Once you land and take the taxi from the airport to your hotel, a familiar sight soon emerges, the billboards. It does not matter which Asian city you are in, whether it is Mumbai, Hanoi or Manila, these billboards almost always present Asian brands in the same template. They present the logos, show the products and then throw in some star power through celebrity endorsements. While global brands tend to stick in your mind because of their recognisable visual language and presentation, most Asian advertisements are easy to forget because they are so similar in style.

This unfortunate trend of poor recognition is due to the Asian preference for ‘bang’ versus precision and form over substance in terms of brand advertising. In our region, brands prefer to borrow ‘star power’ so as to boost the acceptance of their products. Back to the billboard example, along the same highway, you can see the same popular celebrity endorsing a variety of products and services. The popular movie star Shahrukh Khan is the brand ambassador for a range of brands from the luxury Tag Heuer watches to the Hyundai i10 budget cars. Sachin Tendulkar endorses brands ranging from Adidas sports accessories to Jaypee Cement. The range of brands these celebrities endorse are so divergent and are targeted at diametrically opposing market segments. This in turn elevates the celebrity’s brand power over the influences of weaker Asian brands who have no recognisable visual clues and features.

For almost a hundred years, leading western firms have understood that brand power is about building recognition and celebrities, who have their own brand power, needs to be harnessed carefully so as to prevent them from overpowering the brand. That is why leading brands have mastered the power of using design to create memorable symbols and styles to leave an indelible mark in the minds of customers. The stylistic Coca-Cola font, the shapely bottle, the distinctive yellow tractors of Caterpillar are just some of the visual tools used in a powerful way which have become synonymous with globalisation.

Why Asian brands prefer noise to precision type of advertising

When Asian leaders are asked why they do not want to adopt a similar approach, these are the frequently used excuses:

1st Excuse: We are still a young brand and star power helps

Many Asian brands cite the fact that they need credibility fast in order to achieve sales targets. However when we press on to ask, how are customers going to recognise the product after they trust the celebrity, many leaders do admit that the packaging design was a rushed job as they focused most of the attention on the ad campaign. This then defeats the purpose in the first place. With a poor follow-through, the advertisement will not fulfill its role as an effective sales agent for the brand, just more publicity for the celebrity.

2nd Excuse: Look, our product is really boring and a pretty face helps

Asian bosses do love pretty faces and most launches in the region are big budget affairs filled with local celebrities. But when you look at some celebrity-endorsed advertisements, you do wonder what is the connection? This becomes exceptionally glaring when you put a pretty-looking girl next to a badly designed product. The lack of strategy to follow through is really obvious because it appears that both of them have shown up for the same gala event and one is dressed wrongly for the occasion. In this case, whoever you have on your arm is not going to help if you still look like a country bumpkin. Without unique packaging and style to match the pretty face, it won’t help to close the deal.

3rd Excuse: Our business is very competitive so we need to change constantly

Many marketing chiefs cite the need to have different styles and approaches for product packaging. So the tendency is to keep changing the styles and execution. It does look like the agency is doing their work by being ‘creative’ all the time. But the problem is, once a visual style is not given time to seed and take root, it is hard to build long term recognition. As humans, we grow affectionate to the people and things that we recognise. Imagine if the faces and places around us keep changing, we would lose sense of our place and identity. This kind of constant disorientation is the reason why increasing advertising spend is not the solution. What is needed, is better and more consistent form of executing a distinctive visual style to increase recognition.

How Asian brands can seed unforgettable clues and stick in the minds of consumers.

With ad spending in the Asia-Pacific expected to surpass North America by 2014 to the tune of US$200Bn, it is time for Asian brands to quit throwing colorful darts in the dark and seek to entrench themselves through a smarter form of visual recognition. Here are 3 ways to achieve this:

1) Differentiate by seeding distinctive clues of recognition

It is always good to do a thorough comparison of all the various visual aids in terms of advertising, products and point-of-sales used by the brand and direct competitors. Look at the following aspects:

a)    Style of photography

b)    Layout

c)    Colour

d)    Graphical style

e)    Font

f)      Colour

g)    Copywriting

h)    Product Shape

Take everything apart and compare them side-by-side. If you don’t recognise a distinctive style after removing the obvious references such as the logo then you will have your work cut out for you. Our design consultants use this approach in order to demonstrate that design is a form of science aimed at building recognition rather than vanity. In this way, a person who is not trained in creativity and design can appreciate its contribution. Through the years, we have also found that when we change the perceived view of the customer through some asymmetrical graphical treatment, he/she will register it more and come to associate this unique way of cropping, or presentation with the brand, strengthening the element of stickiness.

2) Treat the entire process of seeding like fishing

The next thing to do, is to place the different type of visual aids (advertisement, packaging, brochure, etc) in a typical customer engagement pathway, to determine how you would like them to react if they were to see the aids in different moments. The following rule applies to every aid:

a)    Purpose of Aid: Awareness, education or decision

b)    Desired Reaction: Memory, Transformative or Action

c)    Desired Follow-through: Contact, Investigate, Keep in mind

There is nothing wrong in using a pretty face, so long as you have tools to ensure that the brand’s influence is strengthened and not overwhelmed. Whether you start from a mobile ad or billboards, the intent of the visual clues is to make sure that the customer can, in a matter of 3 to 4 seconds associate the visual style with your brand. If you don’t succeed in ‘tattooing’ your visual clues into their minds consistently, you will waste precious advertising and media resources.

3) Aim to deepen recognition and minimise variety

Over time, it is important to do an annual evaluation of the clues that have been deployed. Conduct research via focus groups to see if people recognise the brand through these visual markers. The test goes like this: If you were to remove the logo, will people still link those visual clues to your brand? It is like playing a mind game and it is a highly effective test. Having said this, for new brands that have just introduced a new set of visual clues, it is best to wait for 1 year of deployment before conducting this evaluation. However for smaller brands, it is important to only deploy the study where the brand has been exposed on a consistent basis. The key here is whether the clues have registered with the target customers.

This evaluation will then help you determine how you should evolve your brand in terms of enhancing recognition. There is a reason why Coca-cola and McDonald’s are two of the most influential brands in the world. If you were to combine their global advertising spend, they can probably support about 1 in 10 advertising and design agencies out there. At the same time, these brands control the evolution of creative work in a very tight manner. You cannot remove any of the visual clues that make these two brands recognisable across the world in terms of colour, mascots, font, copywriting, graphical style and even packaging. They have a religious sense when it comes to managing their visual clues because they know that once they disorientate the customer, they will lose their aura of association.

On our recent trip to Myanmar we noticed that Coca-cola simply celebrated their entry into the market by introducing their logo and distinctively-shaped bottles on the billboards. Even when they showed a pretty face, it was not a celebrity so that she would not be the center of attention. This really demonstrates the power of global brands because they are the real celebrities of our modern age.  Their success lies in having a sustained strategy to ensure recognition through a distinctive visual language rather than rely on celebrities alone to endorse them.

Read the full article published in Ceylon Today here.

Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus, a company specialising in helping Asian firms rebrand and redesign their organizations to be more innovative through business design. Consulus has begun operations in Sri Lanka in partnership with Hummingbird International. Shiraz Latiff is the CEO/Lead Consultant of Hummingbird International, a regional knowledge house specialising in coaching, consulting & outsourcing through global partnerships & collaborations. 

This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.