Rebraning the Philipines

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on November 17, 2010

Meaningfully branding a person, organization, or place is never a simple task. The principles of branding are straightforward. Transforming theory to reality is not. In the view of David A. Aaker, professor emeritus at the University of California of Berkley and vice chairman of the brand consultancy Prophet, brand identity consists of two dimensions, the core and extended identities.

Core identity consists of attributes that make the brand a serious player in its space. For a top tourism destination, those attributes might include transportation infrastructure such as airports and roads, a safe environment, interesting places to see, a distinctive culture, and friendly people. In Asia, many countries-including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand-clearly enjoy these attributes.

Because they do, these attributes do not provide competitive advantage, and they do not distinguish country brands. They are basic requisites to be considered a viable destination for tourists who have limited budgets and vacation time. What distinguishes these country brands from each other in the minds of potential visitors is what Mr. Aaker calls extended identity. Extended identity consists of a set of attributes that collectively are powerful brand differentiators.

Consider Malaysia. Although Malaysia has experimented from time-to-time with a variety of brand identities, it has consistently positioned itself as the destination that represents what is real and encompassing about Asia. The tagline, “Malaysia Truly Asia” communicates a diverse Asian culture, exotic cuisine, and a heritage imbued with western perspective. By choosing Malaysia as a destination, the visitor can glimpse all of Asia’s incredible diversity.

And then there is Singapore, which at its core is impressive in terms of infrastructure, telecoms, rule of law, and luxury accommodations. But while these things are nice, Hong Kong and Macau rival Singapore in each of these attributes, and Malaysia comes close. South Korea is a contender as well. What distinguishes “Uniquely Singapore” is the ubiquitous “Singapore Girl” that also distinguishes the nation’s flag carrier, its global uniqueness as a city-state, and now the range of year-around entertainment options it offers as an emerging cultural center.

Another thing: In each of these examples, there is a close relationship between reality and brand identity. In order for a brand identity to be credible, it must be rooted in reality.

Monday night, I was one of a few hundred guests invited by the Department of Tourism (DOT) to the unveiling of the new Philippine brand, “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” (“Philippines So Beautiful”). The rationale behind the brand, according to DOT undersecretary for planning and promotions Vicente “Enteng” Romano III, is first that all Asian destinations have beautiful attractions and second, they use taglines to distinguish themselves, such as those I cited above. Others that resonate for me are “Incredible India” and “Amazing Thailand.” But for Mr. Romano, the Philippines should seek to communicate its distinctiveness in another way.

Third, European destinations tend to drop the tagline, and market themselves in their own language. Examples include “España,” (I later saw that Spain now employs the tagline, “I need Spain.”) “Polska,” and “Italia.” Since the Philippines has in a sense European roots-it is after all named after Spain’s King Philip II, and the name has stuck for centuries in various iterations-it makes sense to follow the European example. Finally, DOT secretary Alberto A. Lim and Mr. Romano reasoned, the Philippines and its people are simply beautiful.

(Visit here to see the new logo and tagline.)

It seems that Messrs. Lim and Romano sought to capture the best of Asia and Europe by using a tagline and shifting to the more original but localized colonial name for the Philippines. What’s wrong with this picture? I think Messrs. Lim and Romano may be onto something with the “Pilipinas” branding, but I’m pained to say the inspiration probably happened more by mistake than design (as much inspiration does, to be fair). (Disclosure: Mr. Romano in his pre-government career was a competitor of my firm, and a worthy one. I don’t really know Mr. Lim.)

The problem is in the tagline, which carries a not-so-subtle English subtitle, and fails to communicate an extended identity. The logic for it seems to be that domestic tourists and balikbayans are the main target of the campaign, but international visitors are also important (Thus, the English subtitle.). But shouldn’t the tourists that generate the most revenue be the principal target? More fundamentally, “beautiful” as a core brand identity attribute, doesn’t provide competitive advantage, especially when it’s communicated in an inelegant parenthetical translation.

Finally, the Philippines doesn’t have much money to communicate (which makes no sense but that’s another argument), so it should communicate well. As Mr. Romano himself pointed out in his presentation, every place in Asia is beautiful, and so are the people. So get rid of that meaningless tagline, and see where the Pilipinas brand will take you. After all, you do have P100 million for digital communications. Put it to good use.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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