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Why ASEAN Companies Need To Be Better Storytellers

ASEAN companies can stand tall with other global players, and all we need to do is to just tell our compelling stories out there!

Author, Gopi Ganesalingam

When national agency Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC, previously known as Multimedia Development Corporation) was formed in 1996, the aim was to support the development of Malaysian-based technology companies — MSC (Multimedia Super Corridor) Malaysia status companies and over the years, the number of these MSC-status companies has grown to about 3,000 now.

While many of these companies are already market leaders, some are ever ready to take the next step to succeed in the ASEAN market. To help crystallise their expansion efforts, we at MDEC have launched the GAIN (Global Acceleration and Innovation Network) programme because we not only see their potential to be global players, but to become global icons and ASEAN was envisioned as the next major stride forward.

Why Malaysia?

One would say that Malaysia is a fertile ground for emerging global icons due to several reasons. For one, Malaysia is centrally located, and for companies based here, many markets are easy to reach and not to mention we have gained a deep understanding of buyer behaviour and market dynamics.

But then again, with a population of some 30+ million, it limits the growth potential of any business, especially a technology one. This then fosters a creative tension, a drive to answer the strategic challenge – how does a company stand out from the rest of the field? During the infancy stage, let’s admit – most companies would start by selling to customers that they can connect by a sharp focus on competencies, pricing, and delivery.

However, the next chapter of the story demands to answer the overpowering need to stand out from the crowd and honestly, this will always remain a challenge for most companies throughout the entire life-cycle of the company – it’s the pressure to adapt.

Hang on. Let’s stop here just a bit. Let’s consider that most companies will only look into this issue when they have achieved a certain scale and milestone along their growth journey. Can you be differentiated by your product, service or is there something else? Looking at a sampling of the successful local technology companies such as iPay88, Fusionex International, N2N Connect, iflix, Sedania Innovators, Les Copaque, Mindvalley, I would say that only a couple has engaged the power of story.

Having worked at several MNC’s like Lucent, American Express, Telstra, and others, I for one had a first-hand opportunity to delve into the sales process from the inside. The truth, they say, always lies within. It has become crystal clear to me that the truly successful companies have been able to craft powerful strategic stories to explain their relevance. Yes, we need to have the right product-value mix, but the deal is definitely lost if our story lacks meat, structure, and the most important part, telling the unique selling point.

Why do stories work?

Keep in mind that stories are powerful differentiators, and have always appealed to the human psyche. The first clear stories that remain visible for humankind are probably the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France, estimated to be 20,000 years old. For centuries our ancestors were captivated by stories, and long before the written word, history was passed down verbally through the generations in the form of stories. In these paintings, visual work and the spoken word has captivated our imaginations.

Interestingly, fast forward to the modern era, a noted linguist, Noam Chomsky, in the 1960s said that we are all born with an innate language. He even went on to say that the primary purpose of language was for thought, not communication! Yet leaders and salespeople continue to throw facts and figures at us. I am not saying that these are not important, but they need to be placed within the engaging, compelling structure that we call an overarching story.

No surprise here as this is something that the NGOs are best at – they talk to any successful NGO and they are able to explain the reason for their existence without using facts and figures. Companies, possibly influenced by the finance and product specialists, seem to just jump straight into why the product is better or cheaper, and the better ones are able to sell the value proposition.

It seems these days all we ever do is deliberately ignore the wisdom of generations in order to get into a ‘you can never win’ race to prove our product is better than competitive offerings. Companies that are not able to climb out of this abyss will find it difficult to survive in an increasingly competitive and connected world.

Let’s be honest here; it is tough to win the features and benefits war when you are sitting in front of a prospect, and impossible when you are not. And in a competitive world, this is the challenge faced by ASEAN companies. There are of course notable exceptions; AirAsia always had a great story, represented by its famous tagline; ‘Now Anyone Can Fly.’ And of course we have Nadiem Makarim, Founder & CEO of ‘GoJEK’ who is a powerful storyteller and is propelling the company into an Indonesian logistics and payment superstar. Talk about being a superman.

Strategic storytelling. Don’t be surprised but the ASEAN market will be an open one and SMEs now need to start thinking about how they are going to compete, not just within the region but against global players. Alibaba, through Lazada, has already disrupted local eCommerce players, coming in ahead of Amazon and Grab is following suit.

Then we have Alipay and WeChat Pay which already hit our shores. For SMEs and technology companies, however, the writing is not on the wall. Learn to compete, or face extension and this is exactly why storytelling is critical, and, for me, this is an area where ASEAN companies that have not mastered the battle of the mind needs to improve on.

Let’s take a look at a couple of extraordinary storytellers from the technology world. We have the late Steve Jobs whose attention to detail in presenting Apple product is nothing but legendary. In the movie ‘Jobs’, you can see the time and effort he puts into his presentation; it’s not a matter of running through the few slides with a narrative. What he says, how he says it, where he stands, sits, how he unveils the product functionality is all carefully crafted within an overarching story so he can captivate, entertain and most importantly speak to each and everyone in a personal way that touches our emotional core.

Why does he do this? Is it his passion and obsession with detail? Perhaps. But I think he truly understands how important stories are to the human psyche. And by casting the story correctly, he is opening the door for his sales and marketing people to follow up with the features and benefits pitch. Now, that’s the art of strategic storytelling.

Then we have Simon Sinek in his most watched video on the ‘The Golden Circle’ in which by answering the why question you can reach into the limbic system, or the “emotional brain,” which we know from biology is buried within the cerebrum and is possibly the oldest part of our brain.

This part of the brain doesn’t control our language, reasoning, coordination, etc., which are controlled by the cerebrum, but because it is the repository of emotions and memories it can drive actions more effectively than rational thought. Jobs and others have perhaps intuitively understood this and used stories to set their companies apart from the pack.

Of course, there is Elon Musk, a man I truly admire and respect, entrepreneur and leader extraordinaire is another great storyteller. He announced the Tesla Roadster in 2004 using the chassis and engineering strength of Lotus Engineering and delivered the first unit four years later. The cars that were on the market were sold on their features and performance. Potential buyers were told about; zero-emissions, luggage space, range per charge, etc. When presenting his electric car, Musk talked about it being “cool, great design and acceleration.” It was a simple yet powerful message targeted at the limbic system. Tesla’s Model-S became the bestselling electric vehicle in the US in 2016 and 2017.

To end on an important point, why is storytelling so important to ASEAN technology companies? I’ve already talked about the competitive environment these companies face. Instead of pushing more and more information out, we need to learn the art of storytelling. The emotional engagement that I mentioned earlier is vital to business performance.

Technology today has democratised and has deepened our connectivity and our reach to our customers, competitors, and just about every single person on planet earth. So why not share the stories of our business propositions, and tell the stories of our entrepreneurship journey globally.

ASEAN companies can stand tall with other global players, and all we need to do is to just tell our compelling stories out there!

Gopi Ganesalingam is the Vice President of Enterprise Development at Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC). Follow him on LinkedIn.

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In line with a vision to develop Malaysia’s digital economy, the Global Acceleration and Innovation Network (GAIN) programme under Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), was incepted to catalyse the expansion of local technology SMEs in Malaysia that have the potential to become global players through market access, leadership and capability development, brand visibility and scale-up capital. GAIN provides customised assistance based on each and every GAIN company’s needs and goals; whether it is elevating brand visibility, facilitating market access, upskilling capabilities, match-making for merger and/or acquisition or accessing funding ecosystem. For more info, visit MDEC GAIN.

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