No news is good news?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on November 17, 2008

Well, not exactly…

“I’m sure that for those with direct knowledge of the Philippines, positive brand associations are obvious,” Ann Melious wrote in response to a blog post on the subject of “Brand Philippines” late last week. But, she said, “I think too many people share my associations: violence, poverty, terrorists, jungle and machetes. I have worked in destination marketing for 25 years and know that, accurate or not, replacing those associations will require the brightest minds and deep pockets.”

Melious was reacting to an Advertising Age blog post by Roger Pe, creative director at DDB Philippines. Pe argued that the Philippines – and Philippine Airlines (PAL) – have developed some compelling brand marketing concepts over the years. In particular, he cited PAL’s late ‘80s and ‘90s campaign, “The Beauty of the Philippines is Shining Through.” “Many people thought it was much better than even today’s ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ jingle and thought the airline’s Boeing 747-400 fleet, award-winning in-flight cuisine and the prettiest and handsomest crew in Asia all held their own against PAL’s rivals,” Pe wrote.

Pe concludes, however, that because the Philippines invests so little in communicating its brand attributes – “spellbinding beauty, a high literacy rate, perks for foreign investors, eco-tourism and a culture flavored with American and Spanish twists,” – that it won’t attain its potential. “There’s no reason,” he concludes, “why the country couldn’t be in the same league as Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand or Malaysia,” except for the fact Brand Philippines is mostly invisible to its market.

Melious clearly disagrees, suggesting that the Philippines needs to clean up its act before it can credibly and effectively communicate its value proposition. She’s not alone. A consultant friend who has successfully helped places and individuals develop their brands for 30 years said Pe’s argument “misses the point. More money on a misdirected campaign and an underfunded product will only make real tourists not come faster!”

My own view has generally not been quite as harsh. The Philippines is not the only country with substantial problems and bad press. Yet many of its competitors have managed to overcome negative reports by investing heavily in compelling marketing campaigns that resonate powerfully (as well as tourism infrastructure, which the Philippines hasn’t done much of either). The “Malaysia’s Truly Asia” jingle has been doing that consistently for a decade despite a series of political scandals, terrorist kidnappings, and its own increasingly severe equality divide.

If competitors like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia can overcome horrific news reports of public beheadings, bloody bombings, and unthinkable political shenanigans, so can the Philippines, right? As long as there is substance behind the promise – and the Philippines has plenty of substance as a tourism destination as Pe and Melious appear to agree – spending $100 million should dramatically increase arrivals so that they are on par with those of Thailand’s 12 million tourist visitors and Malaysia’s 21 million.

Perhaps so. But negative press on the Philippines in recent weeks has reached a new and unfathomably superficial low. Some of the most visible involve the Philippines’ most visible tourism destination, Boracay. Last week for example, news reports said that Editha Cawaling Meren, who happens to be the sister of the mayor of Malay municipality of which Boracay is a part, forcibly took control of the SandCastles resort from its Australian operator in a land dispute.

In an e-mail to international media on Monday, the operator, Greg Hutchinson, claimed that the Philippine National Police (PNP) cut off power, gas, telephone, and water supply to his family’s apartment November 6, and have denied entry to the resort by Australia consular warden Steve Murray as well as reporters. The PNP has denied Hutchinson’s claims insisting that the dispute is a civil matter. However, the Hutchinsons remained surrounded by armed men as my column deadline approached.

Hutchinson is said to have helped popularize Boracay as an international tourist destination. Other investors are complaining as well. Also on Monday, a group of Hong Kong investors said they are protesting a 2006 proclamation that classified more than half of Boracay Island as government property. The proclamation was affirmed by the Supreme Court in October, and requires “land owners” to reapply to purchase their land.

It seems the proclamation was intended as a first step in rationalizing development on Boracay (Hopefully, that is the real motivation.). Although late in the day, for anyone who has been to Boracay recently, rationalization sounds like a pretty good idea. As for Hutchinson, not everyone believes that the pioneer investor is completely blameless in that dispute, but the fact that police appear to have acted on the orders of a politically connected land owner in an admittedly civil dispute doesn’t play well by a long shot.

These issues of course pale compared to the Bali bombings, civil unrest associated with politically motivated arrests of former government leaders in Thailand and Malaysia, and MILF clashes in Lanao Sur. But they still matter to prospective tourists and investors. Would they matter less if they were overshadowed by The Beauty of the Philippines Shining Through? Yes, they probably would matter less.

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