MEDIA & MARKETING | Contributed Content, Singapore
Chris Reed

Lee Kuan Yew, the world’s first country marketing director, built the Singapore country brand


Legendary former Singaporean PM Lee Kuan Yew was way ahead of his time. He was the world’s very first Marketing Director for a country brand. He believed in the power of country marketing long before the Mad Men of Madison Avenue even thought about it.

I was reading the Hotel Association of Singapore’s book on the history of hospitality which has fascinating stories and pictures of old Singapore. An anecdote about Lee Kuan Yew stood out. The former PM spoke passionately in speeches in the 60’s and 70’s of his vision of seeing Singapore as being one of the most visited tourism destinations of the world.

At one event he was asked by a journalist why anyone would want to come to Singapore, there was nothing to see said the inquisitor, no sites, no culture, no activities, no hotels and no infrastructure. Without missing a beat Lee Kuan Yew said “Perception. It’s not about what’s here it’s about what people think is here. It’s all about marketing.”

The former PM then set about enabling the creation of a series of tourist friendly initiatives from the Night Safari to the Flyer, the Esplanade to Marina Bay Sands and marketed them and the country as a place a tourist should come. He even enabled the building of the country’s own airline which only much larger countries had ever tried to do before and he made them make it profitable from the start unlike other state funded airlines.

With a global airline Lee Kuan Yew could not only bring people to Singapore on the route to other places (a trick that Emirates use many years later) but was able to use the airline to showcase why people should visit Singapore itself. He did this through global marketing campaigns and using visible and attractive icons such as the legendary Singapore Girl on airlines to market the country’s sexiness for example.

Lee Kuan Yew believed in the power of tourisms long before economic studies the world over have proved his point. In a country with no natural resources Singapore has been amazingly creative and innovative in generating business and creating a tourism brand that pays off financially and commercially from both a consumer and a business perspective.

Tourists bring jobs and money. Tourists stay at hotels and eat in restaurants. Tourists visit galleries and leisure attractions. Tourists spend in shops and buy things they would never do when they are not being tourists. Tourists bring word of mouth marketing and share memories with the world. Tourists are a country’s greatest brand ambassadors sharing the story of a country with the world.

Tourism also markets a country and city as a business centre. Singapore is now one of the greatest financial hubs in the world. Much of the reason why businesses locate to Singapore is the attractiveness of the city to companies and their personnel. That is down to the positive tourism marketing effect. It works on business leaders as much as it does on consumers.

In an interview with the New York Times Lew Kuan Yew said he seeks to make Singapore "a first world oasis in a third world region." "We built up the infrastructure," he said. "The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so that they behaved more like first world citizens, not like third world citizens spitting and littering all over the place."

So Singapore embarked on what he called "campaigns to do this, campaigns to do that." Do not chew gum. Do not throw garbage from rooftops. Speak good English. Smile. Perform spontaneous acts of kindness. In other words, marketing.

One of Singapore’s most revered brand assets is cleanliness, there is no litter. The other is natural plants, flowers, grass and trees perfectly manicured like you would never see in another country, all year round. Singapore has an array of coconut trees across the island and yet none of these trees actually produces any coconuts to sell! It’s all about perception and marketing. They are all imported to make the tropical island more …tropical! Brand perception. Tourists want a tropical island with coconut trees, if it makes them come that’s what they will have!

In 2011 Singapore, an island with only 5 million inhabitants had over 10 million visitors. The only major country to have double the number of visitors to residents. It was 13% up year on year. Compare that with competitors such as Australia which is stuck on the 6 million mark.

More importantly Singapore’s luxury driven tourism drive generated US$18billion in revenue in 2011. A staggering 17% up on the previous year and making it the 15th most lucrative tourism country in the world at generating revenue from tourists. Now you can see why Lee Kuan Yew had this vision of Singapore being a tourism destination of choice for global travelers. His vision has paid off in real financial terms

Lee Kuan Yew is undoubtedly a polarizing figure in Singapore. Older people revere him, younger people don’t know what all the fuss is about and opponents are usually crushed in one way or another. However speaking as an honorary resident however I can see that his achievements in marketing Singapore as an aspirational tourism brand were ground breaking, visionary and way ahead of their time.

The philosophy of build it and they will come is only half the story. You have to build it and then market it as exactly what someone wants to experience on a holiday and then they will come. Lee Kuan Yew understood what tourism marketing was all about, marketing a brand that people around the world wanted to visit, see, experience for themselves and tell their friends about.

People think the Singapore F1 is a sporting race. It’s not, it’s a marketing vehicle. That is why Singapore spend tens of millions of dollars on it. It may provide a short term tourism boost for those coming into the country who wish to watch the Grand Prix but it actually provides a much more powerful three day prime time television spectacular across the world to market Singapore’s tourism assets through TV sets, lap tops, smart phones and the media.

The stroke of genius was doing the Grand Prix as road race around the tourism sites of Singapore and doing it at night when Singapore looks even more beautiful and sparkling. The world watches that race and the world wants to come and visit. It pays back the $60m+ dollars it costs every year ten times over.

You ask anyone who has never been to Singapore but has seen the Singapore F1 race and they all say they want to visit the city state as it looks so glittering and stunning. Genius tourism marketing. You compare that with Melbourne or Silverstone in the UK and most other Grand Prixs and the only one that comes near is the Monaco GP but even that is during the day and in the rain looks terrible. Singapore’s tourism assets dazzle rain or shine through the night.

The former PM understood that brand values and brand assets needed to be communicated powerfully through marketing globally in order to achieve his overall commercial objectives for Singapore. Singapore hasn’t stopped building tourist focused assets ever since but more importantly it has used every communications devices possible to market the tourism brand of Singapore that everyone across the world aspires to visit.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed has 25 years of senior marketing experience on both the client and agency side in the UK and now in Asia Pacific. He is the CEO and founder of Black Marketing.

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