In the recent past I have seen and read several articles, conceptual papers and heard many opinions and views on branding our nation and her offerings. Some of it was in relation to tourism promotion, while others were more generic, referring to overall nation branding.
There were also many views expressed on the rights and wrongs of branding strategies and taglines, in reference to tourism promotion. Some suggested that key sectors of activity such as tourism, cricket and tea be used for building of ‘Brand Sri Lanka’.
These are days branding and brands receive more recognition than they sometimes deserve. Some brands have been recognised at awards and thereafter faded away into oblivion, raising the pertinent question, “Were they indeed brands?”
That takes us to the differentiation between ‘being a brand’ and ‘making a name’. Making a name connotes making it any which way, while being a brand is uniquely a one-way-street.
We know of many who had made a name for themselves as cheats, thugs, drug traffickers or comic-boasts. But they were never, ever to be associated with building nation brands. They only add a negative to the process.
What David Ogilvy once said about branding is worthy of reflection here: “Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.”
Perception and reality are, in my mind, two key concepts that we must keep in the back of our minds, when we talk about building brands. To me establishing a brand’s character and personality leading to recognition and loyalty, is all about working consistently and hard at achieving the highest possible standard of quality and integrity in whatever is being done.
This accounts for ensuring unwavering and sustained delivery of that quality and relates both to the real and perceived aspects of that brand, with primary emphasis on the real. Brand character and personality must never be compromised with attempts at seeking to establish perception through promotion. The key word here is believability.
Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Murali, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Microsoft, IBM, Volks-Wagon, Dilma, Munchi and DSI are some brands that I place on top of my mind, when I perceive real brands of men, women, nations or products.
One unifying characteristic about all of them is that they have all have worked passionately hard at what they do, under much duress and achieved a level of quality that is unmatched, not only for the brand itself, but for society at large. It has been consistent, sustained effort and attention to detail that has won them that recognition.
Integrity, vision-driven leadership and sincerity in seeking to be differentiated have been hallmark features of their character and positioning. Some have not overtly sought to be branded, but have become brands nevertheless.
My appeal to those involved in being in the driving or side seats of building ‘Brand Sri Lanka’ is not to be tied down by dogma of management gurus, business school concepts or theories of what makes brands or what they ought to be.
Like philosopher, speaker and writer Jiddu Krishnamurti said: “The mind must be empty for us to be able to think clearly.” This is how I would imagine our thinking on branding of Sri Lanka should be.
We must look at the very basics of being real and attaining the highest possible standards in delivering quality in whatever we do. Given the unique position we are in, after defeating a brute terrorist force, we must now venture to reinvent ourselves. It is thus, about our nation’s very soul and her conscience.
Like our President heard on his recent visit to the USA, from the successful Houston based Sri Lankan Tamil immigration lawyer George Willy, Sri Lanka needs to follow the Buddhist principles of compassion, truth, and justice and his repeated concluding appeal to the President was “Your Excellency, return us to Paradise… Return us to Paradise”. That indeed is the vision that needs to drive building of ‘Brand Sri Lanka’.
Lawyer Willy may not have known that our President had on several occasions earlier articulated the need and desire to unify Sri Lanka’s 20 million people as one family. One instance is the speech he made in Sinhala and Tamil to the children of Sri Lanka at a recent ‘Mother Sri Lanka’ programme presentation.
It is sad that many in our midst do not or choose not to see, hear or accept that there is genuine effort here, away from the political rhetoric and the dire need to guard against opportunistic opposition.
Our nation’s brand builders need to realise that tourism, cricket, tea or any other such business activity cannot on their own build ‘Brand Sri Lanka’. These, together with all else, must reflect the integrity, quality and consistency in the practice of the very core values that goes into our nation’s brand structure, character and personality.
Contrary to what many think and feel, there is a slow but steady process of instilling the right values, happening at the grass-roots level in our society now. As someone who follows what is happening in rural Sri Lanka and on the vernacular media, I observe that there is change for the better taking place.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not implying that all is well. We as a nation are far from being ready to take a believable brand character proposition to the world at large.
Building a nation brand that is held together on a strong set of fundamental values that radiate good clean leadership, integrity, transparency, compassion, truth and justice is to be paved on a hard road ahead. There is lot more work that needs to be done both individually and collectively by all of us, before we can think about being confident in singing its song.
(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)