Category: Reputation

An imagined nation carving out its niche

Mardin old town

Kurdistan is an imagined nation that exists only in the minds of the its people. But the concept of ‘Kurdishness’ crosses many borders. The Kurds have been called the ‘world’s largest stateless nation’, although some have criticised this designation for its suggestion of homogeneity. In reality there are many differences between various Kurdish groups.

The Kurds number around 30 million people, spread across four neighbouring countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Despite having their own distinct languages, culture and history, the Kurds are still struggling to carve out their own space somewhere in the niche where those four ancient lands meet.

A Kurd may hold a Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, or Iraqi passport, but he or she will always identify as a Kurd first and foremost. The sense of national pride for a nation not yet born is nevertheless strong and widespread.

The problem of statelessness is not new for Kurds. Throughout history they have been engaged in an ongoing struggle for recognition and independence. So far their dream of an independent state has not been realised. Iraqi Kurdistan may be the closest the Kurds have come so far to having an independent Kurdish state.

Officially still part of a federal Iraq, this Kurdish region is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), headed by its own president (Maasoud Barzani), and enjoys a certain level of freedom from Baghdad central control. Accordingly, the region has developed into relative prosperity, thanks to its oil wealth, and has become known as the most secure and stable area of a largely war-torn Iraq.

The Kurdish example illustrates our focus on the cross-border mentality in a number of interesting ways. Firstly, the whole idea of ‘Kurdishness’, is a concept that crosses borders, not just the four borders of the mountainous Kurdish homelands, but also internationally. This sense of Kurdish unity was consolidated and brought dramatically to world attention last year, when the plight of Kobane hit the news.

Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish city, came dangerously close to being overrun by Islamic State militants. But the city was saved, partly because Kurds came from all over neighbouring Turkey, and some from even further afield, to support their brothers and sisters across the border in the battle against IS.

It seemed that the sense of Kurdish solidarity had never been stronger than in the battle for Kobane. As a result, the Kurdish reputation garnered increased global support and attention as the media portrayed the Kurds as a brave force protecting the world from the IS onslaught. In this way, Kobane acquired a symbolic significance.

The story of Kobane has given the Kurdish national project a fresh and revitalised narrative. In particular, some experts in Kurdish affairs claim that the events in Kobane have given the Kurds increased international legitimacy.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty carved up the Middle East between the British and the French after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The heavy-handed approach of the treaty showed complete ignorance of the region. It created many new borders that disrupted fragile religious, tribal and ethnic boundaries.

The violent repercussions of Sykes-Picot have been felt ever since. Fortunately, there may be a new approach. Economic cross-border cooperation, while keeping nation-states intact, may help end some of the region’s conflicts. Ironically, it is the Kurds and their long-time foe, the Turkish state, who are leading the way.

Iraqi Kurdistan produces a great deal of oil and gas. Baghdad lays claim to most of the revenue from this, depriving Erbil of what the latter says is its fair share. To out-manoeuvre Baghdad, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan came together to build an oil pipeline from Erbil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

This cross-border endeavour has allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to access the international markets for its oil and gas, while simultaneously avoiding Baghdad seizing control over the revenues.

Collaboration such as this is still rare in the region. The Ceyhan pipeline is a groundbreaking attempt to transverse borders for mutual economic benefit. Cross-border economic initiatives like this one can potentially pave the way for greater understanding and mutual cooperation between states in the Middle East.

Mapping global passport power

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Passport power can shape your life. A strong passport allows the holder to move smoothly through the world, breezing through borders with ease and opening doors for new opportunities in travel, work and investment.

But a weak passport spells endless rounds of visa applications, being denied, being treated with suspicion (in case you’re an economic migrant masquerading as a tourist), having to stump up large sums of money just so they can be sure you’ll go home again.

Around 200 passports exist today. All offer varying levels of travel flexibility. Some, like the German passport, can take their holders to 177 countries visa-free or visa on arrival. Others, like the Afghan passport, are practically useless, allowing entry across a mere 25 national borders.

[embeddoc url=”http://samanthanorth.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Visa-Restrictions-Index-Dataset.xlsx” download=”all” viewer=”microsoft”]

The aim of this project is to map global passport power using CartoDB. The original data came from a study called the Visa Restrictions Index, created by Henley & Partners. It was embedded in a PDF, making it impossible to access by scraping or copy-pasting. This was a chance for me to try out Tabula, an invaluable tool that extracts raw data in table form from within PDFs. Tabula worked really well in this case. It pulled the data neatly into Excel format, with the minimum of additional tweaking needed. Now I had a nicely formatted Excel sheet ready to work with.

The dataset contains three columns: Rank, Country Name, and Score (i.e. how many countries the passport holder can enter visa-free). I can imagine the final visualisation involving a world map, with the ranks perhaps mapped as pins (or circles) of increasing sizes (smallest for weakest passports, biggest for strongest). Circles would be geographically located, with the individual score showing up inside each circle.

Here’s how it ended up. I like how the chloropleth feature looks; it seems to work well for this particular map. From looking at this map I can see some starting points for potential stories involving national image, economic power, public diplomacy and more.

Island of contradictions

Before I visited it for the first time, Jamaica brought to mind visions of white beaches, of fun loving people, of marijuana and Red Stripe beer, and the famous figures of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt.

Not everyone will be fortunate enough to see Jamaica, or any country, close up before forming opinions about it. Instead, as people generally do, they’ll rely on a set of preconceived ideas when deciding whether to engage with the country, whether that’s as tourists, investors, foreign talent or potential students. The task of nation branding is to make sure those Jamaica stereotypes are promoting the right message in people’s minds; the message that we can control as part of ‘Brand Jamaica’.

But the negative side mustn’t be swept under the carpet. There are many problems still to be overcome. If Jamaica wants to improve the negative side of its image, it needs to find lasting ways of tackling crime, corruption and intolerance. Clearly, the government needs to be committed to the mission. But, equally importantly, so do the people.

In a 2014 academic article, Dr Hume Johnson talked about Jamaica’s ‘famous, strong but damaged brand’ and discussed the urgent need to reimagine Brand Jamaica.

As Dr Johnson points out, there are some major challenges facing Brand Jamaica. That’s partly why we’re all gathered here today. The first, and most serious, is crime. This is a major social problem and is the number one cause of concern for most citizens.

The crime issue has also led to wider global perceptions of Jamaica as a ‘dangerous’ place to visit. Clearly, this problem needs to be addressed urgently.

Perceptions of Jamaica as dangerous discourage tourists from visiting, put off potential inward investors, and lowers the country’s overall standing in the eyes of the world. Of course, many nations have crime problems, and the USA and UK are no exception. But these nations are much larger, more politically powerful, and their brands are already far stronger, more deeply developed over time, with lots of different strands. This means that a negative issue such as crime doesn’t necessarily overshadow the rest of their brand image.

Another problem is that wider perceptions of Jamaica as ‘dangerous’ are completely contrary to its projected image as a nation where you can come and ‘be alright’. This inconsistency causes confusion and dilutes Jamaica’s brand identity. Crime can no longer be ignored, as if it’s unrelated to Jamaica’s image.

On the contrary, it’s a fundamental part of the brand, and affects it from all angles. Building a firm foundation by tackling crime head-on should be the starting point for reimagining Brand Jamaica.

The case of New York is a good example here. In the 1970s the city had a very negative reputation for crime and corruption. But during the next decades, especially thanks to mayor Bloomberg’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to crime, the city was completely transformed. Although it still has a certain amount of crime, as does any major city, New York has now thrown off its former bad reputation to become one of the world’s premier cities.

Human rights are another important issue for Jamaica, especially the perceptions of Jamaica’s well-known stance against homosexuality. The global media has picked up on this on many occasions, publishing headlines such as ‘The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?’ (Time magazine 2006). Anti-gay sentiment appears in every level of society, from political leadership to the lyrics of popular reggae and dancehall music.

Perceptions of Jamaica as intolerant are very damaging to its brand, especially in the eyes of tourists, investors and foreign talent. It’s hard to change ingrained social attitudes, and developing overnight tolerance is of course impossible. But Jamaica’s international image would certainly improve if efforts were made, at the very least, to take a serious stand against incidents of anti-gay violence. The government should be leading the way on this. Grass-roots initiatives can be useful too, but they’re not likely to go very far without commitment from the top levels.

The recent US gay marriage decision makes this change even more crucial. I realise that not all countries can be expected to have exactly the same attitudes, but this decision from the world’s most powerful nation does set a new standard. If Jamaica stays stuck on its strong anti-gay stance, Brand Jamaica may well struggle to gain the level of respect that it aims for and deserves.

While reading the Vision 2030 for Jamaica I immediately noticed how it put people in first place for leading the way in developing new goals. I very much agree with this way of thinking. I believe that successful nation brand strategy starts with all the people who live in a country. They’re the most important stakeholders.

So now let’s look at some ways to help with the process of reimagining Brand Jamaica. The first thing needed is to develop a clear brand strategy. This doesn’t mean a marketing campaign. It’s more like a long-term road map that defines the Brand Jamaica goals and provides clear steps for how to reach them.

Defining the strategy takes time, and it’s not something to be rushed. The government has the responsibility to lead the strategy, but all sectors of society must have an input, as this is the only way to make them feel engaged.

The process must include representatives from government, local business people, educators, religious leaders, sportspeople, media, and various citizen groups, as well as ordinary Jamaicans. This part of the process is often where strategists from outside can be most useful by bringing in an important outsiders’ perspective.

The Jamaican government has a critical role to play in changing and updating various elements of policy in order to improve Jamaica. Good governance is critical in this respect and future policy amendments should always be made in line with the pre-defined ‘Brand Jamaica’ strategy.

The government is responsible for major changes such as improving infrastructure, boosting the economy, getting more Jamaicans into education, reducing unemployment and strengthening the rule of law. This is extremely important to help Jamaica develop a strong foundation for building its new brand upon. I think Vision 2030 has got a lot of strong points. It recognises the need for a long-term focus and a people-first approach that empowers Jamaicans, along with a set of solid national outcomes.

Once building this foundation gets underway, we can then focus on what makes Jamaica unique. As we all know, Jamaica has a lot of powerful and potent associations. We should hold onto all these as they’re Jamaica’s unique selling points.

Beyond the somewhat frivolous sun, sea and ‘feel alright’ image, it’s also important to introduce a more serious side to the nation brand. As the Vision Statement says: “Jamaica, a place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.”

No country can avoid dealing with public relations. As well as walking the walk, Jamaica also needs to talk the talk. It’s got to let the rest of the world know about its positive progress and promote its brand assets. At the same time, successful PR efforts must ring true. So Jamaica must stay genuine and honestly admit its weaknesses when necessary. It mustn’t try to hide them.

An organised approach is needed to manage all Jamaica-related PR messages in a way that fits with the goals of the new Brand Jamaica strategy. This strategy must be kept in mind all the time, in everything Jamaica does and says.

To develop its brand beyond the current stereotypical and frivolous image, Jamaica should plan a series of symbolic long-term actions to promote its less recognised assets. Jamaica’s lucky because it’s got plenty of assets to choose from. Jamaican history and culture are very strong, and so are its arts, music and sport.

Local entrepreneurship should be also encouraged and promoted, by developing further initiatives to support and mentor local businesspeople, and getting some of their success stories into the international media. Sport is another key area for Jamaica to focus on, as the country is already world famous and well respected for its sporting achievements, especially with the outstanding achievements of track star Usain Bolt.

Jamaica also exports some world-famous products, including Red Stripe beer, Blue Mountain coffee, rum and items featuring its iconic flag and national colours. Being associated with certain products can also help boost a nation brand and shape it in a certain way, as in the case of ‘Made in Italy’ associated with elegance, ‘Made in Germany’ with quality and reliability, or ‘Made in China’ with mass-produced items at low prices.

Having a range of consistently branded ‘Made in Jamaica’ exports can help spread the ‘country of origin’ effect around the world, and build people’s subconscious and emotional associations with Brand Jamaica.

Finally, the reimagining of Brand Jamaica mustn’t forget its most important and central driving force – the Jamaican people! They should be placed front and centre in all nation brand efforts, whether they’re actively helping to devise the new brand direction, participating as brand ambassadors, or simply sharing their stories of Jamaica with the world via social media, traditional media, or word of mouth.

Keynoting

Here’s an excerpt from the keynote that I gave on July 17, 2015 as part of the Brand Jamaica Symposium, in Kingston, Jamaica, entitled ‘Nation Branding: From Global Perspectives to Local Insights.’

We live in an age of globalisation, where it’s become essential for countries to compete against each another for resources, tourist dollars, and foreign investment.They also compete with each other to gain greater respect and better standing in the eyes of the world.

But the question remains: why are some countries more admired and trusted than others?

Think about some of these examples: Why do we instinctively associate good quality products with Germany but not with China? Why do France and Italy conjure up images of fine food and elegant fashion?

On the other hand, what comes to mind when you hear the name Iraq? What’s your view on Afghanistan or Somalia? What about South Africa? And would your list of potential summer tourist destinations include North Korea?

No? I didn’t think so…

Most importantly, what sort of mental images do people carry about Jamaica? We’ll explore this in more depth shortly.

 The associations that come to your mind when you hear or read the names of these countries are a result of national image, or nation brand, as it’s commonly called.

A nation’s brand is critical in influencing how the rest of the world treats that nation and its people. Nation brands do have their roots in stereotypes, but they’re much more complex and deeper than that.

Most people think of ‘branding’ as being something that happens to products. But it can happen to countries as well, although the process is very different. Perhaps a more suitable term would be ‘identity’.

The problem with using the term ‘branding’ for countries is that it makes people think that the process is similar to that of product branding. And that’s where things can start to go wrong.

Over the last few decades, governments have become enthusiastic about the idea of nation branding. Many have embraced it wholeheartedly. But are they really doing it effectively?

Countries often go to a great deal of trouble launching these campaigns, which often feature a brand-new logo and slogan. After spending all this time and effort, governments then often wonder why they don’t see very much return on their investment.
In fact, the answer is quite simple. Logos and slogans are tools of advertising, not tools of branding. It’s a common mistake, and one that continues to be made frequently around the world.

Countries are very complicated, so it’s difficult to express their entire essence in a simple logo or slogan. Unlike products, countries have people. Countries also have natural assets, such as beaches, mountains, deserts, forests and rivers, which can’t very easily be changed. On top of that, years of history and culture give each country its own unique story. It’s impossible to put all this in a single logo – and there’s not really much point in trying.

Importantly, country brands also have a political dimension. The level of influence of here depends on how the country engages itself in global politics. The world is quick to pick up on political actions by leaders, and condemn or praise them accordingly. For some countries, whose leaders are especially controversial, such as Zimbabwe, Turkey or North Korea, the political side may even begin to overshadow the rest of the national identity.

We have a saying in the UK, and perhaps you know it too. “Putting lipstick on a pig.” It’s a technique that’s destined to end in failure. You can’t convincingly beautify something that isn’t beautiful in the first place.

That’s why national advertising campaigns that ignore or attempt to gloss over the negative aspects of a country, usually fail to change global perceptions. In fact, the only effective way for a country to develop a lasting good reputation is through its actions.

Another challenge nation branding faces is the impatience of many national governments. They expect quick results, especially when they’ve got an electorate to keep happy. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s no such thing as a ‘quick-fix’ in nation branding.

To successfully change people’s perceptions of a nation is a long-term process, which needs commitment, dedication, strategy, and buy-in from all stakeholders involved.

So why do countries need ‘brands’?

Most countries want and need certain things, which become key aspects of the country’s ongoing success on the global stage.

Tourists are very important, especially for those countries where the economy relies largely on tourism. Tourists can also act as informal brand ambassadors, spreading their experiences of the country among their friends and wider networks.

Attracting inward investment is another major concern for many countries. Foreign investors can be highly picky, and they’ll be reluctant to pour their money into a country where the economic situation is uncertain, or one that’s perceived as unstable or unsafe.

Most countries also want to attract overseas talent, either in terms of foreign students, or skilled professional workers. Less tangible than any of the above, but equally important, is the idea of a country being able to attract global respect and admiration.

These are some of the areas that can influence a country’s image. As you can imagine, national governments play a vital role in shaping policy and conducting international diplomacy.

But the citizens of the country are equally important, and their views must be included in any nation brand strategy that hopes to be successful. Strong, open, clear communication between the government and the citizens can’t be overlooked.

In short, it’s all about actions. That’s what it all hinges upon – reputation, image, or brand – whatever you want to call it. Decide what you want to be, make a plan of strategic action to get there, and follow it in a genuine fashion. Don’t expect quick wins; instead plan for the long-term future. Make sure everyone from an entire cross-section of society agrees on the brand direction.

Be real; don’t just advertise.

Kingston take two

I’m sitting on the campus of the University of the West Indies, latte in hand, writing this. It’s time to continue reflecting on my recent impressions of Jamaica. How do they relate to my previous perceptions?

During this trip, I’m mixing with a certain kind of educated and privileged people. So my picture of Jamaica will reflect their world, not the world experienced by less advantaged sectors of society. That’s a side of Jamaica that I’m unlikely to see much of. But then I suppose the same could be said for many foreigners who visit here.

Over breakfast this morning, the conversation turned to social class. Rohan, a Jamaican Muslim from Mandeville, told me that Jamaican society is heavily class-based. People move in their own little ‘bubbles’, consisting of their personal networks of family, friends and acquaintances, It’s reminiscent of the Chinese concept of guanxi, or perhaps of wasta in the Arab world.

Within that bubble is where things get done. Those who move within privileged bubbles have access to the top levels of society. Perhaps they went to a good school with a classmate who later became part of the Jamaican government. That’s an important member of the bubble right there. Those from less privileged backgrounds still have bubbles, but they don’t have access to the influential classes. Getting a decent education is their best chance of making it.

Jamaica has a population of just 2.7 million. That’s a mere drop in the ocean. Thanks to the country’s small size, many people know each other. There’s a strong sense of community here.

Sabrina arrived from New York yesterday evening to join our group. At Norman Manley Airport, the guy on immigration asked her the purpose of her trip. She told him ‘meeting a friend’ and he asked which friend. So she flashed him a What’sApp photo of said friend, Hume, whom he immediately recognised from her numerous appearances on Jamaican TV and assorted other media.

So that gives some idea of the scale of life on the little island of Jamaica, compared to the bigger cities I’ve gotten used to. But that’s certainly no bad thing. As the famous Jamaican saying goes: ‘Wi lickle but wi tallawah.’ To me, Jamaica already feels like a small place with a huge character. In nation branding, having bags of personality means you’ve already gotten off to a good start.

And finally, I have to say, Jamaicans’ idea of a rush hour traffic jam is quite a joke compared to Istanbul or Jakarta! LOL 🙂