Marketing, social media lessons from AirAsia executive

By Geoff Tan

SPH Magazines

Singapore, Singapore


When I recommended Kathleen Tan to my editor at The Peak magazine as the ideal front cover personality for our May issue, it wasn’t due to the fact she is a long-time friend of mine. It was because her inspiring story, which traverses an eclectically charted career path strewn with a wealth of marketing gems and motivational takeaways, is one worth telling over and over again.

It doesn’t matter if you refer to her as AirAsia’s president of North Asia, or know her by her Twitter handle @EmpressroxKathleen’s Midas touch has seen her rise from selling encyclopaedias door-to-door to helming the ramp up of the airline’s presence in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Kathleen Tan has made a name for herself as a leader at AirAsia, and she does it all optimistically.
Kathleen Tan has made a name for herself as a leader at AirAsia, and she does it all optimistically.

With more than 400,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, much can be learned from her predictive acumen in recognising the power of social media and harnessing it to drive up engagement across a captive pool of young, digitally savvy Chinese consumers. And she does all of this with a less-than-proficient command of the language.

Tan’s tenacity in knowing what she wants and going for it has augured well for her in every organisation she has worked in. Whether it be deftly delving across key accounts in ad agency Leo Burnett, launching the latest season’s collections in fashion firm FJ Benjamin, bringing in chart-topping acts when she was managing director of Warner Music Singapore, or turning the business around in AirAsiaExpedia, her ability to explicitly evaluate prevailing scenarios and promptly responding to opportunities is an attribute that Kathleen seems to have been gifted with.

Armed with a “thick skin” and a resilient attitude, this unassuming lady with fire in her belly has no reservations when it comes to cold-calling on the highest ranks of Chinese officials to negotiate landing rights. She has no qualms in going with her gut feeling to bring in a lesser-known artist and successfully marketing him across a series of sold-out concerts.

There are no second thoughts of downing a string of potent alcoholic shooters to clinch a deal. And she does all this in style — believing in always dressing to the nines and flaunting well-appointed designer garb even though the product she represents is a low-cost carrier! Image is everything to the “empress,” and compromising on this is not an option.

Tan is a natural when it comes to selling “benefits” rather than boasting about “features.” Consumer-centricity has always been key for her. In these challenging economic times we operate in right now, there is much to take away from the professional testimony of this astute sales, marketing, and branding leader.

I have learned a lot from her principles of application: In spite of whatever dire situation we are in, it is the attitude we adopt determines our success or failure. This prolific marketer always sees the glass as half full rather than empty. Her optimistic demeanour guarantees a silver lining even in the bleakest of situations.

AirAsia was the first budget airline to fly into China, thanks to Tan. Despite all the odds, her never-say-die approach to things should inspire us with a new hope and renewed confidence in rising above the storms currently prevailing across the publishing arena.

Her capacity to constantly innovate, ability to disrupt, prowess in harnessing the power of social media, hunger to continually learn what makes today’s consumer tick, strength of purpose that nothing is impossible, mastery in reading body language, and ultra-positive disposition in bringing all these together in a highly personable package I fondly refer to as Kathleen Inc. makes all the difference.

Taking a leaf from her book, the headwinds we are all facing in the media industry are more than conquerable. But only if we dare to deal with the situation head-on rather than to skirt the periphery.

Minor augmentations in our business model will not result in significant upsides. In the way we have witnessed disruptions across the taxi, hotel, and travel industries, the disruption we need to impose on our business must be deep, decisive, and definitive — even to the extent of cannibalising ourselves today for the good of our tomorrow.

When I first met Tan, she was the personal assistant to my Australian boss in an advertising agency. Today, she is still the P.A., but this time around it’s as “President, AirAsia.” This free-spirited marketing maven has certainly come a long way. And with the highly commendable traits she has clearly exhibited in her rise to who she is today, the sky— or should I say the stratosphere, so as not to depreciate her immense potential — is the limit.

This “empress” truly rocks!

About Geoff Tan

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