Family, friends, good retail partners and a sense of home are threads Chen Tien Yue, executive director of Royal Selangor Marketing, uses to tell the brand’s Malaysian-Singaporean story.
“Two generations of the Royal Selangor family have grown up in Singapore over the last five decades. We look at Malaysia and Singapore as our home markets. When visitors come here [regardless of which side of the border they are from], they pick a piece of our pewter, which is perceived as a product from this part of the world,” says Chen at the 50th anniversary celebration of Royal Selangor Singapore.
The brand has grown alongside Singapore, following a similar trajectory of facing early hardships, difficult circumstances and the excitement of adolescence, making changes in operations and gaining confidence in its own history, heritage and culture. Now, as it looks for “that next growth opportunity driven by creativity and technology”, it is probably asking the same questions. Where are we today? How do we build for the future as we take pride in what we have?
“For us, it is striking a balance and having products that represent what the brand is about and what our heritage is.”
Examples of that balance would be the Straits collection inspired by Peranakan ceramic ware, and the Singapore Scenes — Civic District collection, which pays tribute to iconic Singapore landmarks, as well as pop culture offerings of Star Wars and Marvel figurines and musical carousels in the shape of Disney princesses.
“We have been quite consistent in our approach and continue the tradition of craftsmanship. What has been interesting over the years is the evolution of our design process, which is almost mandatory because we’ve had to evolve with the times.”
That means changing the way pewter is perceived — from “quite old-fashioned” and purely for decoration to beautiful, functional items that have a place in the modern home — and constantly reminding customers about that.
“So many of our products are things you want to use, like a teapot, a tankard for beer or whisky glasses. The functionality of the designs is something we spend a lot of time thinking about, to attract young customers to the brand. If you’re going to have a nice cold beer, a pewter mug is perfect to drink it from. As long as we continue to develop new items that are relevant to people’s lifestyles today, we think they will use them.”
Last year, Royal Selangor brought out its Woodland shaving set for men, which has a brush, drip tray, a shaver that fits the standard cartridge razor and a lidded bowl for shaving soap pucks.
“We will keep looking for new uses for pewter because lifestyles have changed. Wine was stronger for us at one time, now whisky is very big, so we have more whisky accessories to tap into.”
Ideas for product development come from a combination of market demand and design direction. For example, the brand created the Singapore Scenes series with an SG50 theme when the country turned turned 50 in 2015 because its team there thought they should do something big. “The government promoted SG50 as an important milestone. This is why it is important to have a local team. We have a local country manager here. We trust his judgement and that the team will come with insights on what the market needs.”
There are also products rolled out at the Malaysian headquarters that merit launches across more countries, either because they relate to fresh trends and lifestyles, or are product categories the team feels it should develop as new directions. An example is the shaving set, Chen says. “Nobody asked for it but we thought it would be fun for men’s gifting.”
When doing collaborations, the brief given to a designer is quite simple sometimes: “Come to us with what you think you would like to do.” That liberty to create has been inspiration for pieces that amaze yet retain the brand’s signature touch.
Local designer Nathan Yong, recipient of the Singapore President’s Design Award (2008), came up with Vapour, inspired by the transformation of water to vapour, has textured dissipating vertical lines on each piece from the collection. Savoy, by Singapore-based Australian designer Jarrod Lim, captures the iconic London hotel’s Art Deco style and the glamorised feel of the jazz age.
Chen sees his role as getting the balance right between understanding what the different markets are asking for and what the brand is trying to do. “I hope I form that bridge, not only of product development — between what they want and what we are doing at the head office — but also in the way we reach customers, whether it is through retail stores or working with third-party retailers like department stores, or dominant online platforms, such as Amazon in the US.”
Venturing into new markets is enticing but the company does not have a long list on the cards. Instead, it is looking at what it can do better closer to home. “We are just scraping the surface in Japan right now. We appointed a distributor in Thailand a year ago and have just started working with someone in the Philippines. We’re also tapping the emerging retail scene in Vietnam.”
The aim is to have a stronger footprint in the region because people are constantly travelling across the main cities. “I think the brand presence reinforces our businesses in each market. So, the immediate focus is growing in Asia.”
Chen is the son of Datin Paduka Chen Mun Kuen, managing director of Royal Selangor International, and nephew of Yong Poh Shin, chairman of Royal Selangor Singapore. He is also one of four members from the fourth generation — there are 11 altogether — of the family working in the company founded by their forebear, Yong Koon, in 1885. There is a fifth generation, with 21 members to date, who have not come into the business yet. “They’re in their early twenties and we hope they will start exploring what it is they want to do,” Chen says.
If and when they do join the fold, they will add another chapter to a long-loved story about a brand whose roots and shoots represent opportunity, enterprise, cooperation, creativity and innovation.
This article first appeared on May 13, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.