Lawrence Chong, CEO at Consulus, was recently invited for an interview with Singapore news radio station, 938 Live on their morning programme, “Small Talk, Big Returns”. Chong shared his views on the common misconceptions on branding, contrasting them with Consulus’ inside-out method. Below is a transcript of the whole interview, broadcast over three days from 8 to 10 April, 2013.

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8 April 2013

Andre Achak (AA)Thank you for joining us Lawrence. Tell us how and why you started the Consulus Group.

Lawrence Chong (LC): From the start in 2004, Consulus was really a merger of a few companies. To describe the founding of Consulus, I’ll use three words; Purpose, Model, Asian. We had a very balanced group and very diverse views. We were looking at this entire industry and we said to ourselves: “We weren’t really comfortable with the way the industry was going, in terms of branding. It was too much about the image.” So essentially, the work that we used to do didn’t go far enough to bring about sustainable change.

So the question was, how can we do the work that we believe in and that will have real change? The concept of Consulus then was to combine business consultancy and design, and go at the problem from the inside out so that we can build brands that work; brands that perform. And the other thing that we realised was, many companies were bringing in branding methodologies from the West and these were not customised for the Asian culture. For example, many Asian firms are run by families. You need a different approach to put in place a sustainable brand strategy. Don’t assume that everything will work just like that. That was really the beginning of the idea for Consulus.

AAThat’s fantastic. Now you describe yourself as a design firm, yet you do branding. What exactly do you do for your clients who hire you? 

LC: That’s a very good one. The reason why we still stick onto the tag of design is because we always believe that design was meant to create a business advantage. And what we essentially do is, we call the process ‘design’ but it comes from business management consultancy and design. So, it is a combination of the two.

How do we do that? Well, we have to look at how organizations are prepared to generate innovation, generate ideas and redesign their experiences so that they can command higher margins or revenue growth.

Why is this important? Because most Asian firms don’t understand the role of branding in business. Many of them make their money as contractors, traders or being a franchisee. They tend to look at branding as something they can buy and not a strategic process. So we do three things. The first is to enhance collaboration – which is culture. The second is to design the process of how companies evaluate an idea, concept or innovation. The third thing we do is transform perception.

AAHow are you different from other consulting companies? How do you differentiate yourself? 

LC: Well, we believe we are unique and it’s really a blessing that we are able to do this due to the evolution of the last ten years.

Number one, we have an end-to-end solution. We spent the last nine years building a shared consulting methodology and culture between management consultants and designers. Now you may think this is really easy but it is really difficult because you’re dealing with probably the two most egoistic groups of people.

The second thing that makes us unique is that we go at the culture in a very, very big way. After almost a decade, we have proprietary understanding of different cultures – for example, family-owned companies and government-linked companies. That helps a lot in making sure that the strategies really work.

The third thing that makes us unique is that a lot of people know us as a consultancy that dares to “go to the ends of the earth”. One of the first markets that we went into was Pakistan. We went to Pakistan in 2005. Ever since then, we have not stopped. We’ve gone to India, we’ve gone to Vietnam. We are very strong in the emerging markets. And I think it’s good training for Singaporeans as well; to get them excited about the fact that really a lot of growth is happening all around us. I think this is how we are designed and built and that makes us different.

9 April 2013

AA: Today we’re discussing the “inside out method” of looking at a brand. Thanks for joining us again Lawrence. When you are first introduced to a client, what is the first thing you need to tell them? 

LC: Most of the time, we go in with the idea of really respecting their identity, heritage and the whole history that they bring with them. At the same time, in our firm, we always believe that the integrity of a consultant is to say the things that we believe in. So, we tell clients truthfully that either you are a brand that shapes the world or a brand that doesn’t.

One of the ways we get to that conversation is to always ask them, “If you look at your business model and how you are providing value to your customers, are you a pharmacist, a nurse or a doctor?” We know that all of them are worthy professions; they provide different value. But ultimately it is the one who sets the prescriptions, it is the one that gives that evaluation and the one who performs the specialist treatment that commands a certain value. We have a lot of Asian companies that have been making their money, so to speak, happy with being a “counter pharmacist” – they are not “specialist pharmacists”; they are happy to simply give you what you need for a price. So we need to explain to them that first of all, you need to understand the value you are delivering now and how it limits your profit margins and how it limits your growth, your scalability. And then, we will bring them and walk them through a whole process that says, “Okay now, if you really want to shift, you want to go towards being a specialist nurse, being a specialist doctor, here’s what you need to do.” It is a process. Branding isn’t something you can just buy. It’s a whole process that you must be prepared to go through before you really generate any business value for yourself.

AACan you explain the “inside out” method of re-looking at a company brand?

LC: Well in our approach to branding, which we call the “inside out”, as you mentioned, it is like building the best race car. The challenge is you cannot match the wrong car to the wrong driver.

AAI like that analogy. 

LC: And in Asia, there are many co-drivers. If you serve a family conglomerate, and there are many – 40% of our clients are family conglomerates – they have many businesses. The card you receive from the person meeting you may be the CEO, but he could be the son. On the other hand, the father, is the one in power. The latter may carry the title of chairman. So if you were to come up with any branding strategy, you have to be aware of who the co-drivers are.

Our “inside-out” approach dictates that if we want to build brands that can shape the world, we need to start from the inside, beginning with who are the leaders; who are the co-drivers; their culture; how are they organised. Sometimes people may put up an organizational chart, but in reality nobody really follows that chart because somebody else has the real say.

Their business models – how are they making money? Some businesses may be there just for vanity. They are losing money but they don’t mind keeping it. So, if we are to be honest and pragmatic about it, (the “inside-out” approach) is quite “Singaporean”, if you ask me. We have a very high chance of building brands that perform because these are cars built around the drivers. The problem with the “outside-in” approach – which is practised very largely when you build branding from image, logo, advertising, or whatever it is, is really giving them Ferraris that they can’t handle. So you get a lot of accidents!

The question we always ask is – why do you need a Ferrari? Can’t you go for say, a Hyundai Sonata? Or why don’t you go for a Chevy? Those kind of things. We always try to hold back when the client says, “Give me a Ferrari”. Instead, we will tell them “Okay great, but here’s the situation, you have this many number of co-drivers, maybe you need to drive a bus!” So that’s what we mean by the “inside-out” approach. We have to build the right cars for the right drivers.

AAHave you lost prospective clients after explaining to them the methodologies that Consulus uses? 

LC: Oh yes, certainly. Because at times people are so fixated about the end product that they want. Like I said, they are not interested in how to get it, they just want it. So sometimes they come in looking for a Harley Davidson and even though they can’t handle that motorbike, they insist on it. So we do have an evaluation process to try and identify the motivations of the client. And because we are still a growing firm, even though we are in six countries now, we still have to be careful with who we work with. The next job is going to come because we manage to make a difference and transform the organisational culture for the projects we work on. We’re always getting business because of referrals, so we do decline projects when we get clients that want to build a Harley Davidson when its not the right fit for them. We will respectfully say, “Look yes, you want a Harley, and although we do build that, we feel that’s not the right vehicle for you”. And we will pass on the project.

AAThank you very much Lawrence.  

10 April 2013

AALawrence, in the last few days, we’ve looked at why Consulus is considered a design company. We also looked at the inside out method of looking at a brand. 

For today, I know you’ve heard this many times, but tell us again, how important branding is or the communication of a brand is.

LC: Well, you know, that question is really at the top of the mind for a lot of CEOs and in a sense, the Internet has changed everything. Because of the internet, content is really important. So, you can’t really go with a template. In the past, we used to have people who come to us and say, “I need a website; can you put something up in a couple of days?”

That used to work when the Internet was not mature. The problem right now is that you can’t just put a website up, you can’t even just have putting posts up on Facebook or putting up tweets. It doesn’t work like that. It is increasingly more about good content and great strategy. So most companies, if they are not communicating their brand well, they are losing revenue opportunities because they have channels but they have no strategy to communicate effectively.

AASo it’s about having good content.

LC: It’s about good content, meaningful content. It’s not just random. Some people come to me and ask me “Look, can you help me do Search Engine Optimisation?”. I usually tell them “Great, before we talk about that, what are you trying to say?”

Sometimes, people like to say 10 things at one go. You look at people’s name cards and it’s really frightening because most name cards are like brochures.

AAIt’s like a billboard isn’t it?

LC: Yes! It’s like going out on a first date and saying everything about yourself. You’ll scare away the date. We always tell them that it’s a relationship, so you don’t want to scare people away. It’s really tough sometimes because you try to tell them it’s a process, nothing to do with just giving people a brochure and that’s it. If you do that, then nobody will want to find out about you.

AAWhat do you think is the biggest misconception of most of these companies when it comes to branding?

LC: The biggest misconception, and we still have that misconception, is that branding is all about image. The fundamental problem is direction, the engine of the car (business model) and then the experience. Most of the time, when we go into companies, the top management has actually never fully clarified and verified the direction of the brand. Everyone has a different picture of the brand and everyone has a different direction.

So, imagine there are two co-drivers in the car and one driver is trying to go one way, the other driver is trying to go another way right? They end up going around in circles. Worse still, they have the wrong engine and then they also have a horrible experience. If we focus just on the image, it’s like a driver who doesn’t know how to drive but he’s in a great looking car. You can imagine what a fiasco that that would be.

AASo is there a quick fix method to branding if a company wants a short and sharp campaign and they want instant results?

LC: Well, I always tell my clients that if they want quick reactions, they can always do some outlandish tricks or splash money. My advice to my clients is always: When you make a splash, make sure you know how to do “Act Two”.

I always explain to them that branding is like doing a long TV series. It’s like doing Mad Men. You need a lot of creativity to sustain interest, so the surprise, the intrigue matters. You have different characters and whether you like it or not, you’re on the stage. So it’s important that you line up your scripts because if you go with the same tricks every time, after a while, people will just change the channel and go “Well, I don’t think there’s anything interesting about this show, I’m going to switch brands.” The thing is: it’s okay to go for something that grabs people’s attention. Sometimes, people say to me “Hey, how can we do a Richard Branson?”. First of all, Richard Branson is Richard Branson. If you were to do the same things as him, but you’re not him, you’re going to look bad. You have to be honest with yourself and it has to come from within. You can’t pretend to be somebody else and you can’t pretend to be an American brand when you are not. What’s wrong with being an Asian brand and being yourself?

At the end of the day, its all about results. If you have instant results, make sure you know how to monetise it. The challenge for all companies is how do you sustain performance? How do you sustain followers’ interest? How do you sustain the kind of initiatives that will make a real difference to your bottom lines and help you become more than just a product but become something that lives in the minds of people?

You need a lot of honesty in order to have sustained results and that’s what we need. The world is dying for meaningful brands, not brands that are great at outlandish tricks or at splashing money. I think that there is a lot of room for meaningful and purposeful brands.