Ten Commandments of Nation Branding

There are many different approaches to nation branding, but there seems to be a set of core ideas at the foundations of this exciting discipline. I have summarized these ideas in this list of the 10 basic principles of nation branding. Even if it could appear as such, this decalogue is not the Tables of Moses of Nation Branding (nothing of the kind), but only a list with what I regard as the most fundamental principles concepts of nation branding. Some of them are pretty basic (so should all principles be, after all), but it’s good to remember them once in a while.

1. Nation brands have a tremendous impact on countries. The first principle to be stated clearly is that nation brands have a critical and very tangible impact on the economy, the life and the future of all nations. Reputation, which is another word for “brand”, is crucial because no matter how well designed and engineered a MP3 player from Turkey is, most people will buy the one coming from the US or Japan, even if it is more expensive. So reputation affects in a very evident manner the volume of exports, but it also affects less obviously the fortunes of nationals seeking jobs abroad, the magnetism for inward investment, the power to attract tourists and the ease to work out international relations, among many other critical aspects of a nation. That’s why nation brands are so important and the reason why they must be managed carefully. As consequence, nation branding is no kids’ game.

2. Consistency builds strength. One of the most essential principles of corporate branding is brand consistency, which is roughly defined as keeping coherence in looks, message and behavior, across all touchpoints, which are the instances when a consumer interacts with a brand. These touchpoints can be when buying something in a supermarket, calling the technical support hotline, watching a TV ad or speaking to a representative of the brand itself. It has been proved that consistent brands attain stronger identities (are better regarded and are more memorable) in a shorter time than inconsistent brands, because every impact or “impression” on these instances is well-aligned with the previous ones and thus the brand reaches further. Actual differences aside, the virtues of brand consistency also apply to countries. For nations to gain a stronger or deeper brand, it is convenient that they act in a consistent manner, which means that a similar character, tone of voice, look and way of behaving exists across all touchpoints. For this consistency to be possible, the personality of the people, the sportsmen, the export products, the premium brands, the cities and the politicians must share some common traits that give “character” to everything coming from that nation. This may appear as an Herculian endeavour, but the fact is that sometimes this consistency appears in a natural way, as is the case of Italy for example. Italy has a pretty consistent country brand because many Italian trademarks such as Ferrari, Dolce & Gabbana, Barilla, Gucci or Lamborghini are all modern, stylish and elegant. But Italians themselves are also regarded as stylish, and so are many of their sportsmen, their actors and actresses, artists and even politicians. Even cities and places in Italy are also quite stylish, from the Renaissance buildings to the modern night pubs of Turin or Naples. So products, brands, people, celebrities and places – everything Italian breathes style and attractiveness. That’s an example of a non-doctored, natural, nation brand consistency.

3. Identity is the soul of the nation brand. Before a country can behave consistently, first of all it needs to define that character and behaviour. This is attained by sketching an identity which is the result of an introspective journey into the essence of the nation and its character. In fact, typically one of the first phases of nation branding projects consists in pursuing a quest for the national self and the identification of the country’s ambitions, its desired role in the world and its plans for the future. These elements will play a key role in the nation branding programe, because all actions planned should be aligned with this strategic vision. Who are we, what is our role in the world, what do we want to become, where are we going – these are questions that need to be answered in order to build up a collective sense of the country’s destiny – a nation brand vision, no less.

4. Authenticity is king. As it is very long ago since governments lost most of its ability to shape their citizens’ behavior in a majority of countries, identity and the consistent delivery of that identity is unlikely to be attained by design from above. In fact the smartest way to attain consistency is by building strategically on reality, which at the bottom line means being authentic. To be honest is about developing a brand upon real strengths and being absolutely credible in the nation’s promises. Something unreal is not sustainable and will ultimately fail. One of the first lessons marketing teaches you is that you can only lie about the product once. If you are in the business of nation branding, you are trying the opposite, to create long-term sustainable growth for the country through the development of a nation brand, which implies that all claims must be rock-solid. If honest, a branded nation will deliver on promise, and there is no better branding practice than that, because it builds good reputation. Honesty is also the quickest way to engender trust, and trust grants customer loyalty. This is also valid for commercial brands, but in nation branding specifically, authenticity is key. A nation in branding should not over-hype and promise impressive features and out-of-the-world experiences if it can’t deliver them, as this will result in a lack of trust that damages a brand’s customer pool’s loyalty. Worse, it will generate negative reviews and dissatisfied and disaffected visitors who will never recommend anything coming from that country to their acquaitances. And, rest assure, people trust more their friends, collegues or family kin that your claims on a full-page ad on Newsweek magazine.

5. You can’t change your image only with ads, slogans and logos. Nation branding works in the realm of perceptions. Perceptions are vaporous, elusive and ghostly, but at the same time they are also very real, very heavy and very persistent. As perceptions are built over one individual’s experiences and accounts, they are intimate and hard to change. In fact, nation branding intends not to change perceptions, because perceptions can’t be manipulated. What nation branding does is prompting them to change, by devising and executing a strategy designed to incite perceptions to change. Changing perceptions is what makes nation branding so difficult and also so fascinating. This is an entirely different approach from the traditional advertising model, and in fact proper nation branding cannot be achieved through ads, slogans and logos, but through policy-making and reality-changing nation branding.  The advantage of branding versus advertising is that in the first case the “brand” is not as much what you say about your country, but what others say about your country. One good definition of a nation brand is that it is what others say about your country when you are not there, and in those circumstances, the message is naturally far more credible and effective. Nation branding is based in facts, not ads. These facts are actually what prompt perceptions to change over time.

6. Changing your image can take years. Since the image of nations is the result of years if not centuries of history, changing the perception of a country can take a very loooong time. No one should expect perceptions to change in a week, in a month or even a year. Perception lags behind reality with a number of years. So persistence and patience over time is necessary. That leads to one of the most usual problems in nation branding, which is short-sighted political agendas. Nation branding requires a long-term commitment to the brand strategy to bring fruits, because great brands are not built overnight – they  need ongoing management, investment and evolution over time. On the other side, politicians in democracies on many occasions require nation branding projects to bring fruits before their 4 or 5 years-long mandate expires, which is a pretty unrealistic wish. However, while it is true that perceptions change slowly and also after real changes, it is also true that with the help of nation branding, countries can speed up things. For example, if a country manages to get consistent news on papers and TV channels on a quicker basis, perceptions will also evolve quicker.

7. People never think about your country. Precisely, presence in the media is paramount to any serious nation branding project, because people normally have absolutely no interest in other countries (and sometimes not even in their own country). So don’t fool yourself, there are too many Youtube videos to watch, too many interesting people to meet and too many sports to play to follow what the neighbor country does, let alone a remote, god-forsaken country. So basically people will pay your country no attention at all unless you say or do something interesting and relevant enough to be make them feel attracted. No, internet banners are usually neither interesting nor relevant. But a compelling story of one of your athletes is, a high-tech milestone is. These stories, which must be clearly associated with the country, must send signals that characterizes it in the intended manner. If a country aims to be ecological or scientific or enjoyable, it needs stories to convey such traits, it needs stories to prove that identity. Because if a nation wants to appear modern, not only it needs to become actually modern, but also to look modern, which implies getting the world learn about it.

8. Country brands are polyedric. By polyedric I mean that country brands have several facets. In fact a country brand is composed of a universe of icons that can be organized in six basic constellations: tourism, products, government, investment, culture and people. People have ideas about a country that fall within one of these six categories, and that’s why a nation branding strategy must encompass tactics in each of these categories if it wants to affect the country’s reputation wholly. On the tourism facet there is usually touristic promotion, iconic scenery and famous cities, as well as people’s experiences visiting the country as tourist or business travelers. On the products facet exports are the most precious tool, because they are powerful ambassadors of the country’s image abroad, but only when it is clearly stated where the exports come from. On the government facet the role of the government and its initiatives affect the country’s reputation, but the cabinets must also involve in public diplomacy as well (PR, cultural exchanges…). On the investment facet, it is important to plan how does the nation attract and reward international investment and talent. On the cultural facet, nations must work at publicizing their cultures, because in many ways culture is considered to represent its soul. Culture can be a powerful tool too because of its reach, since it can range from cuisine to famous writers and artists, film-makers, and cultural institutes like the Goethe or the Cervantes. Finally, people, because countries are judged by high-profile leaders, media and sports stars coming from it, but also by the general population – how they are and how they behave within (as hosts) and abroad (as guests). For some countries, all of these facets build up a complex and rich nation brand, but for most countries their “brand” is almost solely composed by one of two of these facets. For instance, for most people, Kenya has only a relevant trait in two of them: tourism (safaris) and people (long distance runners). Generally speaking, the more complex and rich the brand is, the better, because a greater number of attributes can be appealed and used in a greater number of circumstances.

9. Collaboration between public and private. In a world where people interact with other countries when shopping, watching the news, when on vacations, at their workplaces, reading blogs or on international competitions such as Eurovision or the FIFA World Football Cup, governments no longer have the ultimate power to control the image of their country. That implies that nation branding cannot be deployed by the State alone. But the contrary is also right: effective country branding cannot be developed exclusively by the private sector, since it is a country-wise policy. Nation branding demands cooperation between the public and private sectors. In a nation branding project, everyone is a stakeholder and everyone should be given the opportunity to take contest in it, but only State officials have the power to coordinate among all actors the strategies concurred.

10. Branding needs integration. Not only nation branding requires the collaboration of the public and private sectors, but within each all vertical must be counted in. All sectors of the country must be counted in. There is no branding for tourism possible, since only a holistic approach is really branding. Without integration, the tourism board promotes the country as a destination, the foreign investment agency markets the country as a recipient for investors, the cultural institute supports language courses abroad and other national assets like literature folklore or cuisine, all of them with different messages, strategies and looks. The natural and obvious result of this is a fragmented discourse with conflicting messages, disharmony and inconsistency. Only if the tourist board, the FDI agency, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Trade, the sportsmen, the diplomats, the cultural institute, the diaspora and the people within are taken into consideration and are integrated you can speak about real, fully-powered nation branding. Of course, if you’re working with only one of these actors you’re also branding, but branding only a facet of the whole brand.

Article by Andreas Markessinis