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.