Branding Belarus

Belarus has tried re-casting itself on a few occasions for the last two decades, but its nation brand image is still today haunted by stereotypes of Soviet flavour.  It’s time for a rebrand.

Most people thought of former Byelorussia as a smaller, offspring version of Russia if not just a Russian province. And that’s probably one of the reasons why Belarusian authorities changed the former country’s name of Byelorussia to Belarus in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A new sovereign state needed a ‘real’ nation to substantiate its independence, and a distinctive name was an important component of its new national identity.

The country’s ‘new’ brand name was intended to emphasize the historic and ongoing distinctness of the nation of Belarus from the Russian timeline. Accordingly, the name Byelorussia was replaced by Belarus in English, and equivalent changes ocurred in another languages. On the same year, Belarusians chose a new flag to represent their upgrade to statehood – a new national flag that replaced the old emblem of the Soviet republic.

The new flag, which had the usual colorset of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, had pro-Western leanings and had been used before the USSR was born. It had also been the flag of the collaborationist puppet state under German control during WW2, so it also had conservative ties.

However, the flag with the red stripe against a snow-white background was not to last for long. In 1995, a nationwide referendum called on Belarusians to cast their votes on four issues, among them the introduction of a new flag and a new coat of arms. The referendum passed and Belarus approved to have new national symbols. All of them were now less of Polish/LIthuanian influence and more Russian in style and meaning.

Branding Belarus

This succession of changes in name, flag and coat of arms led to heated internal disputes, but had no effect outside the country whatsoever. The world remained just as ignorant of Belarus as ever before. Fast forward to 2010, and common people still know virtually nothing from Belarus. Just test yourself: name two cities in Belarus. Nope? Then name at least one person coming from there. If still not, say one Belarusian word. None? Then try to sing a Belarusian song. Or just name a writer, artist or sportsman. Nothing.

One of the main problems with countries that most people know nothing about it is that their image is constructed with images from other countries, or with stereotypes. What associations come to your mind when you hear Belarus? If you’re like most people, you’ll think about plain snow-covered landscapes, large-scale agricultural production and a grey, heavy, almost radioactive atmosphere lurking above Soviet-styled buildings. What else could you expect from a country located among Poland, Ukraine and Russia?

The sad fact is that most people don’t know anything about the country, and as consequence the typical stereotypes pour into the void. Belarus’ image is more the result of the combined images of Poland, Russia and Ukraine than the reflection of Belarus itself. In other words, stereotypes and images from other countries are fulfilling the country’s image void.

Branding Belarus

It’s clear that Belarus has a national image issue. The country has not yet an image it can call its own. To the common world citizen it has no distinctiveness, no special feature, no characterizing trait. It has no celebrities, no known monuments, no famous landscaps, no famed typical music, no popular commercial brand, no picturesque folklore, nothing. Nothing that could be a clue for people to know how Belarus is or how Belarusians are. Nothing. Nada. Niente. Niet. Rien de rien.

Belarus needs to be re-branded. It needs to portray itself, to take a stand, to rise among the other competing nations of the world, to be known for something. But it doesn’t need to go berserk purchasing ad spots on CNN, Newsweek and Time. At a first stage Belarus does not need advertising or slogans. It needs strategic thinking.

For instance, if it wants to be known for its unspoilt nature, Belarusians should not buy ads showing wonderful pictures of their countryside, but make instead global headlines by founding the world’s largest national park. Then launch a set of world-pioneering laws that improve Belarusian nature first, and gain world recognition only as consequence. And then bring people to experience it and tell to their acquaintances. Not by placing an ad, but by getting a low-cost company to fly to Minsk from several second-tier airports in Western Europe. And then drive similar moves in a persistent, consistent manner.

The nation-branding working team of Belarus needs to think what the country wants to be known for in 10 years time. In order to be able to sketch a roadmap detailing how to reach that situation in that timespan, the country needs to know where it is standing right now. A global scale survey should be launched to know what kind of an image Belarus has. Does it really have one bad image, or it has no image of its own at all as I instinctively wrote above? These are completely different scenarios, and should be treated differently thereafter.

Facta non verba

The roadmap for this 10-years-long journey should pinpoint the steps to be taken during the trip. Not the ones that change the country’s image, but the ones that change the country itself. In other words, not the ones that claim, but the ones that prove. The reflection on the country’s image will come later, but it will.

The survey will show up existing image issues, and strategists should find ways these issues could be addressed by the new strategic moves. If Belarus has a bad image issue and it wants that image to change, it needs to prove by fact that those ideas are either outdated or wrong. It needs to provide overwhelming evidence of the contrary.

Nation branding is not about saying, but about becoming and proving. An image can’t be changed, it can only be deserved. Lest we forget, all evidences must be chosen provided they have ground and correspond with reality. Otherwise it’s just plain state propaganda.

Additionaly, all of these evidences should be a part of a consistent national narrative. Belarus should articulate a common discourse binding all of the country’s strengths in a coherent, cohesive manner. Take the aforementioned idea of the world’s largest natural park for instance.

People believe in what they think makes sense. And it makes sense that a country which suffered so much from Chernobyl (the site of the nuclear disaster was very close to the Belarusian border) has now created the world’s largest natural park. It makes perfect sense. Journalists understand it, the story gives continuity to something everybody already knows and voilà – you’ve got a story hitting world headlines.

Turn weaknesses into strengths. Is Belarrussia perceived as backward? That could be an asset, not a liability. Backward villages are primitive, but also a great attraction form the iPhone-handling urbanite who could mesmerize at beautiful Slavic rites of pagan origin. Does the country lack infrastructures? Well, it can convey the image of endless, unspoilt nature. It’s a magnet for the adventure, outdoor enthusiast.

Belarus must be relevant in the 21st century for something to peoples abroad. Why is Belarus relevant to my life, should a guy in Colombia ask. What does Belarus provide me, could a girl in Thailand wonder. Why do we need Belarus, could a boy in Italy ask himself? I’ll sketch out a few examples.

Well, Belarus has extensive natural resources and 66 percent forest cover. It’s a green lung for Europe providing much needed oxygen. That brings a sense of relevancy; now that we know it, we realize we need Belarus.

Well, Belarus is also home to the Belarusian bison and has a wonderful animal wildlife. It’s a great reserve for animals not found elsewhere. Now that we know it, we thank Belarus for its existance.

If you live in any rural area in continental Europe, you’ll probably know Belarus tractors. Belarus tractors are the country’s biggest visible export – and sometimes considered as being more famous than Belarus itself. And just like Guinness beer says a lot about Ireland (pubs, music, dance), Belarus tractors bring a message of Belarus. A country of rural values, which to many have long been lost.

Nation branding is not, “How do we make ourselves famous?”; it’s “How do we make ourselves relevant?” How do we touch people in other countries so that they go to bed at night thinking, “I’m glad Belarus exists”? For the outdoor enthusiast, for the ecologically-minded, for the farmer – they all are happy that Belarus exists.

– Article by Andreas Markessinis