Tiger Balm is in a category of its own: straddling the worlds of Traditional Chinese Medicine and ‘western’ vapour rubs, the brand’s quirky, authentic identity has made it a global phenomenon.
The original Tiger Balm formulation can be credited to Chinese herbalist Aw Chu-Kin, who migrated from China to Burma in the late 19th century. But it was his two sons - Aw Boon-Par and particularly Aw Boon-Haw – who really laid the foundations for the brand’s remarkable success. Driving around rural Burma in a car painted with tiger stripes, Aw Boon Haw was an early proponent of sampling, consumer research and demand creation: he’d dish out samples, ask for feedback, then get his painters to leave a replica of logo on the walls of the villages he visited.
It was also Aw Boon-Haw who created the brand’s distinctive iconography. In truth, much of Tiger Balm’s detailed design aesthetic is a category generic. The use of a centred composition, decorative borders, proliferation of visual motifs, seals of quality and claims of efficacy are all the conventions of Traditional Chinese Medicine packaging. It was Aw Boon Haw (whose name means ‘gentle tiger’) who chose the hexagonal jar, leaping tiger and vibrant orange colour to help his product stand out in a sea of sameness. These elements have become ownable visual properties for the brand, giving it the distinctive feel it has today. Perhaps it’s the contrast of black and orange and green and red, the symbolism of the tiger emblem, the small compact jar or a combination of all of these that makes Tiger Balm look like it means business. There aren’t many brands that look more potent.
But it is not only the savvy selection of distinctive brand iconography that makes Tiger Balm a champion of design: it is also the fact that its core livery has scarcely changed since its inception. After all, it takes courage and vision to protect a brand icon. What a shame, then, that when Tiger Balm extends into new categories such as plasters, patches and sprays, it falters. Losing its confidence in new markets, the brand’s unique visual identity gives way to category generic communication. If only this Tiger would stop crouching, and be as bold in new territories as it is on home turf.
Tiger Balm trivia
- The story has it that Tiger Balm’s ‘secret formulation’ dates back to the times of the Chinese emperors. (For those interested, this secret formula can be found on the back of every Tiger Balm pack)
- Gerard Depardieu has claimed that he helped Robert de Niro solve an erection problem while shooting a scene for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900: the remedy involved Tiger Balm and water.
- As almost anyone in Singapore will tell you, the Tiger Balm Kings built the once-famous and now almost defunct Haw Par Villa, a theme park of Chinese mythology that has been called ‘a temple to bad taste’. What’s less known is that at one time there were three Haw Par Villa gardens: in Singapore, Fujian and Hong Kong.