Is building brand Sri Lanka possible?

Tuesday, 9 April 2013 00:28 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Last Sunday, media reports emerged that a US-based advisory company called Thomson Advisory Group LLC (TAG) has been appointed to mediate and build brand Sri Lanka in the United States with some key objectives identified. The report mentioned the following:

1) A political environment in the United States of America that is more conducive to enhance Sri Lanka’s long term political and economic aspirations.

2) A comprehensive information platform where decision makers in the USA receive clear and accurate information about Sri Lanka’s current achievements and future plan.

3) A higher volume of private sector investment in Sri Lanka from the USA.


SL brand in USA

When I saw this information, I was glad that Sri Lanka had decided to engage the world even at this late hour, given that the Geneva debacle. I remember once interviewing global expert Simon Anholt on how a favourable image can be built around a country brand. The thoughts were crystal clear. The first point he made was that ‘nation branding’ is not a term that can ever be practically done, the logic being that any country changing its image using marketing messages has never been done anywhere in the world. In fact he says that no country has ever succeeded in doing it and he never advocates it.

The phrase he commonly refers to as ‘nation brand’ is simply an observation about the importance of national image in the modern world. He says that if a country doesn’t like its image – and most countries don’t – then the only way to change that image is through the things the country does, not by the things it says. So, whilst it is commendable that we have contracted TAG to engage the key policymakers in the US, the fact is that we need to live that in are daily activities if we are to really make an impact. If not, research reveals that practically it cannot make an impact.



Why reputation is important

Whilst appreciating the thrust on the focus market of USA, a point to note on this area of nation brand building is that influencing a country’s reputation is primarily a matter of policy, strategy, innovation and investment over a very long period – it has nothing to do with logos, slogans, advertising or PR campaigns like what TAG has been asked to do. The best way to build a brand is by way of living promises we made and this is where Sri Lanka has failed, be it the Executive-Judiciary tussle and now the onslaught of the Bodu Bala Sena on the Halal issue.

This is why the term ‘branding’ is highly misleading, says Simon Anholt. Though reputation is critically important to a country, branding means wrapping an image around an entity whilst reputation is more on what one earns by the way one behaves in the market place.

The logic of why a strong reputation is required is that countries with a powerful and positive image can export more products, more culture, more people and more services and attract more tourists, more investors, more immigrants and more attention and respect of other governments, just like Croatia and Estonia have done after a brutal world that caught global media attention. Countries with a weak or damaged image find it much harder and more expensive to achieve all of these goals.


What SL must do

In essence, what Sri Lanka needs to do is think about substance rather than spin, about real improvements rather than marketing magic. A reputation cannot be constructed; it can only be earned, says Simon Anholt. The question should never be ‘what can we say to make Sri Lanka famous?’ or ‘what can we say to make them believe we have done the right thing?’ but ‘what can we do to make Sri Lanka relevant?’

Relevance is the only issue that matters: Sri Lanka simply isn’t an important place for most people in most other countries, and until that point of relevance can be established, all of these worries and fantasies about national reputation or ‘brand’ are utterly pointless, said Anholt, from an independent nation branding principle.


Literature on nation brands

We need to keep in mind that in an increasingly complex and tightly-linked world, not only companies but also countries are engaged in competition at every level. As Anhholt (2002, p. 234) states: “Globalisation is turning the world into a gigantic supermarket” where countries compete to stimulate exports, attract tourism, foreign direct investments and immigration. Governments are turning to branding techniques to differentiate their country on the global stage in order to establish a competitive edge over rival countries in the belief that a strong country brand can contribute to the country’s sustainable development (Jaffe and Nebenzahl, 2001; Kleppe and Mossberg, 2006).

Dinnie (2008) has stated that country branding is an exciting and complex but controversial phenomenon; it is exciting because there is currently little theory but a significant amount of real world activity. It is complex because it encompasses multiple levels, dimensions and disciplines beyond conventional branding. And, as a highly politicised activity that generates conflicting viewpoints and opinions, it can be controversial.

A country brand can also be influenced in the short or long term by major events. China’s country brand, for example, was deeply affected by the 1989 Tiananmen Square event, the SARS epidemic in 2003, the 2008 earthquake and, later that year, the Olympic Games and then the milk scandal. Some studies (for example, Papadopoulos and Heslop, 2002) have investigated the influence of major events on the country image.]



Starting point

Gould and Skinner (2006) believe that this two-dimensional model serves as an original starting point for conceptualising the branding of places. However, there are many facets to the marketing of places, and the most recent models reflect a more holistic approach. Papadopoulos and Heslop (2002) have created a more developed, multidimensional model of place branding that includes marketing the place as a tourist destination, an inward investment location and for the purpose of creating a positive image of the place’s goods and services.

Anholt (2003) has developed and copyrighted his ‘hexagon’ of six areas to represent a country brand. Tourism, export brand, governance, investment and immigration, culture and heritage and people were seen as six areas of national competence that sum up to people’s perceptions of a country brand. Figure 1 illustrates the Nation Brand Hexagon by Anholt (2003).

Amine and Chao (2005) believed that there are five major goals that drive place branding strategy as adopted from Anholt (2003). They are promoting tourism, exporting brands, foreign policy, attracting investment and representing culture. All these five goals form the country brand model by Amine and Chao (2005). This model is illustrated in Figure 2.


Experts like Simon Anholt advocate that the first task is to create a broad coalition of government, business and civil society and establish a grand strategy for the country: Understand the key questions – ‘Where is Sri Lanka going?’ ‘What is its role in the community of nations?’ ‘What is Sri Lanka for?’

The second is to take a good, critical look at all the ways in which the country engages with the international community, whether it’s in trade, foreign policy, the diaspora, cultural or diplomatic relations; and to evaluate the quality and fitness for purpose of all the systems, structures, strategies and bodies the country has for carrying out these engagements: Are they truly appropriate for the age of globalised communications and global markets? Sri Lanka must bite the bullet on the many issues that are manmade: be it the CJ issue, hedging fiasco, Halal debacle and the missing journalists, to name a few. Could they be avoided with some mature decision making?

The third task is, Sri Lanka needs to start making itself useful, advocates Simon Anholt. Research shows that countries that are admired more than anything else if they are perceived to contribute meaningfully to the issues that everyone, everywhere is concerned about: climate change, pandemics, terrorism, economic turmoil, species loss, human trafficking, human rights and so on. If you want people to value your country, you have to make yourself valuable. In this light the Sri Lankan exports industry can be used that goes to the key markets of US and UK, which were very vocal in Geneva. Then we can use Sri Lank Tourism to build bridges. But then again we must walk the talk rather than just making promises, which ultimately results in the world voting against us.




Whilst the TAG initiative is a good start, the challenge is to move to building a strong nation brand on the lines discussed. But a key point to note is that if a country doesn’t like its image – and most countries don’t – then the only way to change that image is through the things the country does, not by the things it says.

(The thoughts are strictly personal views. The objective of the thought was to explain how a nation can be built as a brand globally and its implications for Sri Lanka. The author is an award winning marketer and an alumnus of Harvard University, Boston.)

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