STEP BY STEP, THROUGH SELF-PERSEVERANCE
Small and Medium Enterprises/Industries (SMEs/SMIs) form the backbone of the Malaysian economy. They are, of course, influenced by variables such as the politics and government of the day, among other factors.
In order to succeed, regardless of circumstances, SMEs and SMIs must strive to be self-sustaining, as opposed to depending on a particular market only to remain a going-concern.
And one such way this can be achieved, is by establishing and promoting one’s brand of products or services. It isn’t good enough to just advertise and market a product or service; you need to be able to convince people as to why your product or service is better than the rest. To this end, there is certainly no better way to maintain a going-concern, than the successful branding of your company.
Branding: The Odyssey Overseas
We live in times of great economic uncertainty, marked by rampant inflation and many other challenges. It is getting harder, but all the more essential, to survive in the business world, today.
The SME/SMI Dilemma
“If you aren’t your own boss, you’ll probably have to wait to replace someone else, to further your career.”
It took some 20 years’ experience as a creative director, marketer and sales consultant to a diverse portfolio of SMEs and SMIs for LINs.AD Director Mickie Teo to arrive at this conclusion. He also bemoans the fact that an overwhelming majority of local SME/SMI owners aren’t bothered with strategy and strategizing, or with the consideration of exploring markets beyond local shores.
So, other than `persevering’ and `never giving up’, what does it take for an SME/SMI to remain competitive – and indeed, stand out from the rest of the competition – in a globalized world?
For starters, Mickie suggests that local SMEs/SMIs can explore new avenues to broaden their customer base through `conventional’ methods such as the Internet, to learn more about the possibilities availed to them.
(But) It’s All Still In The Mind
Let it never be disputed that Malaysian SMEs and SMIs do produce an unbelievable array of good and services of world-class quality.
It, however, remains debatable, as to whether Malaysian SMEs and SMIs prioritize proper, structured strategizing as an integral part of their business plans.
The bottom-line remains simple: You may have the best product or best quality in the world, but if you fail to capture the hearts and minds of your customers, you’ll only lose out to even inferior competitors.
Not even size makes a company invulnerable. There are renowned hypermarkets and grocery chains scaling-down their operations all over the world, simply because they failed to adapt to local cultures and circumstances in the countries they were operating in.
More than a mere question of `adaptability’, SMEs and SMIs need to remain mindful of the numerous challenges affecting them. For, just as change is the only constant, it would be hard for any SME/SMI to survive – let alone make it big – in a globalized world, without a proper plan of action.
A Stepping Stone To International Success
Mickie has served as a guest speaker and forum moderator at several SME/SMI conventions, over the past few years. His aim is singular: To convince Malaysian SMEs and SMIs of the importance of proper branding and to subsequently guide them on how they can slowly but surely establish a foothold in the international market, by promoting their products and services abroad.
He shares his experience of being invited by the internationally-acclaimed Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) to a branding forum it organized, several years ago. As the umbrella organization for all Hong Kong-based SMEs and SMIs, the HKTDC is one of the most prolific councils in the world; holding numerous exhibitions and expos all around the world.
This is done so that Hong Kong SMEs and SMIs are presented with the opportunity to penetrate new markets and collaborate with local players, in taking their brands global. Put simply, these overseas exhibitions and expos serve as platforms for companies to network with and acquaint themselves with new markets.
Mickie expresses genuine surprise at the fact that despite Chinese and European companies wishing to invest handsomely in the Malaysian market, many Malaysian SMEs and SMIs continue to lag in terms of expertise, and consequently, suffer from lack of branding.
He opines that this is truly a golden opportunity, wasted. Comparing trends way back to the 1990s, when the Chinese market (for example) was only beginning to open up to foreign trade and there were plenty of pitfalls back then, Mickie feels that in contrast, there is an abundance of investors waiting to welcome Malaysian investment.
“So why not join them, take your investment and brand to where they are, and see how you can reap handsome returns from one of the world’s largest markets?” Mickie asks.
Of course, he also cautions that if local SMEs and SMIs were to enter any foreign market unprepared, things will rarely work out in their favour. As the axiom goes, failing to plan is indeed planning to fail.
Ultimately, Mickie contends, everything boils down to whether a company has a sound marketing and branding strategy, or not.
To Enjoy Success, A Paradigm Shift Is (Usually) Necessary
“What makes an SME or SMI successful? Is it experience, pricing, service or quality?”
These four factors may seem very fundamental, but they form the very crux of `branding’; i.e. the very ingredients needed for a company to outshine its competitors. Indeed, it could be safely surmised that branding is the `lifeblood’ of a company, with the power to shape its fate.
There’s also the idiom, `if one wishes to reach the moon, one must first target the stars’. But how would any organization that fails to set its own targets go about reaching for the proverbial `stars and moon’?
Local SMEs/SMIs’ Biggest Foibles
Mickie regrets that most local SMEs/SMIs consider advertising to be an `expense’, as opposed to `investment’. And since the local perception of `advertising’ usually encompasses `marketing, strategizing, packaging and planning’, these essential activities are usually put on a backburner, for `fear of bleeding the company dry’.
Put simply, the local mind-set is simple: Ads are a waste of money. On the contrary, internationally-established companies view advertising as an indispensable investment in their future.
While change may be the only constant, it is only human nature to resist change, especially when implemented abruptly. But Mickie contends that if local SMEs/SMIs are to effect change effectively, they must possess at least six times the determination to do so.
Much of the willpower to change lies in perception. For instance, where investment strategies are concerned, many local SMEs/SMIs still cling to the belief that they must earn at least a decent buck first, before they can even consider advertising and branding. Their international counterparts, however, believe that strategic positioning and planning (including advertising and branding plans) must be streamlined first, before they can truly taste success.
Similarly, where advertising and branding are concerned, local SMEs/SMIs tend to think that advertising is an expensive exercise that would only deplete their precious financial resources. Their international counterparts, on the other hand, believe that advertising remains a pre-requisite towards enjoying significant returns-on-investment (ROI).
But then again, what is `branding’? Are we talking about logos, advertising, events et al?
Mickie reveals that at present, not many local SME/SMI owners are aware of the significant difference between branding, marketing and advertising. To them, all three are one and the same.
A company’s sales record will help it identify consumer and market trends, in order to improve on future ROI. And this involves sound marketing strategy, supported by promotional events and tactics. But how exactly would sales and marketing help strengthen a company’s brand, despite both requiring relatively significant financial outlays?
Brands, Like Fine Wine, Only Get Better With Age
Mickie’s co-director, Shirly, now spoke up. She explains that advertising is one of the many ways to invest in a branding effort, but it’s not a be-all-and-end-all. For a brand to be truly valuable, the elements it consists of – including image, mind-set, strategy and quality control (QC) – must also be up to mark.
Likewise, for local SMEs/SMIs to penetrate overseas markets, they must have good Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to ensure efficient operations, at all times. The ultimate goal of course is to augment one’s brand, which will only get better, the longer it’s been around.
Concurring with Shirly’s opinion, Mickie shares the example of Taiwanese pineapple tarts, which are now seen as an essential part of Taiwan and Taiwanese culture. With the mere mention of a product as humble as `pineapple tarts’, the name `Taiwan’ – as a brand – now almost immediately cross the minds of many people across the globe.
Malaysian SMEs/SMIs will do well by taking this cue, and identifying USPs that will immediately differentiate them from the rest of the crowd.
Self-Awareness Of Comfort Zone
Local SMEs/SMIs would do well to take stock of present circumstances, and think of themselves as `showrooms’. This is because showrooms are easily viewed and scrutinized by everyone, and it is only by bearing this in mind, that local companies can strategize accordingly.
And lest anyone disputes the vast potential of Malaysian brands, Mickie and Shirly revealed that the combined value of Malaysia’s top 30 brands in 2012 – including the likes of `Padini’, `Acson’, `Secret Recipe’ and `Marry Brown’ – was approximately RM1.2 billion.
QC Key To Sustainability
Mickie suggests that local SMEs/SMIs set a 5-year target in building their brands. The process inevitably starts with the creation of brand awareness.
Citing famous local brand `Ah Huat White Coffee’ as an example, Mickie commented that it was evident the company knew it wanted to establish a foothold in the huge Chinese market. And to this end, its SOPs, strategies and even staff programs were all geared towards promoting the brand, not only locally, but in China too.
In conclusion, stringent QC remains yet another pre-requisite, for a brand to survive the gruelling test of time.