Jessica Goodfellow
Oct 15, 2021

The making of Mandai Wildlife Group, a four-year branding project

The SVP of brand and communications at Mandai Wildlife Group and the creative lead at TSLA take Campaign behind-the-scenes on the exhaustive work that went into creating the Mandai brand.

The making of Mandai Wildlife Group, a four-year branding project

The Mandai Wildlife Group was unveiled on Wednesday (October 13), a new brand that unites Singapore's wildlife parks, nature district and conservation efforts.

The Group encompasses the zoological park operations, formerly called Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which will be located together in Mandai Wildlife Reserve; the ongoing rejuvenation work at the Mandai precinct; Mandai Nature, jointly established with Temasek to scale up conservation contributions; and Mandai Global, which is responsible for establishing new lines of business in nature and wildlife.

The multi-pronged brand, which has been in the works for several years, required a visual identity that reflected Singapore's wildlife heritage, the integration of its nature offerings and its commitment to conservation. The Secret Little Agency (TSLA) was handed the challenge in 2017.

The project involved creating a master brand and consistent identity across the separate offerings, but it was important to the brand that the new visual identity retained memorable elements of the existing wildlife parks.

The number of stakeholders involved in Mandai Wildlife Group added greater complexity to the branding exercise. Long-serving staff of the wildlife parks, multiple consumer segments, government agencies, board members and management were all consulted in the beginning of the project, and with each iteration. And there were many iterations.

The brand that was unveiled on Wednesday is the culmination of four years of arduous work by the Mandai Wildlife Group in-house team, led by SVP of brand and communications Suzanne Ho, and TSLA's design and branding practice Anak, led by creative partner Hanyi Lee.

A brand video introduces the new design elements and the tagline ‘Come to life’. As part of the branding exercise, River Safari has been renamed River Wonders, and Jurong Bird Park will be replaced by Bird Paradise in its new location. Singapore Zoo and Night Safari have retained their names. A new offering, Rainforest Wild, will offer the chance to explore a rainforest setting.

The brand launch will be supported by marketing campaigns and activations within the wildlife parks, around Singapore and online. The complete brand changeover—including signages, etickets and corporate attire—is expected to conclude by the end of 2022.

In an interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific, Ho and Lee detail the exhaustive creative process behind the major branding exercise, how they have retained a strong agency-client relationship, and how they embedded sustainability into every part of the brand.

Campaign: The unveiling of the Mandai Wildlife Group brand this week has been four years in the making. Why has it had such a long lead time, and was it always planned to take this long?

Ho: It's been a multi-year journey and it's been designed to be one where we don't reinvent and rehaul everything we have. There’s the saying, 'we have a future because we have had a past'. For us that heritage actually takes us back to 1971, which was when our oldest wildlife park, Jurong Bird Park, opened. Fast forward to today, Singapore has four wildlife parks and more nature-based experiences to come as we grow our family of brands. With more experiences coming in the next few years it really is the time now to begin to consolidate and bring everything together as a family with one identity. If you look at all our identities that we have currently you would actually notice that they're quite distinct because they were created at different points in time as each of the parks opened. 

In a sense, it's by design [that it took several years] because we didn't want to be careless, we didn't want to rush into things. We wanted to hear from our staff, many of who have been with us a long time, some as long as 30-40 years and have dedicated their lives to looking after the animals in our care. So we started off this whole process with staff surveys. We wanted to hear from them on what have they really grown to love and identify with in all of the logos that we have. We spoke to consumer segments as well—families with young children, young adults, seniors. This is a national project of sorts, so we also had government agencies, our board and management intimately involved as well. That just gives you a sense of the equity and why we chose not to just rush into something and to take our time. Although we went back and forth with iterations, it just deepens the conviction.

What was the feedback you received in terms of what branding elements stakeholders wanted to retain? 

Ho: With the Night Safari what was very recognisable was the pair of eyes, it's very striking and invokes that sense of mystery. It was a pair of feline eyes and what was important to us was that it would be reflective of our work in the protection of animal species. The clouded leopard definitely came to mind, and so it evolved into the pair of eyes of a clouded leopard peeking out from behind the moonlit foliage that you would identify with the park. We retained the palette of colours as well, the midnight blue. 

With Singapore Zoo, orangutans are a very recognisable iconic species for us because of the well-loved Ah Meng. So the brand design with the orangutan swinging from the tree is a tribute to orangutans and also showcases the energy and openness of our natural environment here in Singapore Zoo. 

We renamed River Safari to River Wonders after we had some feedback over the years that the word 'safari' creates a certain expectation that there's something adventurous in there. But actually most people say it's a serene, calming, restorative walk around the aquatic environment. So we wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate river life and freshwater habitats and create a name that is more reflective of the experience as well. The logo showcases a manatee, and there are three small forms of fish that are very graceful in motion, so you get that restorative and tranquil feeling.  

We have two more parks that will be coming up. So Jurong Bird Park will close and a new bird park is being built which will be called Bird Paradise. We have taken the iconic macaws that have been featured in the Jurong Bird Park logo into the new logo as a tribute to the brand.

The next park that will be coming up is Rainforest Wild. It's an adventure for people in a rainforest setting, and it really pays tribute to the multilayers of the forest and the experiences that people will have from underground all the way up to the top of the tree canopies. That is represented through the sun bear who energetically moves upward as it climbs the tree. We also have conservation projects that we are working on for sun bears with partners around region.

Conservation and the protection of animals is a key part of the Mandai Wildlife Group brand. But zoos hold some negative connotations when it comes to enclosing animals outside of their natural habitat. With the new brand, are you look to distance yourself from these connotations, or rebrand what a zoo is?

Ho: We're not rebranding because we want to move away from who we are and our roots or heritage. I think we're proud of who we are as a zoological institution and how we've grown. We belong to a community of zoos who are very passionate about ensuring that species don't go extinct under our watch, and with that there's a lot of work that goes into protecting the genetic diversity. There is a role that modern zoos play as things get more and more dire, from the perspective of what's happening in the world today and the biodiversity loss that we're seeing, which is in serious decline. Together, zoos can be a force for nature.

But the work of zoological institutions alone could not help to address the decline of animal species. It has to be a full spectrum which includes in-situ (in an animal's natural habitat) and ex-situ (in a wildlife park/zoo). It's important that our focus is on reducing our impact on climate change. As we look to the future, it's about how we can redouble our commitment, what we can do in a collective way ex-situ and in-situ.

I think this rebranding is really a signal and of how we've grown as an organisation. Mandai is not just a word to us. It is symbolic and it represents that passion that we have as an organisation for biodiversity and also to see our planet thrive, because when the planet thrives and ecosystems are healthy, animals can exist and thrive. So it's not about moving away from being a zoo because we are that, it's what we do as stewards of our zoological parks and our wildlife parks. 

How many iterations did you go through before landing on the final design? 

Ho: Too many. But the number of iterations you make is less important. It is about the process and how we moved ahead with the discipline, being clear about what we were taking away, what people were feeding back to us. It was more the process of making sure that the very wide range of stakeholders were continually updated. 

Lee: If we had just gone with the first set of logos, it would have just been a branding answer, but I think because you we had all those years of back-and-forth, we really understood what the activists and zoological institutes of the world had to say. We ended up more with a design playbook for biodiversity, versus just colours and change.

Did the pandemic make the creative process more difficult? 

Lee: From a process point of view there wasn't much change, we've had a really good relationship with Suzanne and team that was intuitive and truthful. A lot of that brings you through the tougher communications times.

The past two years have really strengthened the need for this brand and the nature of it, especially going out to the audience right now, and being able to tell everyone who's been cooped up within their four walls to ‘Come to life’ and to be revived by nature. Who wouldn't want that? It feels super timely.  

Ho: We had the privilege of doing a lot of face-to-face work together because the bulk of the process was actually managed pre-Covid. It was the last stretch of the engagements with our colleagues, taking them through brand clinics. That we did on virtual platforms, but we used a lot of assets like video to bring things to life which helped us a lot. 

For TSLA, Mandai is unique as a multi-pronged business and is very different from the other brands that you work with it. How did you approach it? 

Lee: We looked globally as to what the other big attractions, big entertainment brands were doing and we also looked at the areas of biodiversity, nature, conservation to really find a positioning for Mandai that was truly unique. What's nice about Mandai is that we didn't have to do that much work in this sense, because the location, the unique tropicality of the jungle, the offering that Mandai has—it's incomparable. We were really inspired by the fact that Mandai was the world's pioneer in the open zoo concept, which meant that they were able to create these cageless naturalistic habitats for both wildlife and humans equally. This immersive world, which is what the brand idea is based on, is something that we really brought to life through the typography and colours. 

We approached it from the perspective of what will the future be like if the world was equitable between nature, human and wildlife. Being able to have this message ‘Come to life’, not just from a brand point of view, but also a way of life. It's not about just being a zoo, but when you go home, how you behave. 

Ho: I think the tagline ‘Come to life’ is an invitation to come and enjoy and immerse in nature, and when something inside of you is sparked, you will begin to care. We want to inspire people. It's also a call-to-action to protect animals and make better choices for our planet every day.

Any particular brands you took inspiration from, or design elements you saw that you wanted to avoid? 

Lee: We did learn quite a lot from the entertainment brands of the world like Disney and especially what not to do—in a [constructive] way. We took the best things from them, but at the end of the day, we're not an entertainment brand. We're not here to sell animals and make them commercial.  

There are a lot of zoos around the world that deal with humans and wildlife, and there's a lot of conservation groups that deal with plants and humans, but very few, I'd say only Mandai, deals with all three areas. Being able to pull all of those three things together is something that makes Mandai special. 

What was the process you went through to create the custom typeface and colour palette? 

Lee: We wanted to really own this new tone for conservation, which is inspiring, exciting, joyful, which is very different from the tone of yore—you can't shame someone to change so we wanted to inspire them instead. We wanted a typeface that really encapsulated that, with rooted feet so it felt like it was growing from the ground. And the general feeling of that was welcoming the balance of both warmth and credibility. In Mandai there's the conservation and nature fund, and on the other side there's kids, so having a typeface that could kind of stretch across both. A lot of the other zoos around the world, there’s a definite sans serif, strong, bold feel. So I think we wanted to have our own space. 

For the colour palette, we really wanted to have a throwback to the original logos, it was important to evolve it and not totally change it. So the Night Safari, we kept the eyes and the font was something that was inspired by the old Singapore logo in terms of its curves. The colours were all inspired by nature. So we literally picked the pink of the flamingos back or the blue of the water in River Wonders. We wanted to keep it very naturalistic. 

The brand film talks about being 'inspired by nature'. How did this manifest in the design?

Ho: It wasn't always seamless because I think the challenge that we have is also a very passionate team, and because our brand mirrors real life. It's not a fantastical world. So the truth, the accuracy, the choice of plant species—these are all things that were important to our stakeholders. It just shows you how much thought had to go into this, how much sensitivity, thoughtfulness in the design. 

Lee: We worked really closely with the horticulture and zoology team, every plant species and animal is actually drawn from the existing flora and fauna of the park. We drew I think over 800 individual pieces based on the real flora which was pretty crazy.  

Ho: The animals in the design are all from the repository that our in-house photographer from the education department has built over the years, placed within illustrated habitats. It's a combination of photorealistic, illustrations and animations because we have a range of audience. For a long time the key focus was families with young children, but I think we wanted something more ageless. Because when we talk about nature and making better choices, it's not just for a 9, 19 or an 89-year-old, it's a full spectrum of people.

Who did the illustration? 

Lee: We worked with a Bali-based illustrator called Stevie Anderson, he specialises in tropical jungle environments. 

Ho: We will be unveiling more logos and identities of new features that you know that are coming up. And with that we wanted to find a whole spectrum of international and local artists so in time to come you will also see the work of local artists.

Will you be taking a hard-line approach to sustainability and plastic waste, for example? 

Ho: We will definitely be hard-lined with ourselves. So we use sustainable sources of seafood and sustainable palm oil in our F&B outlets. We took the decision to stop selling plastic bottles of water, we use cartons and provide drinking points where you can fill up your bottle as you move around the park. That has come at a cost to us as well, because it's meant that we have said no to the commercial line of selling all these bottled drinks. If it's in our values to reduce our impact, let it not be talk alone. There has to be action, otherwise people will say it's just greenwashing—and there's a lot of that that goes on right now. 

What we need to tell our audience is, if we can inspire you with the stories and why we've taken certain actions in our park, we hope that when you leave, you take those learnings and apply them to everything else. Some of our campaigns in the past were a bit more dire and dark. So we had one that was called 'Plastic Monster'. But I think with Mandai we want to focus on hope, optimism. I think there's been enough of gloom and doom. People need to feel uplifted, otherwise they're all just going to be put off.

TSLA was reappointed in August as the Group's global creative partner for another three years following a pitch process. What's the value in retaining a long-term partnership between brand and agency?

Ho: It's always important to have continuity. We are very grateful for that. But our process here is that we just want to work with the best. So actually this is the second cycle of TSLA’s retainer with us, they won it on merit because they took part in the pitch challenge earlier this year with some of the top agencies in Singapore and it was the work and the ideas that they brought to the table that got them on the second round. We were delighted because it meant that we could continue the work, but they definitely worked for their lunch. 

Lee: It's always great when the same agency or sister agencies are able to create the brand and bring the campaign to life, because the follow through and the understanding of the origination of the brand is just that much deeper. 

Is it becoming rare to have a long-term relationship like this?  

Lee: I feel like if both client and agency start off on a very truthful and rigorous footing where we put everything on the table, we get to where we really want to be. That's actually the only way to go, because the way the world is moving, nothing else is going to stand up. These short-term things where it's based on untruths or politicking—it's just not going to stand through the relationship or through the work. 

In addition to the consolidation of the wildlife brands, have business teams also been consolidated? 

Ho: Yes, the teams that focused quite squarely on development and operations are now being brought together. We've always been organised in a very lean way so the in-house teams are small, but we have our partners like TSLA and Tate Anzur as extensions of our team. 

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