Traditional Bhutan turns to modern branding
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.