The joy and challenge of purveying better products and better lives – Interview with Dilhan Fernando, CEO Dilmah Tea

Dilhan C Fernando CEO Dilmah Tea

Dilhan C. Fernando

Dilhan Fernando is the CEO of Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company which carries part of his name. For when his father founded the company in 1988, he blended the first names of his two sons – Dilhan and Malik – to give it its name.

This anecdote reflects one of the romantic dimensions of the companies creation story. The ones we will focus on in our interview with Dilhan focuses on Dilmah as a pioneer. A pioneer when it comes to fighting for fairer trade practices, implementing sustainable operating processes, educating consumers and to being founded on the belief that purveying a superior product needs to go hand-in-hand with helping to create a better socio-economical and natural environment.

If you think that this all sounds like what we have come to expect from a progressive start-up but also to wonder if a company can truly deliver, then consider this:  This company and mission started to take shape in the mind of a Sri-Lankan tea taster – said Merrill Fernando – as early as the late fifties.  Merill’s dream was shaped by a burning desire to do away with what he experienced to be a colonial hold-over.  A tea-making value chain that left local workers with only a tiny fraction of the value created for Western tea houses and that left Western drinkers with bland blends and stale tasting teas.  In other words, this company was conceptualized and built by a local tea professional with insights into global trade, over decades – from the plantation up, so to speak.

Dimah Tea education poster

Consumer Education is key to take the brand beyond being ‘a box of tea’ on the supermarket shelf.

But even with all the local insight, expertise and commitment, it has not been easy to compete with the big packaged-goods multi-nationals, to sell through mass retail and to obtain even a modest premium for a better, fairer, more sustainably produced product, as you will hear. This is where ways to connect more directly with consumers – including via hospitality, virtual tools and e-commerce – has enabled Dilmah to manifest the experience of enjoying its teas in new ways. Ways, that elevate the brand* and go beyond the ‘bag and boiling water’.

To us, it sounds like the continuous journey that is creating an Ueber-Brand – But judge for yourself and click to play below:

Dilmah Horizontal pic

From the plantation to the shop and tea room, Dilmah captures more of the value chain for its constituents.



* Brand Elevation is also the title of our latest book, a how-to guide to giving a brand meaning, making it peerless and priceless. Click here to order your copy now.

For deep insights into what drives the success of purpose-driven brands like S’well read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands,” and other posts on this blog-cast.  “

Roam the very informative Dilmah Tea website and explore its rich content from how the tea is made to how to best enjoy it.  You can sign up for tea-totaling classes at the School of Tea, learn about Dilmah’s many initiatives to run operations sustainably help the people and environment of Sri Lanka.  You can even book a staycation in the plantations to make your tea experience up, close and personal.

Here is an article by The New York Times from 2010 and article by Fortune from 2007, which tell the Dilmah creation story and progress up through the time when Merrill started to hand over leadership of the companies to his sons.

And here is a 2020 article by Dilhan on the difficulty to fund a fair and sustainable distribution of wealth in the face of a crisis like COVID-19 laid on top of a discount-driven packaged food culture.

Two generations of Dilmah family leaders

Brothers Dilhan and Malik with their father Merrill Fernando at their Dilmah home.

Dilmah logo

About JP Kuehlwein

JP Kuehlwein is a global business leader and brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer and brand insights into transformational propositions that win in market. Principal at ‘Ueber-Brands’ a New York consulting firm, he now helps others to elevate brands and make them peerless and priceless. JP also teaches brand strategy at NYU Stern and Columbia Business School and leads the Marketing Institute at The Conference Board, all in New York. Jp previously was Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon operator and hair care brand and lead brand- and corporate strategy development and execution at multinational Procter & Gamble as Brand Director and Director of Strategy. JP and Wolf Schaefer have co-authored the best-selling books “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” which lays out what drives the success of modern premium brands and "Brand Elevation - Lessons in Ueber-Branding" a guide to developing and executing a brand elevation strategy. Find the books here:
This entry was posted in 1 - Mission Incomparable - The first rule is to make your own, 4 - Behold! - The product as manifestation, 5 - Living the Dream - The bubble shall never burst, PODCAST and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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