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A coun­try brand’s vi­tal as­pects can be summed up in three ‘Ps’: Port­fo­lio, par­tic­i­pa­tion and power. As a port­fo­lio – this is the best way to think of the prac­tice of na­tion brand­ing. You could ar­gue whether brand­ing is a sub­set of mar­ket­ing, or the other way around. I think it is the lat­ter. Mar­ket­ing a coun­try is es­sen­tially about high­light­ing its cur­rent best points, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion is mostly ex­ter­nal. By con­trast, coun­try brand­ing in­volves much more; it has to also take into ac­count all rel­e­vant bits of eco­nomic, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal history, and cov­ers in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion as well. A coun­try brand has many as­pects; it em­braces al­most ev­ery facet of a place, way be­yond any ad­ver­tise­ments put out, be­yond what just one gov­ern­ment agency can achieve. A na­tion brand can be af­fected by prac­ti­cally every­thing that is said and done by all its cit­i­zens, and any­one else con­nected with that place, that gets at­ten­tion in­ter­nally as well as ex­ter­nally. The down­side of a coun­try brand be­ing a port­fo­lio is that any­thing and every­thing can be­come per­ti­nent, whether you like it or not. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers may make the mis­take of think­ing that mar­ket­ing a coun­try is some kind of self-con­tained ac­tiv­ity – which is what es­sen­tially hap­pens when a na­tion brand is of­ten seen as the purview of the coun­try’s tourism body or in­vest­ment pro­mo­tion agency. Coun­try brand­ing, how­ever, doesn’t work like that. If a coun­try spends a lot on pro­mot­ing tourism, but at the same time has poli­cies that make for­eign­ers feel un­wel­come, then it should be no sur­prise if trav­ellers think twice about vis­it­ing, or in­vestors pon­der putting their money some­where else.

The up­side of a port­fo­lio is that, while ev­ery sep­a­rate port­fo­lio seg­ment needs at­ten­tion, each sub-brand can func­tion separately, most of the time. The need for pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tions to speak separately to dif­fer­ent au­di­ences is more pro­nounced to­day, with a much more frag­mented me­dia uni­verse, in which it has be­come much harder to get at­ten­tion, at the same time that it is iron­i­cally eas­ier to spread in­for­ma­tion.

IWhile a coun­try brand is the na­tional ‘mother brand’, the coun­try’s sub-brands ap­ply to the ar­eas of tourism, trade, im­mi­gra­tion and so on. These sub-brands fo­cus on their own seg­mented au­di­ences, usu­ally largely in­vis­i­ble to those out­side these cir­cles. Each sub-brand has slightly dif­fer­ent mes­sages and ar­eas of em­pha­sis. The con­cerns of trade part­ners are dif­fer­ent from those of, say, multi­na­tional man­u­fac­tur­ers. Po­ten­tial in­vestors would worry less about so­cial is­sues than, say, would-be im­mi­grants. For ex­am­ple, Sin­ga­pore’s Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Board con­ducts what is termed ‘di­rect mar­ket­ing’, that is, com­mu­ni­ca­tion goes di­rectly to tar­get au­di­ences. EDB of­fi­cers sit down ev­ery day with cap­tains of in­dus­try to mar­ket the Repub­lic’s unique sell­ing points as a lo­ca­tion for fac­to­ries, re­gional of­fices and other ser­vices. Ad­ver­tis­ing is placed in tar­geted busi­ness or in­dus­try sec­tor mag­a­zines. Brand Sin­ga­pore, given its rel­a­tive suc­cess in­ter­na­tion­ally as a coun­try brand, has ac­tu­ally op­er­ated mostly at the sub-brand level for much of its history, with all the gov­ern­ment agen­cies re­lated to eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment es­sen­tially “do­ing their own thing”, al­beit in a co­or­di­nated way. It was only in 2017 that a first con­certed ef­fort was made to launch an over­all na­tion brand­ing cam­paign with the “Pas­sion Made Pos­si­ble” brand con­cept, led by EDB and the Sin­ga­pore Tourism Board. Even then, this is only a be­gin­ning. A process is un­der­way for other eco­nomic agen­cies to buy into, and ap­ply, this brand con­cept for their own au­di­ences. To pro­mote the port­fo­lio of brand Sin­ga­pore, pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion has be­come more im­por­tant than ever. It was al­ways the case be­fore that some in­di­vid­u­als such as the typ­i­cal taxi-driver had great in­flu­ence on a vis­i­tor’s per­cep­tions of a place. But the glob­al­i­sa­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with digital tech­nol­ogy has changed this for­ever. To­day, lit­er­ally any­one with In­ter­net ac­cess can also add to the in­for­ma­tion and per­spec­tives avail­able to the world about the won­ders and warts of any desti­na­tion.

IIWhen it comes to neg­a­tive feed­back, many busi­nesses are find­ing them­selves al­most at the mercy of user re­views. For coun­tries, the sil­ver lin­ing is the sheer dif­fer­ence in scale of as­pects to be con­sid­ered – the ‘port­fo­lio ef­fect’, once again. Hence, neg­a­tive per­cep­tions must com­pete for at­ten­tion, and may not dom­i­nate as much as one might fear. There is also, of course, the sal­va­tion of the fa­mously short mem­o­ries of the gen­eral pub­lic. What this means is that coun­try brand guardians must en­gage and in­volve the pub­lic even more. It is no longer enough just to em­ploy ac­tors to en­act com­mer­cials. Noth­ing beats the real thing. Sin­ga­pore’s lat­est ‘Pas­sion Made Pos­si­ble’ coun­try brand­ing cam­paign fea­tures Sin­ga­pore­ans well, as gen­uine real-life ex­am­ples of the coun­try brand at­tributes high­lighted. From Miche­lin chefs to as­pir­ing teenaged artists, these ac­tual ci­ti­zen am­bas­sadors lend au­then­tic­ity and third-party en­dorse­ment to the brand promise that Sin­ga­pore is a place where one’s pas­sions are made pos­si­ble by an en­abling en­vi­ron­ment. In the tourism space, this is true whether one is a vis­i­tor crav­ing to sat­isfy a niche in­ter­est, or a lo­cal who yearns to make a mark in a ful­fill­ing ca­reer in the travel trade. Pos­i­tive pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion is the sum to­tal of soft power, and power is best ex­pressed soft. Hard power such as eco­nomic heft or mil­i­tary might can be dif­fi­cult to ar­gue with. But what truly draws peo­ple, and helps form last­ing re­la­tion­ships, is soft power – the abil­ity of a place to draw the affin­ity, ad­mi­ra­tion and af­fec­tion of oth­ers. No one forces you to go any­where for a va­ca­tion. Peo­ple visit places they find at­trac­tive and wel­com­ing. Sin­ga­pore’s soft power has a few main facets, but cur­rently, I be­lieve its ‘X fac­tor’ at­tribute is mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. This is a qual­ity that is be­com­ing more pre­cious in a world mov­ing to­wards pro­tec­tion­ism not only in eco­nomic terms, but also in the so­cio-cul­tural sphere. In­ter­nally, ad­mirable as­pects of mul­ti­cul­tural Sin­ga­pore in­clude the coun­try’s so­cial har­mony, which is sus­tained in some de­lib­er­ate ways, such as the poli­cies in pub­lic hous­ing that main­tain a res­i­dent quota by eth­nic­ity and even na­tion­al­ity, down to ev­ery sin­gle apart­ment block.

III Ex­ter­nally, Sin­ga­pore stands out for its open­ness to the world, which has al­ways been a cen­tral fea­ture of this is­land, from its ear­li­est days as a free port to its more re­cent ac­tive em­brace and evan­ge­lism for global free trade. In an in­creas­ingly di­vi­sive world, in which more coun­tries are putting up walls and bar­ri­ers, and dis­cour­ag­ing im­mi­gra­tion, Sin­ga­pore con­tin­ues to welcome suit­able tal­ent as much as it does trade or tourists. Soft power is ex­pressed, and some­times ex­ported, through cul­ture and the arts. Here, the is­land-state has made a mark with cul­tural as­sets such as the Na­tional Gallery. This store­house and show­case presents not only some of the best vis­ual art of Sin­ga­pore, but also al­lows the Lion City to play the role of a cus­to­dian of art for the whole re­gion of South­east Asia. It is sel­dom high­lighted that this kind of re­gional rep­re­sen­ta­tion is ac­tu­ally quite rare in the art world, in which any na­tional gallery would typ­i­cally fo­cus al­most ex­clu­sively on the artis­tic out­put from its own ter­ri­tory. An­other cul­tural as­set is Sin­ga­pore’s stew­ard­ship of na­ture, in its ‘City in a Gar­den’ con­cept of ur­ban live­abil­ity. Ex­tend­ing fur­ther from its ear­lier in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion as a Gar­den City, this new model has be­come ut­terly holis­tic, blos­som­ing from the orig­i­nal blue­print of a city con­tain­ing many gar­dens to a new vi­sion of an en­tire coun­try tended to like one big gar­den. The Flower Dome of the Gar­dens by the Bay is, for me, the most fer­tile metaphor for Sin­ga­pore as a City in a Gar­den. This air­con­di­tioned, en­vi­ron­men­tally in­tel­li­gent biodome shows off some of the best of the rest of the world’s green­ery, from the tulips of the Nether­lands to Ja­pan’s sakura cherry blos­soms. In the same way, Sin­ga­pore’s stand­out fea­ture is how it main­tains a con­ducive to­tal en­vi­ron­ment that at­tracts global tal­ent and in­vest­ment. This as­pect of a “per­pet­ual spring”, al­ways adapt­ing to welcome and nur­ture blooms from around the globe, is a key soft power sym­bol in the port­fo­lio of brand Sin­ga­pore.


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