During the seven years that Ken Low has been with the Singapore Tourism Board, the city-state has gone through a major makeover, moving away from its ‘nice but boring’ reputation and establishing itself as a genuine tourist attraction in the region. For Low, now the assistant chief executive of marketing at STB, this process has been challenging, but ultimately rewarding. “As stressful as it is, this is the best job I’ve had,” he says.
An engineer turned marketer, Low was born in Malaysia and officially became a Singapore citizen just this year. He previously worked as a marketing executive in international firms including Warner Brothers Singapore, Citibank and consultancy Concept Factory.
Away from marketing, he has worked as a musical director, contributing to local play Chang & Eng, and the theme song for STB’s ‘Uniquely Singapore’ campaign, which ran for six years before being replaced in March by a new integrated branding push under the ‘YourSingapore’ tagline.
The new campaign has thrust Low firmly under the spotlight. Taking STB in such a radically new direction - for a Singapore Government body at least - was a risky one. Even the pitch for the account was one of the island state’s most high-profile recent reviews, attracting 38 submissions. In the end, a combination of BBH, MEC & XM-Asia came out victorious.
Low is nonplussed by the attention, arguing that the new branding, while necessary, fits in with the overall evolution of STB.
“We build on what we have achieved and on the equity that we have,” he says. “I see it like a child. You are a teenager, a ‘tween’, then an adult. You go through the changes in life, but the brand is the same. The DNA is the same.”
Central to this growth is the concept of ‘YourSingapore’ - “It’s personal and welcoming,” explains Low. The tagline itself was chosen following a brand brainstorming period. One of the early front runners was the somewhat abstract idea of ‘The Dot’.
Low says that locals loved the idea that they are a little red dot, but the concept was not received well outside of Singapore. Chinese consumers, whom STB also test-marketed, stared back with blank faces and asked: “What dot?”
The final choice of ‘YourSingapore’, Low argues, goes beyond traditional tourism advertising. “Consumers want empowerment. ‘YourSingapore’ is very different from other campaigns that put the destination at the centre, like ‘Incredible India’ or ‘Amazing Thailand’. But what does it say about the visitors? We want to place them in the centre.”
The new branding also highlights the increasing importance of digital as a destination marketing tool. Low cites Google as an influence. The search giant claims more than 70 per cent of its users go online for travel information. “We’ve made a conscious decision to move ‘YourSingapore’ into a very strong digital nature,” he says.
Using new media is also a way to stretch the budget in a fragile economy. Since its launch in March, the visitor rate on the new STB website has already surpassed that of ‘Uniquely Singapore’.
Importantly, the new project allows personalisation and is open to mobile applications. The site lets users customise and share itineraries and also includes e-commerce capabilities.
Low is expecting tourist numbers to grow 30 per cent in 2010.This year promises to be one of transformation for Singapore, with the opening of Resort World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands, as well as the hosting of the Youth Olympic Games.
More attractions are in the pipeline up to 2014, including Singapore Sports Hub and a new National Art Gallery.“These will keep us busy for the next five years,” Low says.
STB has already recorded close to a million total visitors in March alone, the majority arriving from other Southeast Asian countries.
But Low stresses that ‘YourSingapore’ is also for Singaporeans. The “soul of the people” plays a significant part in hospitality, he says, and the new campaign will have the added objective of ensuring that locals subscribe to what STB is pushing for.
In the past, the city-state has had had to endure the ‘Singa-bore’ nickname, the stigma of which remains today. But instead of trying to convince people that the ‘no chewing gum days’ are over, Low just smiles with confidence and says: “Come and see for yourself.”
Ken Low CV
2009 Assistant chief executive, marketing group, Singapore Tourism Board
2006 Assistant chief executive, brand, communications and service quality, STB
2004 Director, lifestyle and events, STB
2002 Vice president, marketing, Citibank NA
1999 Director of marketing, Esplanade
1997 General manager, Warner Bros Singapore
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This article was originally published in the 6 May 2010 issue of Media.