No Holds Barred Finding the Right Brand Identity Through Memes
The following is an excerpt from The Evangelists: Insights from Leaders of the Nation’s Most Beloved Brands. Written by Monica Padillo, this chapter is titled “No Holds Barred Finding the Right Brand Identity Through Memes.” In it, Walter Wong, the Head of Marketing of Angkas, is interviewed about how the organization executes its strategy in creating a brand image.
When it comes to unconventional marketing in the Philippines, chances are Angkas will be included in that list, if not landing the top spot. As the Head of Marketing, Walter Wong has certainly had a hand in popularizing the meme marketing that social media savvy millennials are fond of sharing online.
From the get-go, Wong knew that selling the idea of motorcycle taxis would be difficult; even though they were known to be fast and convenient, motorcycles were considered dangerous, and many of its would-be users were not ready to give up the comforts of cars. As with many novel products from small upstart companies, it was important that Angkas’ marketing team built an initial loyal base that, while small, would serve as the brand’s evangelist early adopters. From a marketing communications perspective, dilution weakens the message, so trying to appeal to everyone would create the paradoxical effect of appealing to no one, reducing the brand’s messaging impact and traction. According to Wong, it was better to focus first on finding the right message that resonated with key users, and work off the momentum from that instead. The more a brand invests in connecting with their audience well, the more they will grow and stand out organically as well.
“There wasn’t a desire to appeal to every single person. We knew the audience we needed to get, so we would just need to optimize for that audience. It just so happened to be millennials like us,” he said. “But you’re going to turn some people off and possibly rub them the wrong way, especially older or more conservative crowds, which is fine. As a business, you can’t serve everyone anyway, and the millennial market we targeted was more than enough to keep operations going and growing. Maybe later on, the messaging could evolve as many brands do, but it hasn’t been necessary yet for motorcycle taxis.”
When asked about Angkas’ secret to success, it was that they never followed any conventional brand rules, formulas, or templates. Wong said it was important for them that they forged their own path and found their own ways to connect with their audience so that they could stand out. While most brands tend to follow trends, it makes it harder for them to differentiate themselves and stand apart from a sea of similar messaging and practices.
Wong explained that Angkas tried a lot of approaches at the start, and that they never had a fully-laid out plan on how the brand would come out and relate to people from the get-go. “It was a continuously evolving process that required us to try a lot of things, many which failed, and pick out the things that worked and build on top of those. The great thing about running social media for a relatively unknown brand is that you get to make lots of mistakes without really having much to lose. That gives you a lot of freedom to experiment and to be fresh.”
Wong credited a huge part of the success to his team, and in particular to one guy. Behind all the engagement was one social media manager, Patrick Santos, with an uncanny ability to empathize with the community and use humor to relate to them. “While you can talk about iterating and trying new and different things as a general principle, you really can’t figure out what to try, and to execute those well, if you don’t have the right talent to do it,” Wong said. He described Santos as someone who is adept with meme culture and keeping Angkas’ brand authentic and relatable. He was hired with no real expectations of creating virality―just to manage the account and post based on a schedule. One day he had this idea of posting a meme of Pennywise (“It” was out and popular in theaters at the time) labeled as “Angkas”, encouraging Georgie to come down the sewers with him. It was such a hit that the rest of the team allowed him to continue whatever he was doing, eventually giving him full control of the brand’s social media and later brand identity.
Of course, Wong explained that not every post is received well. “Again, it’s a process of continuous trial and error, and expecting a 100% hit rate is unrealistic. Thus, we called Angkas’ brand identity a ‘series of happy accidents’ that, over time, we just decided to own and build upon.”
In every decision, there was no vetting process and preclearance necessary with higher ups. In Angkas, removing the filters allowed creativity to flourish without obstruction. One example of an artificial restraint that is all too common to brand marketing is the need to appease all concerned stakeholders, which just results in a diluted campaign. Even though Angkas is opposed to these stage checks, they still have two teams—the government stakeholders and the crisis management—that review the content just in case.
“But even then, it’s taken as advice and taken with a grain of salt. It’s usually a quick discussion rather than layers-on-layers of approval to multiple teams and back around, which could take forever,” he said.
The ability to “get away with something” also comes with the brand identity built over time. For instance, Angkas rolled out its push notification feature in June 2020. Playing with the idea of other companies constantly bombarding users with its promotions, they announced: “Eto yung part ng app na walang nagbabasa talaga pero naglagay kami nito para mas mukha kaming *legit*. Gegege yun lang…” (This is the part of the app that no one really reads but we’ll still put it so that we’ll look legitimate. Alright that’s it…)
Over the decade, people have grown distasteful of announcements and have learned to automatically drown out white noise. Immediately, this push notification stood out from the rest, nevermind that it said nothing of substance. Yet loyal users—or simply amused followers —continued to talk about the new feature on social media, bringing more attention to Angkas. The idea behind this unconventional marketing route is to be able to engage with customers, tearing down the wall of formality that often makes it difficult for consumers to relate with the brand. In doing so, Wong assured that “people will naturally gravitate toward the brand.”
Even when it was faced with regulatory issues, Angkas continued to implement its meme marketing strategies to maintain its comedic face. They would tweet memes being sad about being the only ride-hailing app not being approved by the Philippines government, even to the point of mentioning Uber to truly resonate how dismayed they were.
Through meme marketing, Angkas’ organic engagements drove up to the hundreds of thousands of reach if done correctly—no paid link-ads and boosted posts needed. All that is spent is the team’s salaries and whatever they come up with can market itself. Aside from its little to no costs, this makes it easier for businesses to have brand retention in the long run. “When people remember you more, you need to spend less to be remembered,” Wong said. Because a genuine relationship between the brand and the consumer has been established, there is no need to push out advertisements to get key messages out. When Angkas posts something, people have learned to pay attention—not because they have no other choice, but because they want to.
Some might argue that Angkas only has a following because of the memes they put out, but followers do not necessarily avail of its services. However, brand retention can be surprisingly powerful. First-time users are slowly eased into motorcycle-hailing because of the strong credibility that has been established with the brand. In due time, followers turned into application users, users into a loyal consumer base. Angkas can attest to that.
Despite all these benefits, this approach has also led to some controversies. One marketing campaign that Angkas received most flack with was the comparison of motorcycle-riding to sex. The idea was straightforward: both activities appeared frightening at the first try, but the adrenaline of wanting more will kick in after. Although Wong stood by their original intention that “sex was a universal experience,” the team had to publicly apologize because the notion was “not acceptable in Philippine society at that time”. They were also called out by PNP hotline, a unit of the Philippine National Police, for the inappropriate content.
In times where an apology is crucial, consumers are quicker to forgive. Another plus side of authentic marketing is that it reminds audiences that the people behind the scenes are, at the end of the day, the same people to hang around with. The same logic goes for when Angkas engages with its competitors. Although most brands avoid calling out other similar brands, Angkas is often let off the hook because its voice is long-established to be playful. Moreover, when brand name-dropping, they make sure to do it at the expense of themselves.
“We operate under the principle that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. It’s easier to forgive you because you’re not trying too hard to be perfect as a brand. This is probably not something a brand like Apple can get away with,” Wong said.
Labeling themselves as the “gago (foolish) but reliable friend,” Wong stressed the importance of figuring out one’s own brand identity. Consider how the same marketing
approach cannot be applied to Grab or Uber because their user bases are much more diverse, making it difficult to hit the humor sweet spot.
“You’d want to find your own voice,” Wong said. “The worst thing you could do is just try to imitate without fundamentally knowing the principles behind it.”
To get more insights from other marketing leaders like Walter Wong, please check out the full book, available for purchase here.
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