Faaez Samadi
Aug 12, 2019

Malaysia’s lack of local love turning a corner

There’s a dearth of local representation in Malaysia’s Top 100 Brands, but change is coming as younger consumers bring new attitudes.

Malaysia’s lack of local love turning a corner


Despite the paucity of local brands at the upper echelons of Malaysia’s Top 100 Brands list, things are stirring lower down the chart in a way that suggests a previous disdain for local brands is shifting with the times more generally.

Other than AirAsia and Maybank, which have graced the top end of the chart for some years, Malaysia has only two more brands inside the top 50 — Dutch Lady and Maxis. This compares to Indonesia, for example, which has 12. Both Dutch Lady and Maxis, says Tan Kien Eng, Publicis Malaysia CEO, have rich heritage in Malaysian’s daily lives which they have consistently cultivated.

“Today they are the leading brands in their category with continuous product innovations as one of the key factors that has led to this achievement,” he explains. “Both brands have built stronger trust and relationships with their customers.”

But the absence of local representation more broadly is largely due to longstanding historical preconceptions against Malaysian products, says Abhinav Sharma, head of strategy at Dentsu One Malaysia, which take time to shift.

“Malaysians typically have had poor quality associations with local brands,” he says. But thanks to improved businesses, and the huge influence of social media in putting all sorts of local brands on the map, local brands are getting better recognition.”

This is reflected most strongly in this year’s Top 100 Brands list by local jewellery institution Habib Jewels, which leapt 67 places to break into the list at 77th. The first jeweller in Malaysia listed on the stock exchange, the company has recently combined playing up its legacy with a modern digital marketing strategy.

Stephanie Caunter, head of marketing at Ada, said that when Habib’s founder passed away last year, a series of campaigns honoured him and leveraged the brand’s nostalgia in Malaysian hearts and minds. “Despite being a traditional brand, they’ve made efforts to keep themselves relevant to the younger generation of consumers,” she continues, pointing to Habib’s campaigns with local influencer Deborah Henry and the brand's embrace of ecommerce.

Sharma says Habib has had to cautiously build its brand over many years, but maintains a clear brand vision. “They have modernised, keeping trends in view, but cautiously because as a high-end offering, it was always risky to embark on too much change. Today, people simply see them as relevant and current. This to me has been a brand in waiting, and their time has come.”

Much of the same can be said of rival Poh Kong, another local jeweller with a long history that sits at 71 in this year’s list. The brand has been associated with young Malaysians for some time and continues to effectively maintain this brand identity across all channels, which has led to a modest three-place rise from 2018’s chart. CIMB Bank, another well-known local bank that Maybank has traditionally put in the shade, rose 38 places to 67th, thanks to significant efforts to digitise its offerings and focus more on Malaysian consumers, says Sharma.

Perhaps more exciting, says Tan, is the proliferation of Malaysian start-up brands that have not made it into Malaysia’s Top 100 yet, but are making serious headway with younger Malaysians who, like young people across the world, want brands that reflect their values. These brands may be taking longer to gain recognition, Tan at Publicis says, because of local market dynamics.

“For many categories, Malaysia is not as competitive as some of the other markets like India or China, where brands need to be disruptive to survive,” he says. “While it’s visible in the start-up space, the trend is yet to reflect in more mature industries where the barriers to entry are high. But some home-grown names are really putting themselves out there and gaining trust. While it is not at scale, it points towards an emerging trend.”

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