Article 7 – Don’t marginalise home-grown brands

by Tan Thiam Hock

Some years ago, I was sitting outside Dome Cafe, Bangsar Shopping Centre on a packed Saturday afternoon when a chauffeured car drove up the main entrance. I waved to my appointment stepping out of the car and without breaking her step, the outrageous Yasmin Ahmad shouted in acknowledgment “Eh…AH HOCK!!”

Amidst the curious stares of the well heeled crowd, I must have shrunk by two feet but nevertheless determined to seek the help of the genius who created the massively successful festival TV commercials for Petronas. Local stories touching the millions of local hearts.

Just what our newly launched Silkygirl needed. No foreign imagery. Malaysian cosmetic brand for Malaysians. Yasmin loved the concept. The local media supported us. The retail giants Guardian Pharmacy and Watsons accepted us reluctantly and we were on our way to being a very successful brand in the history of Malaysian cosmetics.

Just in case you think that I am telling you a motivational story, let me rephrase it.

Positioning Silkygirl as a home-grown brand was extremely risky and foolish. The local consumers believed foreign-branded cosmetics then was of superior quality and was prejudiced against local brands. Most still do.

Dealing with prejudices: Malaysian brands have to often contend with retail space on the upper floors of shopping malls as the prime lots on the lower levels tend to be reserved for more established brands.

The retailers gave the smallest possible shelf space to home grown brands. Despite having one of the highest sales now, Silkygirl still occupies the same shelf space in the same not so favourable locations. Reality check. Still a home-grown brand.

To all the entrepreneurs who believe in developing your own brands, you will go through countless obstacles and extreme prejudices. Do not be discouraged. Be angry instead. Be angry and fight for the minds of the consumers. Your own Malaysian consumers.

The reason why foreign brands are preferred is because they have won the hearts and minds of the consumers. The foreign brands have a longer history, more in-depth knowledge and experience and strive hard to stay ahead of the game. Whether you are in fast moving consumer goods, retail, cars etc, can your home grown brands compete with them?

In any business, you will be competing with foreign and home grown brands, whether you are selling physical goods or services.

If you are competing in a level playing field, you will have the same opportunity as every other player in the game. So, do not blame others if you are not as successful. Your destiny is in your own hands.

But there are occasions when the playing field is uneven, heavily skewed towards unfair competition, unfair rules and extreme prejudices. As an entrepreneur, what would you do? Will you dig in and fight? Or will you just quietly walk away realising that it is a futile exercise?

I received an email from an entrepreneur who complained that he has not been able to secure government contracts due to unfair competition. Without political contacts, he did not stand a chance. And we have not added in the competition from the GLC’s from state and federal governments who now want to be in every business leaving only the crumbs to the new entrepreneurs.

Opportunities are few and far between for small entrepreneurs if you depend on doing business with Malaysia Incorporated. Best if you just walk away and leave it to the politicians, their cronies and the powerful GLC’s. I am sure you will be able to make a living doing other businesses. Find a smaller pond.

Another entrepreneur complained that he could not get any business because of corruption. Should he pay more to secure the business? I advised him to just walk away. In marketing, we call it first mover (giver) advantage. Find another pond.

There were also complaints from home-grown brand owners of their inability to get prime shop lots in our major shopping malls like KLCC, Pavilion and Gardens. They can only get the upper floors reserved for Malaysian brands. I congratulated them for being offered a place as the waiting list is long and only popular and successful brands with the right concepts are given a space. After all, the mall owners have their own merchandising mix strategy and space is limited. If you can survive in these 3 big ponds, your brand has arrived.

Then there is KLCC vs BritishIndia. An interesting case study for entrepreneurs.

KLCC is owned by Petronas and with the iconic Twin Towers in the background has been our pride and shopping destination for many years. From the onset, KLCC supported our top home-grown retail brands like Royal Selangor Pewter and BritishIndia, retailers with world class concepts and international premium positioning. Both brands were given prime locations.

BritishIndia was founded by Pat Liew and BritishIndia’s original advertising campaign was conceptualised by the late Yasmin Ahmad, a close friend.

BritishIndia built a premium position in lifestyle apparels and not surprisingly was very popular with expatriates and tourists. A local brand that will not look out of place next to DKNY.

After renewing the lease with an increased rental, BritishIndia spent over a million ringgit to renovate the store as per contractual requirements. Then BritishIndia was told to move upstairs to make way for an international brand.

What would you do if you were Pat? Stay in the KLCC good books and move upstairs? Or dig in, take on KLCC, knowing that this could be your last contract?

The ballsy Pat went head on with KLCC and kept her spot. For a moment I thought I heard Yasmin’s shriek of laughter from the heaven above.

This week’s On Your Own column is dedicated to our dear Yasmin. Malaysia’s best home grown brand.

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