Choices: Brand or generic?

August 7, 2006 (LBO) – Generic is cheap and utilitarian. Brand is expensive and status conferring. That’s the common wisdom.

But those in the new, hot field of country/place branding say that “every country is a brand, either by default or design.”
What is implied is that there are good brands as well as bad.

Somalia is a brand for anarchy, Nigeria for corruption, Detroit for inner-city decay, and so on. Paris for romance; Singapore for efficiency; Japan for quality, and so on.

It is well known now that human decision making is not entirely rational.

It includes a huge emotional component.

Branding is a way of explaining and controlling the emotional component of decision making related to countries and places.

Why does this matter for Sri Lanka, and Sri Lankans?

The country is highly globalized: lots of imports and exports; dependent on foreign private investment and foreign public funds for economic growth and basic infrastructure development; one in nine people working/living abroad.

Decisions made by foreigners affect the country and the well-being of individuals within it, some, more than others.

When tourist hotels are full, those working in them take home more money. When they are empty, they do not.

The decisions, predominantly driven by emotion and brand associations, of individual tourists and tour agencies directly affect the livelihoods of all in the tourist industry.

A Sri Lankan entrepreneur who was selling software outside the country told me he had to work that much harder to persuade potential buyers to buy software from a country associated with housemaids (he succeeded; but one must wonder how much more he would have succeeded had he been supported by a good country brand).

Branding by design

The claim is that the associations invoked by a brand can be changed.

Japan was once associated with cheap, shoddy goods; now its association is the exact opposite.

India was once the epitome of poverty. Now it’s associated with beauty queens and IT.

Branding by design is an attempt to control the emotional element of decision making about places.

But no one can work miracles. One has to leverage what one has.

The message to the emotions need not faithfully reflect reality; but it cannot be completely divorced from reality either.

Governments try to influence branding, especially tourist boards. “Malaysia: truly Asia.” Lots of multicultural images. Come to this one country and you can see all of Asia. They don’t butcher Chinese on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, so the branding will work.

“Sri Lanka: A land like no other.” Such self confidence! We define ourselves negatively. We are like no other. Of course. “Sri Lanka: We like platitudes.”

But I guess it was better than the alternatives: “Sri Lanka: Land of missed opportunity”; “Sri Lanka: The birthplace of suicide bombing”; “Sri Lanka: Experience the potholes”; “We love elections: One every year; sometimes two.”

Branding by default

What terms do foreigners associate with Sri Lanka? Cricket and Sanath (in cricket-playing countries only); tsunami and endless war; housemaids; tea.

Tea. There’s a whole story behind tea. Mountains, mist, Broken Orange Pekoe. Tea allows one to think while sipping. Silver fannings, Lipton on his seat.

Dilmah and the Kandapola Tea Factory hotel are examples of successfully leveraging the emotional power of the association between tea and Ceylon.

Of course, we can’t leave well enough be. Recently the government announced its intention of replacing the Ceylon Tea brand with the Sri Lanka Tea brand.

Housemaids. Obviously not a good brand. The question is how to escape it, if we continue to export housemaids and the whole economy lives off their remittances.

How does the software entrepreneur get the person on the other side of the table stop thinking of his or her maid, at least for the duration of the negotiation?

Endless war. Not a good brand for most things: tourism, attracting foreign investment, etc. Difficult to override when it’s reinforced daily by news and pictures.

There was that missed opportunity when the mercenaries attacked the Maldives. If they didn’t fold when the Indian troops landed, we could have leveraged the war to develop mercenary services. “We know war; Let us fight yours.” “Sit back and watch us do your fighting for you.”

One way to overcome negative brand associations, of course, is to hide or blur the association with Sri Lanka. Create a legal presence in a multi-ethnic country like Singapore or Mauritius. Make people think you’re from there, even if the products or services you’re selling are actually be made in Sri Lanka.

Is tsunami a good brand? For most things, no.

People don’t like to be reminded of death and devastation on a massive scale; of ineffective government and corruption; of people not yet in permanent housing one and half years after the wall of water hit.

But for some things, it’s not bad.

The Lanka Software Foundation developed an open-source software package for disaster management called Sahana in the aftermath of the tsunami.

It has now been adopted by the governments Pakistan and the Philippines (note: not by the government of Sri Lanka); it is rare to find anyone in the disaster management field who has not heard of it.

One of the main selling points of the software is that it’s from Sri Lanka. Tsunamis, floods, refugees, internally displaced persons, we got them all.

If you want the most robust disaster management software, come to Sri Lanka. “Sahana from Sri Lanka: We know disasters like no one else does.” “It works in Sri Lanka: it’ll work anywhere.”

Cricket and Sanath. Dilmah rode that one for a good long while. Great in the cricket-crazed commonwealth, but no traction elsewhere. If the government has its way, we could get rid of that little advantage too.

What to do?

Stick to generic. Go the low price, low value route. Just sell wholesale, where rationality plays a bigger role.

Or create an alternate persona. Incorporate in the US or in Singapore. Produce here, but negotiate looking like you’re from someplace else; someplace not associated with death and disaster. Fake it and make it.

Such are the choices we face in this blessed year 2006.

Note that I did not say anything about stopping the war and rooting out the cause of our despair.
This column only deals with real choices.

For wishful thinking and/or fiction, look elsewhere….Read the government papers.