Making the right choices, avoiding the landmines

In the hyper-competitive world of today, it is difficult for SMEs to find ways for their brand to stand out.

Mr Jacky Tai knows that SMEs face this problem; as the Principal Consultant of Unbroken Branding, his job is to help companies brand themselves correctly. His clients include the National University of Singapore, The Learning Lab and Hitachi, among others.

In one of his projects, Unbroken Branding was able to help their client’s business grow by 1500%, all within three years of implementing the new brand strategy his company came up with. In another, they were able to help their client get acquired for more than nine times the average price. 

A veteran in brand strategy, he has advised many clients on how to avoid making branding and marketing mistakes (or landmines, as he calls them) over the last 21 years; and learnt to avoid some himself along the way.

His business journey parallels that of a typical Singaporean SME in the sense that he faces the same challenges as them.

 “I don't know everything but I am fortunate because I serve clients from all kinds of industry and as much I help these companies develop better brand positioning and brand differentiation, I also learn from them” he said.

Mr Tai will be speaking at an upcoming seminar on May 17, “How Game-Changers Lead in the Company and in the Market”.

What has motivated you throughout your business journey?

I remembered that many of my colleagues had asked me this question over the years.  They often tell me something along the line of, "I can see that you are very passionate about your work.  Tell me, which part of the brand strategy consulting process do you enjoy most?"

My typical answer puzzled them because I would tell them, "I actually don't enjoy the work because the work is hard and tedious and it gives me migraines sometimes."  And that is true.  Branding looks like a glamorous profession but it is not.  So, my colleagues would then ask me, "Then why do you do it?”  And my answer would be, "The end result.  I enjoy seeing the end result when clients take the strategy, implement it, and see their brand grow.  Beyond the fees that we earn from clients, the thing that is really worth getting out of bed in the morning for is the end result of the work that we do.  If you do it right, you will see your clients grow, and it will make you smile.  I guarantee it."

So that's what kept me motivated.  When I see clients benefit from my work.  That always makes me smile.  The thing is, many of the companies that I have seen are well-run, sincere, and they have good quality products or solutions, and once in a while I come across companies that are potentially game-changers.  What most of them lack is usually one or all of these things: a well-crafted Brand Position, a clear Brand Differentiator, a great Brand Name, or a workable and properly-articulated Business Model.  These are the areas that I can help them sharpen.

How and why did you choose to specialise in marketing and branding?

I chose brand strategy development as a career because the brand is what provides direction to a company's innovation and marketing initiatives.  When you have a well-defined Brand Position, you know where the brand is today; what it wants to be; and where it wants to go.  That Brand Position drives the marketing and innovation initiatives that are needed to help the brand get to its destination.  Without that, your marketing and innovation initiatives will run wild and eventually the company will run off the road or into a brick wall.  

Branding is also what differentiates a company from its competitors.  In one of my branding books called "Killer Differentiators", I wrote that branding was originally used 4,000 years ago as a method of differentiating cows.  Today, branding is used for the purpose of differentiating brands (as well as cows).  Without proper differentiation, the company will be forced to compete on price which is fine if they have a structural cost advantage that allows them to sell cheaper than anyone else and still make a decent profit.

Marketing is a bit different.  I define branding as what you do to differentiate the brand.  Marketing on the other hand is what you do to communicate that differentiating idea.  One is strategy.  The one is execution.

What do you think are some common issues that SMEs face? How do you think they can be overcome?

Every time I meet a CEO, I ask the same question.  I would ask the CEO what is the biggest roadblock stopping the company from achieving its objectives.  Over the last 20 years, the answer has changed.  20 years ago, the common answer I hear was, "We don't have enough money to grow!”  A few years later, it was, "We don't who to work with to enter new markets overseas."  A few years after that, it was, "We don't have the in-house capabilities needed to scale the business up."  A few years after that, it was "We have problems finding the right people.  We can find people but as our business and our industry get more complex, the people's knowledge has not kept pace."  But the one common challenge that has never changed over the last 20 years is, "We are just a small company.  We might be doing OK in Singapore but we need to venture overseas to create sustainable growth.  And once we step out of Singapore, we face giants who are easily 100 to 1,000 times bigger than us.  They are strong, rich and have well-established brands.  How do we compete with them when our brand is so small and unknown?"

How can they overcome this?  Well, in 1958, the father of modern management, the late Peter Drucker, wrote that a business has only 2 functions - innovation and marketing - because these are the things that produce results, and everything else is cost.  I have to agree with Drucker.  If you don't innovate, you become obsolete.  If you innovate but you don't market yourself well, you get steamrollered by this thing called The Competition.  When it comes to innovation, we are not just talking about R&D and invention or technology.  We are talking about finding new ways to do things better, cheaper, faster.  And the innovation Drucker was talking about applies to every facet of the business.  This is hard but the alternative is oblivion.

Finally, what will you be touching upon at the SME Seminar (May 17) regarding game-changers and innovation?

I will be sharing on some of the landmines that even the most innovative companies step on with alarming regularity.  I have served some super-innovative companies with products that could potentially change the world and turn it upside down (in a very good way) since the late 1990s.  Frustratingly, more often than not, these companies failed to realize their true potential.  Over the years, I have observed these companies, of which 9 out of 10 are homegrown Singapore companies, and learned why they fizzled out.  There were some common failures among these potential game-changers.  Believe me when I say that it was an incredibly frustrating experience to see such great potential wasted.  I want to share just a few of these landmines that would-be game-changers need to watch out for.  There are a lot but in the interest of time, I will just 4-5 of these.  Of course, I cannot name these companies but I can talk about the mistakes.  

To learn more about game-changers and innovation, log on to to register now. The event is organized by SGSME and is supported by RHB Bank and U SME, the enterprise arm of NTUC.