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NATION BRANDING – A GLOBAL COMPETITIVE STRATEGY

BY DR. HANNINGTONE GAYA

 

Today, the world is one market. Globalisation means that every country, every city and every county in the world has to compete with each other for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, conferences, investors, students, patients, entrepreneurs, international sporting and cultural events, and for the attention and respect of the international media, other governments and the people of other nations for quality workforce.

 

According to Simon Anholt (whose work, this article has borrowed from heavily), nations get their brands from public opinion, not from marketers or governments. In a busy and crowded world, most of us do not have time to learn about what other countries or people and culture are really like. We navigate through the complexity of the modern world armed with a few simple clichés, which form the background of our opinions. These clichés inform our perception of those countries, cultures and people. For example, Paris is known for style, Japan for ICT technology, Switzerland for wealth and precision, Brazil for carnival and football, Tuscany for the good life, and sub-Saharan African countries for poverty, ignorance, corruption, war, famine and disease.

Globally, everybody is too busy worrying about basic survival and problems bedevilling our own countries, to spend time trying to form complete, balanced and informed views about 8 billion other people and nearly 200 other countries. So the old adage: When you haven’t got time to read a book, you judge it by its cover.

 

These clichés and stereo types – whether positive or negative, true or untrue – fundamentally affect our behaviour towards other places, their people and their products. Country image therefore, matters!

 

Country image matters more and more as the world becomes more inter-connected through ICT and communication. The globalisation of society, communications, commerce, education and politics continues to advance. Countries, cities and even counties that are lucky or virtuous enough to have acquired a positive reputation find that everything they or their citizen wish to do on the global scene is easier and pre-facilitated: their country brands are recognized before them, acting like a calling card, opening doors, creating trust, generating respect and raising the expectation of quality, competence and integrity.

 

Countries with a reputation for being poor, uncultured, backward, dangerous or corrupt find that everything they or their citizens try to do outside their own neighbourhood is harder and the burden of proof is always on them to prove that, as an individual or as organisations, they are not like their bad country stereotype.

 

Compare the ease with which a mediocre tourist resort in a highly regarded country can gain glowing media coverage and celebrity endorsement, with the difficulties experienced by a unique, unspoiled destination in a country with a weak or poor reputation. Compare the way consumers in Europe or America will willingly pay over the odds for a product they have never heard of before just because it is “made in Japan” rather than the identical product that is “made in China”. Compare how widely and positively the international media will report on an ordinary piece of policy from the government of a country that is reputed to be just, equitable, well governed, fair, rich and stable, with the resounding media silence or sharp criticism that greets a wise, brave and innovative policy from the government of a country that is saddled with a negative country image.

 

Writing on branding places and nations, Simon Anholt states that, “the reputation of countries (and by extension, cities and counties in the case of Kenya) function rather like the brand images of companies and products. These place brands are equally crucial to the process, prosperity and good management of those places.” This is the observation which led more than 15 years ago, to coin the term “country branding”.

 

However, his preferred term, “competitive identity”, better communicates the fact that managing the reputations of places has more to do with national and regional identity and the politics and economics of competitiveness than with branding per se, as it is usually understood in the commercial sector. All places certainly have their brand images, but the extent to which they can be branded is still, quite properly, the subject of intense debate.

 

Many governments, most consultants and even some scholars shamelessly still persist in a naïve and superficial interpretation of “place branding” that is nothing more than standard product promotion, public relations and corporate identity, where the product just happens to be a country, a city or a region rather than a bank or a running shoe. These are just the last mile in country branding, the symbolic gestures!

 

All responsible and well informed and intentioned governments on behalf of their people need to discover what the world’s perception of their country is. These kinds of governments then form a body for this strategic function and develop a strategy for managing the world’s perception of the country. An important part of the mandate of a county branding agency is to build a reputation of the country that is fair, true, powerful, attractive, genuinely useful to their economic, political and social aims, and honestly reflects the spirit, the genius and the will of the people.

 

Most countries communicate with the outside world, and thus create their images in the minds of others, through six basic channels or areas of activity:

  • Tourism promotion, as well as people’s first-hand experiences of visiting a country as tourists, conferences or business travellers. This is often the loudest voice in branding the nation, city or region, as tourist boards usually have the biggest budgets and the most competent marketers.
  • Export of products and services. These can act as powerful ambassadors, but only where their place of origin is explicit.
  • Government policy, either foreign policy which directly affects others or domestic policy which is reported in the international media. Diplomacy is traditionally the main route by which such things are communicated to the outside world. There ought to be an increasing closeness between government policymakers and the international media.
  • How the country or region attracts inward investment and recruits foreign “talent”, the attitude towards entry into the country by foreign companies, including immigration laws and practices.
  • Cultural exchange and cultural activities and sports. A world tour by a national choir, the works of a famous author, the exploits of national sports teams and in the case of Kenya, the domination of the marathons by our long distance athletes.
  • Country or region’s inhabitants. High profile leaders, media and sports stars, and the population in general – how they behave when abroad and how they treat visitors. In Kenya, the warmth of its people, the achievements of people like the late Prof. Wangari Maathai and currently Ambassador (Dr) Amina C. Mohamed, our Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, who is also the Chair of MC10 – the top WTO meeting that will be held in Kenya in December 2015, form part of this soft power.

 

The theory behind managing the identity and reputation of a country, city or region is that if you have a good, clear, believable idea of what the place really is and what it stands for, and co-ordinate the policies, investments, actions and communications of all six points of the country branding hexagon so that they reinforce this message, a country, city or region stands a good chance of building and maintaining a powerful and positive internal and external reputation and hence image. The reputation then benefits exporters, importers, governments, the culture sector, tourism, immigration and almost every aspect of international relations.

 

County brands are virtually the same stereotypes and clichés: they are more often based on ignorance and prejudice than on reality and experience, and they are frequently unfair. But this does not mean that a country’s reputation should be ignored or excluded from serious political or economic debate, simply because it belongs to the sphere of “perception” rather than “reality”. Whatever the distinction between perception and reality, perceptions determine people’s behaviour just as much, if not more, than reality does.

 

Country branding, unlike commercial branding, does not come easily. No single body, political or otherwise, exercises control over the country “product” or the way it communicates with the outside world. The tiniest village is infinitely more complex, more diverse and less unified than the largest corporation purely because of different reasons people are there. Countries have no single, unifying purpose, unlike the simple creed of shareholder value that binds corporations together – a contract of employment is mainly about duties, whereas a social contract is mainly about rights.

 

Nonetheless, responsible governments can do three important things with their country reputation:

  • The governments can understand and monitor their international image in the countries and sectors where it matters most in a rigorous and scientific way, and understand exactly how and where this affects their interests in those countries and sectors.
  • If they collaborate imaginatively, efficiently and openly with business and civil society, the governments can agree on a country strategy and narrative – where the country is going, and how it is going to get there – which honestly reflects the skills, genius and will of its people.
  • The government can ensure that their country maintains a stream of innovative and eye – catching products, services, policies and initiatives in every sector, which will keep it at the forefront of the world’s attention and admiration, demonstrate the truth of that narrative and prove the country’s right to the reputation its people and governments desire to acquire.

More engagement, not simply more communication, with the rest of the world can enhance the profile of countries, with higher visibility meaning stronger appeal. The more we know about a country, the more we are prepared to forgive its transgressions and admire its products, peoples, strengths and achievements.

On the whole, people are most attracted to countries that project clear, consistent values and behaviours on the issues that people value, such as competent government, friendly population and economic opportunities.

 

Perceptions of a country that is the regular focus of world attention, such as Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Israel, can be much more volatile than those of countries that stand outside the glare of the world’s media, such as Canada or New Zealand. This volatility is increased if the country’s prominence is mainly based on a single issue: in Kenya and Israel’s cases, their role in finding peaceful solutions to the regional conflicts. In such cases, the country’s image can shift as rapidly and as dramatically as people’s perceptions of the issue at hand, because the country becomes synonymous with the particular conflict. Countries with more complex, rich and diverse images have some immunity from this volatility. The United States, for example, is no better liked than Israel in many parts of the world, but because its reputation is more broadly based and extends far beyond the purely political, ideological and military sphere, its overall reputation suffers much less from the unpopularity of its government’s foreign policy and global intervention.

 

Sustained change in country brands generally takes place slowly over a number of years. It happens in three principle ways:

  • A country can advance or fall back in one or more brand dimensions through the complex economic and social processes in that country.

For example, China’s economic growth is gradually leading to the country’s identification with better quality and more sophisticated products, despite the setbacks caused by poor-quality products and fakes that it has hitherto been known for. But reduced social cohesion in a country, leading to increased anti-social behaviour, can damage the reputation of its people instantly.

  • Even if countries themselves do not change, the values of people observing them do, and this affects the way those countries are perceived. For example, there appears to be a growing “green” consciousness among some sections of the world’s population, benefiting nations such as Sweden that have a good reputation for environmental responsibility and penalizing nations such as Italy that do not. Italy’s brand image has declined faster between 2005 and 2008 (almost 4%) than any other country apart from China. This has happened not because Italy’s brand image has deteriorated but because its appeal is less and less in tune with people’s values. Italy is, quite simply, going out of fashion.
  • The reputations of countries, and especially of smaller countries, can be improved or damaged by the actions of their irresponsible governments. Governments are more likely to do damage, but improvements can be brought about through comprehensive and co-ordinated brand strategies between different sectors, as has been shown by New Zealand and occasionally by well-marketed and well-managed global events such as the Olympic Games or Soccer World Cup: Note, 2008 for China, 2010 for South Africa and 2014 for Brazil.

 

Not every government, or indeed every population, treats international approval as an important goal, but when we speak of the brand images of counties, we are talking about something rather more significantly than mere popularity.

 

To most scholars and practitioners of country branding, a country’s brand is a clear and simple measure of its “license to trade” in the global marketplace, and the acceptability of its people, hospitality, culture, policies, products and services to the rest of the world. Truth be said: The products of a country with a weak or negative brand will generally sell at a discount on the global market. The products of a country with a middling or neutral brand will sell at their intrinsic market value and those of a country with a powerful and positive image will sell at a premium!

The only sort of government that can afford to ignore the impact of its country reputation is one which is naive and has no interest in participating in the global community, and no desire for its economy, its culture or its citizens to benefit from the rich influences and opportunities that the rest of the world offers them.

 

It is the duty of every responsible government in the global age to recognise that management of the country’s international reputation, one of the most valuable long-term assets of its people, is given to it in trust for the duration of its office. A responsible government’s duty is to hand over that reputation being built to its successors, whatever their political persuasion, on at least as good health as it received it, and to improve it if possible for the benefit of future generations. If the world’s governments placed even half the value that most wise corporations have learned to place on their good brand names, the world would be safer and quieter place than it is today.

 

Natural reputation evolves over time, and although it generally lags a long way behind reality, its relationship to the truth (accepting, of course, that there is never one simple, single truth about something as complex as a country, city or region) depends on the intensity and frequency of that country’s dialogue with the rest of the world. Countries that are active in international politics, commerce, culture, society or a combination of all four – as business people would say, countries with more “consumer touch-points” – generally find that their image tracks their reality more accurate and more up-to-date images.

 

In conclusion, a country’s image is not created only through communications and cannot be altered by slogans such as ‘Malaysia – Truly Asia” or logos such as Hong Kong’s dragon. Country branding is a global strategy for competing among the nations. Country branding is ultimately a deliberately structured social, economic and political development strategy. Governments that have embraced the concept of Country branding ought to understand this simple fact. There are no two ways of successfully implementing the country branding strategy!

 

Dr. Hanningtone Gaya PhD EBS is the founder Chairman of the Brand Kenya Board, an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Marketing, Management and Corporate Governance at the Riara University School of Business and a Council Member of the Marketing Society of Kenya.