Go­ing Up in the World

In an ever-com­pet­i­tive mar­ket, com­pa­nies fre­quently use clever tech­niques to get their prod­ucts no­ticed. But what about coun­tries? Here, we look at the bur­geon­ing prac­tice of na­tion brand­ing.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - NEWS - Words DAVID WHIT­LEY Il­lus­tra­tions NIKI FISHER/ THE IL­LUS­TRA­TION ROOM

The bur­geon­ing prac­tice of na­tion brand­ing.

YOU KNOW WHAT they say about Bul­garia, don’t you?’ This is the set-up line for a joke that is guar­an­teed to an­noy any Bul­gar­ian res­i­dent. But the coun­try could be eas­ily changed — to Gabon, El Sal­vador, Kiri­bati or Kyr­gyzs­tan — with much the same ef­fect. The punch­line of the joke — ‘Noth­ing much, it never re­ally comes up in con­ver­sa­tion’ — ap­plies to all.

These coun­tries, in the labyrinthine world of na­tion brand­ing, have what is known as ‘weak’ brands. That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean a neg­a­tive brand, just a barely ex­is­tent one. In the same way most peo­ple will recog­nise Nike from ‘Just Do It’ and the three stripes with­out know­ing any­thing about Adi­das, Switzer­land has a rep­u­ta­tion for moun­tains, choco­late, clocks and ef­fi­ciency, while Slo­vakia gen­er­ally in­vites non­plussed head scratch­ing.

All coun­tries, whether they want one or not, have a brand. Some­times that brand is based in re­al­ity, but more of­ten than not it will be based on howl­ingly crude stereo­types.

Ev­ery year, thou­sands of in­ter­views are held world­wide for the An­holt-GfK Na­tion Brands In­dex. Re­spon­dents are asked to share their per­cep­tions about 50 coun­tries’ cit­i­zens, tourism ap­peal, gov­er­nance, cul­ture, her­itage, at­trac­tive­ness for in­vest­ment and ex­ports. Ac­cord­ing to these cat­e­gories, Ger­many is the na­tion with the world’s strong­est brand. France, the United King­dom and Canada are next, while the United States dra­mat­i­cally dropped from first in 2016 to sixth in 2017.

This is by no means the only league ta­ble, though. Bloom Con­sult­ing runs two coun­try brand in­dexes based on masses of Google search data — one fo­cus­ing on tourism and one for trade. The US tops both, but there

is gen­er­ally a lot of cross­over with the most highly rated coun­tries in the An­holt-GfK list. The US, UK, France and Aus­tralia fea­ture in the top 10 on all three.

That such scoreboards ex­ist is an in­di­ca­tor that coun­tries are no longer pre­pared to let their rep­u­ta­tions be left to the whims of fate and half-baked prej­u­dice. Vic­to­ria Berry, strat­egy di­rec­tor at na­tion-brand­ing con­sul­tants Fu­tureBrand in Mel­bourne, has been work­ing on a United Na­tions-backed pro­ject with Bhutan — a coun­try she read­ily ad­mits peo­ple have very few as­so­ci­a­tions with. “The man­date from the UN has been to grow the econ­omy, but Bhutan has a small pop­u­la­tion and lim­ited re­sources,” she says.

The Bhutanese gov­ern­ment also wanted the brand strat­egy to work in with its Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness pol­icy, and val­ues such as good gov­er­nance, sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment and car­ing for the en­vi­ron­ment. The path em­barked upon has been a high-pric­ing strat­egy — both in terms of tourism ex­pe­ri­ence in the coun­try and goods sold abroad — with a fo­cus on be­ing unique and telling a story. It’s more ex­pen­sive, but dif­fer­ent — and worth it. “But it’s very hard to spin a na­tion’s brand,” says Berry. “If you’re promis­ing some­thing and the ex­pe­ri­ence doesn’t match up, it be­comes very ob­vi­ous very quickly.”

Dr Natasha Grand, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Iden­tity, has worked on de­vel­op­ing brands for sev­eral na­tions, cities and re­gions, largely in the for­mer Soviet Union.

“If the world is now one big city, what is the dif­fer­ence be­tween the bor­oughs? You need to show who you are and what you stand for — and not just to at­tract vis­i­tors. It’s to at­tract re­sources, in­vest­ment and at­ten­tion, too,” she says. “There’s also in­creas­ingly a need to con­cen­trate on the peo­ple, and grap­ple with the brain drain. You have to give peo­ple a pur­pose and a com­pelling rea­son to stay.”

This is all con­sid­er­ably more com­plex than just com­ing up with a logo or slo­gan. Dr Grand says de­vis­ing a strat­egy will in­volve sev­eral field trips and talk­ing to peo­ple from a va­ri­ety of back­grounds — such as gov­ern­ment, man­u­fac­tur­ing and the arts — look­ing for com­mon traits and themes.

“Lipetsk in Rus­sia seemed very mod­er­ate in ev­ery­thing,” she tells of a re­cent pro­ject she was in­volved with. “Al­ways sunny, but never too hot. There wasn’t much con­trast in the food, build­ings were very neat and the big­gest ur­ban de­vel­op­ments meant al­most noth­ing to peo­ple. They all had their coun­try houses and worked their land. Peo­ple would leave you alone and let you be. You can spend an hour look­ing at trees and not be dis­turbed. It came down to the in­no­cent archetype.”

This formed the back­bone of the re­sult­ing strat­egy — aimed largely at other Rus­sians — of pro­mot­ing the re­gion as some­where you can come and be your­self. But iden­ti­fy­ing such char­ac­ter­is­tics is of­ten a task that’s best suited to an out­sider’s per­spec­tive.

“A doc­tor would not diagnose them­selves. So that ex­ter­nal eye is very help­ful,” says Dr Grand, who ex­plains that she reg­u­larly comes across peo­ple with a self-im­age which doesn’t match with ev­ery­one else’s take. “Be­laru­sian peo­ple say they’re wel­com­ing and friendly — they’re not. They’re quiet, clear-think­ing and good en­gi­neers. And Ar­me­ni­ans say they’re well-or­gan­ised and well-struc­tured. Not so — they are cre­ative ge­niuses.”

This ex­pe­ri­ence rings true with Mal­colm Al­lan from Bloom Con­sult­ing, a na­tion-brand­ing spe­cial­ist who has worked with Paraguay, Poland and Por­tu­gal, as well as sev­eral other clients not be­gin­ning with P.

“On many oc­ca­sions, they have a far rosier pic­ture of what the out­side world thinks about them than the re­al­ity,” says Al­lan. “They’ve never stopped to ro­bustly an­a­lyse out­side per­cep­tions in a method­olog­i­cally rig­or­ous man­ner. It’s quite of­ten a cou­ple of months into the process when we have to present find­ings that are at vari­ance to self-iden­tity.”

And this links into some­thing that — for Al­lan — is an ab­so­lutely cru­cial fac­tor in the whole na­tion-brand­ing process: there is sim­ply no point in at­tempt­ing to mar­ket some­thing that’s not grounded in re­al­ity to start with. “Im­prov­ing the brand is not about mar­ket­ing,” says Al­lan. “It’s about in­vest­ing in im­prove­ment of an ex­ist­ing of­fer of ser­vice — or in­tro­duc­ing a new of­fer of ser­vice.

“For ex­am­ple, Paraguay wanted to show it was full of fer­tile imag­i­na­tions, and it passed laws to make Eu­ro­pean and US in­vest­ment eas­ier. It’s a story based on a proofed truth. You need ev­i­dence to sup­port the claim. The story you want to tell is not go­ing to get pub­lished if you can’t prove it’s true.”

"If the world is now one big city, you need to show who you are and what you stand for to at­tract re­sources and in­vest­ment."

For other con­crete of­fer­ings, Al­lan points to Botswana, which has reg­u­larly of­fered its army as a peace­keep­ing force, and Morocco, which has em­barked on a strat­egy of in­vest­ing in sub-Sa­ha­ran ed­u­ca­tion.

The ground­ing in re­al­ity and of­fer­ing to the rest of the world are key points for Si­mon An­holt, a pol­icy ad­viser and the founder of the Good Coun­try In­dex. An­holt is gen­er­ally cred­ited with in­vent­ing the term ‘na­tion brand’, but he is ac­tu­ally highly cyn­i­cal about the con­cept of na­tion brand­ing.

“At no point did I say you can im­prove the brand of a na­tion if it’s bad,” says An­holt.

“Gov­ern­ments are spend­ing ob­scene amounts on ex­pen­sive PR agen­cies. And it achieves pre­cisely noth­ing. Ninety-nine out of 100 bad or weak coun­try im­ages are there for a rea­son. You can change the im­age if you change the be­hav­iour and the cul­ture.”

The ex­am­ples he uses of coun­tries that have been able to im­prove their brand are ones that have done so through pol­icy and cul­tural changes which have given some­thing tan­gi­ble to the rest of the world.

“South Korea has done a pretty good job,” he ar­gues. “In the last 10 years or so, it has be­haved re­ally quite dif­fer­ently, ex­port­ing its cul­ture — with [vi­ral song] Gang­nam Style [by Psy] be­ing the ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple. There has been an open­ing up of Korean cui­sine — restau­rants are of­ten gov­ern­ment-funded — and South Korea is of­ten more of a donor and more ac­tive in re­gional peace ne­go­ti­a­tions. This is good-coun­try be­hav­iour. It con­tin­ues to rise up the na­tion brand rank­ings.”

So how would he rec­om­mend a coun­try such as, say, Bul­garia go about the busi­ness of im­prov­ing its brand? “I would sit down with the pres­i­dent, and pick out 30-odd is­sues — such as hu­man slav­ery, drug traf­fick­ing and cli­mate change for ex­am­ple,” says An­holt. “Which one of these [is­sues] could we make a dif­fer­ence on and move the nee­dle? They’d then have to cre­ate a na­tional grand strat­egy on hu­man slav­ery or what­ever. And do it — not waste money brag­ging about it. It has to be a real pol­icy with sym­bolic ac­tions.”

As an ex­am­ple he points towards the Ir­ish gov­ern­ment of the 1960s re­lax­ing in­come tax pro­vi­sions for those peo­ple who make their money from artis­tic fields, the Cat­alo­nian gov­ern­ment ban­ning bull­fight­ing as a means of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing it­self from Spain, and the state of Slove­nia do­nat­ing money to other Balkan coun­tries to prove that it is richer.

But why does any of this re­ally mat­ter? What are the tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of be­ing in the Ger­many or Canada tier rather than that of Dji­bouti or Bo­livia? Well, a quick look at gross do­mes­tic prod­ucts should give a hint, but there’s a cause-and-ef­fect ar­gu­ment — the good rep­u­ta­tion comes via wealth, rather than the wealth via good rep­u­ta­tion.

One area where the suc­cess of mar­ket­ing cam­paigns can be tan­gi­bly mea­sured, how­ever, is in tourism. And suc­cess­ful tourism mar­ket­ing uses a lot of sim­i­lar tech­niques to na­tion brand­ing.

John O’Sul­li­van, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Tourism Aus­tralia, says his tar­get is to make Aus­tralian tourism a $115 bil­lion–$140 bil­lion in­dus­try by 2020. Tourism Aus­tralia has stuck to the ‘There’s Noth­ing Like Aus­tralia’ sto­ry­line since 2010, bas­ing in­di­vid­ual pro­mo­tional pushes — or ‘chap­ters’ — on key, real at­tributes. Ex­am­ples in­clude the food and wine push in 2013, based on re­search show­ing that peo­ple who had been to Aus­tralia had a much more favourable opin­ion of the grub and booze of­fer­ings than those who hadn’t, and the coastal aquatic ex­pe­ri­ences fo­cus in 2016.

“Strong con­sumer brands are both con­stant and con­sis­tent — like Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ — and you can be guilty of do­ing too much,” says O’Sul­li­van.

But the tourism chief also points to the halo ef­fect tourism has. Dur­ing 2015, Aus­tralia en­joyed a record in­crease in vis­i­tors from China. In 2016, there were record Aus­tralian wine sales in China. It’s ex­tremely un­likely there’s no link.

And this works the other way, too — some­one rec­om­mends an Aus­tralian wine to a friend, who then tries it and likes it, and is in turn then likely to think more favourably about plan­ning a visit to Aus­tralia. Or about send­ing their child to study at an Aus­tralian uni­ver­sity. Or about do­ing busi­ness with Aus­tralian-based com­pa­nies. The drip-drip­drip of pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences with a coun­try’s of­fer­ings leads to a more favourable view broadly of the coun­try, and thus the like­li­hood of spend­ing more money with its other of­fer­ings.

On an over­ar­ch­ing ba­sis, the more that peo­ple know about a coun­try, the stronger its brand is likely to be. And for the na­tion bran­ders, it’s about mak­ing sure peo­ple know the right things.

"Im­prov­ing the brand is about in­vest­ing in im­prove­ment of ex­ist­ing of­fer of ser­vice."

*Based on Google search data.

BLOOM CON­SULT­ING COUN­TRY BRAND RANK­ING, TOURISM EDI­TION, 2017/2018

1. US

2. Thai­land

3. Spain

4. Hong Kong

5. Aus­tralia

6. France

7. China

8. Ger­many

9. UK

10. Italy

ANHOLTGFK NA­TION BRANDS IN­DEX, 2017

1. Ger­many

2. France

3. UK

4. Canada

5. Ja­pan

6. US

7. Italy

8. Switzer­land

9. Aus­tralia

10. Swe­den

*Based on an in­de­pen­dent sur­vey to de­ter­mine the ap­peal of 50 dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

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