From country to products, from people to natural gifts, from traditions to resilience – nothing is invisible in the age of globalisation. Still, Bangladesh’s branding remains far below its deserving level.What is then missing in our striving for ‘made-in Bangladesh’ recognition?
By Fakhrul Islam Harun
Translation, editing and insertion by Khawaza Main Uddin
Bangladesh has overcome many barriers to development showng the world how to make the impossible possible. It has attained once unthinkable progress in the social sector that is measured by indicators. The country has been a source of global supply chain of a number of items – readymade garments, medicines, leather and jute products, frozen foods, ceramic items, handicrafts, shipbuilding, bicycles and so on. But, the achievements and successes have not been properly reflected in its international image. So are its products –whatever made in Bangladesh for external market are yet to be recognised formally.It is all about making correct sense of a true sense, not promoting a nonsense but removing any misnomer.
On our part, we have not yet been able to project Bangladesh, based on its glories and natural gifts. We have rather tried something else – just to imitate others in branding us and products and services we offer. Themes like ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’ or ‘Incredible India’ dictate our thought process but we hardly take into account due diligence and soul-searching of a civilisation required for such attainments. Probably we are yet to make adequate homework focussing on ‘We are what are and what we do’ for promoting Bangladeshi brands.
However, foreigners, some of whom earlier judged Bangladesh with a negative mindset, sometimes came up with encouraging appreciation for this country and its achievements. Of late, US Ambassador Dan W Mozena played the role of an ambassador of Bangladesh in projecting the country in the international arena. Forecasting a middle income Bangladesh by 2030, he told a gather in New York last month that the country would be the largest manufacturer and exporter of garments by then. A London School of Economics Professor, Robin Burgess, at a public lecture in Dhaka on March 22 described Bangladesh as an ‘unsung hero’ of development. Microcredit is one which has earned reputation worldwide as a Bangladesh model for its replication elsewhere but it has not been correctly evaluated at home.
In the middle of the 1990s, a professor of management at Dhaka University, Durgadad Bhattacharya, asked some of us who the mothers and fathers of Bangladesh were. ‘The women who walk through the Dhaka streets in every morning of weekdays and serve the factories to produce valuable goods are mothers of the country,’ he himself answered. ‘And the unfortunate boys who have migrated abroad to work and send back some money to their families are the fathers. Bangladesh will one day be a proud nation in the world, thanks to these mothers and fathers.’ When asked about the update of his optimism 20 years ago, Professor Bhattacharya recently said, ‘Many will be jealous of Bangladesh in the next 20 years. Today you are desperately looking for investments to come in and there will be a time when investments will come automatically to you.’
The made-in Bangladesh story
The country has been well-established, despite critism and limitations, as the second largest manufacturer of readymade garments, meaning the garments made in Bangladesh has sold and used in many countries especially the ones in the European Union and the United States.The value of apparel export is more than US$22 billion a year and this is the biggest sector of employment after agriculture. Reputed global retailers are selling the made-in Bangladesh garments and companies like Walmart are using their own labels on the apparel products stitched by women in Bangladesh.When many non-resident Bangladeshis come home to visit their relatives, they often buy shirts and later find that they are Bangladeshi products.
So, the Bangladeshi apparel products meet the requirements for beign considered as a brand as Simon Abholt, in his book Brand New Justice defines: The brand value lies in the trust of a brand name for quality and reliability, a form of guarantee for its reputation, a promise the brand delivers and the service it provides to the consumers. In Bangladesh’s case, the story of garment is not a typical brand at the hand, the country’s branding as a soure cannot be denied as well. It is a brand of collective, enterprising efforts by all stakeholders including entrepreneurs and workers.
Almost the same is the case of pharmaceutical and leather products. Having comparative advantage under World Trade Organisation’s rules, Bangladeshi pharmaceutical industry is growting and medicines made in Bangladesh have high demand in different countries. The leather sector is flourishing and excelling in designs, quality and fashions day by day to fit in with the taste of international consumers. In footwear and other leather products, Bangladeshi manufacturers are not only supplying goods to other companies, a few players are also exporting their own brand items. Some of the major global brand companies are also present in Bangladesh’s export processing zones.
Artisanship is another strength of Bangladesh, which is yet to be recognised properly for special branding.Some development organisations such as Brac and Grameen Bank, have effectively tried to develop Bangladeshi brands focusing on traditions and poverty alleviation that earned reputation.
We have potential in a number of other items such as furniture, plastic products and assembling. The country needs investments and entrepreneurship development to promote brands that ensure a defined image, trust, commitment and some sort of loyalty of customers. The country is in a state of promoting both collective initiatives or clusters of industries and major companies that promote brands of Bangladesh at home and worldwide.
Unjust image, barriers to branding
It all started with imaging of a country of cycles and floods, the notorious description of a basket case, or the test case of development, Bangladesh paradox, coining of small state and efforts to undermine the country as a failed state. Bangladesh has proved wrong each and every aspect of the aforesaid negative criticisms. Yet, it is yet to fully get rid of at least some of the negative image and more importantly it is yet to project a clear and well-defined positive image before the world.
We have noticed uproar in the social media sites after American Apparel has recently presented a topless former-Muslim model from Bangladesh in a controversial ad. This is in no way how Bangladeshis want to see promotion of made-in Bangladesh.Whatever the objectives of such an ad, Bangladesh has been unfortunately at the receiving end of some international campaigns since its birth. The country came into being, despite opposition from a number of global powers.
At times Dhaka’s foreign policy pursuit, too, sided with one camp against another player in the international arena.Our internal strife and lack of policy harmony have also failed us in securing the right branding of the country. President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Atiqul Islam believes, hartal and politics seriously damages the country’s image and branding as well. ‘Such practices are threats to business and commercial activities for which Bangladesh could be appreciated worldwide instead of being criticised. Political stability is the answer to negative branding of the country,’ he said. At the same time, he felt that Bangladesh companies need to focus on research and development to ensure proper branding of their products.‘We have to survive and thrive with our own branding in future.’
However, we often do not understand that branding cannot be isolated from the reality of life. In a letter to a newspaper, Shahin Islam of Dhaka University pointed to cheap labour and compliance of some factories in RMG sector. ‘We don’t need to brand it,’ he wrote. In fact, the bad players should not be protected unduly while the good ones cannot be punished for misdeeds of others. Dhaka’s traffic congestion, which is something that can be solved, is more focused than positive aspects of Dhaka city.
Interestingly, Bangladesh has no dearth of unique characteristics that can bring for it the reputation of a great nation. The country itself with so many people (more than 160 million) living on a small landmass is a miracle.The people’s resilience is a major strength that is not common anywhere in the world.
Bangladesh is a unique delta in the downsteam of the Himalayas and a country criss-crossed with 230 rivers and their tributaries and distributaries. It is blessed with wonderful beaches in Cox’s Bazar and Kuakata, hilly terrain, several hundred archaeological sites and of course the world’s largest mangrove forests the Sundarbans with Royal Bengal tigers and dotted deer. ‘Bangladesh has everything that India has to offer,’ Tim Steel wrote in an article styled ‘The epitome of India’.
This is the country that hosts the second largest Muslim congregation – Biswa Ijtema – and which boasts of one of the largest contingents of the United Nations Peacekeeping forces in the worlds troubled spots. Bangladeshi expatriate workers are contributing to development and services sectors of quite a number of rich countries and it is remittances that are helping millions of families in rural Bangladesh to come out of poverty and join the bandwagon of the rising middle class.
With the growth of the urban middle class, some companies such as Asian Textiles have come up with fabrics for shirts and trousers for the men. Some local brands have also earned customers’ confidence by this time. Cats Eye, Monson Rain, Menz Club, Dorjee Bari, Easy, Westecs and Smartex are some of them to name. In the domestic footwear market, Apex has emerged as a major player.
There has been a revolution in the women’s gown, especially in sari. A country which inherites the tradition of Muslin has excelled in a sari items such as Jamdani of Tangail and Narayanganj and Benarose sari of Mirpur. There has been joint venture called Deshi Dosh (Indigeous Ten) that collective brand of locally developed and designed fashionable dresses. Aarong has already become a household name.Traditional food items such as Biriyani, Bakorkhani and sweetmeat in different regions of the country are offering to make them valuable Bangladeshi brands. The country is also blessed with tasty fish of Hilsha and special mango varieties of the Rajshahi region.
Brands going abroad
With entrepreneurial zeal, enthusiasm of workforce to learn and attain skills and increasing the use of better technology, Bangladeshi companies are trying to make their mark in the international market. The country has clear comparative advantage in not only garments but also pharmaceutical industry, ceramics, automobiles and assembling of electronic goods, leather products and value added products of jute.
Global buyers are increasingly being attracted to emerging Bangladeshi brands. At the first-ever Asian Brand and Leadership Summit in Dubai recenty, Walton Motorcycles, Beximco Pharma and Shinepukur Ceramics were selected as ‘most promising brands’ of Asia among 200 brands. Managing Director of Walton High-Tech Industries Ltd SM Ashraful Alam was encouraged by the recognition. ‘This will encourage other manufacturing industries to do better.’He added that they were lining up several products for branding targeting export market in the US, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.
Emphasising the importance of branding in the future, Research Director of Center for Policy Dialogue Khandker Golam Moazzem said when a country’s products are branded properly, that creates a positive image of the nation. ‘Branding attracts new buyers and customers and also foreign direct investment,’ he said.
No matter whether we all make conscious efforts to brand Bangladesh or our products in the global market, we have a serious deficiency in projecting ourselves both at home and abroad. Even if there is no understanding of branding in society, a coherent and vibrant society like that of ours itself can give a message to the global community. What we have clearly failed to do is a coordinated approach and discovery of our inherent strength for making us presentable as a nation first before going with products and services. It could have been done the opposite way –branding us with our quality products and services that are offered to the world community.
We even miss out on the opportunity in claiming the ownership of our own brands that are often in cases hijacked by others. For example, India made the patent of ‘Dhakai Jamdani’ while Bangladesh authorities were sleeping. How come the item which bears the name of Dhaka can be be claimed by India? This shows our serious lack of enterprising attitude in ensuring our brands. Instead, we lose out where we have traditions, natural gifts and comparative advantages. Jute and silk are the two sectors where Bangladesh has not been able to make progress in branding quality products due to the lack of initiative and proper support to industries.
Local companies, too, need to invest in building quality manpower, introducing newer technology and reaching for innovation instead of replicating ideas and products of others. We have serious shortcomings in this area – research and development is not yet part and parcel of our business and development pursuits. A brand is often required to be a local brand before its establishment as an international brand but we are yet to utilise the potential of branding our products for long-term sustainable profit.
Bangladesh, as a country social sector innovation, has the scope to offer new brands in services sectors, be it hospitality, financial services or healthcare. We first need to come out of the mental barriers to considering our country and our products and services as attractive to others. It cannot be done only through publicity; it is the focus on working on true potentials to earn reputation.
Who are doing what?
The way a country can make its companies and their products and services known on the global scene, a huge corporation, too, can reward the home country. In today’s world, business stars can help the government in brightening the country’s image through their brands and communications as well. Entrepreneurs of readymade garments sector, especially major exporters, have the scope to project Bangladesh to the foreigners in a positive manner.
Bangladesh is increasingly emerging as a major player in the shipbuilding market and Western Marine Shipyard, Ananda Shipyard and Khan Brothers Shipyard are the key players in this regard. Western Marine recently beat bidders from 12 countries including Singapore, Poland, Australia and China to win the award for building a ship.
In another encouraging development, businessmen from Kyrgyzstan expressed their interests in making gold ornaments in Bangladesh and export to different countries. Showing confidence in the skills and artisanship of the Bangladeshi goldsmith, the central Asian country which is rich in gold reserves, wants to take comparative advantage of the two countries, said Commerce Secretary Mahmub Ahmed who led a delegation during a visit to Kyrgyzstan recently. A zone might be developed in Dhaka for the purpose.
A number of sectors including leather, plastic and assembling promise similar potential for branding Bangladesh and Bangladeshi items. Already, some innovative people are trying to develop uncommon items and exploring the market abroad.
Officially, the country has been brand-named ‘Beautiful Bangladesh’which was also highlighted during the previous World Cup Cricket and it is also being proposed in different ways during the T20 cricket carnival 2014 in Bangladesh. Through sports and other events, Bangladesh is being introduced with a bright image to the outside world.
Restaurants, being run by non-resident Bangladeshis, especially in countries with huge diaspora community, are also promoting Bangladeshi brands around the world. As expatriate workers are showing their sincerity and trustworthiness in service delivery, the Bangladeshi students enrolled with world-class foreign institutes are proving that they are talented and compete at the global level. Bangladeshi peacekeepers also have proved a point that they are capable of bringing peace to conflict zones around the world.
Promote Bangladesh, focus on brands
Bangladesh has not been projected properly in the international arena and we on our part have not been able to correctly assess and accurately target the country’s branding internationally. ‘When others call us small state, we just imitate, without understanding the consequence of it. That is a wrong branding as Bangladesh is not a small state and we cannot think ourselves as small,’ said Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of International Relations at Dhaka University. He felt that culture is the strongest area with which Bangladesh can brand itself and Bangladeshi products focused on.
A professor of Institute of Business Administration, Syed Farhat Anwar, observed that many of the country’s achievements and potentials remain hidden or unfocussed in the absence of adequate publicity. ‘We need to prepare total brand guidelines.We are marching ahead with our economic and business attainments and also based on natural gifts and tradition and social-cultural values. We must inform the world that we do have these,’ he said.
In most cases, we remain only defensive in countering allegations that damage our image. While negating certain negative branding, truly so, we do not often present a correct picture of the situation highlighting positive aspects. Compliance and confrontational politics are such issues that many countries face but we probably pay higher prices. Dwelling on this issue, Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed said the government is looking for ways and means to uphold a positive image of Bangladesh. He referred to the focus during the previous World Cup Cricket and mentioned that theme song of the T20 has also been made in Bangla. ‘I think, the media can play a very positive role in ensure a better image and right branding of the country,’ he told a group of economic reporters last montth.
Bangladesh is lagging behind in its branding index due to our weakness in this particular area, according to Brand Forum president Shariful Islam. ‘It is essential to ensure branding to make an item familiar and popular in the midst of hundreds of thousands of items,’ he said adding that proper initiatives have not been taken to make Bangladesh known to the world.
About branding by companies, former Commerce Minister GM Qader said multinational companies invest money in training of workforce, research and development and marketing to do business over a longer period of time. ‘In order to make our companies and their products sustainable, we have to go for branding,’ he pointed out. ‘It is better late than never; some companies have started to focus on branding.’