As the world slowly crosses into a post-pandemic norm, it has become more important to understand how brands adapt and change to meet evolving expectations and considerations. Digital marketing is about having an adaptable mindset, letting you take in information, foresee trends and act accordingly – brand marketing is no exception here. In this issue of the Marketing Expert Series, experienced brand consultant and digital expert, Tania Tai, takes it one step further.
Encouraging us to ‘outsee, outthink and outdo’, Tania shares her life and career experiences. She offers insights into the world of brand consulting, and what it takes to make a strong, lasting impression on consumers and team members alike.
Hi, Tania, thank you for joining us in our Marketing Expert Series. Let’s kick off with your background, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get to where you are now?
My pleasure Olwen. I have always believed in the shaping influence of life experiences. Honestly, it’s quite amazing how seemingly unexpected connections come together as mini-experiments for us to tinker, learn and grow in new domains. All we need to do is stay true to ourselves yet have an open mind to explore and muster up enough courage to pivot when the time is ripe. As such, was my journey of self-discovery until I found my calling in brand consulting.
The early years in divergent fields of financial audit and hospitality taught me valuable lifelong lessons. If you take systems-based thinking from auditing and fuse it with the precious human moments from hoteling, violà! You will have a winning combination to drive success in branding, marketing and communications.
I will always be grateful to Su (founder of Su Yeang Design, subsequently Holmes & Marchant) who provided the first stepping-stone when I contemplated my career pivot and nurtured my growth trajectory in the pioneering years of branding in Singapore. Fast track 20 years down the road, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside visionary leaders across categories to co-create brands that are worthy of remark. This is the worthy work that I do. And I’m still as passionate about until today – helping brands find their purpose, design better futures and become that special force of positive impact in the world.
Marketing, as we know, comes in many different shapes and sizes and can be rather demanding. How do you believe that marketing leaders can help their brands – and their teams – grow in today’s world?
Thriving in these exceptional times requires a very different mindset. Brand owners need to plan ahead, ride the wave of hopeful rebounds and help society regenerate. Just like how Pantone launched a more vibrant colour palette to mark a brighter 2022, I’d like to share some useful habits to help marketing teams grow their brands and ride this optimistic wave back to normalcy:
Outsee: Consider the brand ecosystem and deep-dive to align beliefs. The power of branding lies in how meaningfully your brand connects to beliefs, be it leadership, customers or employees. When customer experiences are well aligned with culture (i.e. employee experiences), and brought to life by brand experiences based on the bedrock of shared values to improve the world, you will discover the magic formula for sustainable branding. The ultimate goal is to build brand love by forging deep emotional connections based on empathy and compelling storytelling.
Take for example the rebranding of Progresif, a telco in Brunei. Beyond the impressive numbers of new customers onboarded, the zero to hero story of its successful rebranding was because we created a brand that stood for all things progressive from the retail experience to the curation of an emergent tribe of influencers. Little by little, a new Progresif movement was born, fueled by a growing tribe of Progresifs who believed in leading where others feared to tread. And it was this progressive tribe of loyal customers that helped the brand weather Covid’s perfect storm.
Outthink: There is nothing more inspiring when beautiful minds come together at ideation sessions during workshops. Whenever you’re in need of a creative jolt to solve the toughest of challenges, always remember that imagination is our strongest currency. Ideation is a non-linear process, so be prepared to reframe challenges and reimagine your world from a different lens.
From experience, let me share a lateral thinking technique that has been particularly effective – “Embrace Constraints”. During the envisioning workshop for Penang Butterfly Farm, one of the breakout team activities was to come up with a new brand name for the well-loved tourist attraction. We needed to hunt for a name that better reflected their refreshed positioning to be the voice of nature – an edutainment destination of the future that celebrates the unsung heroes of nature (i.e. insects and butterflies). Under the constraints of a whole slew of taboo words, such as “butterfly”, “nature” and “park”, ideation ventured into the unexpected. A turf that is far from the norm. Eventually, it was an exploration in a science-inspired realm that “Entopia” came about, coined from “Entomology” and “Utopia”.
Outdo: In the go-to-market race to the next normal, the world has reset at a different level. The pandemic has mainstreamed conversations on sustainability, digital futures and a hybrid way of life. Whether your brand is ready for the metaverse or not, brands now have more room to play across platforms virtually and/or physically. With the blurring of boundaries between online and offline and access to rich data-driven insights, welcome to the era of omnichannel marketing on steroids!
This is the time for brands to shine in moments that matter by sharing content that enriches the lives of their customers. Brands that win the battle, will be those that are prepared to back what they promise with heartwarming brand acts. So that more people can not only see and hear what the brand is about but also feel the brand love.
Take the case of Lexus when they launched the Lexus ES Self-Charging Hybrid “Feel Your Best” campaign last year, emotional AI was used to offer viewers a more personalised experience through facial recognition. Imagine adapting content real-time in immersive cinematic sequences. Imagine the thrill of an ad that responds to your emotions just as the car responds to the driver’s behaviour and needs. Wow!
You’re the outgoing Managing Director at DIA Brand Consultants. Can you tell us a bit about the work you did there? How does it compare to other career experiences?
DIA made its way to Malaysia when I settled here 15 years ago. At that time, branding was still in its nascent stage. It was exciting to build the business and share the invisible aspects of branding that people often miss or overlook. Through the years, I’m thrilled to have helped businesses at different life stages unlock their full brand potential and empowered brand teams to realise their path to purpose.
A career in brand consulting is like no other. It’s fascinating because you get to work with a lot of different clients from divergent industries, which gives you the chance to immerse and understand each category better. Perks of the trade: when you consult on FMCG projects, you become a smarter consumer too because you will understand the category and the competitive landscape most intimately. And so, you will know how to make the best choices that suit your needs.
How did the developments of the COVID-19 Pandemic affect your own strategies at DIA? What challenges and/or developments did you have to adapt to since the start of 2020?
The benefit of a diversified portfolio strategy is that your business becomes more resilient in times like these.
From a project perspective, new opportunities emerged in the health and wellbeing space, which led to projects such as DuPont’s digital immunity cookbook and Top’s Anti-virus laundry detergent packaging revamp. When you brand, you brand for the long haul so that you can hit the ground running faster when the good times return. That’s why brand training and design thinking workshops carried on unabated during these pandemic times. Although workshops did take a very different form, 100% virtual and more interactive, thanks to Miro.
From a workplace perspective, we had to quickly adapt to working from home. Suddenly, the home transformed from a downtime nest to an uptime hub. A whole new set of challenges around work-life integration jump-started the future of work. Looking on the brighter side of life, the team had to learn faster, become more disciplined and self-aware, and master the art of setting boundaries. Regular check-ins, fun projects, wellbeing gifting and virtual parties kept the team together while apart. True to the wisdom of Stoic philosopher Seneca, on how adversity sparks greatness.
What sort of lasting impact do you believe the pandemic’s forced acceleration of digital transformation has had on the various industries in which you’ve worked over the years?
The pandemic has left a mark on every industry, and the world has changed. Once we have tasted the convenience and benefits of digital life, it is hard to go back. The stage is now set for more exciting times of digital integration and data mining post-pandemic. As people are by nature highly social, which is why I believe that hybrid experiences will be the future of everything, from the way we live, learn, work and play. Right here, right now. This is the moment for all of us to respond with a deeper sense of awareness as a community to reshape the world that we should make.
Do you think that this impact has permanently changed how you will go about your work in the future – whatever work that may be?
Yes, the impact is here to stay for a long time to come. The best way forward is for everyone to embrace the future of work as soon as possible and use this opportunity to reinvent. Given the current reality of burnout, anxiety and mental health concerns, we will need to find new ways to collaborate better remotely or in-person going forward.
To manage a hybrid way of work, it’s healthy to be more transparent and lock-in downtime too. By scheduling non-meeting times, especially heads-down time (when we need alone-time for deep thinking) or me-time (for self-improvement and growth to stoke our passion). It’s good to make time and schedule these often-neglected moments so that we can always be at our best.
Leadership and mentoring have never been more important during uncertain times, especially for women. What role do you believe women with successful careers, like yourself, can play in the lives of women today?
Leadership and mentoring have evolved in these uncertain times too. Irrespective of new joiners or experienced professionals, many interesting situations present themselves as meaningful coaching-learning moments. Women, like men, play multiple roles at home or at work. The key is in finding the right happy balance.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has painfully highlighted the disproportionate impact on women in Southeast Asia. A sad fact according to the recent research by the Asian Development Bank at the end of 2021. There is much work to be done to reverse this, be it through peer professional networks or mentoring startup communities, or even reaching out to those not typically under the radar, such as Women of Will for single mums or Ideas Academy to educate displaced teens.
What would you say to aspiring marketers just starting with their careers?
If you love a world in perpetual beta, thrive on discovering something new everyday or get a high from solving thorny problems… Brand consulting is the best career to start off with. Here you will have the best arena to hone your full-stacked marketing and creative thinking skills amidst a smorgasbord of industries. It is indeed a career less ordinary, where taste, style, wit and intelligence come together wonderfully. It is the best platform for you to discover yourself and how to navigate your future.
It’s been great to learn more about you and your work, Tania, thank you for sharing. How can people connect with you if they’d like to know more about you?
I’m taking some time off the grid at the moment, so LinkedIn would be the best way to reach out.