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Business Advice

Strong branding holds the key

FT Consulting helps clients tackle the tricky business of building up a brand.
The Business Times - August 28, 2012
By: Tam Yu Ling
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Strong branding holds the key The right method: Mr John Ong and his team created the FBE - fundamentals, branding and exploitation - methodology which the company uses to manage the issues faced by its clients - PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN

WITH consumers becoming more discerning, getting quality from a product is no longer an option but an expectation. So, what really differentiates a strong business from the rest of the crowd is good branding.

But investments into building up a brand can be tricky business for an SME. The process requires specialised knowledge and additional manpower that can overstretch a small or medium-sized firm's tight resources.

This is where brand consultancy firms such as FT Consulting come in.

FT Consulting was founded by entrepreneur Tan Thuan Seng in 1991 to help firms build their brands and franchise business. While franchising was then still a fairly new concept in Singapore, Mr Tan believed that there was a need to provide consulting services to businesses that were looking to expand and, perhaps, franchise their business.

Fast forward 21 years, and FT Consulting now has a global presence spanning eight countries that serves more than 200 companies worldwide. It has a clientele from a diverse range of industries such as food and beverage, and technical and industrial services.

Founder Mr Tan is still a shareholder of the holding company that owns FT Consulting, but the consultancy firm now has a new CEO and principal consultant, John Ong, at its helm.

Proprietary methodology

Mr Ong says he was introduced to FT Consulting while working at the National Productivity Board (which merged with the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research, Sisir, in 1996 to form what is now Spring Singapore). Mr Ong was promoting the use of franchising to upgrade the retail sector in Singapore while at NPB, and a meeting with Mr Tan led him to identify with FT Consulting's mission. Mr Ong believed he would enjoy the twin challenges of taking over the business and taking it forward, and so he decided to join the firm.

He and his team created a proprietary methodology known as the FBE, which the company uses to manage the issues faced by its clients.

What it stands for is fundamentals, branding and exploitation methodology, explains Mr Ong, who goes on to say that it is a proven method taken from the best practices of successful companies worldwide.

Through the FBE, FT Consulting aims to improve the business model of its clients, strengthen their brand positioning, and exploit the intellectual assets of its clients so as to place them on the next level of growth.

This ensures that FT's clients are able to approach business growth through "a holistic and sustainable approach instead of adopting piecemeal strategies and solutions, which are often ineffective or unsustainable", says Mr Ong.

FT Consulting also recognises the importance of developing human capital.

Having people at the core of the FBE is also important in securing brand-people alignment in companies, says Mr Ong.

"This means ensuring that even as the (client's) company charges forward, its staff won't be left behind," he explains.

It also involves interacting with the staff of clients, with the material from the discussions used to draw up new policies and communication channels aimed at raising team morale, he adds.

The success of the FBE could also be due to its aim to provide a holistic solution that suits the needs of FT Consulting's clients, instead of offering them a cookie-cutter approach.

Says Mr Ong: "Very often, we have clients coming to us having already identified their problem as one based on branding, for example.

"However, as our consultants study the case, they may come to realise that the client's problem may not be isolated to branding only but a spillover from other areas of fundamentals and exploitation. Using the FBE thus ensures that we are able to solve our clients' problems in a more holistic manner."

This means that FT Consulting's team of around 20 consultants is also able to help its clients solve the classic problem of not knowing what one does not know.

He cites the example of a local snack company which engaged the services of FT Consulting. Initially, the client perceived itself to be suffering from a branding problem because its nut-based snacks, while popular with the older generation, were unable to attract the attention of the youth.

So it sought out FT Consulting to help with a rebranding exercise in an attempt to capture market share among youths.

Through market research, however, FT Consulting found out that its client had wrongly identified its target audience. After employing the services of mystery shoppers and focus groups, FT Consulting discovered that the PMEB (professionals, managers, executives and businessmen) market is the key target group that the client cannot ignore, as they have greater spending power and brand loyalty, unlike young consumers.

FT Consulting then decided to adopt a multi-pronged approach when making its recommendations. First, it suggested the addition of new sales points at areas frequented by PMEBs.

In addition, it also recognised its client's desire to reach out to the youth market, and suggested new product line-ups meant to appeal to them.

The combined effects of the exercise resulted in a significant increase in the bottomline of FT Consulting's client, something that Mr Ong is proud about.

One of the challenges that many in the consultancy industry face is the presence of internal staff who resist implementing the new changes drawn up by the consultants. FT Consulting is no exception.

To overcome the challenge, Mr Ong cautions against forcing the recommended solutions down the clients' throats. Instead, he advises his consultants to be "situationally aware by observing the situation of the client".

Sense the situation

At times, this may mean that the consultants will need to "sense the situation by finding the right person to implement the required changes", he says. This involves "keenly sensing and working with the management to identify the right influencers to get the message across to the whole organisation," he adds.

At present, FT Consulting's main customer base lies with the SME sector. In recent years, however, it has also reached out to bigger clients such as the Paris Gallery Group, a luxury retailer from the Middle East which it is developing a franchise system for.

Looking forward, Mr Ong hopes to fine-tune FT Consulting's methodologies and services so as to offer clients even more value. In addition, he also aims to strike a better balance in its portfolio by hitting a 60:40 mix of clients from SMEs to multinationals.

But Mr Ong is mindful of the welfare of his staff, even as his company moves to greater heights. He says: "Most of our people stay with us for many years. Even those who left returned to join us, or partner with us.

"This is why we have a saying at our company that goes: 'Once FT, always FT'."

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