Branding Iraq

If there is a country in the world in a real, dire need of being recast, that must be Iraq. Think about Iraq and images of patrolling American soldiers, bomb cars exploding and killing dozens, massive oil excavations and the internal conflicts between Shiites and the Sunnites come to mind. But Iraq does not merely have an image crisis, it has a complete identity breakdown. It is not a nation, nor a country, not even a State. It must be completely re-constructed, and that means that in its image and reputation facet, absolutely everything is waiting to to be done.

In fact, the makeover of Iraq must surely be the most difficult undertaking a national branding task force can face, as the society is so divided and the public infrastructure so ruined. The decades of the asphyxiating Saddam Hussein’s regime, with its complete disconnection from the rest of the world have left a country with virtually no tourism, inexistent public diplomacy, absent stand or role in the international affairs, lacking culture and no economic relationship with any country other than the export of oil.

At first sight, there are certainly no obvious foundations upon which building the identity of the country. But as happens more often than not, great problems always set the chance for great solutions. Nation branding in Iraq is an enormous endeavor, but a possible one. History, for instance, can provide inspiration, as archaeologists remind us that Iraq was once the cradle of many cultures, from the Akkadians to the Assyrians and from the Babylonians to the Parthians, not forgetting the Sassanid and the Abbasid empires. It was in Iraq that one of the first bodies of laws in human history, the Hammurabi’s code, was crafted.

In reality, even Saddam Hussein himself can provide an opportunity, because no color makes white more white than black does. An example of this power of contrasts can be seen in Spain. Spanish officials were smart enough not to hide its Franco past, but rather use it to remark the sharp contrast between the old and the new Spain. The worse the Francoist regime appeared, the better the new Spain looked – and this stark contrast made the image of the new Spain more modern and forward-looking. In a perverse similar sense, Saddam Hussein is a gift to any political leader to rule over Iraq – he will look great in all comparisons no matter how bad he or she may be. In the same direction, all progress in Iraq will look more impressive in the world’s eyes than the same progress in any other country.

Another advantage that Iraqies can count on if they are serious about recasting their country is the mass media coverage. The fact that Iraq has been for so much time in our TV screens has put Iraq in the world map, a luxury most third-world countries will never have. People know very well what Iraq is and where it is, after years of hitting headlines on papers and tv’s, with hundreds of thousands of maps being printed and broadcasted about events occurring in the country. This pre-existing knowledge is a valuable asset, and as such an asset any nation branding campaign for Iraq should capitalize on.

Moreover, the fact that Iraq has been in the limelight for so many years also means that any initiative taken in Iraq will hit the news with greater probability than the same initiative hailing from Egypt or Thailand or Uruguay, because people is naturally more inclined to follow the Iraqi drama’s epilogue than start to follow stories from countries they have never had any previous contact with. Iraq should be able to manage the interest that the disgraceful wars has attracted for its own benefit. Using this mass-media attention, Iraq is better positioned to smoothly change the usual tragic images with more appealing scenes – and the world will probably watch these changes with interest.

But in order to fulfill this change of image, Iraq must not rely on casual changes or progresses, but follow a strategic identity plan. And the time is now for developing it, just as the country enters a new phase. Iraq may have the attention of the world for a period of time as things improve, but the country will only maximize the capitalization of these improvements if it has a proper nation branding strategy.

For that, Iraqis must first enter a debate to re-think themselves, in order to determine what do they aspire to, what role should their country play in the world, what should it stand for. Iraq must search within its collective soul and find the compelling, resonant and differentiating truths about itself, and then make those attributes more relevant to the audiences Iraqis need to reach.

Article by Andreas Markessinis