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Get To Know Alvin Soh, Founder & CEO Of Brand21 Asia

We bridge gap by disrupting the conventional branding approaches and create unique campaigns by connecting our ecosystems for the communities

I have this pressing question that needs addressing, Alvin. You are a busy man – you have all these projects you are heading, but one thing that stands out about you is your ability to keep your humour going, despite it all. What is your secret?

Generally, I love hanging out with similar peers, stakeholders and friends by sharing common topics as well as new business ventures and ideas. Every topic began with casual conversation and that required lots of ideas exchange in-between. Amused expression during all conversations leads to a better understanding of new friends I met almost every day. I don’t like tense meetings as it will not bring out the results I expect; likewise it’s the same for everyone. Hence, a sense of humour will always enable us to create bonding among each other; friendship will blossom then. 

Tell us all we need to know about Alvin Soh; your exciting stories throughout the entrepreneurship journey.

I began my entrepreneurship journey back in 2004 when I was merely 23 years old after graduating from Curtin University of Technology in Perth. I used to run a creative media agency back then mainly to serve numerous clientele ranging from industry trade associations, government-linked agencies, public listed companies and general SME owners for sizable corporate branding contracts and project management work. 

I still remembered how I started thinking about the idea of grouping all brand owners under one hub.  I accidentally jumped into an ex-associate I knew the year before. We established a partnership and set-up our first business center by serving expatriates and new start-ups, unfortunately, due to vision differences, I decided to dissolve the partnership and fully focused on my creative media agency by transforming the service-oriented model into CMS driven structure – our very first Web Content Management System product better known as Pristine CMS was launched in the market. 

Within a short period, I managed to secure an even larger clientele; after gaining huge tractions, I went on to approach Malaysia’s No.1 ISP Provider, TM Net for a strategic partnership; and started to go into web hosting services as well as media representation rights with Astro for marketing four main Chinese Channels to potential advertisers. 

Business grew and I started to look into another venture in the year 2011. F&B was amongst the highly-mentioned industry everyone talked about, due to milk tea brands mushrooming in major cities. My eldest brother, his wife and another university mate brought in one Singaporean shaved ice brand into Malaysia with the first flagship store establishment at The Waterfront, Desa Parkcity. Initially, my new venture was about CSR publication, as an initiative to support the single mother community which I have planned for nearly four months. One fine day, I was enjoying the shaved ice at my brother’s outlet.

After observing the preparation in serving delicious shaved ice, immediately I revived the entire CSR publication initiative by creating a new business model for shaved ice brand licensing. During a one-month negotiation with several premise owners, I finally received immediate consent from Aeon Malaysia and set-up three flagship outlets within two months in Aeon(s) Bukit Tinggi, Sunway Pyramid and Rawang and licensed the business to individual partners for each respective outlet. In the year 2012, I expanded the brand into the China market by licensing the entire business to an exclusive master licensor; the first flagship store was set-up in XuZhou, Jiangsu Province China. 

Before expanding the shaved ice business in Malaysia-China from 2011-2013, I entrusted the entire creative media agency to my partners; the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life. Due to a shareholding dispute, we sold the agency to another company and I decided to leave the business scene into servicing one Australian company in mid-2013 by injecting new structure into the company. I initiated several new initiatives for the Australian company regional office in Malaysia by executing a series of branding exercises and project management tasks within B2G and B2B channels. 

Several milestones achieved and after the contractual period, I decided to restart everything I have established since the early days by structuring a new community-driven organisation; one of the industry leading community driven organisation known as Brand 21 Asia, which was awarded the Business Excellence Certificate and Industry Leadership Certificate by World Confederation Of Businesses in November 2019. I was fortunate to have also been named as the finalist in  the Malaysian Australian Alumni Council Young Entrepreneur Award category in December 2019. 

Overall, my entrepreneurship journey is easily defined as a “rollercoaster”, which is full of excitement, disappointment, courage, and determination. Although my experiences and knowledge are equally at-par with major seasoned entrepreneurs, I am still learning everyday. My motto is “Never-Back-Down“.

You are the Founder and Chief Executive Officer for Brand21 Asia. What is the story behind the name, Brand21 Asia – and also the main activities of the company?

Branding is never a new-word to me despite my involvement in major corporate branding exercises and extensive lists of project management portfolios since 2004. During my early years, managing the boutique creative media agency, my daily task is always related to “branding.” When I decided to rebound in mid-2018, numerous names came to mind. After numerous thoughts, “Brand 21 Asia” could easily reflect the community-driven organisation’s unique-positioning within the Asean region by focusing on Four Main Pillars, namely Educational & Learning Development, as well as Lifestyle & Wellness initiatives. 

As the company marks its strong presence in the market, we have successfully launched several amazing ecosystems into serving the entrepreneur community. Particularly in October 2019, we launched 100 Series Entrepreneurship Live Pitching Ceremony in Quill City Mall which was officiated by Ministry Entrepreneur Development and Cooperatives (formerly known as Ministry Entrepreneur Development). The ceremony gained huge recognition among major industry supporting partners as well as government corporations. As in December 2019, we organised the Brand 21 Cultural Pavilion Trade Mission; we led the entire trade visit to our joint-venture partner main development projects in Minhe County, Qinghai Province in China. 

The year 2020 is indeed a challenging year due to Covid-19; we are fortunate to have scalable resources for developing several new ecosystems progressively. We have recently launched a unique offline and online marketplace ecosystem, better known as Phygital Accelerator Program – a collaboration with Quill City Mall KL and JDX Presto, and Brand 21 Asia is the official ecosystem builder and campaign catalyst. Besides that, we will be launching the Empowerment Movement Gala Dinner in August 2020 as part of the nation’s initiative in honouring emerging young entrepreneurs and aspiring lady entrepreneurs. 

Under the current roadmap, we are also launching another ecosystem better known as Brandpreneur Network in Q3, 2020 by fabricating a live show platform equipped with branding, media and public relation facilities and resources. Before establishment, majority brand owners will be able to promote their own brands and associated products internationally, utilising full-scale facilities rendered by Brand 21 Asia. As a top-notch community-driven organisation, Brand 21 Asia is also dedicating its project management arm, focusing on retail and commercial development projects covering project management tasks for designated real estate portfolios.

Alvin, I am very excited to announce this; Marketing In Asia has been appointed as the Media Partner for an event by Brand21 Asia. Walk us through what the event is all about.

We are grateful to hereby collaborate with Marketing In Asia for the upcoming campaign better known as Empowerment Movement Gala Dinner in August 2020. The gala dinner is being held with the main objective of recognising young entrepreneurs and female entrepreneurs’ achievements.

There will be several main highlights during the gala dinner and we will be having two Special Guests of Honour from S.E.A and UAE, where the two invited ladies are significantly known as the icons for women entrepreneurship and women empowerment development In Philippines and Dubai respectively. During the reception and red carpet appearance, there will be a Live Interview session, and we are happy to have Marketing In Asia for the Special Feature Coverage with the special-highlights-recipients. 

What is the motivation to come up with an event of such scale?

I was personally involved in a similar event years back. However, I have different thoughts and vision, particularly bridging credible events with our company’s cultural pavilion, which we are developing in one of the largest markets internationally – China. 

Our Brand 21 Cultural Pavilion will strategically facilitate featured entrepreneurs’ product listing and brand presence in the China market; furthermore, our company received promising support and endorsement from the local city council and government agencies especially when these resources and facilities are indeed not found in major events held in Malaysia. 

You build communities, Alvin. What do you hope to achieve from this?

Well, being the ecosystem builder and campaign catalyst, I believe in serving the communities after all the challenges and obstacles I have personally been through. At times resources were limited back then. Most business owners I have met are in need of a strategic community for their brand communication and products marketing channels. Unfortunately, there isn’t any such platform available out there.

Here we are bridging the gap by disrupting the conventional branding approaches. We create unique campaigns by connecting our ecosystems for the communities to benefit through all readily-available resources. At the end of the day, our milestone is to group inspiring brand owners with specific communities, say youth communities for their respective brand publicity and products promotion & marketing needs. 

Through our dealings and discussions, one can’t help but notice that you are very supportive of the youths. Your community-building work revolves around them – the Gen Z, mainly. Why is that?

These days, youths are not the same and the majority of them are equally capable as we are. I have personally given talks in a few universities and the correspondence in between indeed showed the capabilities among the youths. Should they be given the opportunities and immediate platform, youths can make things happen, particularly creating a new business venture with really amazing products and solutions. I met a few individuals and was personally thrilled when they presented their business ideas to the panel judges. Their passion turning fresh ideas into new businesses made me recall my first ever business card I created using Microsoft Powerpoint. Hence, I am determined to create a cross-functional ecosystem to scale these young entrepreneurs further. 

What is your biggest push when there is a challenge?

Self-determination, strong beliefs and motivational spirits keep me going. Since young, I have challenged my capabilities developing the creative media agency from scratch, structuring global roadmap for the shaved ice chain as well as managing numerous projects beyond my ordinary knowledge. I will never stop regardless of challenges and obstacles I have encountered. Every issue indeed is a new experience and I always go the extra mile to find the best solutions. Fortunately, I am always self-motivated and at times when I couldn’t really think, I will give myself my own sweet time to enjoy freshly brewed coffee and delicious foods. After, my mind will then be refreshed and I will be able to see things differently as all those issues and challenges become opportunities. 

The new business model involves collaboration. What are your thoughts on this?

Unlike in the past, businesses these days require more synergies in between creating a strategic framework with stakeholders and potential partners. Strategic collaboration tends to minimise capital expenditures should smart business owners know the techniques, and it will then lead to successful business establishments by sharing adequate resources and enjoying mutual value and results together. I have personally developed several new business ventures using a collaborative model by making sure the stakeholders and partners are convinced of the entire roadmap. Once the roadmap is in place, milestones implementation follows, as per the vision and mission everyone has agreed since then. Mutual understanding and beliefs are the most important factors in any joint partnership regardless of business collaboration. 

We have been talking quite a bit and I know you discovered a silver lining in this whole COVID-19 episode. Share with us your sentiments.

Indeed, this year is challenging to many business owners having to suffer zero revenue and almost hibernation of individual businesses. This pandemic is unpleasant to many companies, but it will recover eventually. I am aware that business sentiments among majority companies are plunged to a new low. At times businesses are facing great uncertainties with escalated stress levels, and I think differently by putting in place even more strategies for new business opportunities. I just feel that personal sentiments are subject to their own emotions.

When you feel optimistic, regardless of how bad Covid-19 is, you will be able to get through it. I still remember how I started to adapt to virtual meetings with stakeholders and partners in April by using the Zoom application. Throughout the weeks in mid April, I have actually conducted numerous virtual meetings and surprisingly was able to finalise all required terms within 40 minutes. Our momentum is indeed going strong with even more strategic partners onboard our ecosystem. 

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Generally, I am envisioning a few roadmaps as part of Brand 21 Asia milestones:-

  • Brand 21 Cultural Pavilion in four major provinces across China (Qinghai, Gansu, Zhejiang and, Jiangsu Provinces)
  • Brand 21 Creative and Incubation Centre in Ipoh and Penang
  • Brandpreneur Network Live Show in Klang Valley, Johor, Penang and Sabah
  • 100 Series Entrepreneurship Live Pitching UAE Chapter in Dubai by October 2021
  • Empowerment Movement Gala Dinner as an annual event across major states in Malaysia

For those who wish to get in touch with you, where can they go?

Kindly connect with me personally at ceo@brand21.asia or you might see me having coffee at my favourite cafes in Pavilion KL, Publika and Solaris Mont Kiara. Please don’t hesitate to come by and greet, the bill will be on me. Let’s chat over coffee.

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Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen is the Marketing In Asia's Editor for News & UGC. She is also a certified Image Branding & Lifestyle Consultant. Born in Singapore and blessed to have lived in a couple of other amazing cities in the world, Anjalika is currently expatriating in Kuala Lumpur. Follow her on LinkedIn and Instagram. You may also reach her by email at anjalika@marketinginasia.com.

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