Are Sri Lankans Anti-Social?

This article is neither a cultural catharsis nor a social commentary on our general behaviour. It is far less ambitious in its intentions.

The ‘social’ I refer to here refers to “social media” and “social advertising” from a brand communication point of view.

I have always observed with interest, the advent and evolution of technology in Sri Lanka. Universally recognized as fast adopters of digital technology, many regional and global companies use Sri Lanka as a test market. Mobile started changing our lives far before and far differently to other countries. Two often overlooked examples that shaped our way of life and media consumption:

  • Reality TV: While the concept and model maybe borrowed, the implementation and success scale would not have been possible without critical mass. Never before had we engaged so actively with the passive TV medium. It maybe dismissed as ‘SMS’, but the groundwork was made possible due to the high penetration of mobiles.
  • Metre Taxi: Sri Lanka did not switch from tuktuks to cabs, but to ‘metre tuks’. The simple premise of being able to call a metre tuk to your doorstep saw a whole new industry open up, with fierce competition and high service standards to boot. Every strata of society embraced this new economic model. Today, it has progressed to apps such as ‘PickMe’, with even my personal favourite Fair Taxi throwing their hat in the ring with an app.

While these two examples are not directly linked to the topic at hand, the point I wish to make is this: While we wait for the Western wave to transform us into a Singapore, technology slowly creeps in and seeps into our lives, not changing what we have always done, but merely how we do it.

The same principle applies to “social marketing”; the dissemination of a message among a population using social media.

I claim that no commercial brand in Sri Lanka has been able to do successful social marketing to date. That’s not for the lack of effort. Or expertise. As with other cases, the dynamics and ground realities seem to be different. The percentage of messaging by a local brand that we discuss/share/debate or disseminate is… non-existent?

But is this phenomenon only seen in social marketing? What about traditional advertisements, on which millions more are spent? Do they get the people’s attention, let alone dominate their conversations?

I will steer clear of passing judgment on the quality of our advertising, or blaming clients, the usual suspects. That debate is for another day. This disease lies deeper than the symptom.

Let’s look at India for example. How do Indian brand campaigns manage to get so much traction and create conversation amongst the people? From ‘Move On’ to ‘Shubh Aarambh’ to #WontGiveItBack and #ShareTheLoad, how come people take the time and trouble to carry these brand conversations? The quality of the messaging is definitely a critical factor. But the key difference is this; Indian brands ‘lead’ their social thinking while Sri Lankan brands ‘follow’ our social thinking.

But I think this maybe because Indians are far more ‘consumerised’ than Sri Lankans. More susceptible to messages by brands. There is far less moral dilemma about being associated with brands. I remember being extremely surprised seeing Sneha Khanwalkar, the unknown Indi music director behind “Gangs of Wasseypur”, appearing in an ad for a Suzuki mini van immediately after the film’s success. Though it is fast becoming the same here, there is an underlying reluctance to ‘stand for a brand’ in public.

The earliest social media success seen by a brand in Sri Lanka, in my opinion, belongs to the Bodhu Bala Sena. I wish to analyze this case from an objective marketing communication point of view.

BBS was the last player in a category that already had heavyweights such as Hela Urumaya. But here was a brand that was built virtually, before it manifested itself physically. I do not endorse their politics, but envy their propaganda. At a time when social media was merely a fledgling concept in the country, and marketers chose to be ignorantly skeptical about its reach, the BBS brand built its base with an audience that was perceived to be the least social savvy. As I mentioned earlier, BBS has the unique distinction of being born in the social space, before being seen on streets. It gathered momentum before choosing its moment.

We are a highly political people. Which is why all manner of political content takes up much of our conversation and consumption. Election times see the highest volume of User Generated Content in the country. The only time a brand gets even close, is when it does something seemingly scandalous or politically incorrect. And then too, it doesn’t gain critical mass.

This does not mean that putting a political spin on everything is the answer. Sri Lankans respond to strength. Meek messages will not survive. The success of past political campaigns illustrates that.

If there’s one leaf that brands can take from the BBS book, it is this;

Stand for something.