10 Aug The Story They Tell: A conversation with Mark Stocker, Managing Director of Taipei based DDG
What was the genesis for starting DDG — what opportunity did you see in the Taiwan/Asian market around branding and strategy when you first launched the firm?
I worked for a local Taiwanese company selling electronic products to international customers from around the world. As part of that job, I created a set of marketing materials that presented the value of the products we were selling (something the company didn’t have at the time). The results were positive with some big clients visiting to learn more as a result. I noticed at trade events that the company for which I worked wasn’t the only one in need of such assistance, and so I started DDG with the intent to help other firms grow their business via better marketing materials.
How did you go about building the initial relationships with Taiwanese companies and who was your first client?
Ironically, my first client was my previous employer. I am not great with cold calling and meeting people I don’t know, and I was desperate for some work (teaching English to make ends meet), and so I approached them offering my services. I charged them next to nothing for the work, but the project led to more opportunities on a referral basis. We have done no cold-calling in the 21 years of DDG. It has all been repeat and referral.
Do you see differences in how Taiwanese/Asian and American/Western companies approach branding?
Night and day. I think most American/Western companies recognize the value of branding/marketing. They understand, basically, how it works. Investment in your brand helps build awareness and preference. It is this awareness and preference that leads to sales. Taiwanese firms that are focused on making products (as opposed to those selling services) don’t recognize the value of branding/marketing. They see everything through the perspective of product. In their minds, a good product sells itself, and if it doesn’t sell itself, just lower the price until it does. I think another factor is that Taiwanese (Japanese and Chinese) companies believe in doing business face-to-face. It is about the relationship. They don’t believe that branding/marketing can build a relationship. This preference for face-to-face relationship reinforces the perception that branding/marketing offers little value. This said, Japanese and Chinese companies are at an advantage to Taiwanese companies in one regard, in that their large domestic markets create an opportunity to learn about the value of branding/marketing. Taiwan’s small market, and reliance on export business, has meant they have had less opportunity to learn about branding/marketing through direct experience. This lack of direct experience means they don’t understand the role or value of branding/marketing as much.
What are some of the common misconceptions around branding in your mind as it sometimes feels it’s an all or nothing belief in how companies approach and value branding.
For many of our clients here in Taiwan, branding is still about trade dress—picking a name, designing a logo, and doing some packaging design. It is not, as of yet, seen as something deeper. An idea, a purpose or a spirit. Again, I think it comes back to focus on the product. ‘Make a product, sell a product’ is the business model for many companies here. They don’t see the deeper meaning of running a business. They don’t see the deeper consumer behavior of buying based on ideas and values.
What have been some of the evolutions of ‘branding’ you have seen over the years and do you see how we look at the branding process changing in the coming years?
Unfortunate to say, I haven’t seen a great deal of change in the perception of branding among Taiwanese companies. If any, there is a palpable impression that some are more willing to invest in the strategic exploration portion of a branding project (in other words pay for this service). This is a good sign. However, I think this is the one thing DDG does particularly well, and it might just be the case that we attract those clients who are willing/interested to do something more strategic. In others words, it might still only be a small portion of the business community that is willing to do a project driven by strategy (as opposed to just completing some deliverables such as a brochure, packaging, or logo). What we tend to see more here in Taiwan is trends in investment. Ten years ago semiconductors was a large portion of our work (not today), five years ago it was LED lighting (no longer), the past three it has been hotels (Taiwan has opened of 400+ hotels in the last year alone!!). This is actually something uniquely cultural to Taiwan (possibly Asia). There are these trends and everyone seems to jump on the trend until they realize that the market is saturated and then they pull out. We are waiting to see what is the next trend!
Do you incorporate the idea of brand storytelling into your client engagements?
More recently we have been working with clients on building a connection with culture/community. We have just finished a big project working with one of the world’s leading PC component brands. The strategy is to shift from PC as a business tool (box moving) to PC as a hobby (community) and we are linking the brand to the Maker Movement. As part of this we are engaging with makers, sharing their stories, and building a stronger connection to the maker community. In a way this is brand storytelling, but for us it is more about getting the brand to live the culture of its customers. We did something similar for our work with Liv Cycling (a sub-brand of Giant Bicycles focused on women).
The DDG process is rooted firmly in the strategy side informing the design, talk about how important it is to marry strategy and creative in order to have an effective, consistent, and memorable brand?
Brands need to have a strong point of view if they wish to stand out in today’s crowded market. A brand needs to know for what it stands. Strategy is essentially the task of discovering and defining that for which a brand stands. With a clear strategy, creative work now has a chance to be truly creative. With a narrow strategic focus, a talented creative team—like the one we have at DDG—can focus enough to come up with amazingly creative ideas that reinforce the core concept. This is the only approach to producing influential creative work, in our opinion. Today we won’t take a project without a strategic component. In part, because we find projects that don’t have a strategic focus generally end up being unfocused, and as a result the quality of the work suffers or the project runs overtime.
What are some of the things people might not know about Taiwan that makes it a great place to live and build a world class branding firm?
Many people don’t realize the role that Taiwanese companies play in bringing advanced technologies to the consumer market. Without Taiwan firms there wouldn’t be carbon fiber road bikes for USD1000, there wouldn’t be a USD600 iPhone, there wouldn’t have been USD300 car navigation devices. I call it prosumerization—taking professional-grade technologies/products and bringing them to a price point where the average consumer now has access. Taiwan has excelled at this for more than two decades. As a brand consulting based in Taiwan, we have had the opportunity to work with the manufacturers who have chosen to sell these advancements under their own brand. Companies such as the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer Giant Bicycles.
There is a unique spirit here in Taiwan. People are humble, friendly, and hardworking. You notice it whether you are here for a few days of travel or working here for decades. Like all countries, Taiwan has many aspects that can be improved, but it feels good to live in a country that has a young and vibrant democracy, has one of the world’s most efficient health care systems, and is rated number two globally on a list of the world’s safest countries.