Emory Marketing Institute

Branding and the New Asia:

An Interview with Brand Strategist Martin Roll

by Christian Sarkar

Martin Roll is founder and CEO of VentureRepublic, a leading strategic advisory firm on Branding Excellence. Roll is the author of the ground-breaking bestseller
Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands

He is a frequent guest lecturer at INSEAD and visiting professor in Strategic Brand Management at the China European International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai.

A leading thought-leader on branding driven by tremendous experience and insights, Martin Roll facilitates business leaders and organizations to think bold for future strategies. By focusing on building iconic brands, Martin Roll helps boardrooms to enhance shareholder value and create sustainable competitive advantage.

Martin Roll delivers the combined value of an experienced international branding strategist and a senior advisor to corporate boards and top-management teams of Fortune 500 companies. He brings more than 15 years of management experience from the international advertising and branding industry, and is a renowned keynote speaker at global conferences.

Martin Roll holds an MBA from INSEAD in France, a bachelor's degree from The Copenhagen Business School and a diploma from The International Advertising Association (IAA). He is a Danish Citizen and Singapore Permanent Resident.

Let's start at the beginning. What made you write this book?

Martin Roll: Asia is still one of the world's biggest providers of commodities.
At the same time, Asian manufacturers mostly produce for other companies and the majority of these products are therefore non-branded. In other words, volume products without personalities, values and distinct faces.

The largest part of the financial value is still captured by the manufacturers' customers primarily driven by strong marketing and branding programs. What is the evidence for this?

There are only a few global brands originating from Asian companies (disregarding Japan and Korea) compared to brands galore within almost all industries originating from Western companies. Asia represents only a fraction of all the strong brands in the world, and today there's still a huge imbalance between East and West in terms of branding. The time has come to change this somewhat historic and outdated trend. That's what my book is about. New Asia has finally emerged. How will it compete?

So branding becomes the principal business value-driver going forward?

Martin Roll: Traditionally, new senior executives among the Asian companies are recruited from within the ranks of the organizations and they tend to come primarily from technology and/or financial related career backgrounds and departments. Much fewer are the talents coming along with in-depth and high-level marketing and branding backgrounds compared to Western companies. Therefore, many companies tend to lack experienced top-leaders who have spent their entire executive careers in marketing and branding, hence bringing with them the important capabilities and international experience in the branding field.

Therefore, reconsider the management teams in New Asia and take on more highly skilled people with outstanding capabilities and global experience in branding strategy and execution, and also talent with preferences for rapid change, new knowledge and best practices. All these factors are no longer a luxury but a necessity to win in the global branding battle.

In the next five years, we will see a rapid changing landscape in Asia where the opportunities for Asian companies to benefit from international corporate and product branding efforts will be larger than ever before. The growing emphasis on international branding will move up the boardroom agenda, and I strongly believe that branding will become one of the most prominent drivers of value in Asia Pacific in the next two decades. Our experience with several clients in the region along with our close ties with top-management teams across industries have shown that branding is moving up the boardroom agenda.

How does this happen? How do companies make branding a core-competence?

Martin Roll: It needs to be no less than the CEO who embodies the branding efforts and serves as the company's and thereby the brand's primary advocate and nurturer. The approach is particularly well suited to companies whose top executives have a passion and talent for brand strategy, but in tomorrow's tough environment all top-executives must be able to represent and lead the brand.

World-class companies like Sony, Virgin, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nokia, Giorgio Armani, Singapore Airlines, LVMH, L'Oreal and Nestle all meet that description. Their top executives are directly involved in leading the branding vision, strategy and implementation, and spend a significant amount of their work hours driving their brands forward to achieve even better results.

The modern business leader needs to be a complete player who covers a broad range of managerial capabilities and experiences, and who has the vision to constantly monitor and improve. Being a marketing wizard is no longer enough. One also has to be an excellent business leader and a passionate brand marketer with a truly international edge.

In your book you describe "the brand boardroom model." Can you explain that?

Martin Roll: The "brand boardroom model" shows us how all the different line functions of an organization not only contribute to branding, but also benefit from it. For example, the finance department reports better margins due to strong brand recognition and brand equity, and the HR department gets better talent applying because they want to work for a well known brand.

Think about Samsung. How many job ads have you seen lately? Samsung is, for example, the top choice for all Korean graduate students. So brand strategies must be led by the boardroom to ensure that the whole company, with its multiple line functions, works in tandem toward a stronger brand.

Companies can gain real advantages by creating a brand board chaired by the CEO and led by the CMO. This creates the missing link between the boardroom and the marketing function. Key people from all relevant departments should be represented on the brand board.

And building brand equity becomes a shared responsibility?

Martin Roll: Led by the CEO. The brand board must set clear and quantifiable objectives for the brand portfolio - and stick to them. Brand building is a long, drawn out process. So companies must take a long-term view and not get discouraged by unrealistic expectations.

The primary objective of boardrooms is to build and sustain shareholder value, and deliver competitive returns to shareholders. The modern brand-driven organization is characterized by three distinct characteristics, which sets it apart from competition: The right mindset and beliefs about branding, the right skill sets to build and manage brands, and the allocation of the right organizational and financial resources to achieve the results.

What about employees? How should they participate?

Martin Roll: There are three guidelines we can use as checkpoints. Ask:
1. Does the entire organization understand the brand strategy? The brand values?
2. Has everyone been given training and guidelines on how to support and live the brand?
3. Is everyone given feedback on how their behaviors and attitudes fit the brand strategy?

Thus internal branding is just as critical...

Martin Roll: Yes, most definitely. Let's look at Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts' "Shangri-La Care" as it's called. It's a great example of how a leading Asian hospitality brand practices branding within the organization by aligning its staff and management with the overall brand strategy.

The training program is divided into three modules called Shangri-La Care, Delighting Customers, and Recover to Gain Loyalty. The aim is to train staff on how to live the corporate values. A separate budget has been allocated for the training, and management ensures that the training programs are being conducted. With every staff member acting as a brand ambassador, it has been able to deliver its brand promises consistently.

And how should companies' measure brand performance?

Martin Roll: There are several stakeholders concerned with brand equity, such as the firm, the customer, the distribution channels, media and other stakeholders, like the financial markets and analysts, depending on the type of company ownership. Ultimately it is the customer who is the most critical component in defining brand equity, as it is his/her choices that determine the success or failure of the company and the brand.

Customer knowledge about the brand, the perceived differences and its effects on purchase behavior and decisions lie at the heart of brand equity. The knowledge and associations attached to the brand result in choices that have a direct impact on the brand's financial performance and shareholder value.

Brand equity is the combined measure of brand strength and consists of three sets of metrics: knowledge, preference and financial, as I explain in Asian Brand Strategy. Each of the measures under these three metrics is critical and the boardroom must ensure that the brand portfolio scores high in each of these parameters to optimize the financial outcome from strong brands.

Knowledge metrics measures a brand's awareness and associations through the many stages of recognition, aided, unaided and top of mind recall. Similarly the functional and emotional associations of a brand are important drivers of brand equity. It is crucial for brands to score high on both awareness and association attributes to establish and sustain their presence in the market place.

Preference metrics measure a brand's competitive position in the market and how it benchmarks to competing brands. Customers pass through various levels of preference towards the brand which ranges from mere awareness and familiarity to strong loyalty and recurrent revenues from the customer base. A strong brand has the brand equity to move its customers through the preference funnel towards loyalty.

Financial metrics measure a brand's monetary value through the various parameters of market share, price premium a brand commands, the revenue generation capabilities of a brand, the transaction value, the lifetime value of a brand and the rate at which brands sustains growth. These measures facilitate a company to estimate an accurate financial value of brand equity.

A comprehensive evaluation of brand equity involves measuring all the above three metrics as it ensures that the brand and its strength is valued in totality.

What are the criteria to be an Asian branding champion?

To create Asian iconic brands, Asian business leaders will have to become trend-setters and capture the spirit of their brands, yet they also need to lead the way by creating the spirit. Therefore, they cannot any longer copy what Western brands have created - they are forced to move up the R&D value chain and develop and own Intellectual Property and trademarks.

The competitive advantages of Asian brands are first of all their manufacturing power and experiences in running low-cost production with great quality. On top of this, Asian businesses are good in service - take the example of Singapore Airlines and Banyan Tree Resorts & Hotels. But to become truly competitive, they need to build iconic brands like Apple iPod, which might still take them some time. A strong brand needs to have irresistible emotional connections with its consumer base.

The paradigm shift can be achieved only if everybody in the company is convinced by the power of branding and if all strategies and actions are aligned to the brand. This must be led by the CEO and boardroom - a paradigm that is increasingly taking place across Asia

Finally, can you tell us a little about your 10 steps to building an Asian brand as you outline in the book?

Martin Roll: My consulting firm, VentureRepublic, has identified 10 crucial steps on the way to a successful corporate branding strategy, and they can serve as a useful guide for any corporate branding project.

1. The CEO needs to lead the brand strategy work
The starting point for corporate branding must be the board room, which is also serving as the most important check-point during the project. The CEO must be personally involved in the brand strategy work, and he/she must be passionate and fully buy into the idea of branding. To ensure success despite the daily and stressful routine with many duties at the same time, the CEO must be backed by a strong brand management team of senior contributors, who can facilitate a continuous development and integration of the new strategy.

2. Build your own model, as not every model suits all
All companies have their own specific requirements, own sets of business values and a unique way of doing things. Therefore, even the best and most comprehensive branding models have to be tailored to these needs and requirements. Often, only a few but important adjustments are needed to align them with other similar business models and strategies in the company to create a simplified toolbox. Remember that branding is the face of a business strategy, so these two areas must go hand in hand.

3. Involve your stakeholders including the customers
Who knows more about your company than the customers, the employees and many other stakeholders? This is common sense, but many companies forget these simple and easily accessible sources of valuable information for the branding strategy. A simple rule is to use 5% of the marketing budget on research and at least obtain a fair picture of the current business landscape, including the current brand image among stakeholders, brand positioning and also any critical paths ahead. Simply do not forget the valuable voice of your customers in this process.

4. Advance the corporate vision
The corporate branding strategy is an excellent channel for advancing the corporate vision throughout the company. It allows the management to involve, educate and align everyone around the corporate objectives, values and future pathway. It provides a guiding star and leads everyone in the same direction. The internal efforts are at least 50% of making a corporate branding strategy successful.

5. Exploit new technology
Modern technology should play a part of a successful corporate branding strategy. Technology helps to gain effectiveness and improve the competitive edge of the corporation. A well-designed and fully updated Intranet is a must in today's working environment which has become increasingly virtual with employees working from home, from other locations and traveling across the globe, to name only a few factors. An Extranet can facilitate a much more seamless integration with strategic partners, suppliers and customers; avoid time-consuming paperwork and manual handling of many issues. A company website is not only a must, but rather a crucial channel for any modern corporation, regardless of size. If the corporation is not accessible on the Internet, it does not exist! The more professional the website, the better the perception among the Internet savvy modern customer. Gone are the days where corporations could get along with a business card portrayed on the Internet.

6. Empower people to become brand ambassadors
The most important asset in a corporation is its people. They do interact every day with colleagues, customers, suppliers, competitors and industry experts, to name a few. But they also interact with an impressive number of people totally disconnected to the corporation in form of family members, friends, former colleagues and many others. Hence they serve as the corporations most important brand ambassadors, as the word-of-mouth can be extremely valuable and have great impact on the overall image of the corporate brand image. The most effective way to turn employees into brand ambassadors is to train everyone adequately in the corporate brand strategy (vision, values and personality, etc.) and to make sure they fully understand - and believe! - what exactly the corporation aims at being in the minds of its customers and stakeholders. Nike is a brand which is known for their efforts in educating and empowering everyone employed by the company to be strong brand ambassadors.

7. Create the right delivery system
The corporate brand is the face of the business strategy, and basically it promises what all stakeholders should expect from the corporation. Therefore, the delivery of the right products and services with all the implications this entail should be carefully scrutinized and evaluated on performance before any corporation starts a corporate branding project. Think of the cradle-to-grave concept of a lifelong customer and the value he/she will provide in such a time span. Make sure he/she is handled with outstanding care according to internal specifications and outside expectations. The moment of truth is when the corporate brand promise is delivered well - and it does not hurt if the corporation exceeds the customer expectation. Singapore Airlines runs a very rigid, detailed and in-depth description of any customer touch points with the corporation, and several resources are spent on making sure it actually does happen every time to every customer. All employees, regardless of title and rank, from Singapore Airlines spend a not insignificant amount of workdays being trained every year.

8. Communicate!
Bring the corporate brand to life through a range of well-planned, well-executed marketing activities, and make sure the overall messages are consistent, clear and relevant to the target audiences. Make sure the various messages are concise and easy to comprehend. Do not try to communicate every single point from the corporate branding strategy. Instead, a selective approach will make much more impact using the same resources.

9. Measure the brand performance
A brand is accountable and so should a corporate brand be. How much value does it provide to the corporation and how instrumental is the brand in securing competitiveness? These are some of the questions that need to be answered and which the CEO will automatically seek as part of his/her commitment to run the strategy successfully. The brand equity consists of various individually tailor-made key performance indicators (including the financial brand value) and needs to be tracked regularly. A brand score card can help facilitate an overview of the brand equity and the progression as the strategy is implemented.

10. Adjust relentlessly and be ready to raise your own bar all the times
The business landscape is changing almost every day in every industry. Hence the corporation needs to evaluate and possibly adjust the corporate branding strategy on a regular basis. Obviously, a corporate brand should stay relevant, differentiated and consistent throughout time, so it is a crucial balance. The basic parts of the corporate branding strategy like vision, identity, personality and values are not to be changed often as they are the basic components. The changes are rather small and involve the thousands of daily actions and interpersonal behaviors, which the corporations employ as part of the brand marketing efforts. But make sure complacency does not take root in the organization and affect the goal setting. The strong brands are the ones which are driven forward by owners who never get tired of raising their own bars. They become their own change agents - and brand champions for great brands.

Thanks so much. All of this and much more of course, is in the book Asian Brand Strategy : How Asia Builds Strong Brands (Palgrave Macmillan 2006). A must read for both East and West alike.

Christian Sarkar is the managing editor of the ZIBS.com site. He is the founder and CEO of Double Loop Marketing LLC, an online company specializing in demand generation and thought-leadership-based campaigns


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