Leading hospitality branding agency QUO Bangkok’s CEO David Keen recently paid a brief visit to Sri Lanka to meet with some of the major developers in tourism in the country to revitalise, restructure, reinvent and reorganise their perceptions to explore the possibilities for the next phase of growth in the hospitality sector.
Keen is a visionary entrepreneur and being a frequent visitor of Sri Lanka he was highly impressed with the multi-dimensional assets the country has and called on all stakeholders
to create a unique identity for the destination not for today or tomorrow, but for the day after.
He took time off to speak to Daily FT about the key rules in destination marketing and branding, key challenges, areas to be improved, effective ways of platforms and methods and his recommendations for Sri Lanka tourism.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
By Charumini de Silva
Q: Could you brief about the company?
A: Quo was established 22 years ago and we specialise in branding, tourism both in Asia, Middle East and in Europe. In Sri Lanka we have branded some of the significant brands. We do a lot of work in the Maldives, Thailand and all over Asia.
Q: Why do you think branding is essential for companies and countries?
A: Well, the brand is everything. A brand is essentially a culture, it is the music, the sound, the uniform, the way you are been greeted. That experience is the realisation of the brand. In terms of countries, obviously it is more complex. However, a great nation brand reflects the essence of its culture, people, industry, exports, history of everything that defines that country can and should be cultivated and harnessed inside a brand.
Q: What are the key ingredients in building a compelling brand?
A: To create a distinctive about how you define the culture. It’s understanding a vision of the organisation or nation and harnessing that vision and leveraging the assets, understanding its challenges, looking essentially at the typologies, integrating with the brand. When a business tourist stays in a hotel for longer period, looking at his needs in that hotel or brand and delivering to that person from a human and product and service perspective. The things you need in a room to moment of experience that is going to delight that person when they are in that product. All of these things need to speak to the typology and not just generic.
Q: What are the dos and don’ts in destination branding?
A: Destination branding is a very complicated art. It’s often very political depending on what the client is going to be like and it depends to a great degree on what the vision of that destination may or may not become. A skilful leader can artfully reflect his/her policies in the definition of that place. The agency has a responsibility to reflect the truth. It is always my opinion the culture and the definition of the people as well as the activities are the broad core of what a nation brand should reflect. As much as the vision of the leader, it is the vision of its people that should be reflected. In terms of don’ts the easy pit-hole to fall into is to project something attractive because it is attractive rather than it being in the brand. It is all about the vision and the strategy. Once you form that strategy, the strategy itself is reflected in the brand and nothing else. The culture is reflected and nothing else. If something doesn’t fit the culture, then it shouldn’t be reflected in the brand.
Q: How can the brand identity drive the profile of a destination worldwide?
A: I think ‘Incredible India’ is one of the simplest and most powerful brands that any nation has ever created. The campaign drove a compelling visual, disarming identity. It drove desire. Look at ‘100% New Zealand’; that not only drove tourism, but drove product definition. It reflected the quality, taste, smell and freshness of the product that we were selling.
Q: In the travel and hospitality trade how important is it to emphasise on the location?
A: Around 20 to 30 years ago, location was paramount. You can never dismiss location. But there are plenty of products and plenty of countries that have proven that location is no longer the most essential part. When there are good transportation systems in place, location become immediately much less important. You chose a brand because it suits you, the experiences you’re going to have suit what you are looking for rather than being in that location. However, in terms of real estate location, cost of land, and all of these things are so important. The location is never not going to be a critical component in the definition of the brand, but today it is far less important than ever before. It is not necessarily the most significant component in the definition of the brand.
Q: What are your recommendations for Sri Lanka tourism as an expert in the industry?
A: My recommendation for Sri Lanka echoes a lot of the private sector, which we work with, and is to harness the magnificence of the people, the culture, the dimensions of the destination and reflect it in a completely different and distinguished vision which will then end up in campaigning them. There are so many incredible assets this country has, none more than the younger generation who may have been educated overseas, who are now entrepreneurs and are setting up bigger or smaller companies who are the future of the country and its unknown in the world and it’s such an incredible part of the attractiveness of the country.
It’s not just the splendour of nature, there’s a remarkable, almost revolutionary movement within the country of absolute brilliance of people who are so passionate about their home. They are so passionate about the future and they represent to me a future that has extraordinary limitless potential and it’s gathering those minds as well as the leaders in different industries to come together and imagine what the identity of Sri Lanka should be.
The tourism industry in Sri Lanka is still very traditional. Although there are wonderful exceptions and we are involved in some very exciting new identities and new types of tourism, the vast majority of hotel products that are being created are fairly traditional. The structures of these organisations are fairly traditional yet there’s this disconnect, there’s this huge generation of fabulous people who are working in modern environments and organisations that have the ability to drive the perception of what the future of the country is.
My recommendation to the Government or the tourism industry is to take the wisdom of the youth as well as the wisdom of the older generation and bring them together to form a larger committee that sits together and reimagines what the perception of Sri Lanka should be and it’s not for today or tomorrow, but for the day after.
Q: What are the areas that you see that Sri Lanka needs to improve on in terms of the hospitality industry and the travel industry?
A: I think in order to create distinction, the products and brand themselves need to become far more distinctive. They need to be differentiated. They need to be more culturally-defined experiences. Gone is the day where the consumer will be satisfied with a traditional Sri Lankan product.
Q: What are the key challenges for marketing and branding?
A: The single biggest challenge is to create something that is different. The key challenge is to get out of the box and to embrace the youth, to embrace different sectors of society, to understand the perception of the brand. It’s not just for tourists, it’s for the entire country itself. The brand should reflect the core culture of the people of the country and it should reflect the future of different types of industries as well as tourism.
Q: Could you brief on new effective ways of platforms and methods that brand marketing can be done?
A: I would say that it’s through research of media. You have an immediate opportunity to define yourself through constant innovation to present creativity as it’s no longer something that you receive in the mail, it’s not something that you see in a brochure. The brand definition is completely in the hands of the operators and the most successful ones use it and they use it wisely to evolve and embrace the technology.
Q: Who are your clients here in Sri Lanka?
A: We are working with the biggest names in tourism in Sri Lanka. We recreated the Jetwing brand some years ago, we created the Amaya brand, I created the Galle Face brand. We are also working with other major developers in tourism in the country to revitalise, restructure, reinvent and reorganise their perceptions.
Q: How do you see the potential for tourism this year?
A: From what I understand, this quarter was pretty good. However, unless the tourism infrastructure both from a public and private post of view comes together and reimagines the perception of Sri Lanka, the yields, the visitation will take a long time to improve.
Q: Any final words you would like to say about Sri Lanka?
A: This country has multi-dimensional assets that could and should be understood both internally as well as externally to form an identity and to do that it should rethink how it presents itself and how it’s formed. Be bold and daring because there is nothing that Sri Lanka has to be scared of.
Pix by Lasantha Kumara