How does a Biological Science major find herself in a leading role in marketing? For the Marketing Manager of Upfield Sri Lanka/Maldives; Shehani Liyanage, it was simply a matter of ‘falling in love with the right job’.  

Shehani went to the University of Colombo to study Biological Science, which was her passion at the moment. She was a hardworking student who graduated at the top of her class, but pursuing a career in Science in Sri Lanka was challenging. While there were far better career prospects for her abroad, her reluctance to be apart from her parents coupled together with the lack of proper career guidance offered by the Sri Lankan education system, Shehani challenged herself to switch paths, unsure of what exactly that path might be.  

In her second year of university, a chance encounter at a career expo at her institution led her to the beginning of what would be a career for a lifetime. At that time she didn’t know much about marketing or the corporate world. So she began to educate herself with CIM Postgraduate Diploma and fell in love with it right away. After graduating Shehani was hired as a Management Trainee at a multinational FMCG organization, where she was nurtured and guided to become the person she is today. She rose through the ranks from Management Trainee to Brand Manager in just 3.5 years, and after five years, she joined the largest plant-based consumer food company in the world, Upfield, as Marketing Manager. She currently leads the local marketing team, which reports to both the South Asia Leadership Team in Pakistan and the Global Marketing team in Amsterdam.

When asked about the current market condition Shehani added that being a successful organisation in a VUCA world means being agile and adaptable to any situation. The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly challenging and Upfield’s key goal since the outbreak began was to ensure that their product portfolio is freely accessible to consumers with constant product innovation that really answer current consumer tension points. According to her, the company was forced to adjust several things. During the lockdown, they devised new routes to market, partnered to expand e-commerce platforms, and modified media strategy to reflect the rise in digital media consumption and shifts in traditional media. While the situation has been demanding, Shehani considers herself and her team are up to ‘take on any new challenge and persevere until they succeed’. 

Our next question was on women in leadership. As a woman who is in a leadership role, Shehani believes that empathising with teams, caring for them, and multitasking are the most crucial leadership traits. In these areas, she feels that women have equal, capacity to men. In addition, women inherently have maternal instincts that make them more sensitive and caring. As a result, she is convinced that more women in leadership positions will make organisations a more inclusive and enticing place to work.

When asked how she organises and executes B2C and central marketing planning, Shehani responds that Upfield is a very linear organisation and no central marketing team. Instead, representatives of the countries plan all global marketing initiatives as a regional community. This guarantees that all main global activities are aligned with local requirements and that local teams are empowered to adapt and iterate as needed which gives greater accountability to the teams. Furthermore, as a company, Upfield believes that every marketing strategy and execution should be data-driven. This is because their key ingredient for success thus far has been the focus and flexibility to check and adjust promptly.

Talking about the brand’s most recent achievements Shehani believes that surviving the pandemic for any business is an accomplishment. But she also added that Upfield was honoured to receive an SLT Digi Award 2020 for Flora Relaunch for Best Digital Relaunch Campaign, focusing on more structured accolades. They were also nominated for a finalist at the SLIM Nielsen Awards 2020 in the ‘Most Popular Food Brand’ category for Astra, a powerful demonstration of consumer affection for the brand. At the same time, their Astra Christmas Campaign was named the most innovative integrated seasonal campaign at the SLIM Digi Awards 2021.

When asked about the Upfield product lines, Shehani claims that despite the upheaval last year, they were able to launch four new products. To begin, the Astra cooking variation was introduced to aid in cooking daily dishes with superior taste and nutrition compared to traditional oils. With the development of Astra Mayonnaise, which contains vital nutrients such as Omega 3 and 6 that are important for children’s growth; they expanded their category presence. The 100g Flora pack was introduced as an entry pack to encourage customers to try out healthier food options. Finally, ‘Meadowland,’ a new cream brand for enterprises and modern trade outlets, was launched to provide a more efficient and cost-effective cooking cream and whipping cream. As the leading plant-based consumer foods company in the world, Upfield is at the forefront of developing tasty, natural and healthy foods that are good for the people and the plant. 

On a final note, we asked what is that one quote she thinks that everyone in the corporate sector must follow and we think her response can be an eye-opener for anyone;  “Find a career where you don’t wait until the weekend and hate Mondays. Because life is too short to waste time doing things we don’t love.”