When you hear “country branding”, what’s the first thought that pops up in your mind? TV ads? Billboards in airports? Holiday deals? Or just a “product”?
We brand a country just like we would a product: we praise its qualities, usefulness, ability to meet a customer-led demand and pre-empt every single desire we have – pretty much like Alexa and Siri do these days.
However, what product and service branding lack – as opposed to country branding – are deeply engrained emotions, shared history and socio-psychological norms that dictate both the public’s expectations and demands of that country.
If I asked you to tell me the first two things that come to your mind when I say “Egypt”, perhaps the Great Pyramid of Giza would be the first and terrorism the second. If I asked the same about India, curry would be your first choice and Bollywood the second.
By now, you’d be quick to assume that the greatest majority of us thinks the same. If you made this assumption, you’d be wrong. What you and I think may not necessarily be true for other segments of population (social groups).
For instance, when I hear the word “Egypt”, I’m not thinking the Great Pyramid of Giza, but the Temple of Karnak. When I hear “Egypt”, I also think of the dangerously poor level of security checks at Cairo airport. When I hear “India”, it is hard to avoid thinking of the normalisation of raping young girls.
Why would anyone need to brand a country? The short answer is money, the long answer is credibility and geopolitics.
We seldom see proactive country-level branding activities taking place for developed countries: they don’t need it. They have an established name on the international scene, their relationships with their neighbours are under control, their currency and purchasing powers are strong, and their reliance on imports is almost on par with their export output.
However, if you are a country like Egypt, whose tourism industry has seen a dramatic decline (of almost 70%!!!), from more than 15 million tourists in 2010 to 6.3 million in 2015, you do need to urgently do something to bring that so much needed tourism money into the economy before the country is on the brink of financial collapse.
So, what’s the first thing that usually happens in cases such as Egypt’s? You start a country branding exercise, aimed at foreign tourists, with wonderful images of the Egyptian heritage, breath-taking snapshots of temples and feluccas down the Nile, accompanied by welcoming smiling faces of Egyptians, just like this one.
That video you’ve just watched is beautifully put together – I watched it many times, particularly while it was displayed on the large billboards of Heathrow’s T5. What that video doesn’t do is bring it home: it doesn’t tell you “come to Egypt – we’ll make sure you are safe and not killed by terrorists while you’re lying on the beach”.
Egypt is just an example I’ve chosen because I wanted to capture the clear “money” drive behind the country’s branding efforts. The example I’ve chosen for credibility and geopolitics will resonate with many of you, I hope: it’s Saudi Arabia.
Without having to ask you what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear Saudi Arabia, I’m sure that’s “money” – many of you may also think “oil”. And you’d be right. But the money is getting scarce for the Saudis’ lavish lifestyles, the war with Yemen is starting to cause discomfort to the Saudis’ allies, and the oil price is no longer $120 per barrel but $66.
Saudi Arabia is running out of money – but it can’t publicly say so (yet). Therefore, to maintain its credibility as the GCC region leader and to consolidate its geopolitical interests, even at the cost of riling some of its strongest Wahhabi clerics, Saudi Arabia is courting “the West”. The coup de grace came with allowing women to drive a vehicle – something many thought would never happen, myself included.
Unlike the clear cry for money of Egypt’s tourism campaign, Saudi Arabia is playing the long, subliminal game of country branding. The country needs to diversify its sources of income – and rapidly so. Its overreliance on oil revenues can no longer be sustained and the country needs a “Plan B”. But which foreign investors that have, at least on paper, a Non-discrimination Policy and women on their Boards or in the executive echelons, are going to do business with a country where women are second-class citizens?
While that is still the case, the Saudis have taken steps to change that – now Saudi women can drive, and cinemas will also be reopened after 35 years of being forbidden! How’s that for proof that the country is changing, and foreign direct investments are welcome because the new Saudi king has taken the right steps towards making his country more inclusive? That’s a very clever way of branding a country without turning it into a media frenzy or advertisement show.
But what matters most when you do want to brand a country? Is it our own perception (not experience) of that country? Is it that country’s ability to meet our expectations of it? Or is it what that country has to offer to both visitors and investors?
Amy Sandys shares her thoughts:
“In a world characterised by hyper-globalisation and interconnectivity, countries must compete for recognition among stakeholders of all interests. Yet, despite being the foundation of a country’s culture, a frequent obstacle for place brand professionals is how to accurately reflect a country’s own citizens.
Regionality plays a part – the USA, for example, is better characterised as an entity comprised of a series of unique cultures. This means identifying a single, coherent country brand is a challenge; any place strategy should avoid ascribing a homogenous paradigm to the country as a whole and, instead, recognise the merits of its individual states.
There is also potential for longstanding country ideals to be commodified and commercially successful in attracting certain audiences. Costa Rica has successfully promoted its drive toward sustainable tourism through a ‘Pura vida’ mentality. Literally translating to ‘pure life’ and forming the authentic Costa Rican approach to living, the saying also underpins a country brand strategy which aims to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) – certainly not the origins of pura vida.
Country brand professionals must therefore sensitively acknowledge the nuances of country culture while being aware of the stereotypes reinforced through lazy media coverage and inconsiderate marketing. But place branding, if done correctly, is a sophisticated opportunity to cement a country’s reputation in a way sensitive to the ambitions and needs of its people.”
We can’t brand a country from a distance, nor from an office somewhere thousands of miles away from it. To understand and vouch for the benefits of a product, you must use it first. To ascertain whether a service is good or bad, you need to try it first. The same applies to branding a country – it takes a good pair of boots, sunglasses and a rucksack.
Virtual reality is not real life – reading about a place on social media can give you an indication of it, just as a TripAdvisor review may or may not be genuine, or it may be true only for some people. I, for one, loathed the Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas and gave it a bad review. Many adored the place.
Our experiences of places and people are as unique as we are. To present a country at its best (which is the ultimate objective of any branding exercise) you need to know its worst. You need to go there, live there (for a short while), talk to the people, and understand what makes them proud to be nationals of that country. You need to listen because that will help you understand what that country means, is and aspires to be, just like Dr Jim MacNamara advises:
“Many organisations – government, corporate and institutional – spend seven-figure sums of money a year on resources and systems for speaking. Conversely, most do not have an architecture of listening or do the work of listening”.
Prejudice, preconception and bias are as inherent to us as love, friendship and hatred are. Therefore, understanding what brand “Egypt” or brand “Saudi Arabia” are, is very important as a starting point. Most of all, however, you’d need to understand the markets where that brand is going to be advertised – just as you would do with a product or service.
You need to see what the perception of that country is in its targeted markets; you need to understand the drivers behind the business communities in those markets, i.e. what would encourage them to do business there or start greenfield projects? What type of message would resonate best with those markets and why?
Paddy Blewer presents his views on this point:
“It is vital to demonstrate to audiences how ingrained perceptions might be the result of cultural and historical prejudice, and that they use standard performance metrics that are illogical in a specific context.
For instance, comparing a sovereign oil company (I’ve worked with 4) with Exxon or Shell is wrong, although do the same thing (integrated energy companies) but for fundamentally different reasons (short term shareholder profit vs long term monetisation of sovereign resource, creating a yield for the treasury).
I’ve rarely been as intellectually stimulated, professionally challenged or as well remunerated as when advising sovereign or parastatal clients. I’ve told stories about nuclear armed submarines, multi-billion-dollar trade deals, how positive interaction with “x” will transform the energy dynamic of a continent, and I’ve worked with numerous transformative education initiatives.
I’ve met dozens of people far smarter than me and tried to learn from them. My main observation: leave your preconceptions at the door at the first meeting.”
Country branding is one of the most complex activities you’ll ever undertake. However, as Paddy so well said above, it’s exceptionally rewarding if you get it right. It’s not about creating a spectacular integrated campaign and sharing it with the world – not if the terrorists are killing people on beaches and blowing up planes in the sky.
It’s also not about flaunting a country’s wealth and oil revenues while women are second class citizens and the children are starving to death in a neighbouring country they inflicted unspeakable suffering to.
If you’re ever asked to get involved in a country branding exercise, just remember these very simple questions:
- Why do you need this country branding activity? (this will provide you with your target markets)
- What do you wish to highlight? (this will give you the opportunity to put your boots on and do your ground research)
- What do you hope to achieve? (this will frame your core message)