Branding Brunei

An article has appeared in Asia Times about Brunei’s national brand, by Paul Temporal:

You can brand anything; that’s a fact. But why have many countries, including Brunei, recently turned to using branding techniques that are normally confined to the private sector, pop stars and politicians?

Branding has always been seen as the key to sustainable profitability and increased asset value for companies, but countries have now realised the importance of having a strong brand image across the world. Like their private sector counterparts, countries compete for foreign direct investment, tourism, talent and trade.

Although Brunei already has substantial global brand awareness, it has a somewhat neutral image and lacks a well-defined identity and articulated values that it needs to be a strong international player in its chosen sectors such as halal (activities permissible under Islam) products and services, tourism and SME-driven exports.

Like many other countries which have survived on natural wealth such as oil, Brunei needs to diversify into different markets. One successful example of diversification is the United Arab Emirates which has managed to establish a world-class airline. For this to happen in Brunei, it needs to make fundamental policy changes and develop a brand strategy. There are not many products labelled “Made in Brunei” as yet and this is a policy as well as a branding issue.

Like any brand, even more so, nations have individual DNA or “fingerprints” that are unique unto themselves — no two nations are alike. From language and skin colour, to music and art style, to customs and religion, no two nations on Earth are exactly the same. Unlike company brands where imitation is too often a norm, nation brands are often free from this because of their diversity of thought and opinion, geographic separation and language, unique histories and experiences, and genetics. Because of the desire of societies to be special and original, nations like to be strongly differentiated brands and this desire has great effect on country brand identity.

Branding is becoming increasingly relevant as the world enters a new era of unprecedented change, upheaval and uncertainty. This change is strategic, unlike the incremental change of more predictable times, and therefore requires a strategic response. Brand building is exactly such a response. The deregulation of markets and the emergence of more developing countries means that competition is accelerating, and in crowded markets, image power counts.

Some countries already have certain positive image attributes. Say the word “Italian” in conjunction with clothes, sports cars and art and suddenly the items gets a much desired position, being seen as premium and stylish. Japan is known for its high-quality consumer electronics and cars while Switzerland has an image of affluence, precision with a touch of secrecy. Such countries have an image derived from their heritage and culture and their “core values”.

Countries that do not have a strong and positive image have to develop a strategy based on their culture, values and strengths and build a brand around them. Does size count? Are small countries like Brunei at a disadvantage in building brands? The answer is that small can be beautiful as smaller countries can be faster, more nimble and flexible than large ones. They can change faster, adopt niche positions and innovate more quickly, all essential attributes in today’s competitive markets.

Speed and agility have been demonstrated by countries such as New Zealand, Monaco, Iceland, Dubai, Hong Kong and many others, all of which are highly conscious of how they want to be seen (brand identity) and how they are actually seen (brand image), and have used branding techniques to make sure there are no gaps between the two.

Branding done well accomplishes much for countries that undertake it. These benefits include:

  • Currency stability;
  • Attraction of global capital;
  • Greater access to global markets;
  • Increase in international political influence;
  • Growth in export of branded products and services;
  • Increases in inbound tourism and foreign direct investment;
  • Development of stronger international partnerships;
  • Enhancement of nation-building (confidence, pride, harmony, national resolve);
  • Attraction and retention of talent (the human resource and global knowledge);
  • Improvement in the ability to beat competitors and defend local markets;
  • Restoration of global credibility and investor confidence;
  • Reversal of international ratings downgrades

Power brands in the private sector are always top-down driven, but use internal branding activities to engage employees and change policies so that the promise of the brand is delivered. This is the greatest challenge for country branding.

Country brands must be led from the top, which can be Royalty, Rulers, Presidents or Prime Ministers, but there has to be buy-in and commitment across all sectors and the public at large. Compromises must be made and consensus reached, and a roadmap for change that does not erode the nation’s core values has to be drawn up and implemented steadfastly.

It is no good taking the easy way out. For example, it is important not to fall into the trap of believing that advertising will change a nation’s brand image. It will not; but creating favourable policies and skillful public diplomacy will. Advertising may build awareness but, as is the case with the private sector, it is the customer experience that counts and tough policy decisions often have to be made to enable this.

This need for inclusiveness and agreement on an agenda for change, together with public and private sector alignment is what makes branding at country level a difficult process. A structured approach is necessary or the country brand will develop in an ad hoc and perhaps inappropriate way. Many of the smaller countries of Asia may find it less difficult to secure inclusiveness than larger ones. This is certainly the case with Brunei, where consensus and harmony are key strengths.

Another challenge in country branding is intra-brand competition. Mixed messages are often communicated from different areas of government, whether ministries or departments. They arise because government bodies compete with each other for talent and investment, but the result may be confused messages and mixed images about what the country stands for. They have to learn how to build their own images behind that of the master brand — the country.

Only one thing is certain in today’s global markets. If a country does not stand out, and is not positioned as being different and better than its competitors, then its chances of doing well in the future will be less. Branding is all about differentiation.

The process and results of branding at country level are proven, and concern the future prosperity of a nation and its people. In this context, the decision not to build a strong country brand and the consequences of such a decision are unthinkable, and so it should be given the highest priority. A strong brand is essential for survival in the 21st century, and Brunei needs to start developing its brand now.

Dr Paul Temporal has advised leading companies and governments around the world on branding, and is the author of several books on public and private sector branding, He lives in Asia, is an Associate Fellow at Oxford University.