BadBranding@Singapore

I love coming back to my adopted home of Singapore. Always languid and green, Singapore makes an invigorating break from the smoggy bustle of Beijing. Yet whenever I return it doesn’t take long for me to be reminded of some of the niggling, little annoyances that made it so refreshing to get out of Singapore for a few years. Near the top of that list is the local infatuation with the inappropriate use of the “@” symbol in branding.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am semiprofessional scornheap. Yet, were I to live for another hundred years (and don’t think I’m not trying), I could never find enough time to heap upon this idea all the scorn that it so richly deserves. As long as I have been here, the branding mavens of Singapore have used the “@” symbol, once a lowly accounting symbol meant to indicate a unit price, to add a whiff of technological glamour to undeserving brands.

Imagethief is not immune to the seductive charms of the “@”. Along with my old friend and former business partner, Joe Pantuso, I once co-authored a book on online games called, to my eternal shame, Online G@mes. In my defense, however, that book was written in 1994 before the “@” rose to depressing ubiquity. The book and its title were both obsolete the moment it hit the shelves, which was just about the same moment the Internet began to kill off the proprietary online services such as GEnie, Prodigy, AOL (in its dialup incarnation) and Compuserve that hosted the games we had written about. Such is life as a technology writer.

I keep thinking that the brand developers of Singapore will outgrow “@”, and they keep disappointing me. I was scandalized five years ago when the glamorous, new office tower at Dhoby Ghaut was named “Atrium@Orchard”. In 2006 using “@” in a brand is beyond unforgivable. It’s the branding equivalent of a fifty-year old man with a pot-belly and severe male-pattern baldness growing a pony tail and getting his ears pierced in a futile attempt to stay youthfully hip. It reveals a failure to grasp contemporary style that is so final and absolute that it obliterates by definition the very sensibility that it was meant to create.

You would think that the manifestations of “@” that I run into these days would the last of a dying breed; fading survivors of the dot-com boom days, when anything that evoked the Internet was sexy by definition. But, alas, it is not so. Many of them are freshly minted. In 2006 that is a crime against style that makes one consider the fact that there are some offenses for which caning is a justifiable punishment.

“@Orchard” –meaning at Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping drag– is a particularly common abuse. In fact, one of the things that reminded me of this issue was discovering that Harry’s Bar, a longtime fixture of the Boat Quay restaurant strip, has opened an Orchard Towers branch called Harry’s@Orchard. This is shameful retread of the government’s time worn “Library@Orchard” and the “Atrium@Orchard” mentioned above. I can understand when government bureaucrats, like the National Library Board, make these transgressions. I expect government to be ten years behind, and they are serial “@” offenders as a quick scan of the ww.gov.sg website rapidly shows (not counting use in e-mail addresses). But a bar impresario? Criminal.

A quick flip through the online Singapore yellow pages reveals at least four other offenders including “The Dentist@Orchard” and, to my surprise, “Apple@Orchard” for the Apple Computer store in Wheelock Place. The brand-conscious Apple people should know better, and I, writing this on my PowerBook, feel tainted by association. (And upon writing that, I also note that the Apple people have fallen victim to the equally loathsome branding cliche of intercapping –as in PowerBook–, a longtime Singapore branding crutch.)

But by far the worst example of “@” abuse I stumbled across this year was the naming of Singapore’s annual Chinese New Year “Chingay” parade. According to the official Chingay website, the word Chingay comes from a corruption of a Chinese dialect word for a small, decorated stage or float carried by performers, and was first used during ethnic Chinese celebrations in the storied Malaysian Chinese trading port of Penang. With such a colorful history, it seems a shame to drag the word down into vulgar techno-cliche, but there it was: Street Party @ Chingay. Ooh, taste the coolness.

I realize I shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, the country that felt compelled to rechristen its perfectly sensibly named National Science and Technology Board as the precious “A*Star“, complete with asterisk (and don’t even ask what happened to the old Productivity and Standards Board). But the line must be drawn somewhere. Otherwise, why not simply rename Changi Airport Airport@Singapore and have done with it?

Think I’m p@ranoid? As you can see, it’s not entirely far-fetched.

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