What brand strategy has taught me

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Nicolai Bernsten on Unsplash

Finally, after a long journey of searching for my direction in life and struggling with my career path, I think I may have found what I’m meant to do. With that comes a quiet gratitude.

I remember how I struggled at my previous job as an advertising copywriter, coming up with copy and one-liners that “sell” for clients like credit card or insurance companies. It didn’t feel right or meaningful to me personally. I questioned why I was in advertising. I got told again and again that my copy was too “soft” and not “punchy” or “snappy” enough. It didn’t make people want to buy things.

I never wanted to make people buy things.

Even so, I saw it as a personal failure on two levels: being “not cut out” for the advertising industry, and not knowing what I want or can do. I wanted to work in the creative industry, but what if this was it, especially in a pragmatic society like Singapore, where the market is really small? What if there were no other, or better options?

Along the way, I found out about this thing called brand strategy. I was immediately intrigued and drawn to the idea of research and gathering consumer and brand insights, before distilling it into a strategy that guides creative work. In other words, I was more drawn to this big-picture role than churning out lines and wordplay day after day. Which was the first surprise, because I always thought I would do something related to words. And at that point, copywriting was the only realistic option I could think of, other than journalism, which I didn’t enjoy, and online editorial/content writing, which couldn’t pay the bills.

After the advertising job, I met a lot of people who did work that was somewhat related to brand strategy. I say this because a lot of big brand strategy agencies have offices in Singapore, but the legit portfolio you see on their websites is actually work that’s done overseas in big cities like London and New York City. Their offices in Singapore, which usually function as regional headquarters for the Asia Pacific, are usually either struggling financially, forced to do either advertising work, or heavily focused on the design/production part.

A true-blue branding or rebranding strategy project is as rare as a blue moon.

The reason for this is, again, Singapore’s small market. Multinational companies here usually take the direction of their original headquarters, which are far more well-equipped to do their own branding and strategy, or engage a competent agency there to do it. Small and medium enterprises, or SMEs as we call it here, usually have scarce budgets and resources to invest in branding. After all, advertising yields immediate, short-term results. And at the end of the day, when you have to present the annual report to your board of directors, it’s the numbers that count after all.

I always wanted to work in an international branding agency at its Singapore office, but after I met with several people and teams, I found that the reality of what they do is very different from what I saw on their (global) portfolio online. From my encounters with strategy directors and consultants, I found that brand strategy often really meant business strategy when put into practice. Everything was much more tactical and profit-driven than what I expected.

Now, of course I understand that this is how the commercial world works. I’m not expecting brand strategy to be a purely emotive or creative process. But what drew me to the role in the first place is the need for both rationality and intuition, and the way it finds that delicate balance between business and creative goals.

Instead of seeing these two goals in tension, a brand strategist seeks to harmonise both together to create what’s best for the brand, its consumers, and the world they inhabit.

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Leone Venter on Unsplash

Fast forward a few months of focusing on freelance work, I got offered a content strategist position at a local design agency. My main account was to run a content-driven social movement for a corporate client. Basically, it’s a commercial company wanting to do good and give back to the community. My heart leapt at this opportunity. The INFP in me rejoiced – finally a corporate company having the funds and resources to maximise the reach and impact of community and social work, which many non-profit organisations struggle to achieve despite their best intentions.

I was excited at the prospect of finally reconciling my beliefs in life with my daily job scope. Besides, I felt that content strategy was a specific area I would enjoy as a creative writer myself, crafting emotive language, tone of voice and messaging. And we live in a content-driven age; I consume content voraciously myself, from brands and publications on Facebook and LinkedIn.

However, after I started doing it, I was caught by surprise once again, for I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Without revealing too much, I would just say that I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of mining real people’s life experiences to create compelling narratives. Soon I started to feel that I was manipulating people’s emotions to create material for a great story. When one of my colleagues described filming a documentary and how she felt really happy when her subject cried on screen, I realised then, that maybe this was not right for me.

It reminded me of the time when I was doing an internship for a local newspaper, many years ago. That was the first time I experienced this ethical dilemma of using people’s experiences as material to fit into your desired agenda. The ideal of journalism is to fight for truth and justice, and I do respect it as a noble and honourable profession. But in reality, what I sensed was that every journalist is a human being, with his or her own perspective. It is impossible to remain completely objective. It’s not their fault, but this was a very difficult hurdle for me to cross, and one of the reasons I didn’t pursue journalism as a career despite studying it in school. Nevertheless, I kept the spirit of questioning and curiosity with me, and it has definitely shaped the way I think and evaluate social issues and current affairs.

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rawpixels.com

Recently, by a surprising stroke of serendipity, my company gave me the opportunity to work on two rebranding projects – one for retail/lifestyle and the other for f&b. Initially not expecting much because I thought it would be very commercial and business-driven, since it was a corporate job. By this point, I had concluded that working in the advertising industry means that your ultimate goal is to help your clients grow their businesses. This is what they pay you to do, regardless of whether it is branding, rebranding, marketing or advertising. Everything like building consumer loyalty, adding value to their lives, was just another euphemism for “generating profits”. Many a time it seemed to me that rebranding gave businesses an excuse to charge a higher price for a more “premium” brand experience.

Yes, that was how jaded/realistic I had become. I went in with an open mind and zero expectations, and keeping in mind my professional weakness of taking things too personally or becoming too emotionally invested in my work (a problem all creatives will face).

To my very surprise, I learned so much. Only when I had the chance to do an actual brand strategy project, did I realise once again the power of an effective brand. It is not just making the consumer buy things and helping the business grow, but also giving the consumer MORE than just the product or service they paid for, and giving the employees of the brand a culture to be part of and a feeling of belonging to something bigger than their job scope.

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Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

And after reading this article about purpose-driven branding, I found myself sitting up and realising that things have changed. Times have really changed. Many brands now stand for something and want to make a comment in the social, political and cultural landscape they (and their consumers) live in. Again the cryptic in me thought it was just another attempt at “CSR” or gaining the favour of consumers. Perhaps yes, some of these brands are not as sincere or honest as they make themselves out to be.

But in spite of all this, isn’t it great, that brands are actually doing something more than just selling things and generating profit? Isn’t it better than to have nothing at all? If buying, spending and consuming have already become so ingrained into our modern lifestyles, isn’t it great that in the process, we can have some meaningful conversations, or be prompted to reflect on important issues, and change our perspectives, even if it’s just a little bit?

Precisely because buying and spending is such a big part of our everyday lives, brands have such great power to shape and influence culture and points of view. And with great power comes great responsibility. 

Perhaps it is no longer just the onus of the governments of the world to solve problems. We live in an era where citizens are becoming more disillusioned and disappointed than ever before, by human and systemic failings. Perhaps humanised brands will be able to fill the widening chasm between the establishment and the people.

We all know that an individual can make a change, but how many of us actually feel driven and confident enough to do something? Perhaps brands will be the ones who empower us individuals, by rallying us together as not just their consumer demographic, but a real community of people who care and want, and can, make a difference today.

 

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Asian Love Languages: Dad edition

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Cross the road must be careful

“过马路要小心。”

(guo ma lu yao xiao xin.)

 

Every time I left the house, my father would never say “Bye!” or “Have fun”. Instead, he would always ask me to be careful when crossing the road. This continued even after I had become a grown adult, and I always thought it was just a weird habit he forgot to unlearn over the years.

After he passed away two years ago, I never got to find out his reason. But his words continued to echo in my mind whenever I stepped outside my house.

Recently, when I found myself saying the same thing to my boyfriend, it finally hit me. When you love someone, you want the person to be safe. Maybe you fear for their safety, sometimes unnecessarily. But when you love someone, their life becomes as precious as their presence in yours.

When my dad asked me to cross the road safely, he was simply trying to say, “Be safe, I would hate to see you hurt, because I love you.”

Maybe I’d grown up too fast, and he missed holding my little hand and leading me across the road.

 

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Eat already?

“吃饱了没有?”

(chi bao le mei you?)

 

There was a time in my life when I treated my house like a hotel, and came home only past midnight. The whole family would be asleep, but I always saw my father sitting there playing games on his iPad. Now when I think about it, I wonder if he was staying up to make sure I got home safe.

When I open the door and greet him “Hi Daddy,” he would always ask the same question, whether it was dinnertime or midnight.

“Eat already?”

I used to laugh at him, “Of course I eat already, now midnight leh! Why you think I haven’t eat?”

Now, when he is no longer around to make sure I don’t go to bed hungry, I suddenly miss it, the casual way he asked, in a deceivingly absent-minded way.

When my dad asked me if I’ve had dinner when I come home at midnight, he was simply trying to say, “How are you? Are you feeling ok?”

Maybe he just wanted to make sure his daughter was well before going to bed, because he hardly saw her throughout the day.

 

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What you want to eat? I buy for you.

“要吃什么?我买给你。”

(yao chi shen me? wo mai gei ni.)

 

Which brings me to the point: Food is the Asian father’s love language.

When our house phone rang, we all knew it would be Dad. Picking up the phone and saying hello, the first thing we would always hear, as though a default greeting, was “What you want for dinner? I buy back for you.”

Even when I said I wasn’t hungry, he would insist on buying me food.

“You must eat something, at least a little bit.”

Without an appetite, I would always tell him “Anything, you choose ok?”, when all I wanted was to eat breakfast cereal for dinner.

Dad never allowed that. He believed in three proper meals a day, and eating breakfast like a king.

He would come back with plastic packets of wanton mee or mixed veg rice, and whatever appetite I had lost would magically come back.

On weekends, he drove all the way from Jurong to Telok Blangah, just to bring back four packets of Hainanese curry rice wrapped in brown paper for lunch. It was the food of my childhood, because that was where I grew up before we moved.

 

Dad never said “I love you”, but he asked me to cross the road carefully, and made sure I had eaten. But now I realise, aren’t these the important things?

 

 

Image credits: Jcomp on freepik , Steven Van Loy on Unsplash, SG Food on Foot

 

2018 goals

Looking back on last year, I realised that my fear of not being able to produce good work is actually the biggest impediment. With a crippling fear mindset, it’s hard to even get started. But most of the time, it turns out that it isn’t that bad when you actually start.

I have to overcome the inertia that prevents me from starting, and just do it anyway. The source of all this pressure I give myself is my perfectionism. Hard to kick a habit/personality trait ingrained in me for years, but I’ve got to…start.

Another thing I am afraid of not being able to do but also know I have to do (classic conundrum that appears everywhere in my thoughts zzz) is to detach more from my work and not invest so much of my heart/self/identity/purpose into the work I do. I am not my work.

Especially important when working in creative industry and the combination with my tendency to seek purpose in every aspect of my life – good obviously, but not so good in the harsh reality of the working world.

Repeat again: I am not my work and my work does not define my worth.

A year to focus on building my professional self, which I’ve long neglected in light of other more unfortunate/pressing matters in life.

Depression has no face

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I am not a K-Pop fan and previously didn’t know who Jonghyun was, but the passing of the SHINEE singer hit me hard, as a depression survivor.

It seems when a celebrity passes away from mental illness, people are shocked or in disbelief, because their private persona turned out to be so different from their public one.

Because they are celebrities, it makes their battle with mental illness even more hard-hitting for fans, who look up to them as idols and role models. Who would’ve known that behind a shining star was such a heavy burden that no one saw?

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Does a celebrity’s status somehow legitimate the battle with mental illness more?

I once had a friend who was really close to me at one point. Our relationship strayed because for some reason she was really uncomfortable dealing with mental health issues, and unfortunately, defined my whole identity with my condition.

A person with mental illness is not their illness, just like a person with cancer is not their cancer.

Although it’s easier to draw this connection for mental illness as compared to physical ones, because mental illness somehow seems intuitively connected to our personalities.

After all, who we are is observed by others through how we think, feel and act.

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Dear people who are uncomfortable with mental illness, how many celebrity passings will it take to legitimise the pain of the people around you?

For you to realise that they are not weak, or not trying hard enough, or bringing it upon themselves?

Depression has no face, no scar, no open wounds. But when someone confides in you, they are entrusting their pain in you, and trust that you will accept its existence despite not being able to see.

If anything, the struggle with depression has only taught me to see better, and look harder at what I cannot see.

what’s in a poem?

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just for a moment

the sunset is at its most glorious

but how can we be certain

when it keeps getting better

 

i put away my camera

stand at the edge listening to waves

cradle the grass

and i think, you should be here

because beauty is meant to be shared

 

but then again if you were here

i wouldn’t be writing poems

because this is what being together means

sharing, remembering and

turning moments into memories

 

what makes a poem any different?

 


found an old poem I wrote while watching the sunset a few months ago

Paiseh silence

In Singapore, our colloquial language has a word “paiseh” (pronounced pie-say), which means something like embarrassed or shy, usually used in a context of being reluctant to trouble others. It is actually very much a part of our culture, but sometimes this also leads to a worrying indifference towards acts of injustice or discrimination.

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I wrote this article on one of our local lifestyle websites, about how this “paiseh” culture of silence also enables sexual assault. With the silence of bystanders, perpetrators get away scot-free, and the blame usually falls on the victim in our typically conservative culture, for “wearing that dress/skirt/shorts” or “asking for it” because you “chose to hang out in certain places”.

Because a lot of discourse has been made about victim blaming, which exists even in western cultures, my opinion piece is a rallying call to bystanders to look out for one another instead, and not be afraid to speak up. An important issue like sexual assault is a good place to start in changing our MYOB culture of “mind your own business” and “don’t create trouble for yourself or others”.

Anyone in other countries or cultures also able to relate to Singapore’s paiseh culture?

Dragonfly Eyes (2017)

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Watched a very haunting film at the Singapore International Film Festival last night, and need to get it out in words.

Dragonfly Eyes is the directorial debut of acclaimed Chinese artist Xu Bing. It’s hard to classify the film into any genre, but I would say it is definitely avant-garde (for its groundbreaking techniques), and falls into the categories of mystery/thriller.

The most striking thing about this film is that it is made completely with raw footage from surveillance cameras, web cams and live streams on the Internet – evidently a postmodernist film that immediately makes one think of issues such as the Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984, the dearth of privacy in today’s age, and the footprint we leave online in the absurd, ever-present world of the Internet.

The story was assembled after sifting through 10,000 hours of footage they had collected, and reducing it to 81 minutes of random arbitrary scenes ranging from an accidental drowning, a plane crash, to prayers in a temple. The story is pieced together with the help of voiceovers of the main characters. According to the editor Matthieu Laclau, there was no fixed script and the story was improvised along the way depending on the type of footage that they got.

Storyline:

Qing Ting, a young woman, leaves the Buddhist temple on the hills for the city, where she finds a job as a worker in a cow factory and meets agricultural technician Ke Fan. Ke Fan falls in love with her to an obsessive extent, and goes too far when he assaults a rich lady who bullies Qing Ting, and ends up in jail. When he is released, he finds out that Qing Ting has changed her identity and undergone plastic surgery, and is now Xiao Xiao, a popular online celebrity on live stream. He desperately wants to see her again and attempts to track her down.

 

Click READ MORE below if you’re interested in analysis of the film from the perspective of cinema studies.

 

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