Alyna Haji Omar on capturing global imagination and making Sri Lanka easy to love

  • ‘We are an antidote to loneliness’ –  Alyna Haji Omar

By Naveed Rozais

Advertising is a form of storytelling and Sri Lanka as a country, as a people, and as a world-class destination is full of vibrant and compelling stories to tell. Harnessing the beauty of Sri Lanka – from its wildlife and beaches to its heritage – and building a brand that can tell this story is no small feat.

The team at Wunderman Thompson Sri Lanka, led by Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Alyna Haji Omar, has managed to do just this, working with Sri Lanka Tourism to create “So Sri Lanka”, the branding identity designed to portray Sri Lanka as a global destination in the digital age.

The first step towards launching the “So Sri Lanka” branding campaign, the viral film So Sri Lanka – Wild Guides, has broken boundaries, going on to win the coveted award for “Best Viral Film” at the Brand Film Awards in London recently.

The idea for So Sri Lanka – Wild Guides was developed and executed by Wunderman Thompson Sri Lanka in partnership with their global PR (public relations) partners BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) London in collaboration with Freeborne Media UK, whose projects include the Emmy Award and BAFTA-winning series Blue Planet II, the Emmy Award-nominated series Wild New Zealand with National Geographic (US TV channel), and the BAFTA-winning BBC1 series Big Blue Live with PBS. The film achieved unprecedented success receiving over 2.5 billion views globally.

The Sunday Morning Brunch caught up with Alyna Haji Omar to learn more about the “So Sri Lanka” branding campaign and Sri Lanka’s potential as a viral brand, particularly in the new normal. Below are excerpts of the interview.

Tell us a little bit about how you got into advertising.

I got into advertising quite by chance in 1997. I’d just finished my Advanced Levels and was having one of those random, wonderful moments where I was just wondering what to do next. I listened to my mother, for once, and went to meet with a lady she knew at Grant’s (the Dentsu Grant Group), and that was the beginning of 23 wonderful years in advertising.

Looking back, it’s been a wonderfully spontaneous, varied, and diverse journey. I’ve learned so much about so many different subjects and people, and in doing so, I’ve been able to learn about what makes this country tick. I’ve done everything from launching airlines to supporting magnificent titan brands as well as launching little boutique brands that have gone on to become significant ones. I’ve been able to see what makes us unique as well as what makes us just like other people. This insight into the people of Sri Lanka has been the most wonderful experience.

How did the ‘So Sri Lanka’ campaign come to be?

Putting the whole thing together was phenomenal! It all started with a pitch to Sri Lanka Tourism. It was the first time the private sector and the public sector, specifically the tourism public sector, collaborated. “So Sri Lanka” was about articulating how to make Sri Lanka win in the digital age. To us, it was clear what Sri Lanka was as an island, what it had to offer, and how it needed to be positioned as a destination product, but we had to think about how to take a destination product and turn it into a destination brand.

We looked at data and what people were saying about Sri Lanka, both locally and internationally. We also looked at how people consumed and interacted with information, particularly when it came to travelling in the digital age and how people today were consuming the destinations they travelled to. We looked at how people hashtagged and how destinations were shown in user-generated content. It became very clear that what we wanted to build was an amplifier brand. It was the first time an amplifier brand was being built in this category in Sri Lanka. We felt that it was more relevant and usable in the current context of how destinations and tourism were being consumed, both locally and globally.

“So Sri Lanka” looked at how Sri Lanka was unique for myriad reasons – from beaches and mountains to heritage sites and wildlife sanctuaries – and how to communicate these different aspects of Sri Lanka in a concise, inclusive way across different languages. “So Sri Lanka” was built in a way for it to be consumed and shared effectively by Sri Lankans – Sri Lankans living abroad or foreign travellers alike.

‘So Sri Lanka’ won big at the Brand Film Awards in London. What was it like?

Winning the “Best Viral Film” award was incredible. We didn’t win in the travel or tourism category specifically; we won across all brand films that were entered. The film was designed as a way to communicate the brand changeover and become part of a larger campaign and communicate that Sri Lanka had a new identity and a new impending campaign. We looked at getting the highest viral PR value, and what kind of content we would have to use to get the story far and wide, not just to the general public, but also to travel pageants, travel publications, journalists, and similar.

We also wanted to capture Sri Lanka and what it has to offer in a different way. The idea came up from brainstorms about showing people Sri Lanka in a way where we had nature participating, in that almost, the idea came of nature making the film in some cases. That was one aspect of the film. We then asked ourselves how to take this to a world-class space, partnering with people who could give us the best expertise. We worked with global PR partners BCW London in collaboration with Freeborne Media UK, bringing filmmakers and cinematographers with experience in storytelling in this space to come down and execute the film for us.

Working on So Sri Lanka – Wild Guides showed the architecture of the brand and how it could support and inspire this level of global thinking and bring different people on board, whether filmmakers or content creators. It showed that Sri Lanka is an ecosystem for collaboration that can work wonderfully when impactful storytelling and storytellers come together. It also showed Sri Lanka’s potential and ability to deliver at a global level.

What are your thoughts on Sri Lanka as a brand right now?

I think as a brand, Sri Lanka is at a very exciting moment in its journey where it is articulating its identity and coming of age in so many areas while also leading the world in others. Even if you take tea and other things that are proudly Sri Lankan, we’re at that crossroads now where if you articulate our identity properly, it can add value to anything we do, from old favourites to new frontiers like architecture.

When working on “So Sri Lanka”, we found that what made our warmth and hospitality so unique was that we are nurturers. The ability that Sri Lankans have to nurture relationships is wildly interesting. Now with Sri Lanka having reached its fullest potential as a brand, there is a real opportunity to tie it all together into an identity that brings value back and unlocks economic potential.

How has Covid-19 impacted Sri Lanka as a brand?

2019 and 2020 have both come with their challenges. If you look at 2019 and Easter, tourism was well on its way to recovery, and the energy surrounding the industry was great. The “So Sri Lanka” branding was launched in Berlin on 6 April 2019. There was so much attention around the brand and then (the) Easter (attacks) happened and the way wider industries, both locally and internationally, came together also got very positive attention.

Covid-19 was a double whammy, really, but does it mean that the “So Sri Lanka” brand is not relevant anymore? Absolutely not.

What we need to deal with and understand right now is that this is happening to everyone all over the world. What’s important now is maintaining health and safety standards and drawing attention to the wonderful way we’ve handled the pandemic, and use this to infuse the brand with confidence and restructure how we look at and sell Sri Lanka as a destination.

Sri Lanka isn’t selling only one experience like a beach or mountain or archaeological site. It sells all these things and more, making the Sri Lankan brand and experience. This is the same reason destination brands like Paris and London never go out of style, because of the stories and the variety of things that you can do. They’re stories that connect people and connect cultures and capture imagination, making it easy to love Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka must be more than just her heritage or her beaches or her culture. She must become an idea, and we must define this idea and how we take it across the board, making it something shareable that you can write about or make movies about. That is the opportunity we have right now.

How should Sri Lanka respond to the new normal as a brand?

We’ve had a run of bad luck as a destination, but we have an infrastructure that can really kick in. A clear, well-planned, consistent campaign plan and strategy need to be brought in. Views aren’t the only thing the brand is capable of. Right now, it’s capable of really inciting an industry if given a strategic perspective on how we can build off of it. The brand is designed to support all of this, but it needs to be executed properly.

When you think about it, we have so many stories of a brave and courageous Sri Lanka – a Sri Lanka that cares, with over 3,000 years of stories that demonstrate how we love and how we stand for what we believe in. We are an antidote to loneliness, and we need to build a brand that has relevance in all of these spaces. Our Sri Lankan-ness has a value to the world right now which is underestimated, undervalued, and underused.