|Volume 5 Issue 02 | February 2011|
ALY ZAKER argues the case for Bangladesh as a cultural brand just waiting to happen.
(Prologue: Between December and March we have had three significant events in our natural life that is bound to have an imprint on our national identity. February of 1952 saw us demand that Bengali, the language of the majority people of what constitutes Bangladesh today, be made one of Pakistan's national languages. At the behest of this demand, young people went out to demonstrate and were brutally killed. Today February 21 has been recognised as the International Mother Language Day by the United Nations. Subsequently, in Pakistan's national poll, the Bangalis came out with a clear majority in terms of votes and number of seats in the parliament but were denied their legitimate demand of serving the nation. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army came down with all arms in their arsenal to quell the sleeping people of the then East Pakistan and on March 26, 1971, the founding father of Bangladesh, Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared Bangladesh independent. On December 16 of the same year, the freedom fighters of Bangladesh together with the Indian army that pledged to help us in our war of liberation, defeated the occupation army of Pakistan and Bangladesh became a reality. We must not lose sight of the fact that Bangladesh's struggle for independence, much of which is considered a cultural phenomenon, would play a prominent role in determining the proposition for branding Bangladesh.)
Before dwelling upon the subject of today's discourse, permit me to first touch upon what is meant by the word Brand. A brand has been most commonly defined or described as: "a trade name used to identify a specific product, manufacturer, or a distributor" (Oxford Business dictionary). "A name, term, sign, symbol, mark, lettering or design (or any combination thereof) intended to differentiate a PRODUCT from its competitors." (Michael Thomas in the Economist publication on marketing). Suffice it to say that almost all of these relate to how brands were conceived as objects and do not seemingly go beyond that. Today, the connotation of the word 'brand' has transcended the boundaries of business and has come to be regarded as an identity of things concrete and abstract, worldly and subliminal. Branding has come to be recognised as an exercise that can give identity to a product, service, social issue and a movement or indeed even a nation. This embodies the scope of giving our intended brand a distinct personality. In the context of today's discourse, we have taken upon us the job of branding of the country that we live in.
Why brand our country, indeed our nation? We want to brand our country so that it wears a recognisable identity of its own and can stand out in a milieu. The image of that brand has to exude a positive connotation. This is a big task because branding of a country is easier said than done. I shall, therefore, touch upon the archetypal strategic planning cycle that is often deployed in setting a thought process to logically arrive at a final objective. This starts with the question of "where are we" to take us to "where we want to be". I have found this to be a very suitable exercise. It is undeniably suitable when we are dealing with a non-quantifiable proposition that we have to fall back on qualitative considerations.
The first job, in order to address the issue, is to find an identity that is most suitable for the country that is being branded. This brings us to the very first job of setting the perspective. Where are we? There is no denying the fact that we are commonly perceived as a nation that is wrought with natural disaster, poverty, political unrest, rampant corrupt practices, overpopulation. All these work as deterrent to any world citizen to be interested in a country and its people. Much of what I have just said might not necessarily be the reality, especially for Bangladesh. But as we know, perception, often, is perhaps more real than reality. Therefore we have to, in all earnest, find something that gives this nation a different identity -- the real identity. If we start the process of logical thinking, something that is absolutely necessary at the very outset, it would bring us to the question of 'where we want to be'. Needless to say, we want to be perceived as a nation that is far from what we are presently perceived as. The first exercise in this perhaps will be to find for our country, what we call in my profession of marketing communication, a discriminator or a differentiator. In branded products this was often known as the unique selling proposition in the past. This discriminator would help give us an almost tangible identity. So what is our identity?
I remember having seen an extraordinary slogan on tourism that was written for the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation years ago. I considered it so effective that I still use this as an analogy, a starting point, an inspiration to think ahead when dealing with many issues relating to our beloved country. The slogan said, "Come to Bangladesh before the tourists come". I have yet to come across a more lateral advertising copy written in recent times here. I find, while deliberating on 'brand Bangladesh' this line, "come to Bangladesh before the tourists come" as the most potent and multifaceted approach to what we should want the world to view us as. I hope it does not need emphasising that Bangladesh then was, as Bangladesh still is, a place that is waiting to be explored and discovered -- both for tourism and as a possible destination for investment. My colleagues before me have already deliberated extensively on various tangible aspects of business and investment consideration on branding of Bangladesh.
However, it will be pertinent at this point to again look at the text book and quote the definition of Brand Equity, which says, "(It is) the value of a brand beyond its functional purpose, based on the extent to which it commands brand loyalty, name awareness, perceived quality and strong brand associations as well as other assets…"
The above definition reinforces my foregoing submission on brand, with particular reference to an entity as a nation or a country.
There are a number of parameters which could characterise a brand. I have taken upon myself the responsibility of looking at those characteristics that relate to our country's society, culture, behavioural pattern and all those that reflect our people's mindset. This is in line with our intrinsic apparent naivety that enables us to write such a lateral copy as "come to Bangladesh" etc. etc. etc.
We have similar cultural and societal rituals that bind us together across ethnic or religious diversity. The language spoken in Teknaf is also the language of Tetulia. There are dialects but those dialects are not languages and do not create any barrier in understanding or camaraderie. The majority of our people are Muslims followed by Hindus, Christians and Buddhists. Despite some efforts by a handful of fundamentalists to disturb our religious harmony, all of us have lived in peace since the birth of Bangladesh, indeed from time immemorial. Non-communalism is a given here and participation in each religious ritual or celebration thereof by a different religious group is very common. The other aspects of culture like food, clothing, other social rituals and performing art also bind us together to fortify a harmonious co-existence. We have, as mentioned before, been able to thwart communal overtures made by some quarters to destabilise the basis of our nationhood. Bangladesh is a democratic country without any sign of extremism or fundamentalism. This would be borne out by the pattern of voting in our various elections, where parties that indulge in religion-based politics have historically been rejected in the hustings.
It is true that Bangladesh has had to undergo frequent onslaught of natural calamities like flood and cyclone over the years much of which, as it now transpires, was an effect of climate change. Yet, the resilient Bangladeshis took these natural calamities in their stride and went forward with renewed zeal, never looking back. I was personally a witness to the devastating cyclone in 1991 in which a leading multinational company, Unilever, having its factory in Kalurghat Heavy Industrial Area, Chittagong was totally flooded. Their production line was rendered completely inoperable. The then expatriate management of the company had given up all hopes of restoring production anytime soon. The day following the cyclone the Bangladeshi engineers of the company supported by their assistants started cleaning the factory, removing the debris and restoring all equipment to the old order. In four weeks the factory was back in operation. The Chairman of Unilever at that time had told me that such dedication to duty and devotion to labour was uncommon by any standards.
After every natural calamity, despite the loss of life, the brave people of Bangladesh turn around and start living with renewed vigour. One has to take a look at the faces of a whole host of the girls working in the readymade garments (RMG) sector. These ostensibly weak human beings dominated by men in a patriarchal society could never be imagined to have become a kingpin in the most lucrative business venture of our country. Whatever the odds, the non-resident Bangladeshis living abroad have always stood by their nation. Their contribution to national ex-chequer is only second to the earning from the RMG sector. The foreign exchange reserve is on an upward surge. The per-capita income has registered an all time high.
All these materialistic achievements are there but then there are many nations in the world where greater feats have been achieved on worldly matters. What is different in our case and may also be termed unique is the oneness of the nation that saw us unite against any transgression against the values that we have held in very high esteem for thousands of years. Unfortunately, a conspiracy was hatched to undo the basis of our nationhood. The defeated colonialists naturally did not want us to be in peace. So endeavours at dividing the nation into splintered opinion groups were almost successfully accomplished but for our people who were not to be cowed down. Our all-pervasive culture played a very important part in this. Our language, literature, music and all other performing art forms have been one resolute bonding force for the entire nation. This, I suppose is the prime discriminator for brand Bangladesh. We have a strong brand in our culture itself, a culture with a rich heritage and history. Our culture takes us beyond being just a country. We are indeed a nation set to be formalised as a brand, pulsating and waiting to happen.
Aly Zaker is a prominent cultural personality.
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