The impossible brief: Singapore Tourism Board

STB imageComing up with an idea that defines and sells Singapore is not easy. Robin Hicks suggests that while Singapore Tourism Board has selected a strong shortlist for its advertising tender, whoever wins faces a near impossible task.

It’s not often that I feel sorry for people paid three times as much as me who swan into work at 11am on their skateboards. But for the poor souls pitching for Singapore Tourism Board I make an exception.

The four agencies in contention face one of the most difficult briefs to crack in Asia.

How to define a tiny, complicated country that is a lot younger than my dad? How to sell a city that in some parts of the world, such as where I’m from, people still associate with expensive sterility, the death penalty and a ban on chewing gum? The haze, which has robbed Singapore’s tourism industry of millions over the last few months, is a mist over an underlying image problem that no ad agency has nailed to date.

The tender, which was called in July, was telling in that media was not part of it. MEC’s contract was extended for another two years. It was for creative, with digital and production rolled in.

It is also worth nothing that the agencies that have worked for STB in the recent past, BBH and before them Y&R, did not respond to the open tender. Incumbent agencies J. Walter Thompson and Mirum also politely declined. STB, and all the trappings of a government agency that come with it, is not known to be Singapore’s easiest client.

STB's 'so bad it will go viral' ad targeting the Philippines

STB’s ‘so bad it will go viral’ ad

Though it was not the work of lead agency J. Walter Thompson, STB’s most memorable piece of creative of the last two years was probably a video that, although targeted at the Philippines, bemused viewers around the world with a three-minute film that was, according to Singapore blog Mothership.sg, ‘so bad it will go viral’. And it did.

STB’s strategy has been to aim at key markets with local, tactical activity, such as the current “Your Best Weekend Yet” campaign aimed at Malaysia, featuring actor Aaron Aziz and his family spending a long weekend in Singapore.

Vu Anh Tuan in video targeting Vietnam

Vu Anh Tuan in video targeting Vietnam

The approach has varied widely in STB’s key markets. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the positioning is “Only in Singapore”. In China, it is about “New discoveries”. In India, it’s “The Holiday You Take Home with You”. In Australia, “Get Lost and Find the Real Singapore”. In Vietnam, “The New Fun is Singapore Made”.

What has been missing is a strong thread to hold it all together, a credible brand story about what Singapore is, why it’s a great place to go, told in a way that emotionally connects with an audience (in a good way).

“Uniquely Singapore” was vague, confusing and grammatically questionable. But arguably it was a better option than a global brand presence that does not extend far beyond the digital platform YourSingapore.com. Singapore could use some of what BBDO Guerrero created for the Philippines (It’s more fun in the Philippines), Ogilvy made for India (Incredible India) and M&C Saatchi produced for New Zealand 15 years ago (100% Pure New Zealand). A bit of magic that captures the spirit of a country.

The main thrust of STB’s $20 million marketing push into local markets, launched around Singapore’s SG50 celebrations in May, has been to offer deals on hotels, attractions and tours to get people on planes and spending at events such as the Great Singapore Sale and Pedestrian Night. With tourism visits to Singapore now in decline, particularly in key markets China, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia, so the pressure to recover visitor numbers has intensified.

International visitor arrivals, source: STB

International visitor arrivals, source: STB

The marketing plan seems to have been less about building a brand than rattling a stick about Singapore’s big shiny attractions like Sentosa, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore Flyer, Universal Studios and the zoo.

Ogilvy & Mather, DDB, TBWA and Comwerks make an interesting line-up on the shortlist of agencies who must answer a brief to capture the Singapore of today and of the next 50 years.

Now that the hysteria of the SG50 celebrations has finally started to fade, what is there new to say about Singapore? And what vision of travel will Singapore present to the world in the era of personalised getaways and Airbnb?

The Urban Development Authority’s talks with Airbnb to set down clearer guidelines on short-term leasing, revealed earlier this week, look at odds with the extensive deals STB has made with Singapore’s hotel groups. It is illegal for Housing and Development Board flat owners to sublet their properties to tourists for short-term stays. If that changes, Singapore could become a completely different experience for tourists. How will that be communicated to the outside world? Another big challenge for STB and its new agency.

Going into the next round of the tender are contenders with different strengths. And none look weak.

David Tang’s DDB go in with strong local credentials and a legacy of effective work for the likes of StarHub, Health Promotion Board and McDonald’s. The agency handled a lot of the work behind the SG50 celebrations.

TBWA have Singapore Airlines, Singapore’s most prestigious client with strong ties to STB. TBWA has produced some much talked-about global work for Airbnb, a brand STB needs to know more about.

Ogilvy & Mather, though not enjoying the best period in its history, can never be written off and has creative firepower in depth. Who knows what to expect from Comwerks, something of a wild card that will bring in resources from around the WPP network.

Of the four, Comwerks comes to the table with the most competitively priced offer by far, a package of just over $5 million for two years’ of services. TBWA is the priciest of the four, at $8.6 million.

Whoever wins must work with a client who isn’t just a marketer or even a minister. It is every Singaporean, a stakeholder who is probably a bit bored by now of the humdrum advertising that represents their country overseas. They want stuff that makes them proud, not embarrassed.

The next round of presentations are this week. It will be interesting to see who gets picked to chart choppy waters for a brand and a sector at a crossroads.

Robin Hicks is editor of Mumbrella Asia.


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