Sri Lanka: Small miracle or big miracle?

Aug 06, 2009 (LBO) – So after much effort we decided to get rid of the inane “Land Like No Other” tagline and launch the new brand “Small Miracle.”  Now the former JVP Presidential Candidate and present Tourism Minister wants to replace it by consulting “leading scholars” in a few days.  Throw away years of systematic work by experts in brand positioning and replace it in days with the opinions of people of the Honorable Minister’s choosing.

This is not surprising because these ignoramuses ran an entire election campaign on the promise of removing the “plug” from the World Economy. [Am I being too harsh?  Ignoramus is legitimate word.  The IMF bailout is absolute proof of ignorance.  Silence in the face of the bailout may be proof that the ignoramuses are aware of their condition.]

It is superfluous to go on about how brands should be developed.  Dr Uditha Liyanage has given the master class:  Clearly, this is a matter that should be left to professionals.

But let us look at some facts.  There is no dispute about the miracle.  So let us focus on “small.”

What adjective shall we replace this with?  “Big”?  “Great”?  Instead of relying on the Honorable Minister’s handpicked scholars, let’s marshal some evidence (not for a moment suggesting that facts of this kind, rather than focus groups, should be the basis of taglines).  Successful brand positioning requires looking at the problem from the perspective of the potential customer.

From a tourist’s perspective, what matters is geographical size.  Tourists come to see countries and experience things.

By area, Sri Lanka is 121st out of 233 states and territories.  Within the SAARC, it is larger than only Bhutan (135th) and the Maldives (202nd).  Of the world’s surface area, it constitutes 0.04 percent.  [United Nations Statistics Division (2006), Demographic Yearbook—Table 3: Population by sex, rate of population increase, surface area and density,]

A little difficult to make the case for “big,” unless one subscribes to the theory that Madagascar once belonged to Sri Lanka (this was stated in all seriousness by a handpicked scholar at a meeting convened by the then Prime Minister in the weeks after the tsunami).

What about people, whose inherent friendliness is highlighted by the video?  The quantity of people does not seem to be very relevant to a tourist’s decision to visit a country, but nevertheless, let us see if Sri Lanka is not small in that regard.

Sri Lanka is 56th out of 223 states and territories; with 0.3 percent of the world’s population.  Again, larger than only Bhutan (161st) and the Maldives (176th) within the SAARC region.  Our immediate neighbour and natural reference point, India (2nd), has 58 times our population and is 50 times our size in area.  Big and its synonyms will not simply work.

But what about “great”?  There is one country, ill-represented by a somewhat petulant Foreign Minister in recent times, that has had “Great” in its name since 1707.  It used to be rather powerful, ruling an empire over which the sun never set.  Even after its power ebbed, it has retained the label, though few use it, United Kingdom being the preferred nomenclature.  Occasionally one hears snickering about what’s great about Great Britain.  Not a good precedent.

The last king who was justly called Great in Sri Lanka was Parakramabahu (1153-1186 CE).  Is it possible that because the armed forces vanquished the LTTE with support of the adroit political/diplomatic actions of Basil Rajapaksa MP and Lalith Weeratunge SLAS among others under the able leadership of the President, we now deserve the title Great?

Parakramabahu was called great by posterity and perhaps also by his contemporaries.  He may have ordered it in his lifetime, but he could not have ordered those who came after his death to do so.  The point here is that accolades are given not assumed.

And we must recall, what is being done here is to try to get more tourists to come here, not win an election or rewrite history.  Invoking war is not the best way to do that.

So what are we left with?  The result of the scientific process of brand positioning.  The tourist industry is run by the private sector with promotion and other common activities funded by levies taken from those who use the airport.  What the new Act did was to give the responsibilities for the sector over to representatives of the private sector.

There is no way that every single person in a country can agree on a tagline, a song and a video (though the video is spectacular).  But clearly it is better than “Land Like No other” that said nothing.   Why doesn’t the Honorable Minister find something else to do with his time, like pasting posters on the streets of Colombo ordering tourists to visit Sri Lanka?  What expertise does he possess that those in the industry and those in marketing like Dr Uditha Liyanage do not have?

Is this not another inane act like the fiddling around with standard time by the Kumaratunge and Rajapaksa administrations?  In the old days policies were changed willy nilly when governments changed; now they have to be changed every time Ministerial responsibilities are reassigned.  Is capricious vacillation any way to run a country?

Do not vacillate or you will be left in between doing something, having something and being nothing. – Ethiopian proverb