The corporate sector of Sri Lanka was shocked at the unfolding events at the New York ‘private party’ that emerged initially via digital media and was then absolutely mismanaged at the weekly press briefing of the Government and subsequent declaration at the Vatican and finally the official announcement by the order of the President for an official probe.
Live the promise
I recall the words of nation branding guru Simon Anholt, the nation branding expert who has advised over 59 global leaders on building the image of nations: “Your reputation as a country is what you earn over time. You cannot just fabricate it with advertising and promises that the country does not live up to.” This is the brutal reality which we once again showed the world last week.
Perception vs. Reality
My mind goes back to the time when the ninth LTTE air attack took place in the city of Colombo, which ended with a LTTE aircraft crashing into a building next to a prominent five-star hotel. Even after repeated attacks by the LTTE into the city and this terrorist outfit being responsible for wiping away over $ 200 billion from the Sri Lankan economy, the world perception today is that they were freedom fighters and we are being questioned on war crimes, which is the duplicity of the world, driven on the power of perception rather than reality.
What better reality check does Sri Lanka have to justify when in 1983 Sri Lanka attracted 338,000 tourists into the country and in 2008 after 25 years was struggling to attract 438,000 odd visitors into the country, while countries like Cambodia which were at 200,000 visitors in 1983 were touching almost two million tourists way back in 2008.
This loss in value terms accounts for over $ 6 billion, which is the reality. Today, this same industry is attracting almost two billion dollars and 1.2 million visitors with top global brands like Shangri-La, Movenpick, Hyatt, ITC, Shinagawa and Avani setting up business in our land. The point I am trying to highlight is the power of perception being stronger that reality as per the global academics Shifman & Kannuk.
COFARCE, the trade organisation of France, has ranked Sri Lanka to be the next best growth economy after China in the Asian region whilst the World Bank and ADB have pegged the economy to grow at around 6-7% of GDP. But the best case in point on the Sri Lanka economy is that the mobile phone usership was at 2.2 m in 2004 whilst today this number stands at 20.3 m, indicating the increased awareness on decision making that happens in the country. It also indicates the connectivity that a Sri Lankan has with the outside world with platforms like Facebook or website access.
Private radio channels have increased from six to 35 from 2004 to date, whilst TV channels has increased to 18, which are also indicators of the overall quality of life of a Sri Lankan. The vehicle stock has increased from 2.3 m vehicles to 5.2 m, which also reflects the standard of life that is sweeping in even though the challenge on the purse is high. The number of new entrepreneurs emerging in the last four years is also interesting but the credit consumption going down in the private sector is a worry that needs to be addressed.
Tea – Global push
The best news for the Sri Lankan tea industry was the 1:1 matching funding on the Rs. 6 billion marketing budget that is in the bank account of the Sri Lanka Tea Board. Now the question is the gold standard execution that is required.
After all every 15 years we lose the top 10 markets in which Ceylon Tea operates. This does not augur well for an industry that was awarded ‘Ethically Manufactured’ status, which is the first in the world and the industry standard globally for the tea beverage. Sri Lanka will register two billion dollars income in the near future is my view.
IT/BPO – to 10 globally
The cynosure of eyes on Sri Lanka is on the new industry IT/BPO which is now ranked a top 10 global service provider by AT Kearney for 2014. This business requires a strong branding exercise so that we can wrap the country stronger globally, but the good news is that this industry will be a $ 1 billion industry in the near future.
Some of the best names of the business world are coming into the fray with organisations like CGM, a top freight liner, setting up its back-end operations in Sri Lanka with a partnership with Hayleys.
Atchchuvely – first Green Industrial Zone
The launch of the Atchchuvely Industrial zone under the leadership of the Minister of Economic Development was a big win for the people of Jaffna as it was the first industrial zone for the post-war Northern Province. Now the challenge is to get the 22 plots attracting the big business with almost 10 already given out to the private sector.
If we can make this the first Green Industrial Estate in Sri Lanka and house around 2,000 people from Jaffna, I will be the happiest about conceptualising and developing the partnership between the UN, the Government of India and the Sri Lankan Government on a first in the world for infrastructure development.
Rotary says – top 10 in Giving Index
Recently at the Rotary New Generation Seminar, the Governor for Sri Lanka and Maldives shared the insight that Sri Lanka was ranked at No. 10 in the World Giving Index with 92% of Sri Lankans directly or indirectly being part of volunteerism, which explains the unique culture of Sri Lanka.
I guess the customer satisfaction survey of tourists coming into Sri Lanka stating that over 85% want to come back to Sri Lanka is testimony of the strong branding that happens to a visitor once experiencing our culture. But incidents like what occurred in New York and the subsequent viral media that emerged that caught the attention of the world does not add value to ‘Brand Sri Lanka’.
Financial industry – CBSL leadership
With all these issues, Sri Lanka continues to baffle the top economists of the world by growing at 5-7% year-on-year, which is driven by the private sector and strong policy reforms supporting this agenda even with all the issues in the political economy of Sri Lanka.
The latest positive news is the financial consolidation which is almost done successfully, with just a handful of marriages to be signed. This once again demonstrates strong leadership that Sri Lanka has and needs to be supported for greater reforms.
Work in line with our conscience
I strongly feel it’s time that we learn to work in line with our conscience. This is nothing to do with religion but being patriotic and progressive rather than just letting our emotions lead to negative media. As Simon Anholt, the nation branding expert, says: “Your reputation as a country is what you earn over time. You cannot just fabricate it with advertising and promises that the country does not live up to.” This includes the quality of not forgetting to acknowledge the people who have contributed to the growth of this country.
I want to highlight one key personality in this respect, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, a man who has helped so many sectors move into a new growth path who sometimes keeps getting attacked by politicians in the Government and Opposition. It’s time that we learn to be more conscious of our thoughts is my view as a person who is actively involved the Sri Lankan economy.
With the economy now closing on $ 100 billion and export revenues also coming close to $ 15 billion, we have got a opportunity to develop a new positioning for Sri Lanka, but this can happen only if we believe and value ‘Brand Sri Lanka’ and this is in our very own hands with actions. We either can lose this golden opportunity or make the best of it. It’s our choice.
(Dr. Rohantha Athukorla is a double award winner in Marketing by the Chartered Institute of Marketing and was the youngest Chairman of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board. He is a Merit Award winner in the United Nations system of five years and currently heads an US-based invest giant as the Country Director – Asia Pacific.)