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National Day Special 2016: S’pore brand giving local companies a leg-up overseas

In 2013, eight Singaporean companies, including LEAP SchoolHouse and Cristofori Music, came together in a mall in Shenyang with the aim of establishing their presence in the northern Chinese province of Liaoning — by riding on the Republic’s reputation for quality, reliability and adherence to international standards.

In 2013, eight Singaporean companies, including LEAP SchoolHouse and Cristofori Music, came together in a mall in Shenyang with the aim of establishing their presence in the northern Chinese province of Liaoning — by riding on the Republic’s reputation for quality, reliability and adherence to international standards.

This strategy of branding the Singapore enrichment cluster in Shenyang to mirror the Singapore Government’s way is often viewed as a success story.

Trade agency International Enterprise (IE) Singapore spearheaded the initiative to get companies to leverage the Singapore brand, and that first breakthrough in Liaoning paved the way for more firms from the enrichment sector there to widen their reach into the Chinese market in subsequent years.

“In China, they expect international standards and they do see the value in the Singapore brand ... The results were good, we can see that in the progress that we made in Liaoning: Back in 2011, there were only two Singapore pre-school players in Liaoning, now we actually have 20 companies from the enrichment sector there,” said Ms Angeline Chan, group director, capability development group at IE Singapore.

While many brands elsewhere are defined along the lines of their respective culture, the Singapore brand is deeply intertwined with the governance standards displayed by the Singapore Government, experts told TODAY.

And home-grown brands, such Singapore Airlines, Banyan Tree and BreadTalk, mirror those qualities: Operationally excellent and having the ability to deliver on their brand promises.

Playing up their Singaporean roots has served many businesses well, giving them a leg up as they venture overseas, easing their entries into markets they may otherwise find challenging to get into.

That is why banding Singaporean companies under a single banner has been part of IE Singapore’s strategy in helping them to internationalise.

However, the close association with the way the Government functions has attracted criticisms that the Singapore brand lacks definition, and does not conjure up specific key words the same way that “precision” is attached to Switzerland, “luxury” to France and “innovation” to Japan.

Mr Luke Lim, chief executive of brand consultancy Louken Group, said Singapore’s relatively short history is one reason the brand has not “cascaded down to a few key words”.

“We’re a very young country, our culture is still forming ... Eventually, we should hone our own (identity). How we will land there in the next 10 to 20 years remains to be seen, especially in today’s very disruptive market,” he said.

Mr Lawrence Chong, chief executive of brand consultancy Consulus, said the absence of a defined style is not a bad thing since this has allowed the Singapore brand to be surprising — a quality that will see companies through the current challenging business environment.

Is the national brand enough?

Even while not clearly defined, the Singapore brand linked to quality and reliability has carried local enterprises to various parts of the world.

However, experts said it is important that companies, both business-to-business and business-to-consumer, look at branding themselves to differentiate from their competition, and identify with their target audience better.

“If people don’t know what you can do, what kind of difference you can bring, they won’t buy. Now, we’re at a stage where companies must think about how they can innovate their business models as they compete globally. Eighty per cent of the work in creating a brand is how the organisation works, it’s not just about the image,” said Mr Chong.

IE Singapore’s Ms Chan said more companies are recognising the importance of branding, and having the ability to brand themselves well is among the top three concerns of businesses as they look to expand overseas. To do branding well, commitment from the management level is key, along with having a business strategy in place to guide the brand direction, she added.

Engineering solutions firm Cyclect and sports fishing tackle wholesaler SureCatch World are examples of family businesses whose third generation of leadership took to rebranding in a bid to boost prospects.

Cyclect’s managing director Melvin Tan said the rebranding exercise undertaken in 2010 helped streamline the operations of various units within the company, which allowed it to take on opportunities more efficiently and be viewed as a “modern and progressive” firm.

For SureCatch World, it was the need for a breakthrough that triggered the relook at the company, chief executive Doris Toh told TODAY.

“The result was a strong organisation, and business confidence in us rose internationally as people saw us as professionals with a vision. We managed to get big international brands, retail chains working with us,” she said.

The rise of the entrepreneurial scene has also made the business environment more competitive in the small Singapore market, and has pushed the newer generation of business owners to prioritise branding early in the game.

One such company is Naiise, a retailer of Singapore-designed products that bucked the trend of a sluggish retail scene to open up six stores within 3.5 years of its inception.

Founder Dennis Tay is now looking at opening his first overseas outlet in another South-east Asian market, and enhancing his brand as not just a retailer but also a curator of specially-designed products, from food to clothes and furniture, that resonate with today’s consumers.

“In today’s economy you need to have a good brand because it’s just too much competition, too many brands that come up every day, too much duplication and replication of products,” he said.

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