An issue of national identity

Siegel+Gale, the NYC-based branding firm, has issued an interesting, yet short, article on country branding. On “An issue of national identity”, the author tackles how we relate to our country and our neighbours.

The issue of national identity cropped up again last week at Siegel+Gale…..which got me thinking about nation brands.

Europe is a patchwork quilt of different cultures, with difference actually being part of the attraction of individual nations, part of their identity. But cultural friction is rife within many individual countries in Europe, even within the United Kingdom. A leading journalist wrote in the The Times recently:

“Across Europe the shift of sovereign power from nations to Brussels has been matched by a move below the national tier towards regions and localities.” (Read the Times Online article)

We are European, but our sentiments towards Europe differ dramatically from country to country. And even at a national level, as the article discusses, a sense of unified identity is often compromised.

Despite the fact that regional or national identity is often hard to hold together, but every country has moments when its people feel proud to be XXXXian (or XXXish….or XXXXese).

Putting armed conflict aside (as the tragic events in South Ossetia illustrate only too well) one of the few occasions that national or regional identity coalesces into something powerful is around sporting events. But these can be limited. The Ryder Cup is the only big Team Europe event that captures the public interest in the UK; and on a regional level, even as a “Brit”, I find myself supporting England more often than Great Britain.

This itself brings up the interesting issue of competition. Do we need a competing identity to reject in order to throw our own sense of identity into relief? Does an anti-French sentiment make a Brit feel more British? Do the Scots feel more Scottish when beating England on the rugby field? Do we feel a rare moment of European unity only in the context of a Ryder Cup putt?

And what about this week’s Olympics? I watched both the Chinese women’s archery and women’s rowing teams in action over the weekend. They were impressive and I couldn’t help thinking about whether there was something innate in Chinese people that made them concentrate better, hold a steadier hand, push harder through the pain barrier. And, of course, I had to think about why the British teams had not performed as well, particularly in sports we normally dominate. Are we psychologically fragile? Lazy? Not as driven? A nation in decline, even?

Competition seems to be tightly bound up with national identity, whether directly on the sports field or whether shaping, for example, significant B2B decisions regarding investment, outsourcing and overseas development in general.

And it’s not just about people. Products that can play a key role in shaping national identity. France, Spain, Italy are all strongly associated with distinct and delicious local food and drink…all of which drive an economically advantageous consumer behaviour – tourism. But also think of Egyptian cotton, Sri Lankan tea, cut flowers from Holland. These ‘hero products’ really do drive the perception of a country and can be used to great effect. Think of coffee and Colombia, or cigars from Cuba, which have been both genuinely competitive products on the global market place and have also shaped international perception of the country in question. I’m not sure I’m ready to go to Bogota for the perfect cup of coffee yet, but it’s clearly not all about the drugs trade. And that may be enough to get an adventurous traveler to consider Colombia as ‘safe enough’.

This is a complex topic – and one we certainly intend to look into in more depth. Stay tuned…