Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Making Thailand famous for what it's famous for

I just read this very interesting and rather amusing article in today's online edition of the Bangkok Post newspaper:

Even by the unpredictable standards of Amazing Thailand, this one came out of left field. Jaws are dropping all over "Brandland" following the bold assertion by the New York adman and self-styled design guru Peter Arnell that Thailand is in desperate need of rebranding and - drumroll please - he is just the man to do it.

Like many a newbie before him, Mr Arnell jetted into Thailand for the first time for a 12-day stay a couple of months back and promptly fell head over heels in love with the place. Nothing wrong with that, of course; it has happened to the best of us. But is that really a sound foundation on which to declare oneself the anointed saviour of Brand Thailand?

Never mind that most of his trip was spent in the cosseted embrace of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, as part of Martha Stewart's pampered posse. Never mind that of his last two multi-million dollar rebranding projects, one met mixed reviews at best and the other was an abject failure.

(His Pepsi rebranding, which some see as clean and contemporary, and others as minimal and boring, was supported by a pseudo-scientific rationale of phonebook proportions, dubbed "Breathless", which cited everything from Da Vinci's golden ratio to gravitational and magnetic fields to eastern philosophy to justify the design. His more recent makeover of Tropicana orange juice ended in high farce, after consumers mistook the new packaging for supermarkets' generic juice. Result? Millions of dollars wasted and the old look revived.)

Mr Arnell is undaunted, and says: "Thailand is not the place of wacky bars or crazy nightlife that most people think it is. It is a sensible, harmonious, calm, peaceful and respectful country driven by humanity and a soulfulness, unlike any other place in the world.

"I think I can make this place famous for what it's famous for, instead of what we think it's famous for," he said, adding that he wants to provide the country with a unique, easily recognisable symbol, based on the distinctive temple spires of its classic architecture.

"I felt very strongly that Thailand didn't have a symbol, like Switzerland has the cross or Canada has the maple leaf."

Does Thailand need a symbol? It's true, symbols and icons are shortcuts to the subconscious and increase a brand's stickiness. The US has its bald eagle, Australia its kangaroo, New Zealand its silver fern, Japan its rising sun. But these symbols were embraced after decades.

Can one self-appointed expert waltz in and decide what a nation's symbol should be? I'm certainly not advocating design by committee, and sometimes in branding fresh eyes are no bad thing, but surely some sort of national "buy-in" is required. On what insights does Mr Arnell lay claim to temple spires as Thailand's most appropriate symbol?

While a country is certainly a brand, it is not a commodity in the same way a bottle of soda or orange juice is. A certain level of sensitivity and respect is required, something lacking in Mr Arnell's brash publicity-seeking assertions.

Besides, Thailand already has a superb positioning. "Amazing Thailand" is awesome, and kudos to whoever dreamed it up a decade ago. It encapsulates all that is sublime, mysterious, captivating and occasionally ridiculous about the Land of Smiles. It's such a great idea, India simply stole it with its Incredible India campaign.

Perhaps Mr Arnell's comments can be a catalyst for further debate. The Tourism Authority of Thailand's current "Amazing Value" campaign is an understandable knee-jerk reaction to the economic crisis. It is tactical, but hardly inspirational. And sure, there may well be more domestic political upheavals to contend with - problems the slickest slogan can't transcend.

But Thailand is remarkably resilient, as recent months' tourism figures have shown. In the longer term, surely the way to go is a more far-reaching, exciting and visionary take on Amazing Thailand.

In a nation that is seeking to style itself as Asia's "creative economy", surely we can find the wherewithal from within to tackle the task.
(End quote)

That Mr. Arnell's got some cojones, that's for sure!

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