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Nation branding: does it actually work?

We’re delighted to introduce Samantha Manniex as this month’s guest blogger.  Samantha is the founder and chief editor of PlacesBrands, a website that analyses the latest trends and developments in country/city reputation management. She  is particularly interested in how emerging markets handle their national branding strategies.

In today’s fast-changing, perpetually connected world, brands run a constant risk of getting lost in the crowd. Standing out in a positive way is all-important, and can mean the difference between global dominance or a rapid spiral into obscurity.

Countries have always been concerned with their image. But what used to be the concern of diplomats is now veering into the realms of marketing. There has been a recent surge in PR and marketing activities designed to help countries (and cities) cultivate a positive image. Governments may spend large sums of money hiring firms to create sophisticated branding campaigns complete with a brand new logo and slogan for their country. It seems like a perfect solution to a troubled government’s problems: create a sparkling new country brand, full of positive associations, and foreign tourists and investors are sure to come flocking.

But, along with many quick-fix solutions to ongoing problems, rebranding may not be enough.

When the governments of obviously highly flawed nations try to disguise inherent problems using superficial branding techniques, it tends to inspire intense cynicism among onlookers in the outside world. Even more seriously, the lure of branding techniques may encourage naive governments to  invest substantial amounts of money in nation-branding campaigns, believing them to be a solution to image problems. This not only diverts government funds away from potentially more beneficial uses, but may distract the government from addressing the real issues causing negative national image.

Of course it would make life far easier for governments if marketing communications campaigns actually worked. In that case, the nation with the biggest marketing budget would have the best national image.

Nations do have ‘brands’ – but only in the same sense that they have ‘reputations’. These reputations affect their progress in the world in the same way brand images do for companies and their products. But it’s important to keep in mind that ‘branding’ a country, city or region is not the same as ‘branding’ a company or product.

There has been little concrete evidence that nation-branding campaigns, along with their accompanying logos and slogans, actually work. There is not much to prove that branding campaigns can alter international perceptions of places. Often, they only serve to induce cynicism and perhaps even inspire controversy (such as Gerry Farrell and the ‘Incredinburgh’ campaign to promote the Scottish capital).

In fact, according to the Anholt Nation Brands Index, over the last few years some countries have done very little marketing, but still experienced substantial improvement in their overall image. The reputations of others have declined, despite spending millions on marketing campaigns.

The world is quick to stereotype nations. Stereotypes are by definition simplistic and in many cases unfair. To combat this, national governments should help the world understand their nation better, to know more about the positive aspects of their culture, people, resources, economy, and so on. But, and this is the key, promoting this understanding must be based on reality. When a country takes control of its image, it can begin to counter international stereotypes which, left unchecked, can seriously hamper development and minimise opportunities.

Managing a country’s national image involves far more than clever marketing. That’s why, instead of calling it ‘place branding’, father of the discipline Simon Anholt prefers the term ‘competitive identity’, which avoids the cynicism-inducing associations of the term ‘branding’. Building a lasting positive image for a country is certainly not a short-term activity, but a broad and far-reaching task that involves wise, honest judgement in every area of statecraft.

Follow Samantha on Twitter @placesbrands

One Comment

  1. Ed Burghard

    The post confuses the terms branding and marketing, and fails to acknowledge that effective branding requires a relevant, competitive and authentic promise. The author should have simply concluded that poorly done branding is ineffective. And that many countries are poor at place branding.

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