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Time to Re-think Brand Philippines?

by Robert Allen

“The thing is, we always shoot ourselves in the foot. And we never miss.” — Philippines Brand Owner

The election of Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino as the Philippine’s new President marks both a progression and continuity in the country’s politics. The progression is a successful, democratic transfer of power, undertaken without the violence that has marred previous polls. The continuity is the election of a candidate from one of the Philippine’s ruling families. So will this president-elect represent continuity or change for the country’s brand?
June 12th marks the 112th anniversary of Philippine independence and the founding of nation’s representative democracy. The Philippines brand has historically been dominated by two factors: disappointing politics and the OFW (overseas Filipino worker). The first is the image of instability caused by repressive colonial history; followed by Ferdinand Marcos’ ransacking of the country’s economy (and his wife Imelda’s infamous shoe fetish).

The OFW phenomena is in part a response to the poor economic prospects this legacy bequeathed. Millions of ‘Pinoys’ work overseas as seamen, health workers and domestic helpers across South East Asia and beyond, seeking prospects denied to them at home.

In the Philippines, the image of these expats is mixed. The remittance they send back is a welcome boost for the economy, but many worry that the resultant strains on family life will outweigh the financial benefits. Others grumble that this exodus is a symptom of the failure of the domestic economy to develop sufficient opportunities for ambitious and motivated young people.

The external impact of these factors on the Philippine’s brand is an image of a country unable to develop, and a people worthy of aspiring to no higher than the bottom of the earning food chain. Sniggering tales of prospective Filipino maids asking if their meager wage included ‘headache money’ are a regular feature of expat dinner party chatter.

Attending a brand launch last year, your writer witnessed first hand the hurt this image causes. In the week before the launch the US TV show Desperate Housewives had featured a scene where an American character had refused to be treated by a Filipino doctor. The show had intended to highlight the snobbery and ignorance of the American character, and the situation portrayed had clearly struck a deep chord with the audience at the launch.

Almost quivering with indignation, the speaker had railed against the iniquity of the Philippine’s image abroad: They weren’t just launching a new company brand that day (she asserted) they were building a new Filipino brand of professionalism, technical prowess and customer service.

In fact, the seeds of a new brand image are already taking root. The very things that have made Filipinos employable in the lower paid service industries – welcoming, friendly personalities, attentive service, good English and hard working – are the very things that provide the platform for a new global Philippines brand.

The Philippines is already a strong rival to the (better branded) India in outsourced call centers, where patience and enunciation are vital. The last few years has seen a wave of Filipino companies using brand to develop their image and drive change through their businesses. Brands such as leading bank BDO are blending outstanding customer service with product development.

No doubt the new President will have many issues pressing for his attention. But perhaps now is the time to re-launch Brand Philippines to help both the OFW workers, and local companies carrying the burden of being global standard bearers.
Robert Allen is associate director, brand strategy, in Interbrand’s Singapore office. Rob has worked in branding, marketing, communications and research both client-side and as a consultant, with more than 15 years experience across Europe and Asia.
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