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.


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.


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

  1. 1 Rebranding vocational education in Singapore: ITE’s experience « PR Speak Trackback on June 23, 2007 at 3:57 pm

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