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An Aye for an Aye

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaOnline it’s like for like, follow me follow you… but what does this have to do with influencing genuine travellers? It’s all numbers, and quality be damned. Whatever happened to the brave new world of Google and Facebook?


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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The online brand blizzard

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THE quantity vs quality equation is an age-old conundrum. As out-at-elbow students devouring cheap stomach roiling buffets that had us floating to the ceiling each night bloated with gas, the logic against small savoury meals served on clean china, was simple. Quality is expensive. Like the guns-and-butter dialectic, it continues to perplex everyone from seasoned economists who swear by the logic of markets, to lemming-like retailers who, also believing in the market, go with the flow and hope for the best come cliff or high water.

In the Internet age where everything from mobile phones to music, movies and news is apparently free, and people follow trends more than ever before, the discussion has taken a perverse turn with ‘quantity’ clearly in the ascendant for advertisers and brand purveyors despite the lip service to quality, luxury, and ‘carefully curated’ this that and the other… 

What this really means is that in the rush for numbers, brand messages – intended to woo and seduce top-drawer leisure trippers and business travellers – are being served to indifferent (or the wrong) audiences. Luxury travellers miss out on enticing new options for stays, location, adventure and romance. Many companies have seemingly dispensed with or forgotten about the importance of their brands, solely favouring bookings and clicks, something anathema to discerning road warriors.

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Maximising numbers can backfire. The overwhelming success of Louis Vuitton in Hong Kong and Macau with vast purchases by overseas visitors resulted in such a fashion glut (at one time Macau ballrooms were rented by designer brands simply to store their inventory) that Hongkongers began shunning LV items that were perceived as devalued with overexposure and burgeoning availability. This, in the eyes of the vexed citizenry, cheapened the product. There is more than a grain of truth here. Perceived value is based as much on scarcity as on demand.

{The Internet that once aimed to revolutionise human engagement has perverted economics and transformed gregarious kids into anti-social cell phone zombies

The increasing dominance of digital marketing (that drives mass clicks) and its obsession with statistics and sales (over brand value), is a key cause of the current societal decline and the demise of true quality, as the world has understood it for millennia. Top publications the world over, from newspapers and magazines to websites and blogs, are closing shutters. Why? Two simple words: Google and Facebook. They have vacuumed up the lion’s share of digital advertising, variously estimated at 70-80 percent. Brands like Adidas are abandoning television to focus entirely on the Web. And then there’s the lumpen drudgery of statistics.

The Internet that once claimed to be a white knight, expanding information horizons and democratic choice for all and revolutionising human engagement, has in fact perverted economics, perhaps irreversibly, transformed naturally gregarious kids into anti-social cell phone zombies, and spilled its 4.5bn page content like slop on the floor, flooding the market, with no way to separate the lobster from the leaves. Hotel general managers, who once relished face time on the shop floor pressing the flesh and chatting with key customers, are now often wholly anonymous behind the Internet smokescreen.

Digital marketing largely depends on young recruits, many of them bright and razor sharp with astounding maths degrees. Alas, many of these millennials have not consumed the very luxury brands – cars, fashion, hotels – they are tasked with promoting. They may lack a reading habit or the language skills to evaluate the content in say Le Monde or The Economist, or The New York Times. What follows is equally true of a US-based operation trying to gauge the quality of a Chinese language magazine or website that appears alien.

Going against the exhortation of a famous adage, books are being judged by their covers as advertisers favour gloss, slick design, and heavy art paper over quality writing and content. By this crude yardstick - for the purpose of argument - even the venerable The Economist would lose out to any glossy travel or ditzy fashion magazine that offers reassuring hernia-popping ‘weight’ and sheen. I have spent more time than I care to recall with people who pick up a magazine in their palm and look thoughtfully into the middle distance before declaring, “This feels good.” To say this is uniformed is an understatement. It is the weight of the written word, not the weight of the paper that influences minds, habits, and consumption.

Yet, if you do not have time to read, or cannot understand the language, you might be tempted to do the same. Glitter sells. It’s easier to plump for a gleaming Rolls-Royce (with no engine) than a humble Nissan (with a trusty workhorse engine). With no one looking under the hood and content evaluation at a minimum, the only yardstick available is statistics, numbers that can be crunched and spun out to impress the boss. Numbers are indeed impressive. But they tell only a fraction of the story. And they are no substitute for market experience, knowledge, and intuition.

With Facebook and Google, the dominance of quantity over quality has become absolute. This pursuit is eliminating excellent communication channels and giving rise to a mediocracy, an unintended consequence of mass muscle. Nowhere is this more apparent than in travel, where search results are dominated by booking engines and online travel agents who have muscled out brands and what they represent. And with dropping product awareness has come a lowering of rates because customers won’t pay for something they do not fully comprehend or value. Hoteliers bemoan a loss of 'yield' but why should a customer part with more unless adequately persuaded?

{fake traffic has emerged as a hidden iceberg waiting to sink the biggest advertising behemoths, all fuelled by the unparalleled demand for clicks

In a recent reader poll by Smart Travel Asia, the ‘biggest obstacle to travel’ was not a lack of retail options but, “too much emphasis on booking and not enough on product insights.” The second biggest hurdle was “fake or paid reviews.” Ads that stalk readers are another huge peeve.

Facebook and Google gloss over the fact that ‘likes’ and ‘clicks’ do not necessarily equate with ‘consumer quality’. Facebook algorithms militate against unpaid reach forcing many to opt for sponsored posts where again despite the attractively low costs and seemingly monstrous reach, the ‘engagement’ is spectacularly passive and padded with useless bumf (like clicks to ‘see more’ text). Web-link clicks to drive traffic are negligible.

Again, whatever countries you might pick for your ‘targeted’ promotion, Facebook will tend to serve the ones that offer the highest response. If you pick a basket of Asian countries for instance, Indonesia may be the only country brought into play by FB as it has a vast and responsive Facebook community with teen bloggers who claim millions of followers despite not having lived long enough to have convincingly acquired them.

Advertisers follow them – and their imaginary cohorts – at their peril. As ‘click farms’ get into the act, paying bored housewives and penurious students to earn money simply by visiting websites and clicking on advertising, fake clicks and fake traffic have emerged as hidden icebergs waiting to sink the biggest advertising behemoths. It is all fuelled by the unparalleled demand for clicks. And who could resist four dollars a click?

It is worth remembering, that kids are clicky, bankers are not. Luxury travellers – unlike budget airline passengers – have an army of people to sort things out for them, and arranging a CEO chinwag (with the wife coming over for a weekend’s shopping) needs human face time, not a random click. People need to dream about ownership. Brands are built by creating aspiration – dreams/desire = demand = deals.

Google knows a great deal about your search words, but no matter how clever an algorithm, it is never going to uncover true intent. This is because just the English language for one, is riddled with red herrings and misleading idiom intended to flummox even the most linguistically limber. There are endless interpretations for common words too (‘biggest press boobs’ is one innocent query that can result in a plate-smashing fracas if your wife spots the lively results). 

From Cleopatra to Chanel, the world’s best brands have always been sold on the basis of desire and feelings, intangible emotions that are impossible to quantify. Empires have been won and lost on the strength of brands. With rare exceptions in practical communities we suppose, people marry because it feels right, not because an algorithm determines the odds are good.

Meanwhile, the ayes have it. Travellers wait for the truth while disappearing newspapers and magazines scramble to keep their readers intelligently informed.

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