Correcting SL’s image globally?

Tuesday, 8 January 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Last week we saw the ‘Road Map – 2013’ being unveiled at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, where Sri Lanka is to become a 100 billion dollar economy with a growth of six per cent plus and poverty at two per cent by 2016, which sure made many of us proud of Sri Lanka.

Even though statistics can be challenged, the fact of the matter is that there is a group of people in Sri Lanka really trying to peg the country’s image that can spruce business confidence and positivity to the prospective trading partners of the country.

I feel our duty is to support this endeavour, given that Sri Lanka is at the crossroads and support from the business community is a must at this juncture.


Sri Lanka – $ 23 b

Whilst having this ethos in the New Year, it’s also important to understand the reality of the country from a global image perspective. As per Brand Finance, Sri Lanka as a nation is valued at 23 billion dollars and ranked 76 globally. In South Asia it is at number four as against powerful brands like India at $ 1,266 with a rating of A+.

The report states that even though Sri Lanka is registering a strong economic growth, the problem with equity is that it is very weak on the area of brand equity. This can be defined as the rating for the reputation of a country as a society, rather than an economy. In other words it is the political and social reputation of the country globally.

A point to note is that this was the rating way back in 2011 and since two years have passed we should have addressed this issue and corrected it. But with the recent fiasco between the Judiciary and the Legislature, we can just imagine the ramification for Brand Sri Lanka on equity.


SL – reality

The reason for the low value of Sri Lanka as a brand in 2011 was the tragic civil war that created negative media fuelled by the diaspora workings in the West. However, the positive side is that in the 2011 study it was revealed that Sri Lanka was in recovery mode.

In fact Sri Lanka and Georgia were mentioned as countries that were improving their image globally post a conflict and had the potential to be a strong brand by 2013. Stri Lanka was hence rated an A-. This means that Sri Lanka was number two in South Asia next the power brand India.

But a point that must be noted is that Sri Lanka was rated to be on par with countries like Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nepal. Now with the CJ issue getting international condemnation, we can just imagine what impact it can have on Sri Lanka as a brand and where we will be grouped with. I hope we are not going to be classified with countries like Nigeria, Congo, and Sudan.

In the world of branding, a key insight is that perception drives behaviour and not reality. So, even though there can be a logical argument for the impeachment of the Chief Justice, the perception we create towards the country can be negative and detrimental.


Why correct?

One can argue that in a country that is on a development drive globally, especially post a war, there can be a drag on the reputation of the country on the aspect of ‘governance’. If we are to compare Sri Lanka’s performance with countries that are demonstrating similar growth like Estonia, Kazakhstan, Peru, Nigeria, or Mozambique, Sri Lanka’s brand equity was low in 2011.

The importance of correcting this score given that Sri Lanka has jumped to number 81 on the Ease of Doing Business Index in 2012 and a top 60 country on in the Competitiveness Index globally is because if the reputation of the country is weak, it hurts tourism, FDIs and exports of a country. This is what research shows.


Wonder of Asia?

One of the recommendations from Brand Finance is that a country must identify the weaknesses and correct them with focused brand strategies, with which I agree, like the ‘Wonder of Asia’ tourism promotion or the ‘ethically right’ manufacturing destination as claimed by the apparel industry or the ‘1st Ozone Friendly’ proposition by the tea industry. But there is an issue.

The Nation Brand Policy expert and advisor to many governments globally, Simon Anholt advocates from his experience that manipulating the imagery with strong marketing techniques does not help build a strong nation brand. Reputation must be earned over time by the actions that governments implement and people inside the country emanate to the world, which is the exact problem in Sri Lanka.

Between 2011 and today, we can see the many governance issues that have made it to viral media that is globally accessible – the NSB stocks sale issue, the teachers taking to the streets, the oil hedging fiasco, the exam paper leaks, and now the CJ debate, where the legal community has taken to the streets and also made representations to global organisations. Given these developments, we can imagine the ramification to the Nation Brand scorecard of 2013.


Building image?

Simon Anholt goes on to say that building brand imagery with diplomacy and marketing campaigns are a waste of taxpayers’ money and must not be done. His logic is that a product sells a promise and hence advertising will help communicate this promise and make the consumer surrender some money to purchase the product (brand).

But, in the case of a country, it is different as with the advertising you are asking someone to ‘change the way they think towards a country’. This cannot be done by sexy advertising. You have to get people to experience the change with actions. For Sri Lanka it has to be from the Government end as per the 2011 Brand Finance research report.

Countries like Singapore and Malaysia have shown to the world that image can be corrected if it is channelled from the Central Government, not by way of brand marketing but by actions that have earned the respect of the people in the country which has garnered a positive image globally.

Malaysia in particular realised that first impressions count. Many people globally purchase brands by first understanding from where the brand is being originated. Malaysia also realised that to attract the top end tourist into the country, one must have a strong reputation globally which is conducive. If not, a country cannot garner the best return for the assets they possess.

For instance, Sri Lanka attracted almost 37% of the tourists who are above 60 years of age in 2011 as per the exit survey. This explains why only 200,000 tourists visited the Yala National Park when we had a million tourists coming into Sri Lanka in 2012.

There can be many other insights for the statistics mentioned but brand experts on ‘nation brands’ say that a country’s reputation has a strong impact on the visitors who come into the country. The best example is the Maldives.


Next steps

To conclude we must understand that countries are judged by what their citizens say about their governments. It has to be an unbroken stream of dramatic actions that make the reputation of a country. It has to be earned over time and cannot be constructed with marketing strategies. In this light the next steps can be as followed:

Let’s accept as a nation that we are responsible for the image we create for the country.

As per the 2011 Brand Finance report, the drag on the brand Sri Lanka is political and social reputation globally and the issues that have been highlighted in the media between 2011 and 2013 will further dent the image of the country.

Correction of the image of the country has to be earned with actions so that a reputation can be attributed to the country. Many foreigners mention the smiling faces and the friendly nature of a typical Sri Lankan. Can we build on this from a governance perspective?

Maybe a country like Sri Lanka can secure the services of an expert to advice on the area of building a strong nation brand with the likes of Simon Anholt.

Whilst we focus on becoming a $ 100 billion dollar economy, we must also make Brand Sri Lanka strong. As at now it’s worth only $ 23 billion

(The author has twice won the ‘Marketing Achiever Award’ in Sri Lanka and has a double degree in Marketing and a MBA and is currently reading for a doctorate. He is an alumnus of Harvard University, Boston. The thoughts are strictly his personal views and not the views of the organisations he serves.)

Recent columns