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Rebranding Proton Posted: 26 July 2016; Category: Campus

By Dr Brian K M Wong
[email protected]

The automaker should perhaps look into reconnecting its purpose and positioning through partnerships

Rebranding Proton Photo

The Proton brand, the pride of the nation, made its successful launch in the mid-1980s. Sales peaked between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s but figures have been lower in recent years.

Proton Holdings Bhd has made several rebranding attempts over the years, from the introduction of new logos to the launch of new product ranges, with the aim of changing consumers' mindset about the brand. The recent restructuring exercise has further escalated the rebranding effort, bringing in a new tiger emblem and the tagline "It's in the Drive!".

Proton Logo

The latest moves should be applauded, but the pivotal question is, what do the emblem and tagline mean to the market at large? In other words, how do consumers perceive the "Proton" brand?

A brand, in fact, is not just what a corporation wishes to be, but also what the market perceives it to be. The corporation need to have a clear purpose for its existence as it establishes the brand promise. Next, it is all about the strategies the corporation employs to deliver on the promise and be perceived by the market the way it wishes to be.

The whole branding exercise is a process through which the corporation engages and builds a relationship with the market. A good example of this is the move by Coca-Cola to change its 99-year-old formula, launching "New Coke" in April 1985. However, in response to complaints and protests from consumers, Coca-Cola brought back the original formula and relaunched it as Coca-Cola Classic in July 1985. This indicates that a brand, in fact, reflects to the soul of the corporation, giving it a human face. Without this human element, consumers will only be able to associate the brand with a product, but will not connect with the brand emotionally.

Thus, in any branding exercise, corporations should understand this: It is not a matter of you telling people who you are but a matter of people telling you who you are.

Proton is the outcome of the concept of a national car, aimed at enhancing the local economy. Its inception provided the opportunity for many Malaysians to own a car for the first time. A comparable concept is AirAsia Bhd's "Now Everyone Can Fly" tagline. These two corporations seem to have similar purposes providing a product or service that is within the means of the average person - but we can clearly see that the foci of their brand positioning are entirely different. While Air Asia's differentiation focuses on cost leadership, Proton's focuses on its product portfolio.


Using Air Asia as an example allows us to understand the importance of alignment between a brand's purpose and its positioning focus. The divergence of the positioning strategy from its purpose may indicate that a corporation is less effective in capitalising on its core strengths, and is merely following the market trend. Thus, consumers may have difficulty perceiving it as a unique brand. This may be equivalent to failure to establish the intended image in the minds of consumers.

Proton has sealed several partnerships with different automotive brands to enhance its product offerings and as part of its overseas market penetration strategy. Among the partners are Mitsubishi, Citroen, Lotus, Youngman, Honda and Suzuki. The partnership strategy specifically aligns with its positioning focus on its product portfolio. However, the branding effect might have been stronger if the partnerships are meant to enhance Proton's core business strengths (for example, manufacturing capabilities and product development) and help it to continue to serve its purpose as a manufacturer of affordable cars.

The Saga and Wira were among the most successful models under the Proton brand. These models were the outcome of the strategic partnership with Mitsubishi, which enabled Proton to cater to the middle and lower ranges of the demand pyramid. This then connects perfectly to the original purpose for the establishment of Proton. The brand excelled whenever Proton introduced the right model for the mass segment of the demand pyramid. Perhaps this is what the brand "Proton" means to the market, and it is for the management to recognise this and further develop their differentiation strategy from this perspective.


Over its three decades of presence on the market, consumers have become attached emotionally to the brand "Proton", particularly in terms of patriotism and/or ownership opportunity. This is also to say that Proton has established its own identity in the minds of consumers. In general, we may easily associate Proton cars with affordable prices, a good air-conditioning system and a pleasurable handling experience. Thus, having a partnership by just rebadging the car without these identifying elements may simply dilute the strength of its brand.

While Proton may form alliances with a global car maker, a strategy used successfully by Perodua, it is important for it to identify a partner which shares a similar purpose. The alliance needs to enable Proton to boost its core business strengths, in particular to optimise production efficiency, enhance output quality, and sustain cost-effectiveness. The ultimate goal is to reconnect the brand's purpose and its positioning strategy, creating a platform for the brand to speak a common language with consumers who believe Proton holds a meaning for them.

Consumers need to clearly hear the message that Proton is committed to keeping prices affordable, and giving them a great driving experience to boot. The ability of consumers to feel a bond with the Proton brand is essential. "It's in the Drive!" may perhaps be just the tagline to get the connection started again with the mass segment of the demand pyramid.

This article was originally edited and published in The Edge Financial Daily on 18 July 2016.