Rovini Illukkumbura, the ‘Entrepreneur with a cause’ spearheading an empire of her own through brand building from the flavoured water, ‘Islander – a first of its kind and more, admits to having a ‘creative hat on in everything she does, with a spark for exploring the endless possibilities in brands and creating a lasting impression through her boundless enthusiasm and zest for life! What prompts her to unleash her passion for building brands from scratch and being an inspiration to those wish to pursue their dreams…?
What prompted you to explore water as a possible brand?
“What prompted me initially was not the end product – rather the idea of a story I wanted to tell through a brand.”
Was the transition from marketing other brands to your own brand easy or hard?
“Marketing principals are the same, it doesn’t change from brand to brand and I’m still working on other brands and helping to craft stories to break the clutter among the eternally noisy media landscape.”
What is the benefit in providing these particular flavours you have chosen?
“The consumer is always first and these flavours were chosen based on research among the target audience I was interested in. When I launched there was no one involved in this category – there was merely water and carbonated soft drinks.
No one had entered the category of providing a solution for something in between. Beverages at that time were all carbonated, with sugar and artificial colouring. Yes, my flavours were not a new invention to the world but it was definitely the first for Sri Lanka. I launched it as a hybrid between water and unhealthy carbonated soft drinks with an added benefit of being ‘zero sugar’. In January 2018 when I entered the market, we were the first, and the first mover advantage I had actually built in establishing ‘islander’ is the best for flavoured water. We in fact had consumer responses online that were truly awe-inspiring.
Surmise it to say, till early 2019 none of the larger corporations in the beverage industry had a solution of zero sugar offered to the consumer until they were forced to act during a sugar tax. My aim with any brand I wanted to create had a clear vision and that is to enter with something that is currently not available and ensure it serves as a panacea for all ills in people’s lives. At that time many people who needed to reduce or eliminate their sugar intake for various health reasons were deprived of a tasty solution, mainly due to the larger corporations not tapping into its potential as it was not seen as a mass need and did not drive their volumes and generate profits – and that is what differentiates an “entrepreneur with a cause and a company maintaining profits!” We are willing to take risks by incorporating a consumer first approach.”
Are the possibilities truly endless for water based products?
“The possibilities in any industry for any product is endless. We as people are designed to create, given our innate power of imagination. When you keep working on any project and have set your vision right from the start, you keep creating. You end up picking up clues on gaps, you imagine and create. The journey is endless but what makes a brand successful is the attention to-detail which includes time allocation, focus, and adaptability. That is how brands such as Apple have been so successful regardless of being a first mover or not. Know your consumer, be clear on what they want and deliver it to them with an experience and innovate to stay ahead as you go.”
Do you wish to explore other avenues in terms of brand building and start –ups or will you focus entirely on Islander?
“‘Islander’ is just a start! I’ve been in brand marketing since 2010 starting from Unilever Sri Lanka, where I handled a varying portfolio from laundry detergents to dish wash products and food brands. And now I am still pursuing my career as a Regional Marketing Manager for the iconic Heinz ketchup for Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. My passion is therefore set in marketing and brand building. I love giving life to brands and selling an experience to people and being able to operate both these journeys in unison has been a great ride.
My experience as a marketer of global brands gives me so much knowledge, as each day I’m exposed to all the trends and contemporary thinking. All of that coupled with my experience as an entrepreneur is an advantage to the development in my career as it enables e to know exactly what it’s like to understand the impact a business can have on real life. Because sometimes in my career I am only overlooking the marketing touch points and I may not see the total supply chain and back end picture, but at slander I am my own boss and every problem in every function is my problem and that helps me add so much value back to my corporate life. Moreover, it helps me understand the cross functional pain points and I am able to speak their jargon and offer solutions. Therefore, I won’t be giving up one for the other any time soon. Coming back to if islander is the only brand I will launch the answer is no. I’m already working on trialing a brand in a new playground which is keeping me up even more these days and I can assure you this will not be the end of my creativity. I take my brands as a portfolio of investments. Similar to the stock market, you are buying a portfolio to make better returns but you continuously depend on others for success. Over here my brands are my portfolio of investments and the risk is all mine and I control it. Making it successful is definitely on me and I have all the motivation as I put down my own capital. There are no third party investors involved! That motivates you to keep growing, since you have no one else to depend on but yourself and this route I have taken has shaped me personally even as an individual.”
How far has Islander come since its inception?
“A long way since its baby steps which commenced in 2018.”
As a young entrepreneur, what are the challenges you face? Any vivid memories of exhilarating moments (business –oriented) and disappointments which you overcame and would like to share as inspiration to others? What are some words of wisdom to aspiring entrepreneurs?
“There will be disappointments. Not every person or organization you meet with will have ethics as much as you do. This will break you sometimes, as it’s ultimately your hard work but it’s important that you refrain from getting influenced by them and replicating them. Be ethical in business, be fair and you can go far. If you try to be greedy and take unethical measures it will take you to a place at a rapid pace but not as far as you would want to and you will not be able to attract the best talent or the best of people to work with you. The upcoming generations are more and more about mental well- being and wanting to work for inspirational leaders. And research is easy to do these days- so it’s important to think in terms of consistency and sustainability when setting your company culture and how you look after people and what examples you set to inspire them to be loyal. Inspiring every person who interacts with you is one of my key focus areas aside from business strategies. The age old adage, “ if you want to go fast go alone and if you want to go far go together,” is profound and rings true as a company is nothing without the right people around you who believes in your vision and strive towards making it a reality. So treat your employees well and look after their mental health as you are nothing without them.”
Who is Rovini in a nutshell?
“I’m all about discipline when it comes to work and realizing goals. Nothing can stop me until I have completed what I have started. But I believe in balance – I set aside time for my friends and during that time I revel in uninhibited fun and indulge with the girls!”
What is the story behind name Islander?
“I wanted the brand to take the archetype close to what our country looks like to the rest of the world. The fact that it is an island filled with people who smile and extend a great sense of hospitality towards guests. We have gone through diabolical periods since war time, yet people resolutely keep on smiling and remain humble – to me it reflects an islander.
Therefore, Islander stands for the people of our country that makes us proud to say we are from Sri Lanka!”
What are your other interests and what role does your love for swimming etc., play in your life at present?
“I used to be a synchronized swimmer. My biggest meet, was the 15th Asian games in 2006 which we participated in as a team. Ever since I left school I coached the team of my alma mater, Visakha for 10 years and that would always be my passion sport.
Even during this time of coaching, I have directed many synchronized swimming concerts, namely, Alice in wonderland, Applause and Out of the woods, which are some of my best directions – I believe I always had my creative hat on in everything I did. This was before I launched Islander. These experiences are what led me to finally let myself unleash my potential by launching a brand single handedly while competing against the giants.”
What are you future aspirations with regard to self and the brand?
“Islander will live, so will my future brands which are in the pipeline. Aside from this I want to help young entrepreneurs who like myself are intentional about taking the road of self-funded start- ups and needs help to strategies and create a design frame work for their brands. There is nothing more passionate I am about than helping people with all my knowledge and experience. I believe as a society its part of our responsibility to build up productive individuals – inspiring them and showing them ways that they can in fact do anything they want and they don’t need a capital backing. I often see talented people who have dreams but do not pursue it due to their inability to think they can achieve the seemingly impossible. I like to be an example of what relentless effort can achieve. I chose the hard and stubborn path – in which I work on my career and fund myself entirely. If I can do it, they can do it and I can help them realize this. Those who have a genuine interest to forge ahead are free to contact me anytime on my, Islander page.”
By Rochelle Palipane Gunaratne
Photography By: Sidath Wanaguru