The authentic brand: Staying true, being great – Part 2

Friday, 21 September 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Michel Nugawela sat down with Asoka Hettigoda, Managing Director, Siddhalepa, and Dilhan Fernando, CEO, Dilmah Tea. He discusses what sets their brands apart as representative symbols of their categories and our wider culture and country. (Continued from Part 1 yesterday)

By Michel Nugawela

Strongly authentic brands like Siddhalepa and Dilmah are powerful role models for sustaining relevance and remain attractive decades after they were created. They have a profound understanding of their reason for being – the inward strengths that sustain them – as they grow, adapt, innovate, disrupt, and master the outward strengths that are necessary to increase their relevance. They are genuinely different and go on to provide identity to entire communities – first nationally and then globally – through their cultural value.

“Ayurveda is a social service,” says Asoka Hettigoda; for Dilhan, too, the wider role of Dilmah is to make “business a matter of human service.” Clearly, both brands and their creators exist for a purpose far larger than themselves. Both champion indigenous philosophies, practices and products against what Roger Martin and Sally Osberg – in their fascinating study on activists, disruptors, visionaries, and changemakers who transform societies and the world – refer to as unjust systems and disequilibria. And both are synonymous with the categories they reinvented and the superior value they created. 

In fact, can you even separate Siddhalepa Vedamahatmaya and Merrill Fernando from the broader story and identity of Sri Lanka? Not easily. 

Their goal is to bring a new and fairer equilibrium to society and so their personal characters and life stories – the beliefs, behaviours, struggles, failures, successes, achievements, and aspirations – also form the theme of an archetypal drama that defines the narrative of Sri Lanka. 

FIVE: Consumers 

purchase the story and its relevance to them

Consumers experience powerful and primal mythic associations through brands (‘myth’ in this context refers to the metaphorical stories and parables of a brand; not falsehoods). “When a brand creates a myth,” Harvard Business School Professor Douglas Holt says, “consumers come to perceive the myth as embodied in the product. So they buy the product to consume the myth and to forge a relationship with the brand.”

Asoka, for example, explains that the Siddhalepa brand is a ‘concept’ that embodies human qualities and imparts meaning to an entire community. “My father created the personality for Siddhalepa”, he says, “based on a traditional vedemahatmaya; a very learned and honest person, respected in the community and concerned with healing others. A vedemahatmaya does more than provide relief for headaches; he’s also a doctor in your home.

“The Siddhalepa name also refers to more than a balm; it represents things like honesty, trustworthiness, consistent delivery, and how it can make you feel better, rather than taking your money. Even my grandfather gave away medicine for free. He told patients who tried to pay him by cash or in-kind, ‘I’ll treat you if you’re sick, but I’m not here to take your money.’ 

“One of our customers told me that his father took a Siddhalepa capsule nightly, and was insisting that he also did. When he warned his father that it might be addictive, he was told, ‘No, you can trust it. It’s from Siddhalepa.’ Our customers have that kind of confidence in the brand because of the vedemahatmaya personality. People can like a product, but it’s quite an achievement when they recommend a concept. This Share of Heart makes them part owners of the brand.”

SIX: Universalising meaning for larger communities

Strongly authentic brands like Siddhalepa and Dilmah contribute to the meaning we derive from the world – our sense of who we are – but as they grow geographically and penetrate new markets, they also symbolise what we represent to the world. 

As they take stances and advance their agendas, both brands create an intangible experience of shared meaning and facilitate a powerful sense of belonging to a larger brand community. They attract millions of purpose-hungry consumers who share their attitudes, opinions, and ideals, and participate in the brand’s larger social construction. 

Dilhan: “Whether it’s tea, coffee or cocoa, I believe a sincere commitment to taste, ethics, and sustainability will correspond with the universal values of consumers. When our customers choose Dilmah tea – whether in France, Australia or any of the other hundred countries in which we are present – they know both quality and integrity underscores the product because these are values that are important to us as a family.”

“So if my father was to say, ‘Look, I’ve made my money, I’m 87 years of age, I’m going to have fun in Paris, see you later,’ it wouldn’t work because consumers see his passion and commitment to taste, ethics and sustainability. We go to supermarkets, we talk to customers, we taste with media, and do all the things any farmer offering his produce would do. Today, consumers see through any effort at posturing very quickly.”

Asoka: “Certain aspects of consumer behaviour are commonly shared and globally universal. The vedemahatmaya personality embodies the Siddhalepa brand. It is part of our culture and may only be applicable to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans who know what a vedemahatmaya is and does, but a person who gives health advice is universal. Our challenge today is to recreate that in international markets.” 

The image of the vedemahatmaya that personifies Asoka Hettigoda’s father and grandfather must now transcend culture, geography and even language. In doing so, the brand’s provenance – the values, culture, behaviours and personality that represents its way of life in Sri Lanka – is now reinvented to appeal to global audiences. 

As both Siddhalepa and Dilmah universalise their brands, they increasingly compete for what Douglas Holt calls ‘culture share’. Here, the strategic focus is on what the brand stands for – a universal truth that embraces common values, and addresses collective needs across markets. 

For example, the creators of both brands share the same archetypal narrative as (amongst others) Richard Branson and Anita Roddick; the Hero/Champion who rights the wrongs and redresses the balance in favour of the unfairly disadvantaged by fighting against and reclaiming from the unjustifiably privileged. 

Take this statement by Richard Branson: “We never considered Virgin to be ‘big business’. We’ve always seen ourselves as the underdog, and we quite like it that way. Every business we have was set up to disrupt a market with products or services that make a real difference to people’s lives. We will always pride ourselves in being a challenger brand.”

Or consider Anita Roddick, who positioned the Body Shop as the underdog in a David and Goliath battle against multinationals like Revlon and Olay in the cosmetic industry. “The real success behind The Body Shop and Anita Roddick herself,” says author Scott Pape, “lay in the power of her storytelling and mythmaking. 

“She made shopping an ethical act, a cause-related revolution. Each product was sourced from some ancient hill tribe that had used the all-natural ingredients to refresh their skin for centuries. The Body Shop was trading with the tribe, bringing them prosperity – and by purchasing the product the consumer was playing her part in the picture.”

Both Siddhalepa and Dilmah (or for that matter, Virgin and the Body Shop) channel all their energy to support the amplification of their universal story. And Siddhalepa Vedemahatmaya and Merrill Fernando (or Richard Branson and Anita Roddick) symbolically become a customer’s self-concept, raising the motivating question – universally relevant to all peoples – Could I do that as well?

SEVEN: (Re)creating Country-of-Origin Advantages

Both brands also continue to create and recreate Sri Lanka’s country advantage in their categories, dispelling the perception that Sri Lanka is a producer of inferior commodities. 

Asoka: “Ayurvedic companies didn’t exist before Siddhalepa. Yes, it was part of our culture, but it was dead. There wasn’t a single outlet from Ratmalana to Colombo that carried Ayurvedic products when my father started the business. It wasn’t available in pharmacies or supermarkets, but today even the largest multinational companies have bought Ayurvedic companies and introduced Ayurvedic lines.

“Our country has gone through many cycles. So many bright individuals have left because they lacked the right opportunities. There was also a perception that the people who remained in the country – and my father was among them – weren’t capable of doing anything. But he changed that and proved you don’t have to be born rich; you don’t have to copy others. You can become someone if you have a vision and persevere.”

“Siddhalepa has given Sri Lankan entrepreneurs a sense of courage and confidence – that you can create your own concept, be at the forefront of the country, and even compete in international markets – if you believe in what you do and deliver what you say you’ll do. Recently, Chandalepa introduced a face cream that has given Unilever a run. This is the environment my father created.”

Dilhan: “If I go back 25 years, as my brother and I joined the business, we would knock on doors, talk about quality, freshness, and how these attributes helped workers in the industry. Nobody cared because at the time it wasn’t fashionable to be ethical. Tea wasn’t fashionable either. Blending had corroded the whole allure of tea and it was considered best when it was cheap: 100 tea bags for 99 pence. It was very much a sunset industry that had had its heyday. 

“If we were to abandon our emphasis on keeping Ceylon Tea pure, I believe the debate on the pros and cons of importation would be won by those who want to import and liberalise imports for re-export. But why we are so obstinate in this is it would be entirely inconsistent with the high-cost industry that we have. You have to understand your resource, and then adjust your marketing, product, and entire strategy to suit that resource. 

“It’s never an option of trading for us, because we’re driven by passion. People say we’re romantic and looking at an earlier era. No, absolutely not. Ceylon Tea today sells on average at four to five times the cost of several other auction centres but the important thing is that it sells. You can’t sell without a buyer and a buyer is not an irrational person. 

“Every kilo that is offered for auction in Sri Lanka sells at that premium. So we should protect, cherish, nurture, and build that value addition rather than lose it by importing, blending and selling cheap. Price is never a strategy for a high cost and high quality producer.”

Siddhalepa and Dilmah influence perceptions of their country of origin, but their country also lends its perceptions to both brands. This perceived specialisation or nationality bias in tea and ayurveda – leveraged into differentiating attributes by both brands to different degrees – also universalises Sri Lankan values. 

Asoka, for example, recounts the epic tale of Ravana, king and antagonist in the Ramayana epic, who was a proficient Ayurvedic physician. “Sri Lanka’s rich heritage in medicines goes back to pre-Vijayan times Ravana was the first known Ayurvedic doctor; he had fewer troops, but they never died because of his medicinal knowledge and practice. The Indians invaded the island and tried to take his medicines away. It’s a real blessing to be from a country with such rich biodiversity and so many endemic medicinal plants because you’re part of a huge heritage and can easily relate this to your history.”

For Dilhan, “Had Ceylon tea failed to live up to the consumers’ expectations of quality, taste, variety, and provenance, Dilmah would not have met with the same success. Dilmah and Sri Lanka are inextricably linked; it’s a marriage that is mutually beneficial because we celebrate the attributes that make Ceylon tea the most expensive in the world. And the fact that the product has all the attributes the consumer is asking for is so much in our favour. There are a thousand reasons why Ceylon tea is the best in the world. That’s the simply reality of it.”

And so we come full circle:

  • Strongly authentic brands have a profound understanding of their reason for being 
  • They are authentically relevant because their creators have found their calling and embraced their authentic self
  • They diverge from accepted boundaries and practices in their search for unoccupied territory
  • They are driven by conviction; they pick a side and fight for their beliefs
  • They facilitate a powerful sense of belonging to a larger brand community
  • They symbolise what we represent to the world by universalising their brands and competing for ‘culture share’
  • Their global success continually creates and recreates Sri Lanka’s country advantage in their categories

This is what sets apart strongly authentic brands like Siddhalepa and Dilmah as representative symbols that are worthy of our affection and affiliation. They represent provenance, meaning, consistency, and membership, and enable us to define ourselves, as individuals who belong to a community, and a country that belongs to the world. 

(The writer heads the Interbrand Sri Lanka office.)