On The Bird Wire

Campaign: ‘Grateful’ Surprise

Co-founder of Hornbills Concepts and Communications, Luenne, recently completed a project with two other ladies (Khalijah and Eleanor), that involved surprising the former President of Singapore, Mr S.R. Nathan.  The project had two parts: a book and a video. The book was made up of a collection of anecdotes about him as a boss, as a friend and as someone who never forgot the kindness shown to him. The video was to capture the surprise on his face when he was presented the book.

A campaign can be planned and executed in lighting speed and on a tight budget. The idea was mooted in December 2015. It took two months to source funders and convince them that this was a project worthy enough (and crazy enough) to fund. After which, the team only had about two months to write the book and complete the filming and hunt down the talents to interview. The team met with a lot of suspicion: connectors and friends of Mr Nathan wondered about their “agenda” for doing this book. More importantly, who was behind this project? Was there a political motive for doing this?  They cannot believe that the members of the team were just a bunch of curious individuals—welcome to the hipster generation. People do things just because!

But in many ways, this project was also about capturing an “alternative” SG50 story. It was not about  Mr Nathan as a president, but as Mr Nathan person.

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Mr Nathan’s colleagues in MFA

Luenne worked with a few of his protégées before and realized that they also inherited his “no-nonsense” trait. They were from a generation who were willing and ready to do the “heavy lifting”, as one of them described it.

Indeed, this trait is somewhat lost to a many these days as we grow up with an army of domestic helpers at our beck and call.

Will, trust and passion, are important ingredients needed to complete a project as crazy as this. There were hairy and tense moments especially when the deadline loomed and when  ‘moving parts’ of the project have not been pinned down. But in the end, when the whole thing was over, there was this huge sense of accomplishment and relief!

I made new friends and learnt a lot about old ones in the process!

Below is the video. Enjoy!

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Why Is Marketing Important For A SME When Going Regional?

By Luenne Angela Choa (HBCC) and Will Lee (TMG)

This op-ed was first appeared in the Business Times 24 May 2016.

IMG-20160524-WA0001There are many opportunities for SMEs to expand outwardly in the Asia Pacific region and across the world.  According to official data, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) contribute heavily to the GDPs of our neighboring economies. They comprise more than 95-99% of all business establishments, and also generate between 51 and 97% of employment in the region. In addition, governments in this region are also making a huge push to encourage the SMEs to venture abroad by providing the physical and financial infrastructure to aid their ventures overseas. However, they only account for 30% of exports in the region.

What this means is that there are opportunities abound for SMEs should they wish to venture abroad to expand and look for new opportunities beyond the confines of their own shores.  Indeed, the local companies that are successful and sustaining the headwinds that everyone is facing now are those who took the giant leap forward to beyond the shores of their sunny isles. Besides capitalizing on the infrastructure that provides the pull factor for them to venture out, one thing is clear: these SMEs have adopted a marketing communication strategy so that their brand, and/or their product is able to stand out significantly from others in their “market” that they are selling it in. By standing out, it also means that their products and companies are visible in the crowded foreign marketplace that they are venturing into.

Some understanding of the communication and culture of the market you will be going into is essential. For example, the Filipino market requires celebrity endorsements for your product to be visible. The Filipino Inquirer cited that Kris Aquino, a talk show host and from a political dynasty, as one of the top celebrity endorsers in the Philippines. The Inquirer also states that, “an endorsement makes brands real” and allows identification and association with the person endorsing the product.

In Indonesia, the market is big on digital and online advertising. In 2015, noted that the digital and mobile internet advertising growth in Indonesia was the largest globally. Emarketer’s data and forecasts show that currently, digital’s share of the market is still in the single digits, and it estimates that in 2016, “more than 1 in 10 ad dollars in Indonesia will be spent on digital channels—including mobile—and in 2019, the share will exceed one in four.

With regards to Malaysians, they need to see your products on billboards. According to, for something to be credible there, consumers need to see the brand on a signboard—this signboard preferably has to be huge and clearly visible, and located alongside a busy highway or on a building. supports this claim by sharing that “out-of-home advertising accounts for 2% of ad spent in Malaysia, but this is growing at over 35% per annum” and was worth in excess of $30million in 2015.

Besides knowing the market and its modalities, the campaign must at the same time carry the “essence” of the brand or product. While a campaign can be localized, it also needs to stay “true” to what it stands for and not deviate too much to suit the local conditions. In this respect, embarking upon simple market research to discover how your brand is perceived in the market helps to give you a peek into the mindsets of your consumers.

In other words, the enterprises should be guided by a clear and well-thought-out marketing communication strategy that seeks to understand the marketplace they are penetrating. This understanding includes a systematic process of identifying who their audience is, how to speak to them and how to listen to what they want. And this is not rocket science either, as pointed out by Charles Wong of popular local brand Charles and Keith. In an interview with IE Singapore, he shared his understanding of the market by taking his clients’ feedback seriously. He revised the designs of his shoes and even their pricing based on this feedback. There is a clear effort made by the company to provide the market with what it needs while at the same time creating demand for their products. And more importantly, this basic process of listening and responding can be replicated in all markets, thus allowing the product and brand to become universally recognized and desired.

Without a MBA or a huge marketing team, there are also systematic ways of finding out who your audience is, what they want, and then translating this knowledge into a good product or service for them. This is called planning for a good marketing strategy. For a start, it is important for the SME to understand the capacity of its own setup and what is involved when putting together a marketing communication strategy for penetrating the region.

Who is the best person to drive the project? What do they understand about it? Is it all “smoke” and “fluff” that anyone with a point-and-shoot camera or some basic understanding of the free software Picmonkey can be an “expert” in marketing? Yes and no. Yes, it is ‘smoke and mirrors’. But no, in that there is thought behind how ‘smoke and mirrors’ are used to achieve the right ends. The “smoke” is well calibrated to make sure that it helps you dazzle customers. The “mirror” is positioned in a way that deliberately gets your customers excited about the product. And more importantly, you need experts whom you trust to create this so that you do justice to your brand, product and service where ever it goes.

Luenne Angela Choa is the co-founder of Hornbills: Concepts and Communications, a start-up focused on strategic communication, skills training and empowerment for SMEs and their staff.

Will Lee is the Principal Consultant for That Marketing Guy (TMG). TMG is an integrated marketing consultancy that manages several key SME accounts in Singapore. TMG is currently planning to venture abroad with an online platform to help both media owners and media buyers in the region. 

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Reporting and Reputation: Don’t Be Too Quick To Judge

dreamstime_xs_47222230On January 3rd this year, the Straits Times ran a story on GIC’s (formerly known as the Government of Singapore’s Investment Corporation) efforts to “boost youth volunteerism via a $2m scheme offering students $3,000-$5,000 for 25 hours of community work”.

The Online Citizen (TOC) was quick to pick up on netizens’ responses to the scheme and published an article entitled “GIC’s pay-for-volunteering scheme gets criticised”. The article chose to bring attention to the massive online vitriol against the scheme, rather than the fact that volunteering was just one component of the Sparks & Smiles Scheme.

To any PR and Communications professional, this is a very interesting exercise in analysing the culture of reporting in Singapore and reputation management.

First, this episode reminds us of how small Singapore is in terms of its physical and news geography. There are only so many things that can be reported daily because of a certain level of self-censorship in the newsroom. Also, the readership of Straits Times and SPH’s papers has taken a hit as a result of digital news which has less self-censorship, but is nevertheless quite careful of what is being uploaded. More importantly, this culture of self-censorship is also fuelled by the lack of a certain degree of apathy by readers at large.

It is possible that the journalist attempted to highlight the volunteerism aspect of the scheme, thinking that it would draw attention to the article. Instead of giving her story a new perspective, it unfortunately drew much flak from the online community.

However, based on the reporting in the Straits Times’ forum section and the tabloid paper in the following days, one might speculate that the PR machinery of GIC would have pressed them for extra coverage to help them recover from the online tirade. This is any PR department’s “service recovery” dream: to get so much extra coverage for nothing.

Unfortunately though, they did not get the same ‘tender loving care’ from TOC. The comments below the TOC’s piece ran like a litany of grouses about GIC and this brings us to the second point about reputation management and GIC.

Reputation matters. It is the impression (rightly or wrongly) that people have about your organisation and it has implication on the way you do business and your relationship with the community. This entire episode is, in a way, a reflection of GIC’s reputation and how it resonates with some sections of society – some Singaporeans tend to associate GIC with politics and the state of affairs in Singapore.

As can be seen from the subsequent comments posted, many writers seem to take this opportunity to air their grievances about the current state of affairs in Singapore, what people are generally unhappy about and linking them back to GIC.

For GIC, perhaps this is a good time for them to consider embarking on a visibility campaign to make an effort to connect with the public so that they can better weather mistakes in the news room and other such debacles.

Luenne Choa is co-founder of Hornbills: Concepts and Communications. This commentary is based on her personal views.

On The Bird Wire

Transforming the SME

In an interview in The Business Times, 21 December 2015, SBF Chief Ho Meng Kit said that companies in Singapore are “not so well prepared” to take advantage of Singapore’s changing economic landscape because they are not ready to roll out more innovative products and services. He said that in order for companies to transform, they need to get out of their comfort zone and seek new partnerships with people other than their usual suspects. His call is timely as economists predict head winds and while a slowdown is imminent, it does not mean that there are no silver linings to be found. This applies especially to SMEs, who are more agile and more flexible; they should take this time to re-think their business models and find new ways of adapting to the changing business climate.

Explaining “Innovation”
Innovation as explained by Stuart Silverstein in Smashing Magazine is: [1] “by its very nature entails coming up with a new approach to an old problem”. Indeed it is really not about coming up with new creations and products that will take the world by storm, it is simply about finding new ways to solve an existing problem. A good and oft-used example these days is Grab Taxi. The Grab Taxi app is no more than a means to connect taxis to their passengers in the shortest time and in the most efficient way possible. To encourage users (taxis and passengers) to utilize the platform, Grab Taxi simply found ways to incentivize both the passengers and the taxi drivers to use it through ingenious ways such as providing outright cash incentives to drivers regardless of the time they take the booking.

This helped to plug the gap and allow passengers to book a cab at all times of the day. There is no new product being launched here and the owners of Grab Taxi are not even the incumbent taxi operators. They were using existing platforms combined with ideas that were outside the norm in order to solve a problem.

Thus with the evident success of companies like Grab Taxi, Mr Ho is right to urge companies to form partnerships across industries, to think creatively about ways of ‘solving existing problems’, and to meet the challenge of identifying and developing “new products and services” for customers—be it a B2B offering or a B2C offering.

Looking Back To Look Ahead
The first step that an SME should take in this direction is to keep an open mind and do their homework on the industry. They can go ‘back to basics’ and look at their industry as a whole: is it a sunset industry? If so, how can the industry be revived, how can they make it relevant again? What potential partners can they approach to collaborate with in order to make it relevant again? To think outside the box, the SME should be open about new ideas and possible partnerships. The next step is to narrow down the list of possible partners and consider how easy is it to get access to them rather than think about costs. Sometimes, if you approach big organizations, they may surprise you with a “yes, lets talk” response. Some of the best innovations start over a cup of coffee with practically zero costs. All you need is a working email address, open source IT support, commitment, and time!

Secondly, it is important for the SME to network in order to find like-minded people looking for opportunities to expand. MICE events are a good place to start. Another place in which to network is social media. Platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook have interesting groups that can help you connect to like-minded people from other industries looking to innovate and expand their range of services. Again, the investment cost for such activities is zero to low and the yields can be interesting.

The next important step is to find out what your customers want. In management speak, this is called doing your market research. The results of this will inform you where the gaps are and how they can be plugged. If the SME’s customer base is small enough, market research could be as easy as having a chat individually with their customers to find out more about their needs. If the customer base is large, it may be worth putting aside a budget (smaller than the cots of a CEO’s car) to look for a market research company. Alternatively, SMEs who have enough internal resource can conduct simple research by creating online surveys on their own after determining the metrics that for which they want to get a pulse. A design thinking workshop can also help to kick-start the process and guide them along the way.

Conducting market research allows you to systematically map out your audience. It also allows you to narrow down quite precisely what your audience (or the industry) needs in a more systematic fashion. It can help you plan your re- entry strategy to recapture the imagination of your customers.

More importantly, SMEs should ensure that their activities and their organization’s goals are clearly articulated and defined—what is the company’s raison d’être? Profitable innovation can only come from a clearly defined strategy and the way the organisation is set up. When innovation is chosen as a goal, without transforming the organisation, it ends up as a hobby or a vanity project rather than a business foundation.

SMEs and companies should not be afraid of finding new solutions to old problems. More importantly, the idea of innovation does not come from outside. It must start from the organizational culture and the mindset of the leadership. Perhaps business owners can start with themselves, by re-evaluating internal practices and the corporate culture. This is certainly taking one small step in the direction of transforming the organization’s outlook towards searching for the silver lining ahead.

Article by Luenne Angela Choa and Jonathan Eng. Luenne is the co-founder of Hornbills Concepts and Communications, a start-up focused on effective communication, skills training, and empowerment for SMEs and their staff. Jonathan Eng is the Design Director of Oculus Design, a company which believes that SME owners need to think like designers, who in turn need to understand business practice and management. Strategic design and management for SMEs is the way forward.

[1] “Changing Perspective: A New Look At Old Problems” []3 September 2012, accessed on 22 December 2015

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Hornbills and Singapore International Foundation (SIF) organise “Technology for Social Change”

Singapore, 27 November 2015 – Hornbills worked with the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) to conceptualised and executed the panel discussion “Technology for Social Change” as part of the SIF’s Singapore Insights Series. The panel was moderated by Channel NewsAsia’s host and Senior Editor Augustine Anthuvan with the following discussants: Ms Jacqueline Poh (Deputy Chairman, IDA), Larry Tchiou (Founder, Unframed), Lucien Teo (Technologist, Google), Syakir Hashim, (Corporate Partnerships, Development, Fundraising, Skolafund).

The panel discussion talked how technology can be used for social good to help resolve water issues, people with mobility issues and even to help therapist, counsellors and social workers with their clients and patients in between sessions. The panel also discussed the role that Singapore’s agency, IDA, played to nurture the growth and provide the infrastructure for the development of these social enterprises.

Besides the panel discussion, there was a technology showcase taking place at the fringe of the panel discussion where tech start-ups had an opportunity to network and display their technology to the guests present.

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Hornbills Co-Founder’s Op-ed on Training in Straits Times

Singapore-  19 September 2015, The Straits Times published an op-ed by Hornbills’ co-founder, Luenne Angela CHOA. The article entitled “All In An Off Day’s Work” looks at the benefits of corporate training can bring to SMEs.

Read more about the article here.

On The Bird Wire

Hornbills Associate’s Opinion Editorial in Business Times

Op-ed that was published in the Business Times, 5 August 2015 just after David Cameron’s SEA visit.

5 August 2015, Singapore –Hornbills assisted one of our associates, Mr Loke Hoe Yeong (a free –trade analyst and keen observer of EU – UK affairs), to place an opinion piece into the Business Times today. We worked with him to identify a topic that was timed for release around David Cameron’s visit to Southeast Asia last week.

This op-ed was part of his longer policy brief called, “To leave or not to leave? Contentious debates on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union”. The full text of this policy brief, published by the EU Centre, can be found here.
To read the full text of the above article from the Business Times, please click here.

On The Bird Wire

Hornbills and “One Doll, One Friend” Project

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Lusi, founder of the foundation explaining to Berita Harian journalist about the project, “One Doll, One Friend”

30 July 2015, Singapore—Hornbills Concepts and Communications (HBCC) facilitated an interview for founder of Cinderella From Indonesia Centre (CFIC)’s founder Lusi Efrani and Berita Harian for a possible feature on her very inspiring work with women on the margins in Batam.

The interview was the result of the successful grant application that Hornbills’ co-founder, Sofiah Jamil, and Lusi Efrani of CFIC, put in for the YSEALI programme in 2014. The project was called, “One Doll, One Friend”. The programme is about providing education and employment to at-risk women and children living in the streets in Indonesia. Currently the One Doll, One Friend Project is providing employment to about 100 female prisoners and women living with HIV in Batam and Jakarta.

A sample of the doll made by the girls in Batam. The project is looking to create more Asian inspired “baju” for the dolls in the next phase of their project.

The project spans across Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei and had the support of the US Embassy in Singapore and Jakarta. HBCC coordinated the public outreach aspect of the programme and through this project. By actively helping to promote the programme, HBCC hopes to help Lusi spread her message of empowerment and second chances to women and children who are at risk and more importantly, to promote a positive image for women in Batam.

HBCC discovered interesting synergies to aid cross-cultural communication and working with partners from different cultural backgrounds.

Sofiah and Lusi are planning to expand the One Doll, One Friend programme to other parts of South East Asia. Stay tuned for more.

For more information on the Cinderella From Indonesia Foundation and Lusi Efrani’s work please go to :

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Raising environmental awareness amongst Muslims

BH featureOn 13 May 2011, Sofiah Jamil was featured in Singapore’s Malay Newspaper – Berita Harian – on her research and advocacy work on faith-based environmentalism.

In the article, Sofiah noted how countries in the Muslim World largely fall into at least one of three categories in relation to climate change.

  1. Victims of climate change: Countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia face rising sea levels and flooding, while sub-saharan Africa face drought.
  2. Contributors of climate change: Oil-rich Gulf Arab states have one of the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world, while the rate of deforestation in Indonesia makes its total carbon emissions to be just behind the US and China.
  3. Solutions to address climate change: Despite the bleak scenario, there are still opportunities for countries in the Muslim world to play a more active role in addressing environmental challenges. Resource rich Muslim countries ought to better strategise how they can invest in technology and other solutions. More effort would be needed for forest rich countries like Indonesia to preserve and rehabilitate their forests which act as “carbon sinks”.

In addition, all Muslims can do their part by taking inspiration and guidance from their faith. Despite the wealth of Islamic knowledge on nature and the environment, little has been done by Muslims to operationalise these principles. In this regard, further community action is needed.

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Public Affairs: The “Software” of Emerging Middle Powers

A recent article on MH 370 by Richard Cronin from the Stimson Center noted how emerging markets have the ‘trappings’ of a developed country but remain deficient in other critical elements of a modern industrial state”. The article refers to this deficiency as a lack of the ‘software’ needed to help these emerging markets to “smoothly escape the “middle income trap”. The article lists a slew of governance related “software” that these emerging middle powers lack.

In addition to good governance and good economic policies, it is also important that these countries have good communication strategies and policies to help them move from (what some might perceive as) propaganda to public diplomacy. This does not mean simply having a ‘media arm’ or a “corporate communications” department that purchases advertisement space in magazines, organise product and policy launches, and pitch lifestyle stories to the press. It might be worthwhile considering the ‘radical’ possibility of having and allowing the public affairs/ public relations head to be part of the senior management decision making process and in the boardroom—at the heart of the decision making modes.

These days of putting out a well written press release (dotting your ‘i’s and crossing your ‘t’s at the right places) are over. The Public Affairs/Public Relations department of any organisation needs to go beyond this superficiality. It has to incorporate the following three elements in its communications strategies:

  1. knowing the political, social and economic environment of that you are working in;
  2. a strong awareness of the weight of your words; and
  3. being aware of the importance of good visual and non-visual communication.

Emerging markets and emerging economies need to realise that good work will go unnoticed if it is not talked about—modestly (commonly seen as an Asian way of doing things). More importantly, getting the right people to hear about the good work is crucial.