Brand Singapore: Capturing the Spirit of a Nation

Tourism is an important multi-billion dollar industry for Singapore. The city-state’s visitor attractions, business-friendly regulations, reputation as a clean and green city, and strong connectivity to other countries has made it an ideal business and leisure destination. However, the competition for tourism and investment dollars has been intensifying.

“With the keen competition, destination marketing becomes a high-stakes game with significant and increasing investments by tourism organisations,” shared Lynette Pang, Assistant Chief Executive, Marketing Group, Singapore Tourism Board (STB). “At the same time, destination marketing is also looking and sounding the same across the board with very little differentiation in how they brand, position and market themselves.” Besides, as a small city-state, Singapore’s reputation as a clean and safe country was also unfortunately associated with one that was sterile and boring.

Pang and her team conducted an organisation-wide strategic review to rethink traditional marketing methods. STB was keen to build a strong national brand to enable consumers to form unique and positive associations with the nation. Branding would build fundamental emotional connections with consumers who might otherwise overlook short-term marketing efforts.

In 2015, Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebration was marked by a wave of introspection and exploration of the national identity. STB took the opportunity to develop a brand that could transcend the tourism sector. It collaborated with Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) to create a unified country brand that would provide greater marketing impact on the international audience.

“Consumers do not see the difference between STB and EDB and will not know the difference between what the different government departments do. They just see it as Singapore,” said Lim Shoo Ling, Director, Brand, at STB. “It might be puzzling for someone to receive incompatible advertisements or content about Singapore. This was an opportunity to build on each other's efforts and deliver a clear and consistent message that goes beyond tourism and business.”

Dr Beh Swan Gin, Chairman of EDB, added, “In order to cut through a very noisy media landscape, you need to put a lot more marketing dollars behind any initiative. And if different agencies are putting resources on different initiatives, you basically do not have enough scale. We are a small country, and that means the amount of resources we can afford is also limited.”

The decision was made to pool their resources. The Secret Little Agency (TSLA), EDB's global creative agency, and TBWA, STB’s global advertising agency, were tasked to aid the branding effort. The team conducted many interviews and held focus group discussions with a wide range of stakeholders to identify what Singapore stood for. The strong emotional ties that the stakeholders had with Singapore led to many lively debates on how it should be portrayed. Lim described the complex research process as a ‘journey of self-discovery as a Singaporean’. In the end, the team decided that the emphasis of the brand should shift from ‘place’ to ‘people’.

Lim explained that Singaporeans made the country special, “We did not want to brand the country based on physical attributes; our landscape constantly changes and develops, built by the spirit and attitude of Singaporeans. Singapore’s transformation journey was made possible by the people. We want to tell stories about Singaporeans that reflect their dreams, their aspirations and what they are good at.”

The common feedback was that Singapore had provided a supportive environment for passionate Singaporeans to realise their dreams. Thus, Singapore would be portrayed as a place where passions and possibilities were realised. Nicholas Ye, Founder of TSLA, shared his thought process, “If we focus only on activities available in a destination, the value proposition is transactional… [We want to appeal] to the more sophisticated quality tourists that we are targeting, who are seeking deeper, more aspirational, even transformational, experiences.”

Natalie Gruis, Head of Strategy at TBWA, detailed their approach to developing the Passion Made Possible marketing campaign, “Our work is based on disrupting the status quo. Globally, marketing destination campaigns usually talk about what they have... With the new brand, we had to find a way to connect Singaporeans to the people in the rest of the world. We studied how companies like Spotify and Netflix segment their consumers; a 14-year-old in India can like the same music or television show as a 40-year-old in the US. That is how we made the shift from demographic segmentation to interest- or passion-based segmentation.”

Authentic stories about locals were depicted through various media overseas with the intention of matching potential visitors with locals according to their passions. Seven ‘passion tribes’, Foodies, Explorers, Collectors, Progressors, Socialisers, Culture Shapers and Action Seekers, were created based on the lifestyles and interests of various target groups. Marketing material drew attention to how Singaporeans had brought their passions to life and invited visitors to experience those possibilities first-hand. Gruis shared, “Marketing this way enabled us to move upstream. When action-seeking consumers consider going for a ski holiday, it is already at a late stage of the journey. At that point, they have a shortlist of winter countries. Marketing passions and interests allows us to really move upstream because they connect to their passions daily. Action Seekers may consider going to Singapore if there is passive awareness of the destination.”

The team hoped the brand would last a long time and enable them to connect with consumers based on their passions. They wanted consumers to have Singapore at the back of their minds whenever they were thinking of travelling.

Written by Srinivas Reddy, SMU Professor Emeritus of Marketing and CW Chan, Case Writer at The Centre for Management Practice (CMP) at SMU, this case study examines competitive positioning in branding and how to address consumer perceptions. The case also discusses the difficulties of nation branding and when to use pull and push marketing strategies.

To read the case in full, please visit the CMP website by clicking here.