Sanjeewaka Kulathunga presents a practical road map to rebrand an island that has lost its way

Sri Lanka has been struggling with its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, and this has paved the way for political and social turmoil that may turn the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ into a teardrop in the region.

Insufficient foreign exchange reserves and mounting foreign debt, coupled with economic mismanagement as a result of political interference, has rendered Sri Lanka technically bankrupt today.

So how can the country strategically rebrand itself as a reputable nation on the global stage amid numerous economic, political and social challenges?

Every nation is a brand and this has value in a globalised economy. The branding of a nation is a relatively novel concept, which emerged in the late 1990s. Before that, ‘nation brands’ were relatively static. A country’s literature, economic and/or military power, industrial development and geography – and in some cases, centuries-old conflict – contribute to the formation of a nation brand.

With the advent of mass tourism in the 20th century, such nation brands were defined by their ability to offer something unique – such as white sandy beaches and tranquil seas.

Currently, nation branding is going hand in hand with innovative, dynamic and humanistic concepts – such as the protection of human and LGBTQ rights, freedom of expression, neoliberal economic reforms, e-governance, ecotourism and so on.

The concept comprises two interconnected components. The first is perception and image. Based on history and/or current events, personal and/or national experiences, citizen interaction, product experiences, trade, arts, heritage and culture, sports, diplomacy and word of mouth, people around the world form diverse impressions and perspectives about various countries.

Internationally appealing storytelling with reliable and clear content such as human rights protection, economic freedoms and transparent fiscal policies among others, have become the foundation of nation rebranding communications.

In shaping the brand perception of Sri Lanka, sharing compelling and reliable stories – with clear structure and order – will create a positive image in the hearts and minds of an international audience.

According to nation branding researchers, a focussed, structured and well documented approach to storytelling around a country’s brand is more effective than a dispersed approach through international events such as trade and tour­ism exhibitions.

Nation branding is more than simply selling a country or cultural experience. It is about demonstrating how that nation can improve the aspirations of stakeholders around the globe. Having moved away from narrowminded nationalism and racism, Sri Lanka can now narrate an appealing story and recreate its nation brand.

Strategically managed national stereotypes such as ‘friendly and hospitable Sri Lankans’ and ‘a multicultural society’ can be easily marketed, to draw the attention of global stakeholders comprising investors, tourists and international organisations to the island.

Nation branding is also about reassuring and reminding foreigners about the value systems, opportunities and strengths that prevail in a country. National symbols are well-known representations that serve as strong psychological stimuli for the image building of a nation.

As an active member state of globally accepted associations and summits such as the UN and IMF – while maintaining a policy of nonalignment – Sri Lanka has the opportunity to rebuild its brand, which has been damaged due to biased politics, corruption and the economic crisis.

It is essential to generate delightful experiences that thematically appeal to an international audience that is interested in investing in, trading with or travelling to Sri Lanka.

Ultimately, the initiative of nation branding will create a positive perception of the island in the eyes of the global community. The brand communications of a nation may be perceived as monotonous and boring if they don’t ignite a spark of interest in the target audience.

The government, public and private organisations, numerous other service providers and the citizenry must work together to ensure that tourists, businesses and investors have ample op­portunities to enjoy, grow and prosper.

Constant evolution is an essential part of managing experiences to ensure that global stakeholders are repeatedly excited by and enjoy the brand experience.

Having taken into account the promotion of exports, economic development, tourism, foreign direct investment and other key ongoing national initiatives, all political, social and business leaders with the participation of citizens should take a holistic and collaborative approach to uplift our nation brand in an effort to rebrand Sri Lanka in a sustainable way.