advertises a fair bit in the American media, with pretty ads and clever slogans, but everyone I speak to continues to think of us as a micro-managing nanny state. Any branding exercise which seeks to Photoshop our perceived inadequacies away is only bound to reinforce that image.

As with its roots in cattle farming, there’s a point at which the brand can come perilously close to B.S.

Colin Goh is currently in New York, working on several international co-productions.

    Jul 18, 2011
    Colin Goh
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