A Brand-New Approach

Place Branding, Vol. 2, No. 2, April 2006, Basingstoke Close your eyes and imagine Uganda. What comes to mind? Images of Idi Amin and his genocidal murders? Or more recent scenes of "night-commuting" children swarming rural towns at dusk to avoid impressment into the Lord’s Resistance Army? That is not the picture of Uganda that ...

Place Branding,
Vol. 2, No. 2, April 2006, Basingstoke

Place Branding,
Vol. 2, No. 2, April 2006, Basingstoke

Close your eyes and imagine Uganda. What comes to mind? Images of Idi Amin and his genocidal murders? Or more recent scenes of "night-commuting" children swarming rural towns at dusk to avoid impressment into the Lord’s Resistance Army? That is not the picture of Uganda that has greeted viewers of CNN International during the past year. Instead, the channel has aired a steady stream of commercials featuring lush jungle foliage, silver-backed gorillas in the mist, and rugged river gorges — all meant to convey the message that Uganda is, as its new advertising slogan states, "gifted by nature."

Uganda’s marketing blitz, concocted by the giant public-relations firm Hill & Knowlton at a cost of nearly $650,000 and promoted through a $1 million ad buy on CNN, is simply the latest example of what has come to be known as "nation branding" — using modern marketing techniques to reshape public opinion of a country. Other countries launching controversial brand-burnishing efforts in the past year include Nigeria (billing itself as the "Heart of Africa") and Israel, which, after three years of research and focus groups, started a new marketing push that makes no mention of the conflict with Palestinians, or even religion ("Israel starts with I" is one of the oh-so-snappy slogans).

The brand management of nations, regions, and cities has become such a hot topic that there is even a quarterly British journal devoted to the practice: Place Branding, now in its second year of publication. Last April’s issue tackles such topics as whether Africa could use branding to improve its image, the use of food to help brand places, and an exploration of whether England needs to develop a brand distinct from Britain. Most of the articles feature turgid academic language — replete with buzzwords such as "correspondence analysis" and "tertiary communication" — and are illustrated with nearly incomprehensible flowcharts and diagrams describing "brand personality dimensions" and "image communication." Clearly aware that the concept of nation branding is often met with a hefty (and well-deserved) dose of skepticism, Place Branding often comes off sounding a little defensive. Several issues have carried at least one article defending the concept, such as an article in the November 2005 issue titled, "Geo-branding, are we talking nonsense?" (Answer: Of course not.) And an editorial in the January 2006 issue that asked the hot-button question, "Is place branding a capitalist tool?" (Answer: Yes, but in a good way.)

Place Branding‘s founding editor is Simon Anholt, a British marketing guru and longtime image consultant to governments (he is sometimes wrongly credited with inventing the "Cool Britannia" slogan that his country used to great effect in the late 1990s, though he did work on the campaign). As Anholt defines it, nation branding involves a combination of the promotion of tourism, investment, and trade, plus public and cultural diplomacy. Countries that want to succeed in this era of globalization, according to Anholt, must have a coordinated "brand strategy" in all of these areas.

Which states have the best brands, and which are most in need of help from the likes of Anholt? Place Branding, along with Seattle-based research firm GMI, has helpfully developed the Anholt Nation Brands Index to tell you. The index uses a public-opinion survey to judge a selection of countries on the basis of six criteria — Anholt’s trademark "Nation Brand Hexagon" — tourism, exports, governance, investment and immigration, culture and heritage, and people. The latest results, which can be found online at www.simonanholt.com, rank the United Kingdom as the world’s top brand, with Turkey in last place of the 35 countries evaluated. The United States ranks 10th.

It would be easy to dismiss Anholt as a huckster, cloaking an old idea in marketing jargon in order to wring hefty consulting fees out of governments desperate to drum up foreign investment. After all, countries have always tried to market themselves as destinations for business and travelers. They have always tried to promote their products abroad. And they have always tried to shape public perceptions of their foreign policies through propaganda. They just never had hexagons or "brand personalities" to help them do it. Moreover, the image of a country, linked as it may be to stereotypes, often has concrete roots in history. It cannot be as easily manipulated as the public’s perception of a laundry detergent or cereal.

But to Anholt’s credit, he is acutely aware that "rebranding" a country is a difficult business. He is especially disdainful of marketing campaigns that attempt to slap a new slogan on a country that remains fundamentally unchanged. "A lot of very poor countries — Uganda and Nigeria, for instance — are spending millions on TV campaigns. I would be astounded if that made any difference to people’s views of the country at all," he says. "In fact, I suspect it will make it worse because people know how much advertising costs. It will simply reinforce the idea that these places are corrupt because they are spending so much on what amounts to propaganda while their people are starving."

The more one talks to Anholt and reads his essays, the more one realizes that his vision of branding isn’t really about marketing at all. It’s about reforming "the product," i.e., the actual country. That means changing policy. For instance, he cites the "rebranding" of South Africa as an example. "The rebranding miracle was a political miracle. It was the end of apartheid," he says. "Marketing may have helped communicate that internally to people, but it didn’t create the miracle." Anholt is aware that the real work — reforming legal systems, building new roads, or reducing poverty — can take decades.

The problem is, when you start defining branding as policy innovation, what a marketing consultant says about it becomes less and less important. And much of the policy advice in Place Branding is so facile as to be useless. Anholt’s answer to Israel’s negative image? End the conflict with the Palestinians. His idea for improving perceptions of the United States? Ask permission before invading a country. Here he is in the April issue, writing about the need for countries to create new things to boost their brand:

Old boring things are very boring.
New boring things are fairly boring.
Old interesting things are fairly interesting.
New interesting things are very interesting.

Can you imagine paying for that sort of advice? Unfortunately, too many countries today are wasting precious revenue doing just that.

Jeremy Kahn, former managing editor at The New Republic and a former writer at Fortune magazine, is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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