Before the internet era, marketing of products was usually done through advertisements in physical forms, such as billboards, banners or posters put up at prominent locations with high human traffic. Large fonts, colourful themes, eye-catching logos and innovative slogans were commonly used to attract the public’s attention.
With the successful launch of Television Singapura in 1963, advertisements also found their way to a wider reach to the mass market through television broadcast. In 1964, the television station began selling airtime to the advertisers and sponsors for their TV programs. Other advertising means by the mass media included radios and cinemas.
By the eighties, public transport such as buses also started carrying advertisements of various brands and products.
Some old brands last till today, others rose and fell. There were some that left deep impressions to many Singaporeans, while the rest were easily forgotten. Here’s a look at some of the classic advertisement posters in Singapore in the past few decades:
Advertising for: Beer
Slogan: It’s time for a Tiger
“Drink more beer”. An advertising slogan like this will probably be disallowed today, but back in the 1930s, it was a catchy phrase to justify that beer was a nutritious and healthy thing to drink. Singapore’s first locally brew beer, Tiger Beer made its debut in 1932, produced by the Malayan Breweries Limited which later became the Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) in 1989. Today, Tiger Beer is sold in 60 countries worldwide.
Brand: General Electric
Advertising for: Refrigerator
Slogan: Nothing can be better than the best
At prices more than $275, only the wealthy in Singapore would be able to afford this back in the 1930s. In fact, the refrigerator was so pricey that the advertising strategy was to convince its customers that the product from USA was a lifetime investment that one could not afford to take a chance with. And it came with a 4-year guarantee too. By then, General Electric was a reputable American brand with a significant history. It was established all the way back in the 1890s. In 1969, it invested a number of manufacturing plants in Singapore.
Brand: Tiger Balm
Advertising for: Pharmaceutical products
Tiger Balm was developed in the 1870s in Burma but was developed into a business empire in the 1920s by Aw Boon Haw (1882-1954), the man who built Haw Par Villa, and his brother Aw Boon Par (1888-1944).
Aw Boon Har was a shrewd businessman and marketing genius. After he established himself in Singapore in 1926, he founded Sin Chew Jit Poh, a popular local Chinese newspaper that always carried the advertisements of his Tiger Balm products. At the openings of his Tiger Balm branches, he had his men dressed in tiger costumes. Aw Boon Har was also frequently seen in his iconic Tiger car on the streets, specially painted in orange with black stripes and fitted with a large metal tiger head.
Brand: CK Tang
Advertising for: Department store
At a cost of $50,000, CK Tang Department Store was established at the junction of Orchard and Scott Roads in 1958, on a parcel of 1,350-square-metre land bought the legendary Tan Choon Keng (1901-2000). Although the department store faced the Chinese Tai San Ting Cemetery, its convenient location attracted many British housewives who lived at Tanglin. Its iconic green-tiled oriental-looking building was demolished in 1982, and was replaced by the new Tang Plaza.
Advertising for: Tonic food drink
Slogan: Replaces that energy
An Australian product introduced in 1934, Milo, owned by Nestlé, was marketed as a tonic food, nutritious beverage and energy drink. It quickly gained worldwide popularity, especially in Singapore where it became a permanent fixture in the kopitiams. Several variations were developed over the years, such as Milo peng (ice Milo), Milo Dinosaur (a glass of ice Milo topped with extra Milo powder) and Milo Godzilla (a glass of ice Milo with ice-cream). In 1984, Milo was produced locally at the Jurong factory.
Brand: Lee Pineapple
Advertising for: Canned food
From a small family-owned business started in the 1950s, Lee Pineapple is now a famous grower, canner and exporter of canned pineapple and juice to many countries in the world. Owning more than 10,000 acres of plantations in Malaysia, the Singapore company today produces 2.5 million cases of canned pineapple and juice each year, and employs more than 1,000 staff.
Brand: Austin Seven/Mini
Advertising for: Automobile
Distributor: Borneo Motors
The popular Mini was first produced by the British Motor Corporation in 1959, and was sold worldwide under the brands of Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor. The Borneo Motors introduced Austin Seven into the Singapore market in the sixties, and marketed it as an economy car with a reliable engine and hydrolastic suspension.
Advertising for: Television set
With a combined start-up capital of $320,000, a group of businessmen set up the first television set manufacturing plant in Singapore in 1966. The factory, located at Leng Kee Road, began rolling out black and white TV sets. A year later, another Setron factory was opened at the new Tanglin Halt Industrial Estate.
By the seventies, the fast-growing local company had expanded into Malaysia, got listed in the Stock Exchange of Singapore, opened another seven-storey factory at Dundee Road, manufactured coloured TV sets and invested in the production of cassette recorders in a joint venture with Japanese electronic giant JVC. After a glorious decade, Setron eventually went into a decline in the early eighties.
Advertising for: Typewriter
German typewriter maker Optima was established as early as 1923. When its factory at Erfurt was destroyed during the Second World War, the company split into two, under the political circumstances that the country was divided into East and West Germany. The original factory was restored, while another factory was set up at Wilhelmshaven. The name Optima was retained by the eastern factory; the western one took up a new brand called Olympia.
The Optima E14, E stands for the Erika models, allowed typing of Arabic alphabet that was used in the Jawi script for the Malay language.
Brand: Baby Stork
Advertising for: Condensed milk
Cans of Baby Stork Condensed Milk were a familiar sight in Singapore provision shops in the sixties. It was manufactured by the Australian Dairy Produce Board using raw material from Australia worth some $2.2 million a year. The products were then distributed by the Malaysia Dairy Industrial Limited, established in Singapore in 1964.
Baby Stork faced stiff competitions against the Dutch Lady and Milkmaid in the sweetened condensed milk business. Dutch Lady was mass-manufactured in 1965 by Pacific Milk Industries (Malaya) Sdn Bhd, which changed its name to Dutch Baby Milk Industries (Malaya) Berhad in 1975, whereas Milkmaid was a popular product by Nestlé.
Advertising for: Camera
In 1936, Japanese entrepreneur Kiyoshi Ichimura founded Ricoh. The camera was marketed as one with precision workmanship, and equipped with high quality lens, clip-on exposure meter and duo-level focusing and built-in self timer. The prices, however, did not come cheap; each camera was sold for more than $200 in Singapore.
in 1960, Ricoh also came up with a range of auto-focus aim-and-shoot cameras at lower prices. Today, Ricoh is also a producer of printers, projectors and other office supplies.
Advertising for: Powdered milk
Nestlé, a household brand in Singapore, had been operating its business in the country since 1912. Its wide range of food products, such as Milo, Maggi, Nescafé, Nespray, Kit Kat and others, remains a firm favourite among Singaporeans today.
Advertising for: Restaurant
Ask any older generation of Singaporeans of their memories of Neptune, and most of them will tell you about the famous topless shows. In the eighties and nineties, Neptune was the only theatre-restaurant in Singapore to feature topless shows, until the arrival of the Crazy Horse cabaret in 2006. But Neptune was more than that. It was also a venue for concerts, wedding dinners, dance performances and even beauty pageants.
Managed by Mandarin Singapore, Neptune was established in 1972, competing against Tropicana in the local entertainment realm. By the mid-eighties, both Neptune and Tropicana experienced decline in their popularity due to a shift in public preferences. The famous Neptune dancers were disbanded in 1986, while Tropicana ceased their business three years later. Neptune held on until 2006, when it also closed for good.
Brand: Yeo Hiap Seng
Advertising for: Food and beverage products
Yeo Hiap Seng was originally a small stall selling soya sauce by its founder Yeo Keng Lian. His sons Yeo Thian In and Yeo Thian Kiew moved to Singapore and established a shop of the same name at the junction of Havelock and Outram Roads. During the Second World War, Yeo Hiap Seng suffered considerable damages but was still able to produce soya sauce to sell to the market. By the fifties, it began to manufacture canned food for Singapore, Malaya, Borneo and Indonesia.
In the sixties, Yeo Hiap Seng added packet drinks and instant noodles to its diversified range of products. A family dispute in the nineties saw the company split up, and was subsequently taken over by property tycoon and one of Singapore’s richest men Ng Teng Fong.
Advertising for: Department store
Slogan: Yaohan grows with you
Japanese retail giant Yaohan established its foothold in Singapore when it opened its first store at the newly-completed Plaza Singapura Shopping Centre in 1974. Popular among the Singaporeans, Yaohan specialised in providing one-stop shopping experiences and selling everything from fresh fish and meat to cosmetic and textiles. The household brand, however, ceased its operations in Singapore after its mother company declared bankruptcy in 1997.
Advertising for: One-push button rice cooker
Slogan: Just slightly ahead of our time
Probably the first famous brand of Japanese electronics, National was founded in 1925 by Konosuke Matsushita. Its first products were battery-powered bicycle lights, but the brand was better known for its range of rice cookers and electric fans sold in the Asian markets in the seventies and eighties.
National had been under the parent company of Panasonic, which was formerly known as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co Ltd. Audio and video products bearing National Panasonic were once the favourites among the consumers. By the early 2000s, the National brand was gradually being phased out. It finally became officially defunct in October 2008.
Advertising for: Cooking oil
The popular Knife brand cooking oil was manufactured by Lam Soon, a local company with a history that goes back to 1950, when local businessman Ng Keng Soon established his copra and canned food factory at Jalan Jurong Kechil. The Knife brand cooking oil became a household brand and was also sold in the Hong Kong market since 1963.
In 1970, Lam Soon ventured into palm oil sector and set up many plantations in East and Peninsula Malaysia. Over the years, Lam Soon’s business was diversified to soap, detergents, beauty care products, packet drinks and fruit juice.
Advertising for: Packet milk
Slogan: The long life milk with the fresh milk quality
The brand of Magnolia was born in 1937. It owned a Singapore dairy Farm at Chestnut Drive in Bukit Timah by the 1940s, which had 180 acres of farmland and 800 imported cows. Magnolia’s classic pyramid packaging design was launched in the fifties, with a promotion slogan called “The Peak in quality in every household”.
Magnolia’s popular snack bars were opened in Singapore and Malaysia in the late sixties; the first being established at the old Capitol Building. In the following three decades, Magnolia expanded its business to include ice-cream, soya milk, packet drinks and desserts.
Advertising for: Department store
After the success of its flagship store at Plaza Singapura, Yaohan expanded aggressively, opening numerous branches in Singapore. Yaohan Katong made its debut in 1977, followed by Yaohan at Thomson, Parkway Parade, Bukit Timah and Jurong in the next six years.
Brand: Plaza Singapura
Advertising for: Shopping mall
One of the largest shopping centres in Singapore upon its completion in 1974, Plaza Singapura started with six levels filled with retail shops that sold a wide range of products. Yaohan was its anchor tenant until 1997 when the giant department store went bankrupt. Plaza Singapura underwent a major renovation in 2012 that cost more than $150 million.
Advertising for: Packet drinks
Slogan: Drinho cools you down
Also a product by Lam Soon, Drinho came in different flavours, such as soya bean, sugar cane, bandong, chrysanthemum and green tea. The brand is still going strong in the market today.
Advertising for: Self-service banking facility
Slogan: Your national saving bank
Singapore’s Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) was established as early as 1877. After the country’s independence, the bank was placed under the charge of the Ministry of Communications and, later, the Ministry of Finance. In 1976, POSBank received its 1 millionth depositor, and its total amount of deposit crossed $1 billion.
It launched its Cash-On-Line ATM Services in 1979; the early machines were set up at the POSBank branches at Robinson Road and Orchard Road’s Cold Storage Supermarket. One of its marketing strategies was to give out piggy banks in the model of the signature design of its ATM machines. POSBank was acquired by the Development Bank of Singapore Limited (DBS) in 1998.
Advertising for: Packet milk
Slogan: Today’s milk for today’s family
Advertising for: Chilli sauce
When Maggi launched its chilli sauce in the early seventies, it creatively raised public awareness by referring the sauce to a grandmother’s recipe. Calling it the Grandma Test, they invited 50 grandmothers to taste the new chilli sauce. The result was, of course, positive. Soon, Maggi also introduced its sauce in tomato, chilli and garlic, and chilli and ginger flavours.
For decades, Maggi has been the favourite brand for chilli sauce and instant noodle for many Singaporeans. It is owned by Nestlé, whose R&D centre developed the popular “fast to cook, good to eat” Maggi Mee in 1979. In the mid-eighties, Maggi also launched another of its signature products. Named Maggi Cook-It-Right, the instant seasonings largely featured traditional local recipes in beef rendang, Nyonya stewed chicken and assam fish curry.
Brand: The Specialists’
Advertising for: Shopping centre
One of the oldest shopping centres at Orchard Road, Specialists’ Shopping Centre was home to Hotel Phoenix Singapore and, more famously, the John Little departmental store. It was originally named Specialists due to the concentration of medical specialists in its early days, and it was built in the site of the Pavilion Theatre in the early seventies.
Owned by OCBC Bank, the 30-plus years old mall and hotel were finally demolished in 2008 to be replaced by Orchard Gateway, a new mall with restaurants, offices, hotel rooms and a library linked between two towers.
Brand: Jack’s Place
Advertising for: Restaurant
Slogan: The unchallenged steak house in town
Jack’s Place was the first restaurant in Singapore to introduce affordable Western food. It had its roots in the sixties when Hainanese Say Lip Hai came to Singapore to work as a cookboy for the British army stationed at Sembawang. Mastering the techniques of cooking the best roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Say Lip Hai started his own business in 1967, named Cola Restaurant and Bar to serve the British and Commonwealth troops and their families at Sembawang.
In 1968, Say Lip Hai had his big opportunity when his cooking was appreciated by a British housewife, who recommended him to start his caterings at her husband’s pub at Killiney Road. Her husband was called Jack Hunt. Say Lip Hai agreed if he was given the in-charge of the kitchen operation. When the British couple returned to England in 1974, they sold the business to Say Lip Hai.
One of Jack’s Place’s outlets is located at the Bras Basah Complex. Officially opened in April 1980, it is still going strong after more than 30 years.
Advertising for: Powered milk
Slogan: Klim is milk. Pure, creamy milk
Spelt backwards of “milk”, klim was a Canadian product developed in the early 20th century to serve as a dehydrated powdered milk that could be kept for weeks without refrigeration. It made its way to Singapore in the 1920s, distributed by Getz Bros & Co. Klim was acquired by Nestlé in 1998.
Brand: Sara Lee
Advertising for: Snack Cakes
Slogan: Thank you Sara Lee
Many Singaporeans would remember the catchy tune of “thank you Sara Lee” advertised on the TVs in the eighties. The butter and chocolate pound cakes, packed in their characteristic aluminum packaging, were the favourites for many locals. Sara Lee was actually an American brand established way back in 1949, when its founder Charles Lubin named his bakery business after her daughter.
Advertising for: Shoes
Slogan: First to Bata, then to school
And finally we have Bata, the Czech shoe manufacturer which has just recently celebrated its 120th anniversary (and 83 years of establishment in Singapore). The first Bata store was opened in Singapore in 1931 at the Capitol Building along Stamford Road, and in 1964, Bata set up its factory at Telok Blangah. The BM2ooo (Badminton Master 2000), one of its signature products in the eighties and nineties, was a must-have shoes for every school boys and girls.
(Photo credits: National Archives of Singapore, Newspapers Archives of Singapore and Facebook Group “Nostalgic Singapore”)
Published: 12 December 2014
Updated: 24 February 2019