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State of the Nation: Hong Kong is at a cross roads can it return to its former glory?

By Anant Deboor | Head of Strategy

January 19, 2023 | 9 min read

Once a magnet for refugees, recalcitrants, iconoclasts and anyone seeking a newer, fresher version of themselves, Hong Kong's DNA is rooted in audacious regeneration. However, the events of the last five years have left an indelible mark on the city and its global brand. In the latest in our State of the Nation series, Anant Deboor, head of strategy at Wunderman Thompson Hong Kong, shares his thoughts on how Brand Hong Kong can bounce back.

Hong Kong State of the Nation

The news headlines over the past few weeks starkly contrast with the terrible PR just a few months ago. From ‘Asia’s Most Isolated City’ to ‘Hong Kong is Back’ appears to tell a story of astonishing change. The past few weeks have seen the HKSAR Government finally rolling back draconian COVID restrictions, ages after the rest of the world has moved on and learned to live with it.

The policies of the previous administration, particularly in neglecting to get the vaccination rates up, left the city with by far the world’s highest death rate per million for the 12 months ending Dec 29, 2022*. The impact of the twin crises – the 2019 protests and COVID in 2020 – showed in the Happiness scores by the Public Opinion Research Institute. The Net Value (Difference between those saying Happy vs Unhappy) plummeted from a positive +40% in Dec 2018 to lower than negative -40% by Dec 2020. Not to mention social media was full of posts of terrified people desperately trying to flee the city to escape forced separation between parents and mere toddlers in some cases – many purchasing one-way tickets out at mere hours’ notice.

Wunderman Thompson Hong Kong

But is Hong Kong really back?

The new administration that took over in July 2022 promised change and to ‘open a new chapter’. Social media is now filled with images of people back on the move. The same PORI survey’s latest December 2022 figures show an improvement to around 0% for Net Value, still a far cry from four years earlier. However, other pieces of data still suggest caution.

According to a range of media reports in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) citing official statistics, the Hong Kong Census in mid-2022 registered a 1.6% drop in the population with 113,000 residents leaving the city in the previous 12 months, the largest percentage decline since records began being maintained in 1961. The SCMP also reported a survey by London-based migration consultancy Henley and Partners that the city’s millionaire population fell by 14%.

On a more positive note, The Standard reported a survey by a youth group showing that 50.7% of respondents agreed that starting a business is better than working - rebounding from 43.3% in 2018. The group believes that young people's rising confidence in entrepreneurship is caused by the government's efforts to support start-up businesses looking to explore opportunities in the Greater Bay Area. And therein lies the opportunity for hope and recovery.

There appears to be faint optimism, heavily laced with caution and a ‘let’s see’ attitude.

What does the future hold?

Quite simply, Brand Hong Kong is on notice on the global stage. The events of the past four years appear to have subdued the city’s famously free-wheeling character, laissez-faire attitude and rumbunctious approach to life.

The single biggest challenge to seize the future is the proactive articulation of a powerful, clear and unifying brand idea and marketing strategy. One that can resonate and be used as a rallying cry both internally and externally. This calls for a strong, well-structured ‘brand management’ approach to shaping and lifting the lustre of the Hong Kong brand.

Why is this important?

Hong Kong could learn a lot from 1970s New York. It was on the brink of failure and self-destruction, with the drug lords in control. The city faced total financial insolvency, leading to the trade unions creating a media campaign titled “Welcome to Fear City.”

The leadership understood that the core issue was within and that it was bound up within New York’s own sense of self-belief. The leaders articulated and kindled a sense of pride, ownership and love for the values that had made New York successful: unbridled energy, entrepreneurship, creativity and diversity.

While the most famous outcome of this rebranding effort was Milton Glaser’s iconic “I Love NY”, the bigger story was about defining and vividly articulating the idea behind not just for Brand New York itself but also for the different boroughs.

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Hong Kong’s very unique story

Throughout its history, Hong Kong has been a magnet for refugees, recalcitrants, iconoclasts, those seeking new lives, and anyone seeking a newer, fresher version of themselves. It isn’t just generations of local Chinese whose ancestors were once from mainland China or other parts of Asia; it is also the west. Remember FILTH (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong)?

This resulted in an interesting immigrant mindset – where people define their identity partly by what they left behind but more so by what they seek to recreate. Creating a new kind of authenticity. One that comes from within is nourished from within and is constantly evolving. In many ways, quite the opposite of Singapore. A key refrain you used to hear from people who spent time in both cities was ‘Hong Kong feels more authentic’. Today that phrase will draw sharp intakes of breath in this new environment.

Writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes Hong Kong as an Anti-Fragile city: “One that isn’t just resistant to shocks, but actually strengthened by them. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

This powerful narrative of audacious regeneration is at the heart of Hong Kong's DNA. It is embedded in people’s culture and will influence behaviour far more than diktat.

Today, combined with being part of the Greater Bay ecosystem and one of the planet’s most respected hubs of commerce, Hong Kong has a confidence and a global influence that no other Asian city possesses. There is a lot Hong Kong can offer the rest of China with its global brand’s soft power, but equally, there is a lot that Hong Kong can learn from Chinese culture in being able to “think long.”

One that can genuinely harness what the brand means: Resilience, regeneration, creativity, energy, authenticity and astonishing efficiency. For Brand Hong Kong to seize this moment in time.

That means putting in place a genuine brand leadership and team with a brand-centric mindset but the capabilities to build city and place brands. That calls for marketing, research and media nous and an understanding of political science, policymaking, sociology… and lots of patience! If we don’t take a proactive approach to shape our brand, we will default to more of what has been happening… bad PR.

Anant Deboor is the head of strategy at Wunderman Thompson Hong Kong.

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