Country brands can be made strong if the policymakers are strong
Sri Lanka was devastated on Sunday when suicide bombers went on rampage. Whilst the actual impact will be seen in the near future, what is sad for Sri Lanka is that the policymakers are at sea despite all the experience we had in dealing with the LTTE terror organisation.
Media reports allege that almost 10 days before the attack the Head of State was alerted on same, one policymaker tweeted the day before the attack that his father has warned him not to attend church due to a possible attack. The Army Commander voiced that the root cause was the weakened ‘Intelligence Unit’ of the country that was one of the best at the height of the war. The Cardinal finally made a statement to the media that ‘300 Catholics would have been saved if the Government took timely action’.
The rhetoric in Sri Lanka right now is that ‘Sri Lanka does not have a government – from the power crisis to security or for that matter strategic tourism promotions/ brand building’.
Reality today globally
Let’s accept it. The reality today globally is that from earthquakes to terrorism, disasters are a common phenomenon. In fact the global traveller is immune to this reality. In my view Sri Lanka will bounce back strongly. But the pace at which it will bounce back will be based on how well the Government manages disasters. Let me do a deep dive on those that manage such disasters well.
Thailand – over 6000 killed
The theory is that if a brand is strong it can withstand any shocks that the environment throws out. Take for instance Anchor milk powder which ran into serious issue in Sri Lanka around two years back; today it has recovered strongly to be a leader once again. From a tourism industry perspective we can take the case in point of Thailand.
The country attracts almost 30 million visitors a year, but if we Google Thailand security, the news is startling. Over 6,000 people have been killed since 2004. If we take the recent past, in 2015 the bombings inside the Eswaran Shrine killed 20 people and injured almost 200 people. In 2016, two bombs exploded in the tourism town of Hua Hin. One person died with 23 injured that included tourists. Last year a pipe bomb exploded on a crowded street leaving 25 critically injured. On 22 January a motorcycle bomb exploded killing three people with dozens injured. If we take the press release of yesterday by the Foreign Office, the wording is very clear: ‘Extreme caution must be made when travelling in Thailand as civil unrest, imminent terrorism attacks can be prevalent including Bangkok and places of highlight.’
But the question which is important to us in Sri Lanka is today is, how does Thailand attract 30 million visitors into the country with so many issues highlighted by the media?
The logic goes back to basics of human behaviour. If the positive stories that come out of a destination are higher as a share of voice (SOV) as against the negative vibes, then the attitude formation is more positively biased to the country. This leads to stronger behaviour such as more visits into the country. This is essential the reality of Thailand tourism.
Five strategies of TAT
If we track back to the strong equity of Thailand tourism, from a mere 81,000 visitors in 1960, today there are over 30 million visitors coming into the country. The question is, what has Thailand tourism done to develop such a strong brand globally with all the issues that have challenged this brand such as the 6,000 killings in the last 14 years?
The thinking is simple. Thailand Authority of Tourism (TAT) wants to be a top five destination to visit in Asia. This has a four-pronged strategy;
1) Develop infrastructure and logistics which link domestic tourism with international.
2) Develop and rehabilitate tourism sites and introduce clear guidelines which will enhance the countries potential for accommodating increased tourism.
3) Development of the creative economy with new products and services.
4) Keep the brand salience high and contemporary with the changing competitor landscape.
Building brand equity – SL example
If we track back to the strong brands in the market, a clear thread that connects the best practice is ‘have a set of values around the brand’ and thereafter sustain this in the communication strategy over time, the logic being a clear identity in the market place. The stronger the coherence of the communication campaigns, the stronger the brand. This is the strength that helps a brand absorb any shocks that it faces in reality.
Taking once again the example of the Fonterra brand Newdale in Sri Lanka. Even with all the issues it faced a few years ago on the product element, it was able to take the hit and bounce back quickly to win consumer demand pull from Sri Lankan housewives. This is the benefit of driving strong brand building.
If we track back on the brand building initiatives of Thailand, way back in 1980 Thailand launched its first-ever tourism campaign. It was called ‘Visit Thailand Year’. The campaign attracted two million tourists and made the industry the number one foreign exchange earner.
Once again in 1987, the campaign ‘Visit Thailand’ was re-launched to mark the 60th birthday of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej. It was once again made a strong impact on awareness and share of mind that attracted 3.4 million visitors as against the 2.8 million a year ago.
In 1998-’99, the world saw the launch of one of the best destination marketing campaigns themed ‘Amazing Thailand’ together with a strong private-public partnership. The campaign coincided with the 72nd birthday of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej and it was linked to the recovery process of the 1997 Asian currency crisis. The impact was significant with tourist arrivals crossing 8.5 million in number.
Thereafter in 2003 came the creative ‘Unseen Thailand’ which was a partnership project with Association of Thai Travel Agents, The Thai Hotels Association as well as Thai Airways. This was aimed at building a positivity post the SATS virus epidemic. Even though the industry numbers dropped by almost 10% the arrivals reached a number of 10 million which shows that strong brands can withstand shocks from the market.
In 2006, millions of people worldwide had the chance to witness Thailand’s many spectacles associated with the Royals. This included the Royal Barge Procession and the global communication campaign ‘Thailand Grand Invitation’. The year-long celebration attracted a record 13.8 million visitors into the country.
In 2007, with the celebration of the 80th birthday of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, Thailand launched the campaign ‘Thailand Talk to the World’. The share of voice was able to attract 14.4 million tourists into the country which was an interesting dimension of simple communication creatively executed on a central theme.
Year 2010 saw the celebration of Thailand Tourism’s golden jubilee. The communication campaign was branded ‘Amazing Thailand Always Amazes You’. It was aimed at attracting visitors who have come to Thailand to once again come back to the country. It was a record breaking year with number crossing 22 million travellers by 2012.
By 2014, the Thailand Authority for Tourism had to move to communication based on a new insights that people make the difference in making an experience novel to a traveller. The campaign was themed ‘Amazing Thailand – It Begins with the People’. Even though the target was 26 million travellers, Thailand ended the year at 24.7 million at a growth of 19.6% as against the previous year, which was another record performance.
In 2015, Thailand did not rest on its laurels but launched another campaign called ‘Discover Thainess’. It included traditions and beliefs. Also included was Thai boxing and Wai kru dance as a way of life that helped get attention of the global traveller. The objective been to give a rub off the ‘Thainess’ feel to the world that was well received. The year ended at 29 million visitors.
Year 2016 saw the launch of the ‘Quality Leisure Destination Thainess’ year where the focus was to promote Thailand as a ‘Quality Leisure Destination through Thainess’ where the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) was the Thainess campaign. The numbers shot up to 32 million and 2017 ended at an amazing 35 million, a feat which explains the power of the brand Thai Tourism even with all the issues faced with arson attacks, bombings and explosions that have killed over 6,000 people that includes tourists.
Sri Lanka – Next?
Whilst Sri Lanka is yet grappling to launch a global marketing campaign since 2015 to date, one of my teachers and respected marketing professionals, the former Marketing Director of Reckitt Benckiser Nimal Gunawardana openly critiqued the proposition ‘So Sri Lanka’. Whilst many of us agree with his argument, I am taking the view that even if it is not a cutting edge idea with a ‘gold standard execution globally’ we might be able to get traction on brand Sri Lanka Tourism. But, sadly Sri Lanka has miserably failed.
Whilst many are throwing out numbers like three to four million tourists coming into Sri Lanka in the years to come, it is not the numbers but the quality of the tourists that matters, the logic being that the room-stock is increasing daily whilst the cost of living is increasing disproportionately and the industry is challenged to keep the brand alive.
The Thailand story is an example of how a strong brand can absorb the shocks that the environment throws out and also generate the footfall on tourism.
(The writer can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The thoughts are strictly his personal views and do not reflects the organisations he serves in Sri Lanka or globally.)