Who is Master Ma?

Petronas ads create buzz with mystery

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Marketer: Petronas
Agency: Publicis Worldwide, Shanghai

GUANGZHOU--Petronas generated buzz this month with a mysterious campaign to grow the Malaysian oil manufacturer’s brand in China’s fiercely competitive lube market.

“Petronas, as a latecomer, managed to do something different that enabled them to quickly stand out from the crowd,” said Ke Yang, general manager of Publicis Worldwide’s Guangzhou office, which developed the campaign.

Three stark 15” teaser spots with no brand or product identification or logo were aired in early March, each echoing the same question: “Who is Master Ma?” The story captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of curious Chinese viewers, who called local TV stations and posted messages on Web forums to uncover the identity and purpose of Master Ma. The protagonist was revealed as a branded Petronas character in local newspapers through five-page print spreads, turning Master Ma into an overnight celebrity.

The approach put Petronas “on the map” in China, added Zool Alias, the company's country marketing manager in Shenzhen, giving the company the confidence that “our goals are achievable. Already, our March 2006 sales volume is the highest [monthly] sales volume recorded thus far” in China.

Although Petronas, short for Petroliam Nasional, is a massive oil and gas player in Southeast Asia, the Kuala Lumpur-based company is eager to expand in China, a growing economy with tremendous energy needs. It also has a car market growing by double-digit figures every year, an important factor for Petronas, which focuses on sales of engine oils for passenger cars and motorcycles.

Foreign companies control just one-fifth of China’s lubricant market. The rest belongs to local players, particularly two domestic giants, Sinopec and PetroChina. China consumed over four million metric tons of lubricants last year, according to state figures.

"As a latecomer, Petronas faces huge challenges. Compared to long-established Esso, Shell, Mobil, BP and Castrol, Petronas is very much an unknown brand; market share is low," said Mr. Ke. Also, "local Chinese customers have no issues with their current lube brands and have no intention in switching or trying new [brands]."
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