ROMANCING CUSTOMERS: A NEW APPROACH TO MARKETING

UNION APPARELS’ CORE READY-MADE CLOTHES BUSINESS IS FACING HEADWINDS FROM CHEAPER MANUFACTURING ELSEWHERE IN THE WORLD. IT’S PROPOSING TO RESPOND TO THE CHALLENGE WITH UNCONVENTIONAL MARKETING

GARMENT MANUFACTURING HAS BEEN A MAJOR EXPORT MONEY SPINNER FOR THE SRI LANKAN ECONOMY FOR DECADES, WITH HUNDREDS OF SMALL TO MEDIUM ‘CUTTERS AND STITCHERS’ MAKING A RANGE OF PRODUCTS FOR FOREIGN RETAILERS.

Union Apparels, a private company owned and managed by Ajith Wijeysekara with the help of son Rohen, is one of them. Ajith started at the bottom, selling fabrics in Pettah, the schmutter district in downtown Colombo. He is very much a self-made man. Rohen, entrepreneurial and millennial-minded, is a perfect foil for his father’s more traditional tried-and-tested approach to the business. Rohen has his eyes firmly fixed on the future—and the future, he says, is online. The Internet. Ecommerce, but with a new dimension.

After the company’s launch in 1983, it eventually acquired four garment factories employing 3,500 workers with a combined annual turnover of more than $40 million. Its roster of clients, mainly in the UK, includes C&A, George, Next and Debenhams.

But that was then. Now, times are hard and getting tougher, says Rohen, “with as little as 2 cents a piece being the difference between a garment being made in Sri Lanka or in a cheaper competitor country such as Bangladesh”.

“Things are becoming increasingly difficult, and the bigger you are, the more you are exposed to risks. We see headwinds coming in the apparel business, and we are expecting that some customers are not going to stay with Sri Lanka.”

FOR EXPORTS, ROHEN MOOTS AN ONLINE-LIKE PLATFORM WHERE AN END-CUSTOMER IN THE UK, FOR EXAMPLE, CAN CONNECT, COMMUNICATE AND FOLLOW THE GARMENT THROUGH DESIGN, CUTTING AND SEWING, TO FINAL DELIVERY

As a result, he says, the company is limiting its exposure by ‘rightsizing’—lowering risks by shrinking capacity. Not downsizing exactly, but repositioning the company for even tougher times to come. Hope for the best but plan for the worst, in other words. Rohen points out that many big-name foreign buyers they do business with have already closed their Sri Lankan offices, “because their cost-to-revenue ratio meant that it did not make sense for them to maintain a back office presence here”. At least one of them moved to Bangladesh virtually overnight.

His solution is online retailing, with a twist. He says: “There is definitely a way to give the business a new spin. We’ve got to add value to romance the product and the customer. We must create a narrative and communicate our story to the customer.”

“All our customers love Sri Lanka, so we must make our beautiful tropical island, which attracts tourists from all over the world, a key part of the whole marketing effort, from design to the finished garment.”

In particular, he says, the company must shift its emphasis from the UK and Europe to India and China, where ecommerce is booming. He cites a scenario where Union Apparel makes the garments here for online retailers and ships them directly to the customer, which would make the supply chain shorter, quicker and cheaper.

Meanwhile, the company must also focus more on its own online retail brand, Dilly & Carlo, where increasing demand for the latest aspirational fashions among chic young Sri Lankan urbanites could help resist a downturn, or even reverse it.

Intriguingly, he says that what he has in mind is not necessarily all about money, the bottom line. He has all the enthusiasm of an evangelist when he describes his vision of how the company could bring global fashion to young Sri Lankan (and foreign) buyers.

He also envisages promoting their Dilly & Carlo home brands abroad, especially since their contact with foreign markets means they are intimately familiar with international fashion trends, which gives them an edge over some of their domestic retail competitors. Meanwhile, for exports, he moots an online-like platform where an end-customer in the UK, for example, can connect, communicate and follow the garment through design, cutting and sewing, to final delivery. All of this, he says, “coupled with the rise in fast fashion, fewer large-scale orders and more design/fabric input from suppliers, could be an interesting combination for Sri Lanka to capitalize on opportunities in the marketplace”.

So how is all this going to happen?

As a start, he says, designing and retailing for the local and foreign markets has got to be fun, something he can actually enjoy doing. “We must also have great designs and a real inspirational vision of the future, in addition to cheap production.”

2A key part of that is marketing, selling the lifestyle, getting the message across to all those aspirational fashionistas out there. Which, he says, means communicating directly on their level through social media. Central to his “new spin” will be personal blogging, which is currently in the making, and which he hopes to launch later this year. Tropicalstartup.com will, he says, “take the reader through my personal narrative as I weave and maneuver my way through the entrepreneurial terrain, while building all the different business verticals and facing each industry’s unique challenges, and hopefully overcoming them!”

In his own words: “The vision I have is to create an ‘authentic’ narrative. One that is unwaveringly genuine and real, and is documented for many years to come, so that in hindsight, I can create a beautiful, content-rich story where I can take the viewer/reader on a succinct power-packed journey.”

“Of course, at first, this might seem like a vanity project, but I’m willing to take the flak for that because, at the end of the day, through subtle marketing and media communication, I will be pushing and marketing each of the businesses, thereby creating a loyal following of customers who are hungry for authentic content.

3At the end of the day, the objective is to create brand awareness and influence the reader/viewer to click on that call-to-action buy/book now button!”

He adds, “Everything has to convert into a sale! I feel that this strategy of creating an intimate persona for the business, through me, humanizing each of the businesses, will create a relationship with the end customer that will be priceless. This is equally important for retail B2C models, as well as B2B models, where businesses are also dying to be romanced into bed.”

Rohen’s vision for a future “digital renaissance” is aimed at all the group’s interests, including the hotel and hospitality sector, which it made “calculated and timely measures” to diversify into when they first saw trouble looming on the apparel horizon.

In fact, he says, their 5-star Blue Water hotel in Wadduwa, designed by world-renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, and Water Garden Sigiriya, which together make up Union Resorts’ portfolio, are central to his vision of creating an all-embracing lifestyle brand. No wonder, then, that he has no time for that traditional underpinning of a conventional business career, the MBA (Master of Business Administration).

Says Rohen: “An MBA would be a waste of time and money. It would take me out of the company for two or more years when I should be in the trenches with the workforce building the business.”

Instead, he says: “I listen to inspirational podcasts on my phone all the time, with great ideas about how to run a successful business. For the past three months I have been on fire, really motivated. I don’t need an MBA for that.”

No indeed, not if businesses really are “dying to be romanced into bed”. And if they really are, where better a place to do it than in Sri Lanka, with all its history, mystery—and sun-kissed tropical romance.