How do you build a country brand?

You can’t really, but you have to start somewhere. Big global brands such as Nike and IKEA are large enough in revenues to surpass the GDP of a small country. However, their brands are managed better than most countries. This is a shame because powerful country brands that are carefully managed tend to yield massive benefits for tourism, industry, politics and culture. These benefits are discussed and covered extensively elsewhere e.g. by Wally Olins in his book On Brand. In this paper I will only concern myself with what’s new, innovative and interesting ways of building country brands beyond the usual strategy of: let’s have a logo, an end-line and a few celebrity endorsements.

A country brand should start with a coherent brand and attitude but allow for paradoxes.
saher1Only liars need to be consistent. This is not about achieving a design consistency or a fanatic application of end-lines to every campaign going. In the first instance any country brand that seeks to have a future facing, growth led and differentiating positioning must define it’s essence, ethos and values that reflect the national identity and the attitude of it’s people. This often means having to find the interesting paradoxes in a country’s culture that make it fascinating. The first pitfall here is only choosing to focus on a ‘politically correct’ version of the national identity and highlighting some values at the expense of others. Having a few contradictions in a country brand ethos and values often makes the brand a lot more surprising and lively. I will take the country of Sweden as a running example for this paper.

Sweden has an interesting but powerful paradox at it’s brand core. It is a progressive country famed for it’s design and innovation yet it’s people are socially and environmentally conscious with a deep respect for nature and a solid belief in preservation. This progressive yet preservative attitude of the Swedish people is a fascinating paradox that could be used to display many sides of it’s brand that are richer than cliche pictures of a nice lake.

Another paradox of Swedish people that makes the culture equally fascinating is the high regard for individual freedom yet  equally is a respect for the greater good of everybody. This is a bizarre contradiction that makes Swedish people and their society fascinating. I can only describe it as  a curious but highly useful form of what could only be described as ‘individual group-think’. Brands are like people with multiple layers, interests, emotions, attributes and desires. It is often an organisational principal more than anything else to try and distill a brand or an individual into one word. How could that ever be done I wonder.  Just having a couple of words to describe a country brand is a bit like applying make up, it may accentuate the beauty of a place but as the saying goes beauty is only skin deep. A brand onion is a convenient from a ‘management’ perspective however it often disallows for the opportunity to have multiple ideas expressing the different facets of a brand.

Gordon Brown the prime minister of Britain published a green paper called ‘The Governance of Britain’ in 2007. In it’s final section it said that we need to be clearer about what it means to be British. In response, Prospect magazine asked 50 British writers and intellectuals to give their thoughts on the matter. I will cite Duncan Fallowell, a writer’s response:

‘You should hate liars and cheats and those who won’t play the game. You should be able take a joke. You should dislike extremes. You should be bad at dancing and sex and incapable of either without being drunk. You should resist invasion of your personal or national space. You should ignore what you dislike but give to charity. You should protect the countryside. You should respect the sovereign. You should say what you think. You should be classical on the outside and romantic within. You should put religion in the back seat and make sure it stays there. You should acknowledge your good fortune.’

Ink often flows freely when describing the British. But as the above example illustrates the British characteristics and attitudes are full of curious paradoxes. And its those very paradoxes that make the Brits or Swedes or any other people interesting, intriguing and someone you’d want to get to know. They present a question mark not an answer. An answer is what you get in most country or tourism advertising. An answer leaves no role for the audience or the opportunity for them to be intrigued.

Given that a country brand seek to embody a multitude of ideas around it’s people, the place and what goes on there it’s perhaps a folly to think that just one word would do it.  As well as identifying the core paradoxes at the heart of the national identity the ‘attitudes’ and values of that society should be explored and embraced because in reality these are what the world will experience when they do come to a country or choose to invest in it.

A country brand should have a framework in which it’s paradoxical values can thrive, this framework is ultimately it’s culture.
saher2I will substitute the word brand with culture for the rest of this article. For many reasons, primarily because it is a more realistic approach and wide enough to allow for exploring a country’s cultural hall marks and exporting those internationally. Admittedly brands offer a simplified short cut for people to make a decision but a country’s culture offers a much deeper, richer and indeed complex set of ideas that allow people to be fascinated by, intrigued and want to experience some of that country’s culture. Culture is carried in every conversation between  a citizen and a foreigner. It’s one thing identifying a set of values on a brand onion and completely  another for them to be believed, lived, and acted upon. A country is not a brand it’s an attitude and a set of paradoxes. Since this is a discussion of new and innovative ways of building a Country’s Culture abroad (it’s biggest and best export) I will choose to focus on three tenets of a cultural approach to exporting a country’s, values, paradoxes and attitude.

Cultural Content.

The trouble with country ‘brand’ building is that the generic, predictable and cliched depiction of a country in it’s advertising abroad hardly does the country brand any favours. Of-course it can help awareness and perhaps build some new brand attributes but realistically something as complex as a country brand not to mention it’s culture is hard to encapsulate credibly and more importantly effectively in a poster. Well, I believe there are more efficient alternatives.

The country’s values are implicit in acts (covered in the next section) and arts. Cultural content is a great and most importantly entertaining, fascinating and exciting way of exporting the cultural values of a country. Here are a couple of examples. Spain is a modern day ‘re-brand’ of a country according to Olins. It used to be somewhat backward and isolated not so long ago. If people were asked what comes to mind when thinking of Spain inevitably it was something about Franco and Flamenco. Few things happened since that time. The Seville expo of 1992, the Barcelona Olympics, the Gaudi architecture, the European city of culture accolade for Barcelona and slue of a resurgent film industry led by Almodovar. All be it random coincidences they were exploited less than randomly by the various governmental and arts institutions in Spain. Needless to say there was a sense that the country’s cultural exports whether architecture, film or attitudes were the most vibrant content for their marketing of the country.

The core strategy here is trying to think of ways that take a country brand’s culture abroad. Think cultural products and opportunism instead of ads. Estonia and Kazakhstan are both new countries that emerged from the clutches of Soviet occupation for decades relatively recently. Desperate to establish their own identity and brand internationally. The difference between the two is that the first did something about it and the second allowed somebody else to do it for them. Estonia won the Eurovision song contest a few years back. This meant that it would host the following year’s competition in Tallinn. For a little country that most people in the world hardly ever heard anything about all of a sudden it had 166m world wide t.v. audience. Manna from heaven as far as brand building opportunism is concerned. The country of-course took advantage of this event and used it as a platform to stimulate interest in the rest of Estonia internally by giving it’s people new cultural properties to own and be proud of and externally by inviting and exploiting positive attention to tell its stories. Meanwhile in Kazakhstan … nothing. No serious attempts to brand the country and people are left to believe the highly popular and negative perceptions of one man, Borat. The case of these two countries is compelling on many levels. The challenge should not be how to advertise our country brand or build it, the challenge should be how we export our positive cultural values and products to the rest of the world? If that is the starting point then cultural exports become the back bone of tourism and other brand building exercises for any country.

Film & T.V. are incredibly powerful tools to use here. These and other cultural products are prime targets for putting a country brand in the travel agenda. What Sex in the City did for tourism in New York could hardly be matched by the New York Tourist office. Even clever strategies such as that employed by the Prague city council of offering and promoting Prague as a cost effective, beautiful and exotic film location has managed to place the location in a number of global films from The Bourne Identity to James’ Bond most recent Casino Royal. Even the little un-known town of Bruge in Belgium had a starring role in a film that bore it’s name. Country marketers should pursue an arts and film strategy to partner with international film makers as well as indigenous talent to apply product placement techniques to the countries values and locations, it’s a places placement as it were.  This is an active strategy employed by the likes of Prague and Morocco to a great deal of success. The beauty of this strategy is that not only builds awareness of the countries in question, it also delivers iconic images and cultural values not to mention foreign film investments.

Behaviour and experience.

Values dictate behaviour. Behaviour is what a country does, makes and popularises. How a country’s culture is manifested tangibly internally and internationally can have a mutually beneficial relationship between the country and its export brands for example. How about brand eco-systems, and good old country of origin branding. Let’s look at  the eco-system built by the Apple brand. Steve Jobs once gave a sneak peak of how the Apple brand is organised internally around three business functions: Macs, Music and iPhone. These are essentially three different industries and categories of products yet they are united by the Apple brand and the way it works with technology. Eco-systems are about building an environment around the brand where each item re-enforces and is compatible with the others. Once a consumer buys into one of the products that becomes the entry ticket into the entire system. When one buys an iPod they need music to go with it, enter iTunes and somewhere where the experience remains pleasantly connected and off to a mac store to buy a mac. With over 50% of new mac sales coming from ‘switchers’ and over 2 billion songs sold on iTunes not to mention the de facto nature of iPhones in everybody’s hands this strategy is indeed valuable. A country culture that starts thinking of it’s eco-system of brands and channels could benefit greatly from a coherent exploration and exploitation of natural ecosystems around it. Country of origin branding plays a huge role in how a number of exported brands benefit or indeed suffer from the association. Everybody wants a German car few would rush to buy a Kazach one. Country cultures act as a protective umbrella, or a bad omen. The mutual exchange of values between the country’s culture and the export brands becomes a virtually re-enforcing brand system.

There are a number of benefits from this happy exchange. Country cultures provide instant credibility and identity to new or un-known brands in new markets. If the ‘value’ system is coherent as the example below, allbeit a simplification of the German brand, then these products invariably live up tangibly to the values of the country of origin. Brands that are not even connected in any way can also re-enforce each other. Buying a BOSCH power drill can have strangely similar expectations of buying a PORSCHE. The strength and the coherence of a system becomes a mutually re-enforcing brand equity. As well as trial of new products in new markets, eco-systems can pre-empt competitive strategies for the export brands in question, it is no surprise that both

saher3Audi and VW in the UK have end-lines in German to play on their German equity. The strength of this strategy has gone all the way to the extent that a Citroen a French car maker recently made ads that try to question the German dominance of quality by depicting its cars in German contexts but perform with French flair: ‘Unmistakably German Made in France’. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery indeed.

The German strategy is perhaps an exception. I doubt it came out of a strategy brainstorm between the brand managers of AUDI, VW, BMW, BOSCH and whoever is in charge of the branding of Germany. This in the first instance is a truth about Germany and German people’s appreciation and attitudes to technical and functional prowess. What country brands cannot do is manufacture stuff like this from thin air. It has to be founded on truths and the values of the country which indeed is apparent in the DNA of it’s export brands. Going back to Sweden for example. It has a simple value and a set of beliefs in the fabric of its society that turns up unsurprisingly in a host of Swedish super brands.

Social Progress a quintessentially Swedish idea.

With roots in politics, nature and care for the many Swedish society is built around pretty much around the idea of having a better life for everyone. The paradox of individual freedom and the belief in the greater good is a prime example. These work well because they do support each other. The ‘social progress and the greater good for the many’ can be seen in the core brand ideas of many Swedish brands. IKEA’s brand idea of democracy of design is actually a social idea in the first place. Similarly, H&M’s luxury for the masses, Volvo’s Life is best lived together. Even ABSOLUT vodka for decades democratised and introduced and broke new artists in their advertising for the benefit of the many. All these brands and more have an idea of social progress an improvement in the quality of life for the many not just the individual. This could be leveraged by those brands and Sweden in a number of ways. The first is on a corporate social responsibility level. Sweden and it’s brands could own and have points of view on environmental and sustainability issues. Swedish brands in their variety of fields and endeavors have a pretty good grip on sustainability issues and in fact are world leaders. Joining forces on the CSR level can help Sweden be to the environment what Switzerland is to political neutrality. Collaborations between Swedish brands, governments and other internal and external entities can own the social progress idea in way that makes the existing positive but less known reality the perception.

Reputation and cultural momentum.

Country brands can learn from fashion brands that create cultural halos and momentum, every season four times a year. Selfridges, a store in the UK, has an interesting strategy that it employs to promote the store. It creates a moment that taps into the cultural zeitgeist of London. Each summer Selfridges has a big theme that it promotes within the store. A couple of years ago it did a Tokyo theme in the store, complete with Japanese lift attendants, products, mad fashions and music. Yet the real genius was in creating a Japanese cultural halo out of the store in London. It collaborated with arts, culture, commerce and other Japanese representatives in London. All highlighted and aligned their calendar of events with Selfridges thus creating a halo effect in in the city for which the epi-centre was Selfridges. They essentially promoted the idea of Japan and Tokyo not Selfridges itself per se. Anyone in the business of fashion knows that most mainstream fashion is created, planned and co-ordinated. Fashion is not the surprise and the discovery that most consumers are led to believe it is. From product placement in the movies  to the pre-determined pre-season selection of ‘colours’ and the quick turn around of promotions in the stores are all carefully managed and co-ordinated on the high street. There is no reason why country brands (and their export partners) can’t take a leaf or two from fashion brands. The co-ordination with both indigenous and international partners can enable a country’s culture to be well ‘in-fashion’ at key cultural moments. Learning from fashion marketing it is wise for countries that want to export their culture and build a vibrant and lively view of it abroad to consider what is the calendar of events in the recipient cultures, what stories, happenings, events and experiences that the marketing country can bring. Sweden can create and invigorate a whole season and sensibility in other countries if it had a single minded focus on Swedish design for example. Owning and setting the design agenda from a Swedish perspective in other countries allows it to introduce, re-inforce and most importantly gather acres of press coverage for events and stories around Swedish design ethos and edge.

Don’t build country brands, use the country’s culture to contaminate other cultures.

The central idea of this paper is really around taking a country’s, spirit, culture and values to contaminate and influence those abroad as well as it’s own. This begins with identifying the paradoxes the idiosyncratic hall marks of that country and it’s culture. To give it depth and richness that is intriguing and inviting. Once a set of interesting themes are developed in the core of the culture exporting those via the three tenets of content, behavior and reputation.

As far as content is concerned the key strategy here is that of ‘place & people’ placement. Placing a country’s location, people, ideas, in the story or in the cultural narrative of a film or t.v. show can do wonders for that country’s awareness abroad, cultural currency and affinity. The case of Estonia showed a renewed belief of its people and a new found confidence in their ability to play david in the goliath of international tourism competition. Thus multiplying and releasing the power of each of its citizens to be an ambassador of the brand at home and abroad.

Behaviour is about finding some core ideas that a country can use to brand its products abroad whether literally its export brands or its politics. The country of origin as  a powerful umbrella for export brands is hard to escape. The country of origin and it’s export brands is perhaps the strongest example of how to pull the common DNA of those brands to achieve ownable leadership even if it is as simple as Swiss ‘neutrality’. Beyond brand eco-systems, just as traditional advertising is not going to be enough to build a brand traditional media are not going to deliver the audience due to cost and fragmentation. Country brands need to think laterally about what could its retail brands abroad or media brands abroad do for them in distribution of cultural and communication content. They need to explore and exploit their international ecosystem.

Finally on the reputation level country branding can learn from how fashion brands set the cultural agenda through dictating the themes the ‘colours’ of the season as it were. The natural networks between style journalists, fashion designers, stores celebrities and movie stars collectively set the agenda for what to wear. Country cultures should explore and find what is the equivalent of that network in the area of tourism in each of the markets in which it seeks to promote itself. Once that’s done feed the network with the most relevant, entertaining and compelling ideas.

Article by Saher Sidhom, Global Planning Director at Great Works, first published here.