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It’s a “brand” new Asia

Midgets, crocs, and slot machines. What will destination marketing pundits think of next?

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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BRANDS ARE POWERFULL THINGS. Take Siemens for example. A Siemens washing machine dropped from a height on your mother-in-law will get the job done with minimal fuss, and certainty. Or take Volvo. Strap in your mother-in-law, hoist the car as high as your hernia will allow, turn it upside down and let go. The job's done. And, best of all, the car's fine. That's the power of brands. People know them, trust them, and buy them.

The same is true of cities and countries. And destinations have turned to "branding" with a vengeance. Thus it is that everywhere you go these days you'll encounter a crocodile show, butterfly park, bird show and, sometimes, even a tiger show. What these large pussies are up to in Thailand makes the mind boggle but they're jumping through hoops rather than obsessing over ping-pong balls, thank heavens. Oz went one step further with the arcane and splendid sport of midget-tossing before the little fellows wised up and, realising this was clearly not the nascent Australian Space Programme, left and signed up with the circus - where they are shot out of canons instead.

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How then does one brand a destination? Strait-laced Singapore has had enough of night safaris where bored animals observe manic humans being carted around in trolleys. “Surprising Singapore” wants casinos. Macau (which already has casinos) wants huge Las-Vegas “hotel casinos” and wall-to-wall theme-park-style attractions.

Singapore has had enough of Night Safaris where bored animals observe manic humans being carted around in trolleys

Hongkong has Disneyland. I have my Siemens washing machine. And everywhere from Malaysia to Indonesia and the Philippines, monkeys, dolphins, sea lions, tigers, bears, crocodiles, and whales are singing, turning cartwheels, swimming, dancing, driving toy cars and generally wondering when their EU Pet Passports are going to arrive so they can fly off to Brussels to live a full and dignified, if dull, life.

When it comes to casinos (and, for that matter, anything else), pundits are quick to point to the success of Las Vegas or some other thriving institution half way around the world. Why not import this or that model? After all it works. This is gobbledegook. Madonna is a singing diva and her records have earned millions but that is no reason for George Bush to strap on two pointy drinking-cup cones to his chest and prance about in leather underwear. George is NOT Madonna. The Madonna get-up simply wouldn’t pass muster because the two “brands” are inherently different. Madonna, for one, can probably string together a complete coherent sentence.

Destinations can be inventive, but invention must come from within. Copycat products rarely work. People visit Paris to marvel at the Louvre, and to swat sniffy French waiters with baguettes as hard as baseball bats. Would more tourists flock to the French capital if the Champs-Elysées (which is hard enough to pronounce) threw in a crocodile show, bird park and humpbacked whale orchestra? Okay, I’d definitely go to see that.

Holidaying Americans fly across the Pacific to find a decent Burger King. Instead, they are bing served up animal shows

Destination marketing is going through a full-blown mid-life crisis. And, as with all forty-somethings, there’s the initial hysteria and the wild parties, an increasingly untenable facade, followed by the unmasking, the meltdown, divorce and, finally, yoga and candles. The thing is, when people successfully re-emerge from their mid-life crises, they are more keenly in touch with themselves. Branding or re-branding, then, is about rediscovering your core and wearing it proudly.

Why do people squeeze into those remorselessly tight economy seats and travel long hours through disorienting time zones? Simple: to see something different, and to heroically attempt to watch a FULL in-flight movie from START TO FINISH. They travel because they are bored with their own quotidian surrounds. They travel to soak in other cultures. Cluttering places with bland wax museums and ersatz hoopla – as much of Asia is hell bent on doing – is to turn the extraordinary into ordinary.

Macau’s promotion of its charming “heritage trail” is a giant leap forward for this tiny enclave. Singapore needs to lighten up but are casinos the cure? Hongkong once billed itself as the “City of Life” which, despite being clearly trumped by our suggested moniker – City Of The Living Dead Packed With Brazen Hussies – was actually hinting at the truth. Hongkong’s strength is its extraordinary vitality. “Incredible India” has thus far stayed on course to showcase the country’s spectacular assets, its primary “brand”. The airport mayhem and Delhi Belly can feature later.

Europeans travel to India to revel in history. Holidaying Americans fly across the Pacific to find a decent Burger King. Instead, they are being served up animal shows. Wait a minute. Aren’t we simply giving our brand secrets away? These very tourists may teach their critters a thing or two. In a few years Asians will travel to New York, not to gawp at the Empire State building, but to marvel at felines doing unspeakable things with ping-pong balls. That’s the power of brands.

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