Martin Roll Thinks APAC Brands Must Build Their Own Legacies

Asian executives need to follow the lead of Western brands if they’re to “capture markets and the imagination of millions of consumers worldwide,” said Danish business strategist Martin Roll.

Martin Roll Thinks APAC Brands Must Build Their Own Legacies

Danish business strategist Martin Roll had his finger firmly on the pulse of Asian brand strategies long before the rest of the world even talked much about Asian brands.

Now, as the world turns its curious eye towards Asia’s products and markets, Singapore-based Roll finds his insights in great demand—so he has gathered them into a revised edition of his 2005 book, “Asian Brand Strategy.” contributor Bobby McGill recently caught up with Roll to get his take on the current state of Asian brands, as well as Western brands that are trying to better reach Asian consumers. What do you see as some of the biggest changes in the Asian branding landscape since 2005?

Roll: The Asian branding landscape is undergoing a strategic transformation. Increasing opportunities and deregulation mean local markets are opening up to global brands, whether local incumbents like it or not. Hence, branding is no longer something nice for Asian brands to have–it has become critical.

Some brands that have become hugely successful since I last wrote my book face new challenges: Arrogance and complacency have hit many successful organisations and weakened their leadership power, leading to the danger of succumbing to the “victory disease” of hubris.

Western organisations have used brands and branding successfully to capture markets and the imagination of millions of consumers worldwide. Now it is time for Asian executives to step up to the challenge and build their own legacies through brand leadership. Do Asian boardrooms realise that branding is a strategic issue?

Roll: The face of business in Asia is changing faster than you can blink. Asian companies that used to be back-end workhorses–manufacturing consumer goods cheaply for Western companies–are slowly realising the benefits of branding.

In a market where competition implies slashing prices on unbranded products, Asian businesses are realising the power of brand identity in capturing consumers and returning larger profits on their investments. There is a growing realisation that returns can be increased through investment in brands and differentiation.

Most Asian firms, however, still view branding as advertising or logo design. If firms are to benefit from branding, they must recognise that it impacts the entire business–the structure, goals, attitude, and the very outlook of those in the boardroom. Managers will need to see branding not as an appendage to the ongoing business but as an infusion that seeps through the very spirit of the organisation, driving healthy return on investment. What about global brands coming into Asia? What challenges do they face?

Roll: I believe organisations often underestimate how difficult it actually is to build and sustain strong global brands and to become truly brand-driven.

Asian business leaders tend to believe that brand building is somehow a tactical exercise they can delegate to lower parts of the organisation and that results will show up quickly. They often struggle to understand the strategic nature of brand building, for which they need to direct and lead the efforts and make profound changes to make it happen.

Companies need to define their overall purpose. This is difficult to do and lead the organisation towards. Purpose is linked to having a long-term goal, which means they need to let go of short-term thinking. Let’s look at South Korea. When tech giant Kakao hired a 34-year-old chief executive, local media and observers viewed it as “radical.” Is this a trend we’re likely to see continue in the age-determinant, Confucian-steeped countries of Northeast Asia?

Roll: The age of the Kakao CEO is a rarity in Asia among large organisations. For small organisations and entrepreneurial technology firms it is more common. But I believe the landscape is changing for several reasons. One key reason is that 70% of Asian firms are family-owned in some way or another, and the founders and leaders of many of these firms are now getting old and will have to transition leadership to younger generations.

Another factor is that it has become more fashionable to work in Asia, so there is a huge expansion of young talent in the last 10 years. Some of those are younger generations who now see Asia as an attractive place to work. Can you share some examples of Asia-based brands you think are doing it right in foreign markets?

Roll: Many Asian firms are rising and building their brands. Two of my favourites [are Charles & Keith and the TWG Tea Company].

Starting as a ladies’ footwear store in Singapore in 1996, brothers Charles and Keith Wong observed that while selling shoes wholesale provided a cost advantage, the lack of uniqueness meant limited growth. This made them realise the potential of creating a brand that consumers could identify with–leading to the creation of the Charles & Keith brand. Today, it is well known among fashion-conscious shoppers for its distinctive designs, quick in-season turnaround that offers 20 to 30 new designs in stores every week. The company has expanded in Asia and is branching into global markets.

The TWG Tea Company was founded by Moroccan-born Taha Bouqdib in Singapore in 2007. The 1837 date on its logo marks when the island became a trading post for teas, spices, and fine epicurean products. The brand is present in 14 countries, including Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, China, and the U.K.