How to brand a country to achieve national pride

For many people in the travel trade branding is just a buzzword that bounces around jargon-jammed marketing meetings and looks good in PR reports. Yes, attractive fonts, websites and logos are all very well and good and flashy marketing looks great in expensive advertising campaigns, but really branding is about setting a clear direction, making a promise and delivering. If you like, it’s simply about establishing a solid consistent reputation and image and then building on its success.

By Andy Round

Of course all those harassed creatives and budget-worrying marketing executives can agonise over their finely crafted slogans and perfect photography but behind the scenes everyone has to buy into the brand vision that is being promised. You say you’ve got a good hotel? Go on then show me. You promise your airline is the most luxurious? OK prove it. When my friends start talking about your great products, I’ll start to believe the marketing hype and try them for myself.

Now in this context it is easy to see how hotels, tour operators or airlines can set a direction and develop a product before marketing the living daylights out of it. But what about countries? Countries cannot be as easily modified in the same way as products, so how do you control the brand direction of a nation when everything is so unpredictable?

Of course you need political input, business support and an understanding of how your ‘product’ is perceived abroad. That is before you even start to consider millions of elements that can range from heritage, attractions, service and nature appeal to national characteristics, poor image, security and, perhaps, even war. If you thought it was difficult to reach a consensus on projecting a brand image of your travel service, where would you start with, say, the whole of Bulgaria?

The key thing to remember with branding a country is that it is not a product like breakfast cereal or cars. In many respects the national character of a country is regarded in a particular way long before the marketers get their hands on selling it.

Actions can also change a perception over night. Just look at ‘laid back’ Denmark before the cartoon controversy, Somali unrest last month damaging the image of ‘safari’ Kenya on its borders, plus the long-term devastating impact of SARs or 9/11. In other cases perception, however, changes at a slower rate. In the 1990s, Ireland slowly became a Celtic Tiger, Japan gradually a techno-savvy nation and the UK eventually Cool Britannia. Then there is personal experience. If you are pick-pocketed in Barcelona to what extent does it spoil your image of Spain?

So what’s the trick behind successful country branding and are all those marketers really worth their consultancy fees?

Ultimately it has less to do with flashy advertising campaigns and more to do with focusing on a country, building a reputation, promoting an attractive, genuine image that is based on reality and, obviously, making sure you don’t lose that reputation. Before you hire that expensive creative agency you better have your product in tip-top form.

No matter how clever your public relations machine, no matter how sophisticated your advertising campaigns, if your country product is no good, people are not going to buy it.

Like any other travel trade business, country reputations are earned by what they do, not what they say. So, if your country decides to act aggressively, no amount of persuasive slogans is going to change how the world sees you.

Take Israel’s US$3 million advertising and promotion campaign. In the light of last year’s events it just smacks of tasteless propaganda because the nature of this country’s aggressive actions is poles apart from the serene advertising image of attractive women sat on white beaches. Clearly concepts of peace are not something you associate with the country. And certainly not something you can sell convincingly when families are living in the rubble of their Lebanese homes.

In fact it seems genuinely remarkable that in such a media literate world with fast globalised communications, that countries such as Israel would even dream of attempting to change public perception through the media.

Malcolm Allan of consultants Place Brands highlights another vivid example. “Uganda, one of the poorer nations on earth recently spent US$1 million buying ads on CNN touting its physical beauty saying the country was ‘gifted by nature’. It’s true it is, but it also has thousands who spend nights fleeing forced recruitment of children into a brutal army a story that was covered extensively by the CNN network between advertising breaks.”

A country’s actions are critical to the way a nation is perceived as a brand. The Danish controversy over the anti-Islamic cartoons last year is a classic example of a brand that touched a sensitive international nerve and lost its currency as a neutral Scandinavian nation overnight.

The recent anger over the ‘inhumane taunting’ and handling of the execution of Saddam Hussein continued to fuel the burning of the Stars And Stripes across the Middle East, Subcontinent and South East Asia. In fact the US as a brand is finding out that the more people know about America the less they like it as the war limps on in Iraq.

Simon Anholt of Anholt Nation Brands Index says when public opinion is strongly against a country even its most admirable qualities are ignored or looked at negatively.

“Nothing less than a sustained and comprehensive change of political, social, economic and cultural direction will result in a changed direction,” Anholt says. “In a nutshell when it comes to national image, both the problem and the solution have more to do with the product than with the packaging.”

These are words supported by Charles Brymer, chairman and chief executive of the Interbrand Group, which has 34 offices in 22 countries. “Look at how Rudolf Giuliani transformed the external visitor impression of New York from frightening city to one of the safest places in the world,” he says. “It is actions that really count you can’t impose branding on a country but you can highlight the aspects that appeal to the widest group of people.”

Sometimes the truth goes wrong. Liechtenstein had to abandon its attempts to brand the country as a convention destination after an advertising campaign focused on the country’s weak points (that is its small size) rather than its strengths (such as a powerhouse economy, cultural attractions and beautiful countryside).

Still, one harmonious marriage of product and packaging can be seen in the development of South Africa’s tourism product. It seems so long ago now that the country was only famous for its apartheid, so when did it suddenly become the ‘Rainbow Nation’?

Basically South Africa changed its social fabric to what was (despite controversy and a continuous reputation for crime) perceived as a fairer country with the election of Nelson Mandela. What is interesting is that at the same time the country’s communication strategy kept pace with the radical changes and told the world.

And what about the fantastic ‘Incredible India’ campaign? This too is a perfect synergistic link with a changed perception of India. “India has emerged in the past five years in terms of perceptions in quite a different way from the way it was perceived 10 or 15 years ago,” says Wally Olins, chairman of the brand consultancy Saffron in London and Madrid. “It used to be poverty now it’s software; it’s highly educated people. This has been spontaneous.” What has not been spontaneous has been the advertising campaign’s tapping into this dynamic zeitgeist married to the country’s consistently attractive temples, spirituality, cultural weight and natural attractions.

The classic brand example cited by all country-marketing strategists is the reinvention of the UK in the 1990s. The man generally credited with shaping the Cool Britannia vision was Geoff Mulgan. While working for a government think-tank, he published a book entitled Britain? suggesting that the UK could build itself up again by rebranding after “spending most of the 20th century as an island that time forgot, hostile to free trade, ruined by labour disputes and full of terrible weather with rubbish meals served by haughty hosts… and fish and chips”.

Mulgan maintains that you can’t fool people with glossy brochures or new buildings, there has to be a character and substance to back up a national profile. And as luck had it, that substance appeared in Union-Jack-coloured media sound-bites. The British music scene exploded (again), London’s catwalks were suddenly cool, British films were in vogue, English restaurants were regarded as something to enjoy not to run from and even a new generation of artists were shaking up the old guard.

What Mulgan had at his fingertips was a high national currency that simply needed filtering into the media backed by a glamorous fresh vision of a new young Prime Minister (who was suddenly meeting rock stars at number 10). Cool Britannia was derided and admired in equal measure, but the important thing was that it put the UK back on the world brand map.

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