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by Ziad Razak

It's poisonous, some say carcinogenic. Some can't stand its fumes. Burn it and it gives off unhealthy gases to boot. But put some blue dye in it, and slap a snazzy name like "V-Power" on it, and you can sell this unholy stuff for RM1.40 per litre. That is the power of branding.

A brand is a powerful marketing concept, allowing the marketer to infuse the branded object or concept with
a number of qualities which the consumer would find desirable, thus persuading the consumer to purchase
the marketed object/concept above other competing brands. While branding has always been associated
deeply with the world of corporate marketing, the concept of branding has been used in many other contexts.

Politics, especially, is a branding game. To win votes is to convince them of the suitability of your party to form government and to implement policies which the party espouses, hopefully for the good of the people
(though political parties have been known to do otherwise!) To sell one's party inevitably requires the infusion of certain values which the party holds dear and which the party believes the public would endeavour to identify
with. The PAP of Singapore, for example, would brand itself as competent, efficient, and honest - even though the
likes of J. B. Jeyaratnam and Chiam See Tong would have the Singaporean public believe otherwise. The Barisan Nasional of Malaysia, on the other hand, would probably be laughed off the stage for describing itself as honest and
corruption-free; but then again they would, wouldn't they?

So how would one go about trying to understand this fuzzy-wuzzy world of branding? If I were Dr Mahathir (the fact that I am not is one for which I am thankful for!) then how would I position my party? How would I sell UMNO? How would I sell BN?

To make an illustration of how one goes about this branding business, we can do no worse than to take a leaf from what has become a Malaysian success story in the corporate scene of 2001: Petronas Dagangan Berhad, affectionately called "PDB" in Petronas circles. To you and I, that would be those green-and-white petrol stations that you see by the side of the road near your neighbourhood. Yep, like it or not, Petronas petrol stations have become a permanent fixture of the typical Malaysian life.

Why do I pick petrol retailing as an example? And why Petronas service stations especially? Is it simply because I work with Petronas? Will Hassan Marican pay me marketing commissions for writing about Petronas? Pay raise, maybe?

Well, not quite. True, familiarity with the subject helps. But the subject is particularly illuminating as petrol retailing is as tough a business as you can get. Especially in Malaysia, where prices are fixed by governmental diktat. And as any self-respecting member of the petroleum fraternity would tell you, petroleum products adhere to very strict specifications, so much so that the Unleaded 97 that you buy at BP, Shell, or Petronas is exactly the same, except for the additives that each company formulates on its own for "engine-cleaning" purposes. Oil companies are known to load petrol from depots shared with other petrol retailing companies, and mix them with additives in the tanker lorries, to be sent to your friendly neighbourhood petrol station.

Peculiar business, one would say. How does one create a competitive advantage when the product you sell is
more or less the same as what the other fella is selling? The answer, my friends, is in the branding.

Shell is a good case study. It is a well-known, global brand. It also happens to sponsor the Ferrari Formula
One team, which has won back-to-back championships. And for the Kancil driver on the PLUS highway, if one
cannot ever dream of driving a Ferrari race car like Michael Schumacher, dapat pakai Schumacher punya minyak kereta pun jadilah!

As for Petronas, the competition is steep. From its ignominious beginnings as a bidan terjun in the realm
of domestic retailing - Petronas was called upon to supply diesel and kerosine in the local market when
the country was hit by scarce supply of those products - Petronas has now been trailing Shell for the past
several years in terms of market share. Let's face it - as far as Formula One is concerned, Sauber would never be as fun or as sassy as Ferrari.

As for selling the products themselves; competition for industrial and commercial customers have never
been more intense. With the recent price hike - assuaged somewhat for diesel users - companies such as
Petronas, Shell, and Esso would find it tougher than ever to maintain their competitive edge amidst
increasing lack of demand due to the impending global economic recession. The domestic petrol market is
particularly cut-throat, with Shell peddling its V-Power (look Ma, it's blue!) and Esso/Mobil now
beginning to realize the synergistic advantages of the recent creation of ExxoMobil with the introduction of
their Formula 1 petrol.

But it is these very differences that hold sway in the minds of the car driver when he stops over at a petrol
station to refuel. Choosing between Shell or Petronas is a subconscious calculation of Ferrari versus
Sauber, V-Power versus Primax, global brand versus national pride. Marketing involves the judicious mix
of these different strands of values and many others, and it is the triumph of the marketer when this
internal juggling of values within the mind of the consumer results in the consumer choosing the marketer's brand above another.

So to put it in a more dramatic context, marketing pits the wits of the marketer against another brand's marketer. It's like a chess match, only you risk losing millions of ringgits for your company instead of losing a cheap plastic piece (though I'm sure Mr. Kaspariv would disagree…)

The marketer would be aking to himself: What colour should I use for the packaging? Should I have a logo for the product? If so, then how would it look like? And my adverts: should I limit them to TV? Or maybe plug my product over the radio as well? Who would be the most likely buyer for what I am selling? How do I make sure he will buy my product instead of another competing one? What about customer loyalty? How do I breed loyalty in the hearts of my customers so as to ensure repeat sales with them?

All these questions, and more, form the core decision-making involved in branding. So when greater scrutiny is exercised, one would find that on a fundamental level, political success is also a function of good branding. Once the prerequisites of good leadership, sensible and coherent policies, good organisation, and the rest are well and fully
ingrained within the fibre of a political party, the most vital step would be to communicate the essence of the party to the public.

Political success is, among others, a function of the effective formulation of a political image for the party that should appeal to the broadest segments of the public, and to project that image with a tenacity that would convince the public of the sincerity and the commitment of the party towards realising its policy ambitions. What does the party stand for? This is the question that good political branding should be able to supply the answer for.

Petronas has recently introduced its new corporate brand essence, a statement that encapsulates what Petronas stands for and the values that it offers: Energy Receive Energy Return. Aspiring People, Everywhere. This statement is a culmination of Petronas' efforts to encapsulate its image: aggressive and growth oriented, but never dismissive or arrogant. Forging ahead into unchartered territories, but always fair and professional in its business dealings.
Urbane, but also humane. These are values which Petronas believes to be those it treasures, and Petronas has seeked to encapsulate and crystallize those values into its corporate brand essence.

Perhaps we can also take a leaf out of Petronas' books in realising the power of branding in creating an identity, a powerful arsenal in winning the hearts and minds of others. After all, the political and the corporate worlds holds their own distinct lessons to be learnt.

Postscript: Recently, Petronas Dagangan Berhad has announced that it has beaten Shell to the top spot in domestic petroleum retailing during a quarterly market share survey; the first time that Petronas has succeeded in doing so.

Ziad Razak is a Petronas executive who figured that he wanted to write about something, but didn't have the faintest idea on what to write about; so he decided to write about something that happens to take away 12
hours of his life everyday. He pleads innocence to the charge of first-degree obsession with Petronas.