Tiger, tiger burning bright

Tiger, tiger burning bright

The heritage brand Tiger balm has 90 years of history behind it in Singapore, and is a household name familiar to old and young alike.

But the brand knows it has to move on. It has shed its "old" and "traditional" reputation, embraced innovation and development, believing this to be its ticket to continued success.

AK Han, executive director of Haw Par Corporation, told The Business Times in an interview: "Tiger Balm no longer just stands for the ointment, it has become a brand."

Indeed, the brand has launched more than 10 new products in the last two decades, including mosquito repellent patches and muscle relief gels; plans are afoot to release a new addition to the Tiger Balm range in the next couple of months.

The company traces its beginnings to China and to what used to be the city of Rangoon in Burma (Myanmar today).

Today, the healthcare business under Haw Par Corporation exports its range of products to about 100 countries and has between 300 and 400 employees on its payroll.

Mr Han, who joined Tiger Balm as its general manager in April 1991, has been at the heart of the brand's geographical and product expansion in the last two and a half decades.

In that time, the company's trajectory had not always been on the up and up, he said, adding that developing the Tiger Balm name has taken "a combination of foresight, high energy and a lot of patience".

The Tiger Balm ointment was brought to Singapore by brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par 90 years ago, and became well-known in Singapore and the region for its medicinal uses.

However, for 20 years, the production of the ointment was franchised out to an equal joint venture between Haw Par and the Jack Chia group - a time Mr Han describes as the doldrums.

Haw Par wrested back the production and marketing of its crown jewel on Jan 1, 1992, and began putting out more updated offerings. This was to become its turning point.

Mr Han, who joined Tiger Balm the year before with 20 years of marketing experience under his belt, said that he identified two major problems back then.

"It was an old product. Young people were saying 'It's a grandmother's or grandfather's product, I don't want to use it'. Secondly, it didn't fit their lifestyle; they wouldn't use it.

"We had to reinvent our products, modernise it, and make it relevant to the younger generation."

Mr Han admitted that the company was late to the game for products such as the mosquito repellent patch, but then the name of the brand propelled it to market leadership position.

The company's new products such as neck and shoulder rubs and medicated plasters were conceived to stay within Tiger Balm's familiar grounds of topical and herbal medicinal products. It is an area the company continues to explore today.

Besides increasing the range of products under the Tiger Balm name, the company wanted to extend its reach globally. Its products were already available in the regional markets, but it set its sights on entering the Western market - and with that came challenges specific to that market, said Mr Han.

"People weren't familiar with Tiger Balm, and they weren't so wild about topical medicines; they were more familiar with oral medication."

The company had to adopt different marketing tactics for the West, because there, "the attitude, culture and usage of the product by consumers abroad were different". It was a period of growing pains and adjustment for the company.

Establishing brand recognition abroad was a "slow and steady" process, but the products won over new customers through word-of-mouth; many went on to become loyal to the brand.

Tiger Balm has largely worked with distributors who are familiar with the markets abroad and who know Tiger Balm products well; it now has 60 to 70 such overseas distributors.

Today, the United States is one of Tiger Balm's biggest markets, boosted by unsolicited advertisements from celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The sports industry has also been a major catchment for the brand in recent years, with the launch of its "Active" range in 2011. The company has thus backed events such as the Standard Chartered marathon, one of the most popular events on the local running scene, and also sponsors national athlete Dipna Lim-Prasad.

Recent Rio Olympics gold medallist in the triple jump, Christian Taylor of the United States, is also an ambassador for Tiger Balm.

Mr Han said that the company is not resting the heritage brand on the back of these successes. Without innovation and development, the product will "go dead", he said.

"The product doesn't grow by itself. Just because you've got a heritage brand doesn't mean it'll carry you. It doesn't work that way."

Milking the brand is not the way to go either, he said, for it will stagnate and disappear before long: "If you just milk a heritage brand, you're going to suck it dry. It's not going to grow."

This is why the company doesn't believe in standing still; constant improvement drives it.

Mr Han said that because he believes in the idea that prevention is better - or bigger - than cure, Tiger Balm is venturing into the "prevention" arena, at the same time building on the brand that has thus far been more closely associated with "curing'" ailments.

He knows, however, prevention "will be a hard sell", as it will not be easy convincing the internal team - and the masses - that "prevention products" are needed.

But Tiger Balm has a track record of breaking down barriers and changing public notions. Just as it has done in the past, it will be approaching its new challenges with the same attributes of foresight, energy and a lot of patience.


This article was first published on Aug 31, 2016.
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