Archive for June, 2007

Rebranding vocational education in Singapore: ITE’s experience

In my previous post, I shared Banyan Tree Executive Chairman Ho Kwon Ping’s take on branding.    I thought I would briefly encapsulate the Institute of Education (ITE)‘s ongoing endeavor to shed old perceptions, rebranding itself as a viable and vibrant education provider to school leavers in Singapore, as shared at the PR Academy‘s 6th Annual Conference.

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Singaporeans would know that ITE inherited its antecedent Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB) legacy, and the attendant image that it was the place of last resort for students who could not make it in the mainstream school system.  In fact, for many years, ITE was colloquially termed “It’s The End.”  Today, partly as a result of an aggressive, sustained rebranding campaign (and in part favorable economic conditions), much of the stigma has been reduced.  How did ITE do it?  Dr. Benjamin Tan, its Deputy CEO shared that the institution embarked on a three-pronged strategy after a comprehensive benchmark perception study to gauge public attitudes as well as information gaps:

(1) Corporate rebranding: It initiated public campaigns designed to create public empathy and credibility of the ITE brand, in tandem with an internal transformation of the organization.  Three campaigns were launched between 1998-2003.

(2) Media strategy: Build good relations with the media and actively provides them with timely and newsworthy stories.  Unafraid to use vernacular media to reach parents.

(3) Direct engagement with key stakeholders, with activities tailored for specific groups of prospective students, educators, and parents as well as the general public.

According to Dr. Tan, an independent Triennial Perception Studies suggested that ITE’s brand equity had risen by 76%.  Whatever that means, anecdotally, there is a perceptible change in social attitudes toward ITE and its students as well as graduates.  This perhaps illustrates the effectiveness of a research-based, empirically-grounded, and systematically thought-out rebranding strategy.

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Public Relations Academy Conference – “Markets and Brands: Positioning for the 21st Century”

I attended the PR Academy‘s 6th Annual Conference a couple of weeks ago.  One of the most provocative speeches was none other than its keynote delivered by Ho Kwon Ping, Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, known most for its ultra-luxe chain of eco-friendly resorts.

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Ho described himself as both “an ardent advocate and confirmed cynic” of branding.  Lamenting how in the zeitgeist of branding, a buzzword which seems to drip uncontrollably out of the lips of marketers and ad executives, “the packaging has come to replace the product.”

Branding, according to Ho, is the distillation of all the attributes of a company into a powerful entity.  This is a proprietary advantage of a company, unlike a competitive advantage which can be seized by competitors. 

Ho further asserted that credibility is the most important, but yet sorely lack attribute to branding.  The imputation, then, is perhaps that if a company put its money where its mouth is, living up to its values and credo above marketese, the story will tell itself.  Indeed, Ho claimed that at Banyan Tree, he measured the size of its ad budget vis-a-vis revenue growth to gauge the success of the brand.  To this end, Banyan Tree has a relatively modest ad budget, but leverages heavily on third-party endorsement, which to Ho, is far more credible.

That is all well and good, and even branding gurus would not dispute that a strong brand cannot be built on lip service.  However, in an increasingly competitive market, I wonder if it’s enough just to keep on keeping on, hoping that the story would somehow get out. 

Take Singapore for example.  Southeast Asia as a region in the eighties and nineties was far different from what it today has become.  Merely a decade ago, Singapore was able to shine and attract investors simply by offering a predictable environment to do business, an efficient work force, and reliable infrastructure.  Today, the gaps between Singapore and its neighbors have narrowed, and will continue to narrow.  Its closest neighbor, Malaysia, for example, is embarking on a multi-pronged effort to market itself to the world.  As part of an effort to respond to the challenge, the Singapore government has engaged Interpublic’s FutureBrand to help it develop an umbrella brand position.  Putting the hands to the till is only half the equation.  In this day and age, one needs to get the story out as well.

Incidentally, Ho is an interesting man, with a colorful history.  Born into a wealthy family that ran a diversified commodities, trading, and construction conglomerate, Ho was a student activitist in his university days.  He later worked as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, and was briefly jailed under Singapore’s Internet Security Act for some of his articles.  Today, however, he quite the country’s darling, holding the position of Chairman of the Singapore Management University‘s Board of Trustees.  Check out this bio on BusinessWeek and a corporatized version on SMU’s website.


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