The world’s worst country brands

This week we’ll look at the world’s most unwanted. That is, countries (and nationalities) few feel sympathy for.

Justly or unjustly, most of the world’s worst nation brands are a byproduct of America, which is, as anyone could guess, a country branding amplifier. Yes, the maligned American media and the American movie industry, but also American politics.

In fact, in the last decade, most of the globe’s less liked countries are a consequence of the ‘Axis of Evil’, a geopolitical catchphrase coined by the former Bush administration to bind several rogue, pariah states that were considered by America to be a menace to world peace.

After former US president Bush’s withdrawal, the idea of  an ‘Axis of Evil’ has fallen off grace, and the popularity of the term has faded away. The concept, however, is still interesting as it represents country-branding in a powerful, even if unfair, form.

Very different nations, including Iran, Iraq, Cuba, and North Korea were portrayed so negatively in international politics, that they’ve been deeply tainted in their national reputation, in their country brand images.

Sooner or later, these countries will have to face a nation branding makeover. Just like many countries in the former Eastern European bloc had to go through a re-branding process to overcome negative propaganda from the Western side during the Cold War years, so will these countries need to re-cast, re-fresh and re-introduce themselves when the time comes.

The Axis of Evil masterminds branded Iraq as a haven for terrorists after the September 11 attacks. While Saddam Hussein is no longer among us, the country continues to be linked with the dangerous and the disturbing, resulting in an extremely low country brand value. It comes as no surprise that once the country’s situation improves, it will have to tackle dire image issues. Luckily enough, Iraq will have no shortage of assets to re-brand.

Neighbouring Iran was branded as a fanatical theocracy with nuclear ambitions. The idea has permeated the world’s global consciousness and the country is looked through its government’s behaviour instead of that of its citizens. This results in Iran being one of the world’s most disliked countries – it is now more famous for an obscene anti-semite sentiment and an obsession for everything nuclear than for its glorious Persian past.

However, the same propaganda that portraits another country under a dark light also brings it its strength. North Korea would be just another small, exotic country in the Far East like Laos or Cambodia if it weren’t for US’ efforts to brand it as an evil, dictatorial power. As consequence, today we know more about North Korea than about other 50 countries similar in size. Even more, North Korea has a tremendously powerful brand in the sense that everybody everywhere in the world knows exactly what it stands for. There’s no confusion about what the country represents to most people – evil and repression.

But while America has manufactured and broadcasted ultimate evil empires like North Korea, it has also created martyrs. Cuba, for instance, owes much of its country brand strength to the United States. So the paradox is that Cuba has been made a popular, iconic country brand by America. By attacking, hijacking and embargoing it, America has provided an otherwise irrelevant and decorative Caribbean island with a wealth of country brand juice. In other words, the United States, Cuba’s most ferocious enemy, has gifted Cuba its legendary brand image as a resilient, heroic nation.

But, what’s the world’s worst country brand? According to FutureBrand’s Country Brand Index, it’s Lybia, now on the headlines for the popular uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s dictatorship. In 2008, Libya was ranked last at 78 out of the 78 country brands tracked at the 2008 Country Brand Index and the following year the nation defended its undesirable seat by ranking 102 out of 102 at the 2009 Country Brand Index.

But while Lybia has earned the disputable distinction as the worst country brand in the world for some years now, things might begin to change soon. Change is in the air, and if the current government is eventually overthrown and the country re-invents itself (and behaves properly and consistently over the next 10-15 years), Lybia could prompt its horrific image to improve and leave its place as the world’s worst nation brand to another country.

Article by Andreas Markessinis