Sri Lanka is sometimes pigeonholed into its cultural and tourism offerings: cricket, tea highlands and beautiful beaches. But the trope that annoys the advertising and marketing industry most is that Sri Lanka is often perceived as an “extension of India”.
“If you compare us with our South Asian cousins, we’re a small market in size. We’re a population of 21 million, and sometimes market sizes are only a few hundred thousand,” says Alyna Omar, CEO of Wunderman Thompson in Sri Lanka.
For context, the population of India is 1.3 billion; Pakistan is 217 million; and Bangladesh is 163 million.
Omar adds: “And so, from an MNC level, one of the biggest stereotypes is that we’re just like India. We’re not. The market is entirely different. There are some cultural similarities but the way we think, behave and consume are very distinct.”
Busting out of traditional media
For starters, the growth of smartphone users (50% of total population) and mobile penetration (120%) is rapidly growing, and this presents a new set of opportunities for marketers and agencies. One might argue that high mobile rates are not rare in developing markets in Asia, but in Sri Lanka, digital platforms have contributed to an exceptionally quick shift in lifestyle.
This stems from a change of aspiration among consumers, especially younger consumers, according to Omar. A decade ago, Sri Lankans would aspire to move from small towns to a big city like Colombo before thinking of moving abroad. Now, with digital exposure, those from small towns would likely skip Colombo and move straight to major global cities like Paris, London or New York.
“That’s the kind of exposure people have now. And this is what makes [Sri Lanka] unique,” says Omar. “If we’re thinking about a consumer who is now driven by these new aspirations, it’s about saying to them: ‘Here are the tools to get where you’re going’ rather than: ‘This is where you can get to.’”
While MNCs might assume that marketing should be targeted at middle income-earners aspiring to become high income-earners, Omar says that the FMCG brands and MNCs should instead be focusing on lower income-earners aspiring to become middle-income earners. This is because upward social mobility is occurring at a more rapid rate at lower income tiers.
And with digital exposure being the biggest consumer ‘trend’ in Sri Lanka, agencies and marketers are following suit with plenty of digital-led work that has a focus on content.
Marketers might be slower to understand and adapt to this change, but according to Arosha Perera, CEO of Leo Burnett Sri Lanka, this means that agencies are expected to educate and handhold their clients through this change.
“Clients are willing to take more risks in digital, but because it’s quite a new medium and they don’t really understand it yet, they let the agency take the lead on what would really make an impact,” he says.
“Consumers are growing very fast, but the question is whether marketers and agencies are on the same fast track. Everybody’s trying to outdo each other in terms of digital so we’ve had digital specialist agencies like Isobar launching in the last six months. The market is just right for digital-led creative work.”
At the moment, digital spend is approximately 10 to 12% of what’s spent on traditional media. Overall, TV is the leading media platform in Sri Lanka.
The inevitability of social media
The shift in social mobility here is largely aided by social media and it’s not surprising that Facebook has the biggest stake in this. 72% of the population have Facebook and 90% of those who use the internet have Facebook accounts.
But gaining coverage in the last two years is Instagram, which Omar says is becoming an increasingly powerful platform, especially among young women. The model, actor, presenter and Instagram star Queen Puimi, for instance, is a representation of the aforementioned lower income to middle income aspiration.
“There’s a flourishing culture of micro influencers, now becoming quite powerful in their own spaces. This has translated to an ability to gain income, go abroad, see new things and express themselves,” Omar says.
“If you think about us as a value system, we are looking at Sri Lanka traditionally being placed as a conservative Buddhist culture, with values [like] obedience. But digital exposure is flipping it and entirely opened up a whole new avenue of aspirations. Now you’ll see brands adapting to that.”
Having said that, it’s also important for brands to acknowledge the many layers that exist in Sri Lanka’s societal make-up. “There’s a perception that Sri Lankans have a homogenous set of values and triggers. But there’s plenty of complexity, both in media and in terms of consumption habits. That’s something that needs to be understood better,” states Omar.
Twitter, on the other hand, is less popular but is expected to serve as a political commentary ground during the presidential elections later this year.
A turning point for creativity
Leo Burnett’s Perera is of the opinion that creative trends are moving too slowly with clients not accepting out-of-the-box ideas. “The economy has been [on] a downturn the last couple of years and for the longest time, there was hardly the option to do any groundbreaking work as [marketers] try to meet their budgets,” he says.
However, exposure through digital platforms and international award submissions have begun to push the needle. “Cutting-edge work means not looking at it as just communications work,” he says.
“We are a market that’s still trying to find our own style of creativity and comms, which has been a journey. We’ve never really found it yet. If you look at Thai advertising, for example, they have a distinct voice. We are a market still struggling to find that – hopefully it will come with more innovative work like Petal Paint.”
Petal Paint – a project that Perera and his team delivered for JAT Paints – is the most awarded creative work out of Sri Lanka in 2018 and 2019. The agency helped the brand launch a line of paints made from pigments derived from the dried flower petals of discarded temple flowers, which are plentiful in the country.
Not only was the work an homage to the country’s rich heritage of temple art, it also launched a separate pilot project using the new paints to restore faded murals and create new ones at an existing temple.
“This is the kind of work that we should be doing more of; the kind of opportunities to do bold work are still too far and few between,” says Perera. “We really can’t look at the way it used to be where TV, radio and digital do disjointed campaigns.”
Local ads that demonstrate a turn of trends
‘Petal Paint’ for JAT Holdings
‘Shehan’s day at the office’ for Strepsils
‘How else can I say this’ for Rexona
Neela Marikkar, chairperson and MD at Dentsu Grant Group, says that culture and religion are great avenues to carry creative work because of how intrinsic they are to the daily lives of locals.
“Sri Lanka is very multi-cultured and we have a lot of festivals, and we tend to bring that element into the work that we do. In creativity, that’s a cultural nuance that tends to be used quite a lot such as Tamil New Year or Wesak. They give us room for creativity,” she says.
“I don’t know if we’ve mastered it the way India has, but I think that much more can be done. To an extent, a lot of the FMCG brands, they work within a certain framework and creativity might be [limited] within those guidelines. Local brands are taking bigger steps in using local nuances in a more humorous way.”
However, both Perera and Marikkar say creative talent is a challenge. “If you’re a creative person, agencies and the comms industry is not the first choice anymore. There are a lot of creative industries that young people can get into now in Sri Lanka whether it’s design or fashion,” says Perera.
“A lot of Sri Lankans are also going overseas for work, there’s lots of opportunities. Perhaps the industry needs to do something to make the industry more attractive to young talent, and to the more experienced creatives.”
Reeling from a national tragedy
The Easter bombings in April caused damage to the industry, but the sources we interviewed for this story indicate that the market is at the point of return. “May and June were particularly bad months. Everybody froze; it hurt the country, the economy. We’re just limping back now,” says Marikkar.
Perera says that the tourism industry – which makes up 10% of the country’s GDP – must bounce back before everything else does.
Meanwhile, Omar points out that during the recovery process, “people stopped shopping, people stopped going to the movies, and how they lived changed dramatically”.
But interestingly, e-commerce and delivery services spiked as a result of consumers being nervous to go out and about. “While everybody was reluctant to go out, you found people were starting to shop online,” she says.
Pizza Hut and Domino’s, for instance, have historically underperformed in Sri Lanka in terms of their home delivery services and online orders. But in the wake of the attack, Omar found that any company offering delivery services “took off”. This was also the case with online retail services such as Daraz, AliExpress and eBay. Netflix subscriptions also spiked.
It’s clear that local industry leaders in Sri Lanka are optimistic about the impact of digital, social, and upward mobility to allow its island’s wounds – both old and new – to heal.
More for Campaign Members
This article is part of an ongoing series running in August and September, taking an in-depth look at the advertising and marketing industry in some of Asia's less well-known markets.