Monday, September 12, 2016

Defending the SAF brand

Spend time watching people on a leisurely run and you may realise a good number are togged out in Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) PT kit: If not the shorts, then running vests from assorted units or running shoes.

Older Singaporeans would recall this wasn't the case decades ago when PT kit was worn because it was mandatory, not because it was comfortable.

The pivot towards items you can buy at an SAF eMart reflects improvements the armed forces has made in the quality and fit of such apparel, tailored for local physiques and kept largely affordable.

When you think about the many options available in the so-called athleisure market, it is a big deal that SAF apparel has gained ground among runners here.

Anecdotal evidence of the popularity of SAF apparel on running tracks shows the value people place in the "SAF brand". It's a point of pride when people choose to wear running vests from formations known for being tough (Commandos, Guards) and units whose reputations resonate positively with young adults (the maroon OCS running vest, for instance).

Make no mistake: People would not wear such outfits if they felt ridiculous being seen in them.

With a captive market that is enlarged with every new batch of enlistees (some 20,000+ annually), a MINDEF/SAF-linked enterprise can exert some serious leverage against established athleisure players if it wanted to.

The data amassed by the Central Manpower Base (CMPB), which is used to size National Service enlistees correctly, is just the thing that industry hankers for to right-size items for commercial applications. These run the gamut from seat pitches in cinemas and airliner cabins, to furniture to the size of clothing as children in the same age bracket get bigger over time (a result of better nutrition). PDPA issues aside, such data represents invaluable insights into shifting demographic trends that would give any MINDEF/SAF venture an advantage, simply because there are few entities who have been tracking the Asian physique across many races as closely as CMPB has done so.

Granted, this area is non-core. And here's where it may be awkward making the distinction between clothing citizen soldiers reasonably well (which is what MINDEF/SAF is expected to do) and expanding the scope of work into the commercial sector.

Mind you, the PT kit analogy should not be taken as a clarion call for CMPB to start non-core activities. It merely goes to show how efforts to make a well-made product can command a customer base far beyond what the original product was made for.

There have been precedents. Victorinox of Swiss Army Knife fame being one example. The product range has surpassed the manufacture of knives for the Swiss Army during the company's early years and grown into a multi-million dollar global enterprise. Today, the Swiss Army Knife is the gold standard that multi-tool pocket knives are measured against. The product has been copied by many imitators but few have matched the prestige that the Victorinox label has earned. In a nutshell, the army knife made for the Swiss Army has attained a world-class label.

On the apparel front, we have the American label, Under Armour. Its corporate history had a humble beginning in the 1990s and stemmed from a football player who simply wanted a better undershirt but couldn't find one off-the-rack. So he attempted to make his own. Under Armour's growth is a re-telling of the American story of risk-taking and innovation, and the ability to create one's own market niche before bigger players realise you're onto them.

In typical Singaporean fashion, we tend to recognise success only when the examples cited can trot out sales figures worth millions of dollars. Victorinox and Under Armour sit comfortably in that category.

If we are not careful, we may realise belatedly that the vendor(s) who makes SAF apparel has captured a wider market by riding on its track record serving Singapore's soldiers (excluded would be the boots maker whose shoddy QC has seen many pairs of combat boots returned for kit exchange after the soles delaminated, but we digress).

The United States land forces' Army Marketing and Research Group, which serves as custodian for the US Army's brand, watches over branding, marketing, licensing and trademark control. There is no equivalent in the SAF, despite the growing range of items that have found their way to civvie street.

If we were to ascribe a value to the SAF brand, where would we even begin?

Certainly not from the sticker price of eMart items in their current shape and form. Indeed, the value the brand represents goes beyond apparel and embraces many (lucrative) commercial spheres. These include advisory roles in defence and security (which people would acknowledge as the SAF's core business) and, to a lesser extent, the customised solutions devised for a citizens army from clothing to personal-issue equipment.

Some 15 years ago, few outside the security sector had heard of, or were keen to invest in, InVision Technologies. Frequent fliers to the United States may recognise the name on luggage scanning machines. The value of InVision Technologies shot up in tandem with rising demand for luggage scanners and the company has never looked back ever since. We must recognise that the tragedy of 9/11, which put years of pin-prick terror attacks suddenly into sharp relief because of the sheer number of people killed on that fateful day, has reshaped our lives forever. And there's no turning back to the pre-9/11 security era.

InVision Technologies is but one instance of an overlooked enterprise that suddenly found itself in demand in the current security climate.

With the experience and expertise the SAF has forged across the spectrum of the defence and security capabilities, it is perhaps timely to rethink how such know-how can be tapped to create value for Singapore. This goes beyond job creation but in creating an enterprise which leverages upon the value people see in the SAF brand in ways that are hitherto untapped.

The SAF has, over time, relied on advisory support for a multitude of roles. That was during our formative years when we lacked the skill sets and professional expertise for various spheres of defence science and engineering. We note that even the construction labour for one particular command node is said to have come wholly from a foreign source to protect opsec. So the foreigners consulted provided full-service support for that project.

But MINDEF/SAF has come a long way since then.

In hotspots around the globe, there is growing demand for advisors who can lend their expertise in taming a war-torn land. Providing armed muscle ala Academi is high profile albeit low on the value chain.

Nations on the mend need and want to know how to transition from conflict to troubled peace to peacetime by restoring infrastructure like roads, bridges and basic housing, executing de-mining ops, urban planning, upscaling medical and psychological support to provide a semblance of order and the basic services needed to sustain a populace bled white by years of strife.

Defence personnel overseas have already recognised the niche market that such services command. Indeed, many start-ups have been formed with the company's resume mirroring missions SAF personnel have carried out in PSO and HADR.

MINDEF/SAF can expect to lose personnel with rich PSO and HADR experience once foreign enterprises recognise that the skill sets needed for business expansion reside right here in Singapore.

As security issues that command the attention of the world's leading cities are not going away anytime soon, we should think through the operational implications if our better-trained and most experienced operatives leave the service as commercial enterprises value their experience even more than we're prepared to pay.

A rethink of what constitutes the SAF brand - if you can call it that - is therefore timely because you only own what you can defend. And this includes this amorphous concept called the SAF brand.

1 comment:

Elmo says Hi said...

I wear the SAF PT attire when I'm working out cos it's already paid for..

Singaporeans are practical creatures.