Always in beta: How 'brand Singapore' has withstood the test of time

What has Singapore done to ensure that her brand stand the test of time?

As Singapore celebrates her 52nd birthday in a world that has undergone constant change over the last five decades of her independence, her identity as a country that is impeccably run like a well-oiled corporate machine has never wavered. What has Singapore done to ensure her brand stand the test of time?

Strict governance that constantly guards against corruption is one, but it is ensuring that ‘brand Singapore’ stays relevant in an increasingly technologically advanced world and tackling misperception of the city-state overseas (Criminal Minds’ portrayal of Singapore comes to mind), that helps the brand stay healthy.

That difficult task falls to the Singapore Tourism Board, which upon realising other countries were racing to provide personalised travel and improved destination marketing, acted by reviewing its marketing strategy and publishing a ‘Marketing Strategy 2020’ document, called ‘STB Marketing Strategy: Of Stories, Fans and Channels’ in 2016.

The 48-page strategy plan lists ideas to help the country’s travel industry cope with disruption and move from traditional marketing to marketing that is versatile and agile. The plan lists three main strategic points; ‘telling a great Singapore story’, ‘targeting the right fans’ and enhancing our delivery.’

The first strategy, which aims to sell the Singapore brand through a storytelling approach, makes use of visual clues that appeal to the countries that STB is promoting in, instead of common ones like the Merlion and the use of the colour red.

Speaking to The Drum, Oliver Chong, executive director, communications and marketing capability, Singapore Tourism Board, stressed the need for the existing and potential audiences to fully understand ‘brand Singapore’.

“STB’s marketing strategy was developed to better differentiate Singapore in today’s environment, where consumers are increasingly discerning and sophisticated, and destinations are becoming more competitive," explained Chong.

“We aim to do so by telling a great Singapore story, one which is about our unique identity and culture and told in myriad ways by different people. This is supported by ensuring that this story is told to the right target audience in the right markets, and through enhanced delivery and dissemination of content.

“This three-pronged strategy, if done well, will help Singapore stay on top of its game as a tourism destination.”

Katie Ewer, strategy director at global design shop Jones Knowles Ritchie, praised STB for recognising that ‘brand Singapore’ has to be multidimensional, citing the use of different visuals in marketing collateral across different markets.

“Singapore used to be known as ‘the place where you can’t chew gum’, and known for common visuals like the Merlion that was invented years ago, in 1972 by the STB and the colour red, which is a code that communicated to an audience within Singapore, instead of outside it. But now it has multiple stories to tell,” Ewer told The Drum.

“Singapore is the place where East meets West, where cultures converge; Singapore is the food capital of the world – beloved by Anthony Bourdain, bursting with the whiff of durian, and now the proud host to 38 Michelin starred restaurants.

“Singapore is the world’s first real ‘smart’ city – home to visionary architecture, pioneers of transport systems, home to Asian innovation.

“So ‘Brand Singapore’ is anything but one dimensional and whilst it’s hard to know what any of the STB’s pieces of lofty rhetoric really mean, the emphasis on the word ’stories’ suggests they recognise Singapore now has so many to tell."

As part of telling the Singapore story and changing misconceptions of overseas audience, STB is also not adverse to working with brands and influencers, like tying up partnerships with Lyft and Pandora in San Francisco and using local celebrities in its customised marketing collateral in a particular country.

Ewer feels that such brand partnerships are very effective in raising awareness of the Singapore brand and gives overseas audiences an idea of how advanced Singapore really is.

She added that while it is a great idea for STB to customise their marketing collaterals differently in different markets, it remains to be seen if the short stories STB is trying to tell, have a cohesive narrative.

“STB’s partnerships with Lyft and Pandora in San Francisco are a great way to build ‘Brand Singapore’ through the positive associations those two apps enjoy in the West Coast of America,” explained Ewer, who has been based in Asia for close to a decade.

“The stunt has a closed loop that makes it neat and effective – it’s planting the possibility of Singapore as a holiday destination in the minds of young, savvy San Franciscans – who can then fly here directly with Singapore Airline’s new direct route.

“STB pitches the ‘Singapore story’ in different ways to different audiences. A visitor travelling as part of a tour group from China, for instance, will likely be seeking a different experience than an independent visitor from San Francisco.

“The question for Brand Singapore, is how these small stories all ladder up to a single, cohesive narrative – what is the definitive Singapore story?”

So what does the future hold for ‘brand Singapore’? STB declined to share any new upcoming initiatives with The Drum, but instead pointed us back to their first strategic thrust of ‘telling a great Singapore story’.

What is certain, however, is that ‘brand Singapore’ will never be known as boring and will continue to chug along as the well-known well-oiled corporate machine that is constantly in beta mode.

Quipped Ewer: “I like to think of the Marina Bay Sands building as Merlion 2.0 – an updated icon of brand Singapore - bold, futuristic and slightly bizarre. I know which one I like better. And it’s not the one with a fishy tail.”

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Shawn Lim

Shawn Lim is a reporter at The Drum, covering industry news around the Asia Pacific region with a focus on Singapore and Southeast Asia. Based in Singapore, he has worked across photography, video and online, covering a range of subjects including current affairs and sports.

Before Game of Thrones, he was a huge Breaking Bad fan. He does CrossFit and yoga to stay healthy.

All by Shawn