The other day, I was chatting with a Canadian academic friend based in Japan. She pointed out that place brand, reputation and image could benefit from further explanation. So I’ll attempt to explain the concept of ‘nation branding’, with a little help from Simon Anholt.
What is ‘brand’ ?
Many businesspeople use the words ‘branding’, ‘marketing’ and ‘advertising’ interchangeably, says Businessweek. This reflects a ‘pervasive confusion’, says Gail Guge, managing partner of Wilkin Guge Marketing in California.
But the three are very different, and it’s vital that all businesses (and nations?) clearly understand the differences – for the sake of their bottom lines (economies?). So what is brand?
Brand is Personality
In a successful corporate branding exercise, first you create the brand, then you market it.
So how can this be applied to places?
Simon Anholt coined the phrase ‘nation branding’ almost 20 years ago. And he sort of regrets it.
In his latest book, Anholt declares ‘there is no such thing as nation branding’
He says the concept of nation branding is a ‘myth, and perhaps a dangerous one’ (Anholt 2010, p1). On one hand, nation branding is a great metaphor to describe the way places compete with each other in the global marketplace. As Anholt points out, ‘this is simply the inescapable reality of globalisation’ (Anholt 2010, p1).
But on the other hand, and this is the risk, branding can be a superficial, ‘quick fix’ method to cover up inherent flaws. It inspires cynicism among many, and dangerous aspirations among others. This is bad enough with products and services, but nations? Think what would happen if Kim Jong Un could use logos, slogans and jingles to successfully disguise the horrific social, political and economic problems in North Korea and make it acceptable, even liked, by the rest of the world. It would make life a lot easier for many governments if marketing communications campaigns actually worked. The nation with the biggest marketing budget would have the best national image.
But it doesn’t work this way.
As Anholt points out, it’s problematic to have the word ‘branding’, which many associate with superficiality and cynicism, attached to a discipline which he believes is ‘most emphatically the opposite’ (Anholt 2010, p1). Nations have ‘brands’ – but in the same sense that they have ‘reputations’. These reputations affect their progress in the world in the same way brand images do for companies and their products. But it’s important to keep in mind that ‘branding’ a country, city or region is not the same as ‘branding’ a company or product.
Anholt has worked in nation branding for almost 20 years. In all this time, he has by his own admission, seen NO evidence to show that ‘branding campaigns’ help to alter international perceptions of places. Often, they only serve to induce cynicism and maybe inspire some controversy (e.g. Gerry Farrell and the ‘Incredinburgh’ campaign to promote the Scottish capital).
In fact, according to the Anholt Nation Brands Index, over the last few years some countries have done very little marketing, but still experienced substantial improvement in their overall image. The reputations of others have declined, despite spending millions on marketing campaigns.
If branding campaigns are not the solution: what IS?
There are no ‘quick-fix’, marketing-style solutions to problems of national public image. The world is quick to assign stereotypes to nations, which are by definition simplistic and may well be unfair. The government’s job is to help the world understand their nation better, to know more about the positive aspects of their culture, people, resources, economy, etc. But this must be based on reality. In our superconnected world, anything else is just propaganda.
“National reputation cannot be constructed, it can only be earned.” (Simon Anholt)
Anholt suggests 3 ways for countries to improve their national reputation:
1. Understand and monitor their international image around the globe
2. Work with citizens to create the nation’s ‘story’, which must honestly reflect the true assets of the country
3. Keep up a stream of innovative, eye-catching achievements (e.g. hosting international events, being a bold political actor, building amazing structures, investing in green technology, creating initiatives in education, sport & culture, devising fair and transparent policies, etc). This demonstrates the real truth of the nation’s story. (Anholt 2010, p6)
When a country takes control of its image in these ways, it can rescue itself (to a certain extent) from international stereotypes based on ignorance, which can seriously hamper a nation’s development.
Managing a country’s national image involves far more than just doing clever marketing. That’s why instead of ‘place branding’, Anholt prefers the term ‘competitive identity’, which avoids the ‘quick-fix’ associations of the term ‘branding’. Building a lasting positive image for a country is a broad and far-reaching task that involves wise and honest judgement in every area of statecraft.
And for those of you who really do love Kim, you can buy “I heart North Korea” T-shirts here.
They’re made by American Apparel (ironic?!?)
Death to U.S. Imperialists, our sworn enemy!
(References: Anholt, Simon. ‘Places’. 2010, Palgrave Macmillan, London)
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