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Countries Are Not Brands


Countries Are Not Brands

The World Cup approaches and, once again, the English nation hopes against hope that it can win the tournament and finally end 44 years of hurt. Meanwhile, in South Africa the dreams are just as bold but aimed in a very different direction. FIFA’s World Cup presents its hosts with, what they believe to be, their biggest ever opportunity to build a stronger country brand.

That’s a shame because, despite its growing popularity and firm establishment within marketing, the business of “country branding” or “nation branding” is nonsense. Countries are not brands. They are countries. Brand strategy should be reserved for brands. I may have a hammer, but it doesn’t mean that every problem is shaped like a nail. Real expertise in a field is to know the limitations of that field and behave accordingly.

I can appreciate the attractions of country branding. Selling a brand strategy to a public servant in Finland or Ghana must be a lot easier than pitching to a trained marketer from the likes of Unilever or Ford. And I can also appreciate that even the gigantic budgets of P&G or HSBC are dwarfed by a nation’s coffers. I can imagine, too, that measuring the impact of a country branding strategy is far less taxing than the typical corporate branding work, where sales figures and brand equity scores always influence the assessment of impact. But the core problem endures: conceptualizing a country as if it were a brand is stupid.

For starters, the concept of brand does not fit something as wide and variable as the perception of a country. Aside from tourism (where destination branding makes sense) you don’t ever buy a country – you buy a product or service from a country. Country of origin does have an impact on a product’s perception, but that impact varies from category to category. You might agree with FutureBrand’s recent assessment of the US as the strongest country brand in the world, for example, if you are looking for investment banking or fast food. But what if you were interested in eco-resorts or super-hip nightclubs? Wouldn’t Brazil, which FutureBrand deems a much weaker country brand than the US, prove a better alternative?

Which brings us to another problem with country branding. Am I the only marketer who is outraged when countries and cultures are relegated to the bottom of the pile based on very basic analytical data? Corporations and brands are capitalist entities and I am entirely comfortable with ranking them on their relative value. But is it acceptable to tell the people of Cuba their country brand is only three-quarters as good as Canada or Switzerland? That’s what GFK claimed in its 2009 Nation Branding Index. And are you comfortable with GFK’s relegation of Iran as the least valuable country brand on Earth? Doesn’t a nation with 70 million inhabitants and a heritage going back more than 9,000 years before the birth of Christ deserve more respect and cultural sensitivity?

Even if country branding were possible in theory, how could it ever work in practice? The whole premise of brand strategy is to change every aspect of the brand’s operations to deliver on core positioning. The superficial, unimportant aspects of a country branding strategy like a logo or ad campaign are entirely possible, but how about all the crucial operational stuff? An effective country brand strategy would have to change laws, policing, street names, unemployment benefit, health policies, family planning guidelines – all to fit the country brand positioning. Insanity.

An effective country brand strategy would have to change laws, policing, street names…

Proof of country branding’s nonsensical status is in the embarrassing and ineffective campaigns that have emerged over the years: the work of Russo, Marsh & Rogers and its strategy for Kurdistan that positioned the country as “The Other Iraq”; the £;750,000 Interbrand charged Estonia for a country branding strategy that centered on the unforgettable slogan “Welcome to Estonia”; the current “Good People, Great Nation” branding campaign in Nigeria that has recently been lambasted by Nigerian marketers for its total lack of data, positioning or tracking.

The tragedy in all of this is that many of the nations seeking a “stronger country brand” have much more endemic, structural problems. But, because they have been told their solution lies in country branding, vital resources are spent on an illusory, nonsensical quest instead of essential and practical solutions. South Africa does not need a stronger country brand. It needs to provide water to the 20 million people in its country who don’t have a reliable supply. It needs to reduce the proportion of its citizens murdered each day, given that its current murder rate is among the highest on Earth. It needs a President who does not sleep with a woman with HIV and then reassures the population he is fine because he took a shower.

Let’s start there, rather than the futile, shameful practice of country branding.

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Tony on May 08th, 2010 said

Thanks for another great read.

Your post interested me from a ‘tribal’ perspective (suggesting brands are trying to grab nationalistic type engagement as countries try to brand themselves).

It seems that ‘brand owners’ are wanting their ‘fans’ to become ‘tribal’ with a nationalistic sense of pride for the brands that they choose.

I was thinking as I was typing that people wouldn’t die for their brand though… but I’ve seen some heated exchanges on-line & off-line about the virtues of a particular brand. The Australasian Ford vs Holden debate can result in some war-like activity!

New Zealand has used the ‘100% New Zealand’ brand with some success, but you’re right, it is nonsense. Should there be a complaints department if the brand doesn’t deliver against it’s promise?

Francisco on May 09th, 2010 said

In the case of my country, Spain, I fully agree with the author that when country-branding was related to tourism, it worked. Every other time, I didn’t. It was just a waste of public money; trying to modify World’s perception of a country in a World with so much information about everything can lead to the contrarian effect.

Martin Kace on May 12th, 2010 said

Very sorry, gents, but I must disagree big time with much of what you have to say. While I agree that countries cannot be treated as products, the most important difference, as I see it, is that while commercial brands can spin and position ad infinitum, country brands can only come from one place – the truth.

What is the truth when it comes to countries? Ask its citizens. Brainstorm with them. Ask each and every citizen of a country what the first 5 words are that come to mind when the read or hear the name of their country. Have them submit answers online, via SMS, fax, snail mail or carrier pigeon. Collect the data. Analyze it. Create a brand funnel. Find the platform. Communicate from it.

Why do this? First and foremost you will have just engineered a simple but amazing act of participatory democracy. Second, you will have created a national project that actually brings citizens together. Third, you will have created a genuine platform for public diplomacy.

Disclaimer: I am currently working on the project I’ve just described as a private initiative for the State of Israel.

Mary on May 14th, 2010 said

Ogilvy: Puerto Rico.

Charlie Quirk on May 15th, 2010 said

I agree with Martin on this post. A country is a living and breathing entity, with a reputation that can be managed. Not just as a means for boosting tourism – although that helps, but as a central organizing principle, a rallying cry for the country that both citizens of the nation and outsiders can come to associate with that state.

I guess it comes back to our definition of a brand. After all, a sexy tagline does not a great brand make. But to say that nation branding is nonsense, shameful, or that a country has no control over how it is or isn’t perceived in the eyes of itself and to the rest of the world makes absolutely no sense to me.

Just because South Africa has problems that won’t be solved by a re-branding campaign does not mean that branding is not important. That is akin to saying Walmart or Nike do not need stronger brands, the people that manufacture their products in the developing world need better working conditions and health coverage. It is not a zero sum game of what is and isn’t most right. It is about positioning the entity, be it a corporation, country or sports franchise, in a way that inspires others to adopt its philosophy and become part of the brand’s story. Whether that means buying a product, rooting for the team or visiting the country.

In regards to South Africa, not even Don Draper could have sold the country as a place of economic growth, happiness and harmony during the long and ugly period of apartheid. There is no arguing that country brands are one of those “warts and all” categories – a nation’s brand is only as strong as its ugliest aspects. It took a paradigm shift in the nation’s sensibility to provide the impetus for change to happen. Iconic images like Mandela’s release and subsequent election as president, the adoption of a new flag, the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory, Desmond Tutu declaring South Africa the “rainbow nation” and countless other acts; have resulted in South Africa to be seen as what it is today – no where near perfect, but a place of optimism and hope and certainly not the gloom and doom of the country wracked by racial division.

To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, greatness, in branding or any endeavor, lies not where we stand but in what direction we are moving. South Africa has taken great strides as a country, and as a brand. To pass off these acts as serendipitous is to discredit those that provided the impetus for it to happen. More to the point, to argue that other undesirable countries are incapable of changing the way they are perceived by themselves and others seems dogmatic and unfair.

Carol on May 17th, 2010 said

A very interesting discussion. There is absolutely a rationale for creating a country tourism brand. The success (or stupidity) of the result quickly becomes clear.

But to ask more of a branding program–to literally change the attitudes and engagement of the populace–is a real stretch. Only the tiniest percentage of corporations can claim to have truly brand engaged employees. The ability of a country to similarly engage is slim to none.

Let’s get real. Brands are created in order to justify a price premium over commodities. There is no “generic” country, so how could you judge the relative value of a branded country?

Tom Sitati on May 18th, 2010 said

The author approaches branding from a rather narrow perspective, equating branding with “putting the icing on the cake” or “applying lipstick on a pig”. Good branding, be it corporate, product, service, personal or country, does go much deeper to address real issues.

Lambasting the entire philosophy of branding because of some perceived failures does not negate the philosophy.

Brad VanAuken on June 02nd, 2010 said

I must disagree with Mark. If a brand is a source of a promise to a customer, then a country is a brand. It has customers – residents, tourists, immigrants, trading partners (other countries), foreign investors, etc. And it makes implicit and explicit promises to those customers. Spain promises sun. India promises exotic vacations to American tourists. Germany promises well engineered cars. Belgium promises superior chocolates and beer. Costa Rica promises memorable eco-vacations. Switzerland and the Cayman Islands provide tax-free havens for monetary deposits. The USA promises a land of freedom and opportunity to immigrants.

The trick is to carefully define the primary, secondary and tertiary audiences and then to figure out what authentic messages about the country best resonate with those audiences. In nation branding, telling the truth is critical. Lies or exaggerations will not hold up well to scrutiny. In-depth, rigorous market research by audience segment is critical to the success of nation branding.

Is country branding complex? Very much so. A very large number of factors lead to perceptions of the brand – form of government, economic stability, perceived crime rates, political party in power, size (geographic and population), weather, natural features, foreign assistance given, military and trade alliances/partners, language(s) spoken, dominant religions, laws, protected freedoms, environmental protections, friendliness of its citizens, cuisines, celebrities that call that country home, businesses that are headquartered there, industries that have a major presence there, distance from one’s own country, famous buildings, festivals and events, etc. Many, or even most, of these factors are not controllable, at least in the short- to medium-term.

And the internal stakeholders are numerous – political leaders, business leaders, economic development professionals, tourism professionals, numerous governmental departments and agencies, etc. Nation branding is highly complex. In comparison, corporate branding is simple.

While the product itself is difficult to change, one can usually find an authentic message that resonates with the target audiences in a way that causes at least some portion of them to select the country in question more than they normally would. And sometimes the brand research findings can spur the appropriate stakeholders to make substantive changes in the product itself.

I agree with Mark that nation branding projects can be flawed with feeble outcomes such as insipid taglines. But I don’t agree that nations are not brands or that one cannot attempt to manage, or at least promote them as such. Brand management has a set of processes and tools that could be helpful if applied to any type of entity (including nations) that wishes to make promises and attract more customers.

Ed Burghard on March 08th, 2011 said

A brand is a promise. It sets an expectation of an experience. Every country has a core experience that it offers. The promise of America is the ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness. To be effective the promise must be relevant, competitive and authentic.

Branding is the process of making certain that promise is realized each and every time somebody comes into contact with your brand. Managing across all touch points is clearly difficult in place branding. But, it is also difficult in corporate branding.

The reality of promises is that they can be kept or they can be broken.

Rather than look at how hard it is to deliver a nation’s promise perfectly each time, consider how much more competitive a nation will be if the collective energy is harnessed to focus on better delivering the promise with every new day.

No nation, corporation or product will ever deliver its brand promise perfectly. But, the future is won by continued forward progress.

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