Tra­di­tional Bhutan turns to mod­ern brand­ing

Bhutan Times - - EDITORIAL - VISHAL ARORA and CHEN­CHO DEMA, Con­tribut­ing writ­ers

THIM­PHU -- The tiny, land­locked na­tion of Bhutan gives pri­or­ity to the holis­tic well-be­ing of its cit­i­zens and the preser­va­tion of its cul­ture and en­vi­ron­ment over eco­nomic growth. But of­fi­cials say this ap­par­ent eco­nomic hand­i­cap is ac­tu­ally bol­ster­ing the coun­try’s im­age and could help its prod­ucts to gain a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage overseas.

A na­tion of about 750,000 peo­ple, Bhutan is widely known for its pro­mo­tion of “gross na­tional hap­pi­ness” in­stead of the con­ven­tional eco­nomic yard­stick of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct. Bank­ing on this hap­pi­ness con­cept, Prime Min­is­ter Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay in Fe­bru­ary launched “Brand Bhutan,” bring­ing all sec­tor brands un­der a uni­fied na­tional brand.

The aim is to use the coun­try’s gen­er­ally pos­i­tive in­ter­na­tional im­age to ex­pand its low lev­els of trade with the out­side world, boost­ing ex­ports and rais­ing GDP per head, which was $2,560 in 2014, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fig­ure from the World Bank, com­pared with $7,590 in neigh­bor­ing China.

Given that to­tal ex­ports amount to only a lit­tle over $50 mil­lion a year, Bhutan’s ex­port drive is un­likely to set off any trade wars. But its tim­ing, co­in­cid­ing with a global eco­nomic slow­down and ris­ing un­cer­tainty in ma­jor economies such as China, Ja­pan and the eu­ro­zone, sug­gests that sig­nif­i­cant growth may be hard to achieve.

On the other hand, a suc­cess­ful na­tional brand­ing drive could prompt greater in­ter­na­tional scrutiny of Bhutan’s “hap­pi­ness” claims, which have been chal­lenged re­peat­edly by ob­servers point­ing to low in­comes, high un­em­ploy­ment, poor lev­els of lit­er­acy and ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment.

Launch­ing Brand Bhutan on Feb. 1, Prime Min­is­ter Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay said the ini­tia­tive aimed to pro­mote high-value low-vol­ume prod­ucts to the world. (Photo by Vishal Arora)

There have also been al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion against racial and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties, though such al­le­ga­tions are al­ways rel­a­tive. Bhutan is ranked 27th of 167 coun­tries in the 2015 Global Cor­rup­tions Per­cep­tions Index pub­lished by Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional, a global anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign­ing group. But In­dia is ranked 76th and China 83rd in the list, in which the first ranked coun­try (Den­mark) is the least cor­rupt.

The GNH index, which guides Bhutan’s poli­cies, has been given sub­stan­tial pos­i­tive cov­er­age in West­ern coun­tries, and is seen by the gov­ern­ment as an as­set in terms of a “coun­try-of-ori­gin ef­fect.” Brand­ing strate­gists de­fine this as how a prod­uct’s coun­try of ori­gin la­bel­ing can in­flu­ence con­sumer at­ti­tudes, per­cep­tions and pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions.

The cur­rent Bhutan brand­ing strat­egy “seeks to am­plify the ethos of gross na­tional hap­pi­ness, and cap­ture the spirit of the coun­try, its peo­ple and way of life,” said Fu­ture Brand, a global brand­ing con­sult­ing firm that de­signed Brand Bhutan. Fu­ture-Brand added in a state­ment: “Bhutan is a small coun­try with a sim­ple idea that can change the world ... Bhutan’s in­no­va­tive so­cial, eco­nomic and cul­tural devel­op­ment poli­cies con­tinue to in­spire peo­ple around the globe to be the best they can be.”

Sit­u­ated high in the Hi­malayas be­tween In­dia and China, Bhutan was un­til re­cently one of the most iso­lated coun­tries in the world. Even today, the coun­try and its peo­ple re­main rooted in its Ma­hayana Bud­dhist cul­ture. All cit­i­zens are re­quired to wear the na­tional dress in pub­lic and all its build­ings must re­flect the coun­try’s tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture.

The ini­tia­tive seeks to cap­ture this unique­ness. “From the vi­brant col­ors of the prayer flags to the spir­i­tual pat­terns and sym­bol­ism of the coun­try’s hand­made trea­sures -- ev­ery­thing crafted for Brand Bhutan comes from the coun­try’s pris­tine na­ture, time­less tra­di­tions and en­dur­ing val­ues,” Fu­ture-Brand said.

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