Recently our strategy director Anupam Yog spoke at the LBO Infrastructure Summit in Colombo on branding the nation. Here, Anupam shares his thoughts on the opportunities for the brand Sri Lanka.
When branding a nation, there is no silver bullet, no quick fix or ready-made package for purchase. Like any brand building, nation branding requires long-term management and commitment to change deep-seated views, stereotypes and perceptions. This investment in the brand achieves a slow-burning ‘echo effect’ that will amplify and reaffirm the message for years to come.
But for Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean and part of South Asia, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Struggling internally with a conflicted regional identity, this confusion has spread: there are almost no internationally established perceptions of Sri Lanka beyond stereotypes. Singapore and Mauritius are, arguably, more compelling investment destinations in the Indian Ocean region. India, Pakistan, and now Bangladesh, dominate the South Asian narrative. Where in the world does Brand Sri Lanka fit?
Think like Winners, Act like Leaders
Interestingly, a glance at cricketing history might provide clues. In 1996, the Lankan Lions won the World Cup and took the cricketing world by storm, scripting a success story that still reverberates throughout the global sporting community. It was perhaps a victory like no other. The win in Lahore put Sri Lanka firmly on the map; since then, there has never been a time that the Sri Lankan team has been considered anything but world-class.
This unprecedented moment in cricket history offers valuable lessons to Sri Lanka’s national brand.
The first lesson is that confidence is key. By confidently accepting itself and embracing its supremely strategic location, Sri Lanka can be freed from the fractured identity crisis of Indian Ocean versus South Asia. Such qualifiers serve no strategic or tactical purpose in a changing region and hyper-globalised world. Instead, Sri Lanka can benefit from a unique competitive advantage: its close proximity to India. The crossroad analogy is over-worked, but in the case of Sri Lanka it is loaded with credibility, creating the beginning of a new narrative for the global community of investors.
Next, Sri Lanka needs to define an anchor or a pivot for its brand, a bold action that will announce its claim to the global stage. Could the ambitious Megapolis project – a transformational $40bn redevelopment of the country’s capital – provide the initial impetus to inspire the world to take notice? Or, perhaps, the answer lies in attracting a mega event, such as the 2020 Volvo Ocean Race, to the Sri Lankan shores. Such a platform would help launch a new brand, full of bold ambition and confidence in creating its own echo effect. Alternatively, Sri Lanka could return to its origins and create a smaller grassroots project, such as a ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ campaign. This would activate the strategy with a very focused audience in an unusual but very personal – and very Sri Lankan – way.
Making a plan
Branding Sri Lanka is a journey that must involve Sri Lankans across the full spectrum of society, business and government. There are many ways in which this could be achieved, but here are some thoughts that might be worth considering along the way.
1. Get the house in order: begin by creating a Brand Sri Lanka resource centre and use it to drive positive and consistent stories around the world. At the same time, create an entity that will bring together public and private organisations united by a common vision: to market the national brand. Be business-led, government-coordinated, community-owned. Provide economic data and business success stories, rooted in facts, not opinion. Present them in a uniquely Sri Lankan way that reflects the nation’s inherent sense of optimism. Have a thirty-year vision, but a three-year implementation horizon. Reconcile, renew, re-launch.
2. Create a grassroots movement: connect with Sri Lankans abroad and create a network of brand ambassadors: businesses, migrants and students on campuses overseas. Human capital is key - embrace Sri Lankans wherever they are and facilitate their connections to shape the brand on a grassroots level all over the world.
3. Celebrate your special place in the world: embrace your South Asian connection but be unapologetically different. The island has an amazing heritage which can be a catalyst for change and an economic driver. Sri Lanka could own the idea of being a ‘liberal democracy’: a nation that provokes and facilitates the debate; a beacon in the region that owns the democratic mandate; more agile, open and welcoming than its established neighbours. Engage the World Economic Forum and host the first ever South Asian Economic Summit or the Indian Ocean Region Summit. Alternatively, you could stand for something even bigger – create a global coalition of Island Nation States to celebrate the uniqueness of island cultures worldwide and the challenges and opportunities of the group.
4. Be creative: be bold, innovative and creative in your marketing and reject the conventional. Think digital first - focus on social and video as the preferred tools of the trade. Invite major sporting and cultural events to Sri Lanka, and start and host your own. Attract investment but make sure your stakeholders have fun. Introduce visitors and audiences to the traits and personalities that make the people of Sri Lanka special, claiming your rightful place on the world’s stage.