Even if nation branding has, at very different grades, always existed since the conception of “nations”, it is relatively new as a established field of theory and practice. As such, there are some common misconceptions that I’ve encountered in this discipline and I thought it could be useful for many to have them corrected. Sometimes nation branding consultants, specialists and academics speak with a jargon that sounds great but is not that accessible for many readers – hence these misconceptions.
So here is a list with the top-five misconceptions that I regard as the most usual in nation branding:
Misconception #1: Country are brands. Let us not mess things up. Countries are countries, and brands are brands. Countries are not brands, but countries have brands, which is an entirely different thing. By “brand” one must understand no less than the sum of all perceptions the country evokes when its name is pronounced. The things that come to your mind (scenery, people, language, colors, smells, stereotypes) when you hear “India”, “Germany” or “Israel” is the brand.
Misconception #2: A nation brand is a nation’s logo. Since a brand is something intangible that dwells in the minds of people, nation branding operates, as the name implies, on those ideas, and certainly not about logos. In marketing there is a persistent confusion about the concept of “branding” and that of “logo design” which has unfortunately been transported unto nation branding. As consequence “nation branding” is sometimes regarded as “a logo for a nation”, which could not be more equivocal.
Misconception #3: Only rich countries have brands. Whether you like the idea or not, your country, whatever it is, has a brand. All countries have brands, because all countries have an image, a reputation, even if it is minuscule and only the neighboring country has some idea of it. As far as someone has an idea of a nation, there’s a nation brand. The difference is not that some countries have brands and others don’t, the difference is that some (often, richer) countries try to nurture their brand while others (often, poorer) don’t.
Misconception #4: You can change your image with advertising. Advertising has a big disavantage: it’s basically you saying that you’re cool, which is not that credible for obvious reasons. Furthermore, what matters most is not what you say about your country, but what others say about it. That’s what really counts in the end and that’s where advertising is cast away and reputation management, a concept akin to nation branding, comes into play. Reputation management is basically caring not about what you say like advertising does, but about what others think and say of your country, and follow a well-thought strategy to proactively prompt those ideas to evolve towards the desired direction.
Misconception #5: Nation branding is miraculous. If your country is rubbish, it will look rubbish, no matter how much you spend on a nation branding project. For nation branding to work, there must be substance. Otherwise it is just cosmetics or just plain propaganda and doesn’t really work. Additionally, nation branding can’t be miraculous as it has limited powers, because the “nation brand” lives in the minds of people, which means that it is beyond the direct control of any government. However, as the brand is the reflection of a country, by operating strategic changes to what the country does and what the country says you’ll also eventually change that reflection. If done properly, nation branding is effective and has brought noteworthy and measurable benefits to many countries in the past, but it won’t make Nicaragua look like Switzerland.