THE jury is still out on whether digitalisation will spell an early end for mainstream print media businesses. But what is clear, though, is that the digital age has fundamentally transformed how the new generation of consumers is accessing information and entertainment, including changes in the way people consume and engage with food, music, film and art.
So what does it take for a business to be future-ready when the market trend is increasingly fluid and unpredictable?
Perhaps the answer lies in being free from a rigid corporate structure and a fixed business model — a strategy that seems to work for event and brand marketing company Freeform Sdn Bhd.
Founder and chief executive officer Adrian Yap, who has been involved in the lifestyle related business for almost 20 years, started Freeform in 2000 and began life as an online and print media publisher for entertainment-themed titles Klue and Junk.
The company pioneered the first urban lifestyle publication in the country and sought to promote the local creative industry. Starting as a website, it expanded into a magazine a year later.
The lifestyle information platform was a thriving business, until digital disruption took hold. With a more fluid trend and a much wider access to different content and platforms, keeping the eyeballs and attention of its readers became a challenge.
Freeform eventually discontinued the magazines in 2009, and Yap started to look for new business models that could help position Freeform into a more agile organisation that can meet the demands of the new content consumption trend.
As it moved away from a conventional publishing business to seek new growth avenues, the company has transformed itself from a publisher to a curator of events and services that include brand positioning for companies and brand owners.
According to Yap, Freeform has always been a storytelling company, but the decision to pivot to events and services was in response to the latest trends and to the changing expectations of consumers.
“Instead of reading about it (experiences), the new consumers, especially the youth, are looking for something they can actually physically experience, ” shares Yap.
“Looking at the company today, we can say the company currently owns two event trademark IPs, namely Tiffin, which host the group culinary related events, and Urbanscapes, which is the banner for Freeform’s other lifestyle related events including music, fashion and art festivals.
Tiffin and Urbanscapes can be viewed as the main ‘publication titles’ under Freeform, a modern makeover from the conventional publication titles of print media companies, ” adds Yap.
Freeform is also behind a more focused version of Urbanscapes, Upfront, which organises music related events.
On average, the company organises between 50 and 60 events a year, and serves, on average, 10 to 15 different companies and brands. Client-based events currently contribute around 70% of the company’s total revenue.
The company has so far worked with 30 to 34 different consumer brands over the years, and has a number of long standing partners such as U Mobile to target the youth and newer generation of consumers who are more in tune with the digital trends.
Moving away from the media publishing business, Freeform sees the value in growing its client servicing business, which mainly involves conceptualising events such as product launches and promotional campaigns.
The company is supported by a team of some 30 internal staff, including its in-house artists and designers. It also runs a 15,000 sq ft warehouse and manages many of the lighting and sound equipment, says Yap.
Moving forward, Yap says Freeform is looking at expanding its brand building records by promoting more carefully curated events that can help to drive brand awareness and help build clients’ engagement for companies and products.
“Many companies, particularly retailers are starting to see that they must embrace this pivotal shift in media consumption behaviours in order to keep up with generational shifts in perception.
“In today’s world, it is all about innovation, creativity and being different. While it is usually seen as an advertising strategy that focuses on helping consumers experience a brand, experiential marketing veers off course from traditional strategies that broadcast brand and product benefits to a wide audience, ” says Yap.
There are similarities between art events and food festivals. People are more interested in the narrative and it is about the experience, he notes.
Traditional marketing tactics help with an already established customer base and can give you data on potential customers. However, more brands are also adding elements of innovative experiential marketing techniques with the right mix of technology and creativity, says Yap.
“Similar to how global brands are doing their customer engagement, they are also looking to successfully engage with the audience locally. Experiential marketing gives consumers the feel-good emotions needed to cultivate true brand loyalty, the recipe for creating brand warriors who spread the word about their favourite companies and products, ” says Yap.
He says this concept is applicable to retailers as well, where it can help bring products to life. These events and life experiences can also provide a platform for customers to get a feel of the gadgets and products by testing and learning about them first-hand, which helps them make an informed purchase, rather than a straightforward retail experience.
Pop-up food events, similar to experiential marketing, offers consumers something they can see, feel and taste. It is a growing trend in most markets and is fast catching on here in Malaysia. One of the reasons for this is, of course, for marketing purposes.
But pop-ups can also be an opportunity to unearth new talents and help market some of the up and coming food businesses.
“There are many food operators and restaurants looking to expand and these events can test how well they’d do in certain areas by opening temporary cafes and diners. Vacant retail spaces are available almost everywhere, and there are plenty willing to accept a short-term lease.“Food has always been one of the most widely shared experiences among Malaysians. One of Tiffin’s main aim is to promote and develop emerging culinary talents and support local food entrepreneurs, while nurturing the nation’s collective enthusiasm for “all things culinary, ” says Yap.
Since the first Tiffin event in 2016 by Freeform, it has proven to be one of the most successful ventures by the company, he says. The latest Tiffin event, which ran for six weeks, managed to pull in around 1,500 visitors per day.
Many pop-up restaurants have been launched by home cooks and chefs that work in or own restaurants. These pop-ups have become a great way for them to test out new ideas and get an honest reaction from their patrons. It also allows them to try out different locations for their business.
Yap says these events are monitised through sponsorships, ticket sales as well as revenue from the sales of beverages and other non-food items.
Convinced that Malaysia has the necessary culinary talents, Yap is determined to take this Malaysian brand of lifestyle and culture across borders.
Bringing art to the city
Having its roots in the entertainment industry, it is only natural for Freeform to continue to be heavily involved in music and art. Urbanscapes is the main platform for the company to continue its creative ventures.
The first Urbanscapes event, said to be the longest running urban art-themed festival in Malaysia, started in 2002. More than just promoting music and art, Urbanscapes can also be a great platform to help revitalise or bring new life to otherwise neglected corners of the city.
“If you’re willing to think outside the box, then you can get really creative and take a more creative approach in areas such as art and music. What we are doing is also to help promote Malaysia to be the host for world-renowned musicians to leave an indelible mark on popular culture, ” says Yap.
Freeform also works with ThinkCity, a Khazanah Nasional subsidiary that is tasked with community-focused urban regeneration that seeks to create more sustainable and livable cities with identifying and rejuvenating Malaysian cities through arts, culture and heritage. These works include building conservation and restoration, heritage interpretation, space activation and preservation of intangible heritage.
After 19 years, yap says Freeform is still in its early days of expansion, mainly because more and more brands are beginning to jump onto this new age marketing concept. It is looking at regional markets as potential new growth areas.
In particular, Yap thinks the food and beverage-related events under Tiffin will be the best bet for the company to expand its culinary offerings and help develop the Malaysian food industry to other countries.
While there have been approaches by potential investors, Yap says Freeform is not interested to bring in external shareholders at the moment.
“It is only natural that we have a conversation on this from time to time, but for now, we are comfortable with partnerships and other forms of collaborations, ” says Yap.
The company is currently fully-owned by him.
It takes foresight and bold steps to change and respond to consumer trends. Keeping a lean and flexible organisation structure has enabled Freeform to transform, survive and thrive in the fast paced and competitive digital age. Its next challenge is to expand on its services and bring Malaysia’s soft cultures to the international stage.
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