Branding the Philippines

Marketing gurus visiting the Philippines for the first time are generally keen to generously share their views on “country branding” and how the country stands to benefit from it. More often than not, their passionate plea concludes with a pleasant-sounding, albeit hastily crafted slogan and a prescription for the Philippine government to launch yet another series of TV commercials and ads in glossy international business magazines. Unfortunately for us, these well-meaning suggestions entail spending tens of millions of taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Country branding need not be this expensive! Success is not guaranteed by the millions and billions of pesos spent on ads all around the world. There is another less expensive way for the Philippines, a path that runs through the hearts of millions of Filipinos rather than on TV screens.

A revealing moment was the recent outcry among Filipinos here and abroad about an offensive scene in a popular American television series, ‘Desperate Housewives,’ where one of the leading actresses wanted to first check the credentials of her Filipino doctor to make sure that said doctor was not a graduate of ‘some med school in the Philippines’. Suddenly, we realized how much our country brand mattered, because our own reputation as individuals depended on it.

Unpleasant as it may be, this ‘Desperate Housewives’ episode is instructive. It reveals how we have come to identify Filipino doctors and nurses as one of the country’s main brand assets. Unlike other countries who would boast of their beautiful old monuments or their advanced technology, we know that the core ingredient of the Philippine brand is its people. We ARE the brand! This means that we have a responsibility towards this brand because we are part of it and it is part of us. This brings us to what we believe are some basic, irrefutable truths about country branding.

Branding the Philippines begins inside the heart of every Filipino and Filipina, whether he or she lives at home or abroad. They, more than any expensive advertising campaign, have the power to become the country brand’s ambassadors if we can just ignite in them a deep sense of pride in their country and the confidence to carry this out successfully. All they need is a rallying point, and this is precisely what a country brand is about.

Country branding, however, is a game of patience and consistency. Country branding requires persistence because it seeps ever so slowly into the minds and hearts of the target audiences. It requires a very solid foundation because, like the cathedrals of the past, it is a work that will continue and even outlive several generations.

What is a country brand, and why does it matter so much in the flat world described by Thomas Friedman? How do we go about it? What is the process to identify, nurture and protect our very own country brand? What does a Philippine™ stand for? What are our unique characteristics that set us apart and make our cultural and commercial production immediately recognizable and appreciated? More than expounding on the above, this article is a call to action. To paraphrase President Kennedy, “we should not ask ourselves what our country brand can do for us, but what we can do for our country brand”. And there is a lot we can do!

Essentials of Country Branding

A country brand is not only comprised of commercial ingredients. Culture is a country’s true spirit and essence. It plays an essential role in the process of enriching a country’s brand image. The value of culture in national branding is that, like geography, culture is a truly unique feature of the country. A painting by Amorsolo, a novel by Nick Joaquin reveals more about the Philippines than a thousand slogans.

Another important component of country branding is public diplomacy. Country branding happens and becomes effective when a substantial number of the population of the country gets behind the strategy and lives it out in their daily dealings with the outside world. Experience has shown that our perception of a country changes for the better because of one good friend or an encounter with an outstanding individual from that country. The reverse happens as a result of an unsavory experience with just one person from another country. According to Ambassador Delia Albert: “Public diplomacy is not just what ambassadors do. The caring competence of Filipino nurses in Californian hospitals, the patient professionalism of our call center agents or the creative skills of our animation artists are now becoming recognized all around the world, transforming each of these ordinary Filipinos into “brand ambassadors extraordinaire.”

In 2002, at the peak of the SARS crisis, Filipino nurses in Singapore were initially feared and shunned by passengers on buses and subway trains because they were in contact with highly contagious patients. After some time, however, when they realized that these nurses were the only ones brave enough to keep taking care of their patients when everyone else was too afraid to even approach them, initial hostility turned to admiration and even a deep sense of gratitude.

Standing Out in a Flat World

A key benefit of starting the branding process from culture is that it helps us identify our most authentic competitive advantages. As Thomas Friedman observed, “the world is getting flat and countries that do not stand out in this flat world stand little chance to stand up to the competition.”

How can a country benefit from a country brand? When it is positive, the country brand adds value to practically everything associated with the country. Branding helps shape the country’s image. A country brand serves as a defining ingredient to a country’s products and services and the way its people are perceived. “Country branding will help earn recognition for qualified Filipino professionals and workers,” according to Henry Schumacher, executive director of the European Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines, who just launched the OneFilipino portal at to foster awareness of the Filipino’s professionalism all around the world.

Branding encourages local and foreign investments. Having strong and well-known export brands fosters confidence among companies and countries. As an example, the Japanese and Koreans have developed confidence knowing that their products are trusted and sell very well in the global market — a far cry from more than 40 years ago when their products were perceived as shoddy, second-rate, cheap and worthless.

Branding helps retain qualified workers who otherwise may stay abroad or attract them back home. Before Infosys’ success story jump-started the growth of major software and service industries in the country, India conjured images of the caste system, religious violence, malnourished children and absolute poverty. Today, this image is balanced by Bangalore’s reputation as the new ‘Silicon Valley of Asia.’ In fact, Infosys under the leadership of Mr. N.R. Narayana Murthy received the Economist’s Innovation Award in 2007, not just for being at the origin of the whole outsourcing phenomenon, but also, to quote from The Economist editorial director Daniel Franklin, for “changing India at the same time.” By putting India on the world business map, Infosys repositioned the country brand forever.

Towards a Country Roadmap, Yes We Can!

As pointed out by Dr. Federico Macaranas of the Asian Institute of Management, “Branding can serve as a rallying point and help focus the energies of all stakeholders towards a common goal. It serves as an anchor that pulls a nation together and for us, Filipinos, helps us see more of the best in us. We brand ourselves for our children and the next generation, more than for the world.”

To turn this dream into reality , we need a national country roadmap that will put the Philippines in the world map in the same way as outsourcing did for India. This will require a deliberate, consistent and focused effort which will add tremendous value to the products and services produced by the country, instill confidence, pride and prestige among Filipinos wherever they are, and enhance relationships that the Philippines nurtures with the world.

Branding starts in the mind of the consumer. The first step in the branding process is to conduct market research to identify in the mind of the consumer a vacant space where we can put the Filipino flag. The second step, positioning, is about identifying the very special mix of ingredients that sets us apart in South East Asia, among emerging markets and English-speaking countries. And what a colorful mix we are indeed: English-speaking Asians with Spanish names and a unique youthful energy! Whatever the 21st Century will look like, it will definitely have some of our features.

In step 3, we will validate the positioning with key opinion leaders among various sectors of society – and not just the elite. The message must be relevant (does it address the key needs of the audience/users?); credible (based on plausible and doable goals); sustainable (captures defensible real and perceptual present and future territory); and unique (covers characteristics that distinguish it from its competitors).

The last step refers to working on the national roadmap itself. This requires an integration framework that takes the country brand as the ultimate criterion for any policy decisions pertaining to the people, culture, inward investments and recruitment, foreign and domestic policy, export brands, and tourism promotion. Government-led coalitions must come together with clear and aligned messages and actively engage partners in embedding these messages in all their communication plans. This process will need to be institutionalized with a commitment from the private sector and large segments of society; otherwise it will suffer from the penchant of each newly elected administration to thrash out everything that was done by its predecessors, regardless of the long-term implications.

A country brand is shared and built collectively. Everybody has a stake in this endeavor. Everybody becomes an ambassador whose role it is to help the Philippines position itself in the world not strictly from a commercial view but from a multi-dimensional point of view. It is like a basketball team composed of different players, each with his qualities and distinct personality, unified by the shared purpose to win, and a team spirit. Filipinos who have the opportunity to be influential have to work together for an aligned blueprint around Team Philippines. If we are all in this together, how can this not work?

Bountiful Natural Resources

The Philippines is a land of marvelous bounty and rejuvenating vitality. Our 7,107 islands offer one of the richest biodiversities in the world. Our seas and freshwater resources offer seafood as well as deep-sea treasures like pearls. Our land is home to the sweetest mangoes in the world and other exotic fruits like lanzones, durian, rambutan and chico. We can brand and export personal care products based on the natural, unique Filipino ingredients such as the ilang-ilang, which is a Filipino flower sold in France, and the abaca or the Manila hemp, a versatile product. We can actually ‘own’ them and protect them in the same way as developed countries protect their intellectual property and their trademarks. The region of Champagne in France spent millions of Euros in legal fees to ensure that no other region in the world can use the word “Champagne” to describe their wines. New Zealand is known as the country of origin of the delicious kiwi fruit.

We can help enrich the image of the country brand and export products with these natural, exotic and uniquely Filipino ingredients. We can trademark these products in the mind of global consumers with a “Philippine vitality inside” brand to match the famous “Intel inside.” Vitamins and personal care products never looked so appealing and colorful. We can position the Philippines as a land of rejuvenating vitality. We can leverage on our unique environment and natural products to promote international research, medicines and tourism. But if we want to leverage and promote these unique assets, we have to start by protecting them in the first place.

(Proudly) Made in the PhilippinesTM

Most of the country’s exports today consist of unbranded, low added-value products, from electronic components to mining and agriculture. And yet, some of our products could command a much higher price on global markets if they were properly branded. The first step would be to proudly leverage on their Philippine character instead of trying to copy foreign design and me-too marketing strategies. San Miguel is among the very few well-known export brands originating from the Philippines, but sadly the brand is more closely identified as a Spanish or Latin American brand so this does not benefit the Philippine brand as a country of origin. There are, however, huge opportunities for one or several Filipino brands in the food and beverage sector. One only needs to look at the incredible success of C2 beverage drinks to measure the benefits of having a young population ready to adopt innovative, hip new products that meet its needs.

The widening range of Splash beauty products has strong potential to reach out to the “hyphenated” markets in the US and from there to cross over onto the mainstream market provided it proudly wears its Southern origin on its sleeve. By focusing on its unique connection with Philippine biodiversity, Splash could aim to become the Body Shop of the Southern hemisphere. Cebu Pacific has good credentials at the Southeast Asian level, thanks to its right mix of fun and friendly service supported by technical competence. In the health care sector, St. Luke’s Medical Center is known as a Philippine hospital which has more and high-technology facilities and equipment than 95% of American hospitals – plus the unique Philippine caring touch. The Asian Hospital, Medical City and the UST Cancer Center are increasingly contributing to the Philippines’ “medical sunbelt” image. Globe and PLDT-SMART telecommunications and e-services provide a fertile breeding ground for collaborative mobile and gaming applications. ABS CBN and GMA 7 could leverage on the Filipino diaspora of more than eight million around the globe and become a force to reckon with in content production, entertainment and broadcasting, which are among the 21st century’s sunrise industries.

We can turn our domestic brands into regional and global brands with the deepest Filipino values embedded in their universal core. Jollibee, for instance, stands for shared fun (“Ang saya”), care for consumers, accessibility, and a non-intimidating retail outlet. Other Filipino values are love of family, emphasis on personal relationships, empathy and hiya (sense of shame; face); care for stability, status, reputation as transposable character are Asian values in general. You can leverage on these values to build flourishing brands in the financial services, banking, insurance, real estate, and tourism sectors. And the list goes on.

All these potentials will become reality only if our products and homegrown companies are able to keep pace with the demands of a globalized world. In the recent National Innovation Summit, Filipinnovation was introduced as a distinct brand of innovation created by the Filipino in the Philippines and the global community. Institutionalizing a culture of innovation across multiple sectors is indeed the only way to compete and get a headstart in an increasingly globalized world.

The brand is us

Filipinos ARE the Philippine brand, a brand that enjoys already many positive attributes. History speaks well of us as a people. We were the first country in Asia to have a national revolutionary struggle for independence during the colonial period. In contemporary times, we inspired the world with our peaceful People Power ‘revolution’ that led to democratic reforms in the country. Colorful? Yes, in an inspiring, contagious way.

We have proven our resilience and have even thrived over time through cooperation. Our language is replete with concepts and words such as “pakikisama,” “pagmamalasakit” and “pakikipag-kapwa tao,” which eloquently describe the importance of this process of building by drawing upon our collective strength. Our world- famous Banawe rice terraces are not the result of slave labor, but of a caring and community spirit, our bayanihan spirit and desire to feed the whole community.

These emotional qualities are well identified and recognized. As we try to find our place in the emerging world, it might be tempting to portray China as the “brawn” of Asia, given its manufacturing base, India as the “brains of Asia,” with its high end outsourcing and programming skills, and the Philippines as the “heart of Asia,” with its strength in EQ-driven services.

For a more complete picture of the Filipino, the brand should integrate his and her other features such as being “caring,”, open to new ideas, adaptable, willing to learn, and ability to work in a team – a major advantage in today’s globalized world. Thus, the Philippines is not only the heart of Asia, but the “EQ-Heart of Asia,” which is acceptable as long as this is complete with a testimonial to the Filipinos’ high levels of professionalism rather than a sentimental depiction of the Filipinos’ supposedly innate good heart.

To summarize all these qualities of the Filipinos in one single expression that is easy to memorize, we created the expression “the 4Cs”: Caring, Colorful, Creative and Collaborative, and we tested it together with Dr. Macaranas. These four attributes were proposed to a large number of academics, investors, and foreign employers of Filipinos who found them highly credible. Taken independently, these qualities may also be found in other people. Together, they represent a unique mix that is not only truthful to the Filipino’s character, but also relevant for today’s employers and investors.

Reversing the Kawawa Image

It is high time for us to reverse the kawawa image. Instead of saying that we are ‘poor,’ we should appreciate the fact that our circumstances have made us resilient and hard-working. Instead of using ’underdeveloped’ to describe our country, we can own up to being a youthful people who can serve as a test-bed for services and products targeting the “next” two billion consumers from the Southern hemisphere with a growing purchasing power. Our diaspora of more than eight million Filipinos in 193 countries can be like a fortress out of which our brands will conquer the world. Instead of feeling that we are passing up on opportunities because our labor is more expensive than that of China and Vietnam, we should invest heavily in preparing our young generations to excel in higher-skilled jobs. Lastly, we can proudly say that our ‘traditional society’ is founded on authentic human relations and Filipino values.

A country on the move

A compelling, immediately recognizable country brand serves as the global equivalent of the roads to markets of the industrial era. A powerful combination of Reputation Management and vital marketing, country branding transforms opinion makers into goodwill ambassadors. It builds avenues into the hearts and minds of consumers and investors through thousands of conversations taking place all around the world at the same time.

But what is the story? How do you feed the buzz? For the longest time, the Philippines has been described as a country with a high potential, but over all these decades it remained just that — a potential. What does it take, then, beyond a growth rate and a rising Peso, for the world’s opinion leaders to start noticing and spreading the good news? It takes a sense of direction, a purpose, to capture these people’s attention and persuade them to feed the global buzz about the Philippines as the new, happening place — a country on the move. And it takes a critical mass of Filipinos to believe in their own story and to start telling it around with growing conviction and credibility.

All the ingredients of a great story are here: an abundance of heroes, armed with courage, resourcefulness, and compassion and ready to face formidable obstacles. But what has been missing so far is the willingness to invest in telling our own story. India has positioned itself among the cultural superpowers, boxing way above its economic category by making Bollywood and other cultural manifestations an integral part of its public diplomacy. Chinese movies have conquered the world, and the Beijing Olympics are being carefully organized as a showcase of the country’s cultural greatness and ‘peaceful rise’. In the same way, the Philippines needs to support its original music, invest in translating its movies and show them in international festivals, support its writers in international book fairs and promote its creative designers. Entertainment is an area of excellence for Filipinos, who should be soon exporting telenovelas, feature films and videogames all around the planet.

This is the story of a young doctor. Caring, colorful, collaborative, cute, and highly competent. After spending a few years practicing in the US, he or she is now returning to build his or her own clinic in the Philippines. Interestingly enough, Desperate Housewives are queuing up to book through his or her web site. The name of his or her clinic? Rejuvenate.

Article by Junie S. Del Mundo, taken from here