Thailand’s ingenious new approach to branding

Fascinated by retail in Thailand, I started paying attention to the differences compared to its Western counterpart. One distinction is related to branding in casual wear and denim.  Where Western advertising highlights when a brand was conceived, the Thai counterpart emphasizes where it originates from. This historical infatuation with foreign products has led to an ingenious new approach to branding. Counterfeit products and licencing are out. Inventing foreign brands is in.

CC Double O Branding

Ever since I wrote the story of EST cola, I have been paying closer attention to the retail industry in Thailand. Turns out it is a treasure trove of interesting stories. Key in understanding the history of 21st century Thai consumerism are shopping malls.

Malls started popping up in Thailand during the Eighties. Due to their contemporary look-and-feel, they presented an air conditioned escape from everyday life, for many. Their success led to rapid expansion. Primarily driven by the Mall Group, the Central Group, Siam Piwat and more recently Terminal 21, malls grew exponentially in both number and size. In Bangkok one can literally walk out one large shopping complex and stroll into the next.

The rapid expansion required commercial formulae that allowed for rapid duplication. These were found in foreign franchises. KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Swensen’s, Aunty Anne’s, Burger King, Fuji, McDonald’s and the like offered a ready-to-go copy-paste option. The practise of franchising grew beyond mall perimeters. Case in point: the 7-Eleven convenient stores. In 1989, CP Group launched the American franchise in Thailand. With the number of locations approaching 10,000, they are omnipresent.  Foreign concepts and the marketing associated with them became engrained in Thai culture.

The brands featured in these foreign franchises became an exotic, expensive and hard to get alternative, adding to their appeal. Luxury goods with high visibility became subject to counterfeiting. Fake products were once the only available option for the masses. When the middle class started growing, the genuine item became slightly more accessible for a larger audience. Wanting make sure to obtain the genuine article, many sourced items from abroad. The pedigree of foreign origin was polished to a mirror-like shine.

Keen entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for an additional piece of the pie, switched from licencing complete franchises to just licencing makes. L.M.E. licenced the American brand name Von Dutch make to produce premium denim. Thesis International developed a Thai ready-to-wear line under the Beverly Hills Polo Club umbrella.

Where Thai consumer scepticism is primarily focussed on origin, matters are different in the Europe and the United States. The consumers in the Millennial Generation notoriously question traditional advertising. With lack of trust in commercial messages and a dislike of any kind of sales attempt, they routinely see through commercial ploys. This explains why advertisers in the US and Europe focus on heritage and legacy. Provenance almost equates authenticity.

Ironically, the sceptic view of Millennials led to attempts to forge brand stories in the West. In casual wear, the most notable example is Hollister. Created by Abercrombie & Fitch in 2000, the American lifestyle brand tries to sell the artificial heritage of a 1922 date of origin.

Back in Thailand, marketeers were paying attention. If Hollister can forge brand heritage, surely they could do the same with brand origin, eliminating the need for foreign licenses. Completely new brands emerged, hinting implicitly at a foreign origin by featuring Caucasian models and using Western-style advertising cues. A notable example is denim brand CPS Chaps, using American singer Adam Levine as a spokesperson.

CPS Chaps Branding

The most daring step came when Jaspal Group tore a page out of the Hollister playbook and made a Thai adaptation. They launched two new artificial makes that explicitly referenced foreign origin: Royal Ivy Regatta and CC Double O. Royal Ivy Regatta is supposedly a preppy make from New England, as the logo claims.

Royal Ivy Regatta Branding

Much more popular is CC Double O. With dedicated stores in several malls, its popularity is noticeably growing.

CC Double O description by Jaspal Group

Thai entrepreneurs have effectively substituted counterfeit products and expensive licences for artificial foreign brands. Ingenious.

Mind you, it is not their only successful strategy. More to come.

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