Milan Agnihotri
Aug 18, 2014

Winning hearts and knowing minds in Malaysia

Milan Agnihotri, chief catalyst for creative strategy and innovations with Leo Burnett, reveals best practices for brands to talk to Malaysians and enable creation of their desired meaning.

Milan Agnihotri
Milan Agnihotri

Malaysians always relate to brands that are able to demonstrate a clear purpose beyond profits. They support brand communication or actions that can move them emotionally.

The story of Malaysians psyche is rightfully told by brands that have been around for some time and in return have become consumers’ favourite. All successful brands in Malaysia, whether in technology, infrastructure, retail or fast-food, follow this basic tenet for building relevance and emotional equity amongst Malaysians. A deeper look at their communication and competitive strategy would reveal that they have approached their marketing and communication efforts fundamentally from a 'humankind' perspective. This entails:

1. People vs. consumers

Understanding Malaysians as people rather than as consumers is considered a priority by these brands. These brands know that people’s lives are driven by individual values, attitudes and goals. Brands are incidental in people’s lives and can at best play enabler. TV3’s long-running program ‘Jom Heboh’ (A carnival of entertainment and promotions) reflects Malaysian mind-set and values related to shopping quite appropriately. For Malaysians a shopping trip – for routine or festive or special occasion purchases, is also a means to have family entertainment. TV3 organises three days and two nights of entertainment events in different parts of Malaysia and invites local merchants to market and promotes their products. TV3 supports these merchants by displaying/ inserting promotional messages in regular programming and informing the local audience. ‘Jom Heboh’ today has become a landmark sales promotion calendar even for leading MNC brands.

2. Purpose vs. objectives

All successful brands in Malaysia believe in finding a purpose and role for the brand in everyday lives of Malaysians and proactively guiding their actions to fulfil that. Their business objective are guided by the purpose and not the other way round. Petronas, for example, has defined its role to support nation building by promoting social cohesion. The brand leverages festive communication narrative and related actions as a means to achieve its purpose by showcasing human stories and highlighting social issues. Over years, Petronas’ festive communication has become the benchmark in festival advertising in Malaysia and part of people’s everyday conversations.

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3. Participation vs. advertisements

Showcasing brand’s value proposition for Malaysians through brand acts and not just highlighting the benefits in ads is common competitive strategy leveraged by these successful brands. McDonald’s outdoor campaign titled ‘Save the Sundae Cone’ is an example of getting people to participate in understanding brand’s proposition – easy and simple enjoyment. In the act, Malaysians were asked to participate in a simple interactive game where they needed to use their smartphone for saving a melting sundae cone displayed on a prominent billboard. Game was easy enough for everyone to win an e-voucher for the sundae. Similarly, 100 Plus being an isotonic drink, promotes sports and active lifestyle. 100 Plus’s act of ‘Cergaslah Malaysia’ (Let’s Move It), invites Malaysians to keep themselves engaged in any kind of physical activity, casual or professional. Celebrity sports personalities of Malaysia, like Dato Lee Chong Wei, are leveraged to appeal to Malaysians and activities portrayed by them are casual and easy to follow. The brand has been involved in many such acts in the past and today it has not only earned consumer’s favour but also support from sports associations and government bodies in Malaysia.

4. Populism vs. support

Successful brands in Malaysia leverage their understanding of people at every opportunity, be it celebration or crisis, to become part of human stories, folk lore and social fabric. Most Malaysians believe that Milo is a local brand! One can find Milo in restaurant menus; beverage dispensing machines have special outlets for Milo; it is used as food ingredient or festive recipes by many households and most importantly, Milo is part of street food culture. Being one of the oldest brands has not made Milo popular rather it’s blending with everyday Malaysian life and social fabric has earned the brand that unique position in people’s minds. Several brands have been around for much longer time than Milo. Milo has achieved this status because it has displayed a genuine intent to be part of Malaysian’s lives over years, in thick and thin.

And lastly, Malaysians are very proud of their multi-ethnic and multi-racial social fabric. To achieve pan-Malaysian acceptance and success, a brand needs to understand ‘Malaysian’ way of life rather than skewing its appeal to any particular ethnicity or race. 

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