Interview: China’s nation brand and Shanghai’s 2010 Expo

Looking back through history, international events are coveted by their host countries to promote their nations’ brands. The Olympics had successfully repositioned Greece and Spain as attractive nations. And the 1933 Chicago Expo is regarded as a marker for the US recovery from the recession. With the 2010 World Expo on Shanghai’s horizon, can China’s rank improve on a global stage? What does China need to do to take full advantage of the opportunity?

In order to explore these questions, Chinese paper Eastday has interviewed John Quelch, a professor at Harvard Business School whose research focus is on global marketing and branding. Mr. Quelch is famous for his teaching materials and innovations on pedagogy; over the past 20 years, he has sold over 2.7 million case studies, the third highest in Harvard Business School history. Even if he is no nation branding specialist, as a marketing expert his answers are nonetheless sound and interesting.

Let’s start by talking today in explaining a little bit about what nation branding is.
Well nation branding is all about positioning a particular nation state in the minds of consumers. Those consumers might be voters or citizens of other countries. They might be potential tourists. They might be potential investors. There are a number of different segments that a typical nation branding strategy could potentially target, but the idea is to put your best foot forward and make clear to each target segment what the special qualities, attributes and benefits are of your nation, vis-à-vis the many other nations in the world. Remember that, there are about 195 nations in the world competing for the attention of investors, tourists, and citizens.

Can you give us a few examples of some countries that have had to brand themselves or have it done well?

Well, a couple of examples that I think do stand out. Interestingly, these are relatively small countries. So for example, about 20 years ago, Costa Rica in Latin America, had the notion that it could basically present itself as a venue for US retirees, American senior citizens who are retiring to go and buy a second home or become permanent residents. And it was a very successful effort. Now a second example, totally different, would be Dubai, where you have a small nation in the Middle East, part of the United Arab Emirates, no oil revenue to speak of in Dubai and therefore the need to develop completely different strategy. What Sheikh Mohammed and his team in Dubai have done over 20-25 years is to first of all develop Dubai as duty-free entrepot between Asia and Europe and then as a result of all of the travelers who came through Dubai and change planes in Dubai as they were moving from Asia to Europe. Those people became familiar with Dubai and on the basis of that, initiative. It was possible to build a very successful city-state with tremendous amount of commercial activity, which is very similar in a way to what Lee Kuan Yew did with Singapore, making Singapore the gateway to Asia. Now Dubai is the gateway to the Middle East.

Is it hard for China to brand itself as a country when you have these too huge standouts?
Right. There is actually, in a sense, a competition between city brands and country brands. And in many cases, the image of a country internationally will be based largely on the image of the capital city. The advantage of that is that you have the political, the economic, the social elite and decision-making all concentrated in one place. The United States and China are 2 geographically much larger countries and, not surprisingly therefore, there is potentially more diffusion of decision-making power across the larger geography. And in the US, of course, we have NY, but we also have Washington, we have Los Angles, we have San Francisco, Chicago and Boston, all of these, in their own right, are very important centers for one reason or another. In China, as well, very large country, it is rather unusual and surprising if everything was concentrated in one city. And actually a source of great competitive strength for a country is to have different major cities competing against each other. That is actually healthier than to have a London or a Paris type of situation in my view. So I think that Beijing has its special character and personality; Shanghai has its special character and personality. The fact that you can find both in China actually enhances the appeal of China.

The National Brand Index score is made up of 6 categories: exports, governance, culture and heritage, people, tourism as well as investment and immigration. In the culture category, China ranked No. 9 in 2008. However, in the remaining 5 categories, it fell out of the top 15 altogether. Overall, China was ranked in the bottom half, 28 out of 50 countries. Let’s talk a little bit about how China is perceived. Looking at nations that are involved in that, you don’t see China anywhere near the top.
Well, China, I think, in a sense, is a relatively new phenomenon. If you think about it, there have only been a couple of decades, so remember that, prior to Den Xiaoping and the opening, we had the Culture Revolution and Mao Tse-tung and so forth. And that created an image of China as a very closed society, a very egalitarian society. And that particular image, of course, you know, cannot be erased in 5 minutes. Now obviously, the last two decades have seen enormous transformation in China in terms of economic and social and political development.

What are your observations about China? You traveled around quite a bit and you spent a lot of time here.
When I came in 1981, there was no food worth eating, or at least no food that I could retain. Let’s put it that way. Secondly there was basically nothing to buy. Thirdly, I was followed everywhere by a very nice young man wearing a uniform. If you look at 27, 28 years later, when I think of China, I think of the concept of transformation. And I think of the development of an economy and a social structure and so forth that has been really unprecedented in the history of the world.

Do you think there’re maybe some misunderstandings about China from people who just know of its past, of its history, and the stories that came out of here, and don’t know enough about its culture, its people, to formulate their own opinion?
Right, so one of the things you can do as a research is of course, to simply go to someone in a foreign country and say what you think of China, or what do you know of China? Well, I haven’t done the research, but, probably, Chairman Mao would figure prominently. Probably communism would figure prominently. It’s more sort of historic stuff. But actually is not really as relevant anymore.

The Olympics have been seen as China’s global coming-out party. However, when asked to choose one thing representing China, foreigners most often chose: the Great Wall, Chinese Kongfu and Chinese food, not much related to the modernized China we see today. With China, you can’t really start with a clean slate, this is some almost having a turn-the-image-around, from what I understand, that’s going to be much harder than developing a clean image.
Yes, It’s actually easier to develop an image for a small unknown country, than to take a really large and prominent country that may already have some image and redevelop that image. So an excellent example of a failed attempt at this was the effort in the United Kingdom during the earlier years of Tony Blair to develop a repackaged image of Britain as“Cool Britannia”. And the notion here was most people in the world had an image of the UK as a very worthy but somewhat old fashioned, staid type of country. The images of the Royal family, images of museums, images of castles, recollections of Oliver Twist, and Charles Dickens. It was very much a historic image rather than the notion that the UK was on the cutting edge of technology revolution and there was inventiveness and creativity and lots of cutting edge thinking. So “Cool Britannia” was an attempt to actually change that image. What undercut “Cool Britannia” was principally the cynicism of the British people, when they saw this image building campaign, they actually said, hey, this is ridiculous; I really don’t want to buy into this.

You need to almost ask the people of your country, what their opinions are too, because I think that campaign actually eliminated some of the things that people love about UK.
In the effort to redefine the image of the UK, what this campaign did was actually throw out the old, which people really value as British citizens, especially outside of London. You go outside of London into the countryside of the UK and you find a completely different mindset, and I’m sure the same is true in China as well. Go outside of Shanghai and Beijing, you find a completely different mindset, in many of the rural areas, so one of the problems with nation building is that there isn’t really a homogeneous point of view among the citizens of any nation.

What does China need to do or what audience does China need to target to start changing their image?
I would definitely focus on young people, because, quite frankly, because they are more open-minded, they are on the Internet, they have more cumulative travel experience for their years than most of their elderly counterparts have had in their lifetime. And so I think that is where the effort has to be principally directed. Now, of course, there are certainly stakeholder groups, the opinion leaders, in Washington and so forth, who are going to have a point of view about China that’s going to be framed by policy decisions and policy debates.

My perceptions of China before I got here were mostly focused at the government and the differences, I am an American, the freedoms that are allowed in the US compared to here in China. And a lot that I didn’t know or understand changed when I got here. But none of that seems to proceed back. What do you do to change that?
Well, there’s frequently a time lag between where a nation is in terms of progress and realities. The perception typically lags reality, except for the people who are on the ground in the country. So I think that we’ve historically had very large number of Chinese young people who of course have come to study in the US. What we haven’t had is commence a number of young people from the US come to study in China. We at Harvard University, by the way, have initiated recently a program along that line, that would be very helpful, because in the final analysis as I said before, for all of the mass medium marketing you can potentially do, in the end, it all depends on individuals having an interacting with the country either by visiting or by interacting with citizens of the country overseas in their countries and developing a positive impression as a result.

So far, 187 countries and 47 international organizations have confirmed participation in Shanghai’s Expo 2010, the biggest number of participants in the Expo history. Organizers are expecting 70 million visitors over the event’s 6 months run, which would also be a record high. The Expo has become a platform for not only innovative products, but national image as well. So let’s talk a little bit about Shanghai and the 2010 Expo. What does the government need to focus on to brand that?
2010, obviously, is very important for Shanghai in the same way as 2008 was very important for Beijing, so there is obviously a certain competitive rivalry aspect to this. But I think that whereas Beijing represented, obviously, the world of sports, Expo represents the world of commerce and China’s commercial capital is obviously Shanghai, therefore it makes perfect sense for the Expo to be in Shanghai. So I think it’s an extremely important opportunity. I think the big challenge at the moment is, with the economic recession that we have in the world that people’s attention at the moment is on very much more important things than Expo 2010. What I think we can hope for is that towards the end of 2009 there will be the signs of, if not, the early stages of economic recovery.

I wonder is the Expo with the right place at the right time? Can the nation use that as a branding point?
We can’t forecast obviously the world economy to know exactly whether or not it’s going to be at the right time or a little bit early. But I think that there’s a way in which China can use the Expo for this purpose. And obviously, there is a need in China to further enhance commercial relations, further deepen commercial relations with many countries in the world.

What other countries does China need to specifically target to work on its brand?
I think that the relationship between China and the US is very important and its knowledge is being important. And I think Mrs. Clinton had said quite correctly, “It is the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century and in the world.” The image of China and Europe is not quite as collaborative as I think it is the US. I think in Europe, the image of China is perhaps a little bit more associated with the human right issue and some other issues around Tibet and so forth. I think probably that would be the area of the world, where China needs to work more on developing a counterbalance to those slightly negative points of view.

Is there enough time before the Expo to change people’s image of China and Shanghai?
No, I don’t think so, I mean, these kinds of images and perceptions simply do not change overnight. But obviously the Expo 2010 does present an enormous opportunity to bring people to China. Obviously there is going to be a large number of foreign visitors as well. But I think there are going to be more of the commercial rather than tourist type of visitor, in which case, the commercial visitor is already probably thinking about China and taking a hard look at doing businesses with China, even if they are not already doing it.

Speaking of character and personality in terms of the Shanghai Expo, what would the people of Shanghai need to do to improve the image?
OK, well I actually have been in several taxies in Shanghai recently and I haven’t found any drivers spitting. So whatever the mandate was in Beijing, in respect of taxi driver behaviors, it seems to be working in Shanghai as well. So, I do think though that seriously if you have something like the Expo 2010, it does become a very helpful rationale to create and mandate change across a wide variety of activities in behaviors in the city. I mean, obviously, Shanghai wants to put its best foot forward, obviously it wants people to come and enjoy, go away with a warm positive feeling about Shanghai, maybe invest in Shanghai, maybe come back again to Shanghai as a visitor etc. So the Expo becomes a very useful action-forcing event that the political decision makers can use to create change, require the construction of new highways, new buildings, and infrastructure and so on, and make sure it’s completed on time before the Expo deadline occurs. So these types of events can be hugely effective in terms of economic and social development.

Yes, because you start to change it for an event, and then hope that it snowballs and continues on with more change.
Well, you hope that’s the start of something more important in terms of long-term momentum in the economy, you hope that the behaviors and attitudes of the citizens are changed on a permanent basis, not just a temporary basis. And 9 times out of 10, that actually occurs.