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.