ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 45
Financial Times  

Unconventional marketing

W.K.H. Wegapitiya – Wega to friends and colleagues – is an entrepreneur in a hurry or one who wants to put Sri Lankan goods firmly on the global map. He ventured into the LPG business as a Sri Lankan entrepreneur to compete with a multinational when no one dared – except Master Divers Ariyaseeli Wickramanayake.

The latter failed while Wega succeeded. He then ventured into the lubricants’ business and despite government criteria that allegedly favoured foreigners, he stood tall and finally won the licence this week.

Now he’s doing what others only preach but don’t practise – making the customer king. One would call it pretty unconventional marketing in a day and age where the tough survive often at the expense of the consumer. Who is the person who ventures into business to give the consumer a good deal? Business is all about making profits – to hell with the customer. The adage that the customer is King is old hat – present day marketers talk about it, shout about it; it rings clear in boardrooms but this preaching is not practised or conveniently hidden, particularly after a product is sold.

In fact there should be an awards scheme for excellence in customer service, if there isn’t one already. Service is sorely lacking in Sri Lanka. So what is this unconventional marketing practice that Wega – who has ventured into a host of business ventures including energy sector, LPG, boat building, mattress making, restaurants, supermarkets, hotels and taking on the Australian market to convert cars into LPG -- has gone into?.

“Wait for our new campaign,” Wega told reporters last week as he announced that the company had been granted the licence to sell lubricants after a battle with the authorities which almost ended in court. Any hint? He agreed that it’s to do with winning the customer in an unconventional way like displaying the LAUGFS product along with other competing products on the same shelf and letting the consumer decide which is best.

The entrepreneur who has garnered a name for himself with his patriotism in the business arena and another ‘Be Sri Lankan; Buy Sri Lankan’ kind of campaign running under the tag “Power of Sri Lanka” is opposed to traditional marketing tactics practised by some powerful multinationals and some local businessmen where they stack shelves with their own product, buy the retailer out to prevent other products on the shelf or threaten retailers by making sure only their product is visible. That’s a serious issue in the beverages market including alcohol where small players get a raw deal.

“I want all products to be on my shelf including my product. I want the customer to decide which is best. It is not good marketing for your own product not to have competing products on the same shelf,” he says. Thus LAUGFS’ new lubricant cans will be sold alongside Mobil which Wega’s firm has been marketing all this while. Mobil products will be available at all LAUGFS fuel stations and service stations across the country without discrimination – lessons indeed to new and upcoming entrepreneurs willing to take a cue from a risk-taking entrepreneur.

LAUGFS has got into so many businesses that the first question that springs up is are they trying to be a jack of all trades? “Call it investing in any good opportunity,” he laughs – very much in line with his company name LAUGFS. The LAUGFS philosophy of ‘live and let live’ instead of crushing the competition – particularly smaller companies when at the top – is certain to win consumer support.

It’s also clear that this Sri Lankan entrepreneur is attempting to bring back values, discipline and ethics into the boardroom, a hard task in an environment where corruption, back-room deals and ‘CSR on paper or merely writing a cheque’ has become the hallmark of a profitable venture.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.