By Martin Roll
The last decade has seen cities, islands and countries aggressively branding themselves in order to create a resonating identity among stakeholders and build sustainable lifetime customer relationships.
Country branding refers to a process in which a country claims a distinct positioning in the minds of its citizens, global customers and stakeholders. To claim such a positioning, the country does a lot of coordination and integration of a multitude of activities.
Take for example Germany, which is known across the world for precision engineering, and quality, so much so that German cars, such as BMW, claim German engineering as one of their strong advantages. To achieve this global positioning, Germany ensured that it trained the best engineers, invested in developing the required research and development facilities and cutting edge technological infrastructure, and government also facilitated regulatory assistance for Germany to emerge as the leader in precision engineering.
Claiming a distinct position is almost the end of an entire process whereby all the constituents of a country – the government, public and private corporations, the people, various institutions, investors and others – are aligned to achieve an all encompassing goal. As such, branding a country is highly challenging.
The country, from which a company, product or service brand originates, has an effect on the brand’s perceived quality and likeability in the minds of consumers – this is the country of origin effect (COO). Swiss watches, French wine, Danish designs, Thai hospitality, Italian fashion, and 100% pure New Zealand are some well-known examples. Research has proven that COO has a very strong influence on customers’ willingness to purchase products and the price premium they are willing to consider.
Given this introduction, what is the position of Sri Lanka? Even though many other Asian countries seem to have captured a very strong brand position in the minds of customers worldwide, Sri Lanka does not yet readily conjure any particularly strong images and connections.
Think of the following examples – Singapore: state of the art technology, Thailand: exotic beaches and cuisine, Malaysia: Truly Asia, and South Korea: thriving cultural movement, world class electronics and scenic beauty. None of these connections are automatic. These countries have invested millions of dollars in building such a brand image and then have ensured that the brand identity is consistently communicated to all stakeholders through all possible touch-points worldwide.
In spite of being surrounded by such global branding jewels, Sri Lanka has not yet embarked on developing a strong country brand for itself. Branding trajectories are closely tied to a country’s economic situation, regulatory frameworks, dominant cultural roots and the customer mindsets. But given the strategic importance of branding countries, Sri Lanka should be very aggressive and proactive about building its country brand. The following four steps are strategically important for Sri Lanka:
Create an overall positive brand image
The fundamental step for countries is to create a very positive brand image. This not only ensures that tourists, customers, investors and corporations are attracted, but also projects a positive facet of the brand to prospective stakeholders around the world. This can be achieved through a phased system of creating basic awareness, creating excitement about the many facets of the country, and then offering these many stakeholders a memorable and enriching brand experience.
Establish brand associations through alliances
Some of the best country brands – Germany, New Zealand, and Switzerland – were not created in a vacuum. All these countries created an intricate network of alliances with their cities, their unique cultures, their people and cuisines, their unique national heritage and exotic places and their key global exports. Such a thing can be achieved through consistent communication strategies, comprehensive tourism packages and showcasing the country to tourists and business travellers who visit the country.
Offer credible tangible product features
As Sri Lanka moves successfully in creating a positive brand image and associations, it will have to back them up with strong tangible product features. Such features could be a well implemented public safety program, world class infrastructure including a first-class airport, a robust regulatory environment that would protect intellectual property rights, etc. Such tangible measures would allow Sri Lanka to create a consistent and resonating brand identity with multiple stakeholders.
Manage the holistic brand experience
The Government, public and private corporations, other service providers, and the general population of the country should together take consistent steps to ensure that tourists, businesses and investors are offered enough opportunities to enjoy, grow, and prosper. Every interaction that these stakeholders have with the outside world should be monitored to gain valuable feedback. An integral part of managing experiences is to constantly evolve to ensure that customers gain a reasonable rate of return on their investment.
There is no denying the fact that branding countries has become a strategic issue for most countries. Gone are the days when only global tourist locations invested in building brands. But given the ever changing global competitive landscape and the ever increasing choice set for investors, customers and tourists, creating a resonating identity and offering excellent opportunities become a matter of survival for countries, especially for developing countries that strive to carve out their strategic position in the competitive landscape.
Sri Lanka’s key global exports like Ceylon Tea, tourism, apparel, cinnamon and even cricket could play a vital part in shaping the branding and adding to the equity of the country, just as Singapore Airlines with its Singapore Girl has done for that nation. It is now opportune time for Sri Lanka to take some concrete steps to build a global country brand and showcase all the great assets it has to offer, and leverage and build these potential components of the country brand alongside. Sri Lanka is an unpolished jewel which could very well emerge on the global scene within the next three to five years.
(Martin Roll is Business & Brand Strategist, Martin Roll Company and Senior Advisor to the Global Strategy Group, Burson-Marsteller. He is a world-renowned thought-leader with global experience and insights on value creation through brand equity. An experienced international business strategist and advisor to corporate boards and marketers in the world’s largest companies including many in Asia, Martin focuses on building successful businesses through iconic brands that enhance shareholder value and create sustainable competitive advantage. Martin commands more than 20 years of management experience and holds an MBA from INSEAD. He is the author of the global bestseller ‘Asian Brand Strategy,’ and is currently writing two new global management books.)
(Established in 1953 by Harold Burson, the century’s most influential PR figure, Burson-Marsteller today is one of the world’s leading global public relations networks with nearly 60 years of experience in delivering measurable and effective results. Clients often engage Burson-Marsteller when the stakes are high: economic or political change in a country, a crisis for a company, a period of fundamental change or transition, or reputation management for an organisation. BM is reputed for its communications campaigns built on knowledge, research and industry insights with proven ability to reach the most critical audiences and stakeholders. BM is a global public relations consultancy with offices and affiliates across 97 countries. BM’s Exclusive Affiliate in Sri Lanka is Strategic Alliance PR, a part of Bates Strategic Alliance.)