The Year of the Penguin

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1998

It was a dull, overcast, and humid start to the trip. Normal for the time of year, I learned. As the ferry left its moorings with sky-scraping sentinels looking on and Star Ferries bobbing in the harbour, it was as exciting as I had imagined.

It was 20th May 1998, and I was a passenger on the Hong Kong to Shekou ferry on my way to visit Shenzhen for the first time. My final destination was a shiny new convention centre just set back from the beach in the heart of the city, which since 1980 had been designated a Special Economic Zone. My hotel was the Marina Ming Wah, with its imposing striped tower facade, symbolising the city’s ambition and strategic intent.

Built to celebrate the Ming dynasty, the hotel had all the features the modern business traveller might expect, including a golf practice area, a karaoke lounge, a bowling alley and even a cosy pub, the Marina Tavern. I was on my way there courtesy of United Biscuits, an esteemed but now defunct British plc. United Biscuits was a pillar of the UK food establishment and were purveyors of all manner of biscuits, round, brown and beyond.

I’d been hired to lead a training course for the sales and marketing personnel working for the local business United Biscuits had recently acquired. My mission was to explore how leading Western companies positioned brands and created innovations. The curriculum included profiling UB brands such as HobnobsSultana (huge in Holland), Go Ahead and Penguin, the chocolate-covered cream sandwich biscuit that was a star asset of the UB portfolio and which had the famous TV advert featuring the lovable Penguins. The slogan, spoken by Derek Nimmo, was “P… P… P… Pick up a Penguin”. I was also to describe the then highly fashionable concept of Need states and define what exactly was meant in this context by refuel, ice breaker and reward/treat and their relevance to a Chinese consumer. 

Despite the conceptual, cultural and linguistic challenges, I remember the students’ incredibly enthusiastic, hardworking and competitive spirit, and especially their willingness to push back on the UB biscuit orthodoxy. We finished the course with a wonderful banquet followed by a suitably designed Value Engineering after-dinner entertainment and quiz. This group proved to be a promising cadre of young marketeers who taught me much.

Despite the warm feelings I felt as I left Shenzhen and returned by ferry to Hong Kong, the UB venture in China was ultimately unsuccessful – in marked contrast to another business set up and launched shortly afterwards, just a few steps away from the Ming Wah.

Tencent one of the world’s greatest tech businesses was founded in 1998 by Pony Ma and Zhang. Spotting the tremendous opportunity opening in the new world of the mobile internet, they quickly established leadership in the huge Chinese market for messaging and video gaming. Today Tencent is also a global giant in entertainment, publishing, FinTech, venture capital and much more.

But back in 1998, just as I was introducing the Penguin biscuit to my Chinese students, Tencent’s entrepreneurs were planning the launch of their first mobile messaging brand QQ. And looking for an appropriate brand symbol, they chose – yes, you guessed it – a Penguin. A somewhat cheeky-looking Penguin but a Penguin who nevertheless resembles his chocolate-endorsing cousin. But this one just happens to be a brand megastar who is on billions of mobiles.

Video games to play on your Nintendo 64: 1998 

The Legend of Zelda: Tokino Ocarina

Goldeneye 007

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