National football teams and country brands

The world is staring at the World Cup at South Africa, and what a wonderful nation branding scenario it is! Through their national teams, all qualifying countries enjoy a rare media exposure, as it’s one of the very few occasions more than half of the world looks at the same place at the same time. For known countries like Germany or France, participation in the World Cup changes mostly nothing, but for smaller countries their exposure is a great opportunity to introduce themselves to the world and make it to the news.

In such a relevant moment, Felix Wetzel has written a monumental dissertation about the relationship between the performance of national football teams and the external perception of the nation accurately called “How does the performance of a national football team impact on the external perception of a nation brand?”. He published it in a series of 7 posts on his blog but here you have it in its full glory:

The World Cup – the most important stage

The World Cup is the best stage to make a lasting change to the perception of a nation. It’s so powerful. It’s one of the few times when billions of people watch the same event at the same time, when entire nations gathering in social groups and watch the drama unravel live on television, unleashing emotions in real time instead of a personalised media experience. So even just participating in the World Cup has an incredible impact, especially for smaller nations. Buying this kind of intense media coverage is impossible. This media coverage in turn establishes perceptions about nations, which will be thrust upon the team and can be noticed through an increase in engagement and communication referring to the attributes and attitudes that are perceived as typical to that nation and its football team.

Media fragmentation augments the importance of the World Cup

As I have written in “TV is dead. Long live TV!”, event TV will become increasingly important, as we will not only see more channel fragmentation but also viewing time fragmentation. It increases the importance of participating in the World Cup from a nation branding perspective, as it’s one of the few times when the majority of the world population watches the same programme at the same time, creating the outburst of collective emotions and the establishing of collective stereotypes and perceptions.

The higher impact for lesser known nations is mainly due to the surprise factor, as perceptions or stereotypes have not yet been firmly established. In the future, however, the possibility of surprise will diminish, as new and different media consumption will lead to better access to information about all nations. Having better access, however, does not necessarily translate into improved knowledge and it could be argued that the fragmentation of the media, the increasing importance of entertainment and the change in media consumption will lead to lower knowledge and so greater inaccuracy or unawareness of the perceptions and expectations of nations. That again augments the importance of the World Cup even further in importance for any kind of nation branding activity.

Team performance has greater impact on lesser known nations

The performance of a national football team has a higher impact on the external perception of less well known nations, nations with a lower status on the world stage. This is mainly due to the fact that the audience has had little, if any, previous interaction with such a nation and has not accumulated sufficient awareness, perception and knowledge about the nation to create a stereotype.

The element of surprise is seen as the biggest impact factor, albeit a diminishing one as the world gets smaller with the growth in social and globalised media: individuals know more and more about countries and nations and also about most of the outstanding players in the world. This is mainly due to the extensive coverage club football receives via the various media channels. And as the star players are playing with the best known clubs they are seen and experienced outside their national football team. And so the building of stereotypes begins.

Lasting change through successful participation

Taking part in the World Cup leads to lasting change in the external perception even if it is not followed up by further nation branding activity. Repeated successful participation will result in a stable reputation. The host nation of the tournament will develop the strongest perceptions of the participating nations as the citizens of both countries experience much closer interaction. The local media of the host country will also focus on the behaviour of different supporter groups. Subsequent nation branding activities by the less well known nations will yield highest return when targeted at the host nation. If a nation wishes to really take advantage of this effect integration into other nation branding activities is crucial.

Team performance has a lower impact on well known nations

The impact of the performance of a national football team on the external perception of a nation brand is low for already well known nations. If Germany or Brazil should lose in the first round of this World Cup it wouldn’t alter their external perception – they’d still be seen as football superpowers and the prescribed characteristics and attributes wouldn’t change. Internally it’d obviously be a huge disappointment.

If Germany or Brazil should be victorious in the tournament the external perception also wouldn’t change, but it would reinforce and increase the recall and interest in the country.

If the USA wins the World Cup in Germany, it wouldn’t alter the perception either, as the USA is already very well known by most of the world’s populace.

In all the examples above the reputation – the brand – already exists in the mind of the spectators and will be reinforced or influenced on a permanent basis by the well known players and football clubs of these nations. The influence on their brand is consequently far more consistent as they’ll play more games and receive more frequent media coverage.

However, change can still happen, even to the perception of a well known nation brand: a brand has to permanently provide positive reinforcement and prove its brand values again and again. When a crisis occurs, the response needs to be in line with the brand on all dimensions to limit the damage and reinforce the brand.

Gradual change can be achieved, but careful what you wish for

For well known nations the performance of the national football team has only a minimal impact on the external perception, as perceptions and stereotypes are already in existence. However, gradual change can be achieved as these nations can be well known through other nation brand activities besides football.

There’s a clear link between external perception and internal behaviour and perception, which supports the fact that perception of an established nation can change. For example, if a national football team of a formerly successful nation suddenly does not perform as successfully anymore, it will impact on the self-image and confidence of a nation. This, in turn, will be felt in the interaction with other nations and will therefore alter the external perception. Obviously, this change will only happen very gradually and the effect would need to overwrite any other positive, perception reaffirming events.

Generally, it can be said, that principles discovered for the change in external perception also apply for the internal perception – the more well known a nation, the slower the change in perceptions.

Nation brands need to consider carefully how they want to change their perception and what the consequences will be. For example, a couple of years ago the German government thought to change the image of Germans as being boring and without sense of humour. That can backfire: Using an advertising campaign and repeatedly stating that Germans are not boring can highlight the very perception it wants to change. At the same time, the boring image also reinforces the reliable and trustworthy image that is the essence of the German brand positioning of quality engineering. Changing this external perception might erode these core brand values.

Victory or Style – differing degrees of importance

What has the bigger impact on a nation brand – victory or style? Even though an attractive performance may attract more fans and admiration, it’s the winner that remains in the memory. Those who take third or fourth placed will be forgotten. However, whether winning is seen as sufficient depends on the cultural background and football understanding of the observer. In some cultures winning is not enough and teams that played great football but haven’t won a trophy have a stronger recall – for example the Brazilian team of 1982 when compared with the Brazilian team of 1994; the 1982 team consisted of several outstanding creative football players such as Zico, Eder and Socrates but lost in the 2nd round to Italy. 1994 had a winning team, however, they lacked the same flair, but won the World Cup in New York in a penalty shoot out against Italy.

In nations such as Italy, where football is seen as serious business, the overwhelming factor is winning. The Brazil team of 1982 has a high recognition across the entire globe, due to its outstanding, creative and magical football and due to the fact that the majority of players were unbelievably creative performers and stars in their own right even though the 1982 team did not win. But this is the only team that managed to be memorable without winning the trophy. So, if you want to be remembered, and as a consequence change the longer term perception of a nation brand, you need to win.

Have a look at some of the magic of Brazil 1982:

The individual is the strongest ambassador for a nation brand

A team (and therefore a nation) can be represented by one outstanding performer, just remember Roger Milla dancing at the corner flag and the impact this image had on the perception of Cameroon.

The citizens themselves are the brand. The strongest representative of a nation brand and biggest influencer of the external perception are famous individual citizens. Individual star players are the embodiment of the national football team. While teams may be respected, only individuals receive the strongest form of admiration and will be remembered even long after the actual event.

Individuals are often more important than the team and in extreme cases the public may transfer the individual’s values onto the nation brand. Interestingly, the individual player will always be assessed against the existing perceptions and stereotypes and all of his behaviour will be interpreted through the existing perceptions. Nevertheless the individual player will still have substantial power to influence the external perception of the nation brand.

It’s possible that such a performer can become the anchor of perception and the personalisation of a nation. The individual becomes the shorthand of the brand. His actions and behaviour, his image overrides the image and perception of the nation and – at least for some time – becomes the brand per se. Consequently it decreases the level of the anyway very limited control over the nation brand even further as an individual star cannot be controlled.

The individual as the personalisation of the nation brand

David Beckham, for example, stands for Brand Beckham and Brand England. His brand values are being transferred onto the nation brand. So whatever he does or says influences the way non-English people perceive England. At the height of his prowess, for the external perception, he was Brand England. It has to be said, however, that he’s one of only a handful of athletes in the world with such a strong influence. That’s also the reason why celebrities are being used as brand spokes people or in commercials.

It’s interesting to note that given the fact that individuals are the personalisation of the nation brand, no official guidance on behaviour and representation of the nation is given to the players.

With football players becoming celebrities in their own right, their impact on the nation brand will increase in importance, which highlights the lack of control a nation has over its brand, especially as nation brands do not have the power to control who will become a famous representative. The adoption of one specific individual as the brand representative leads to other dilemmas: are they representative of the entire population? What happens if their reputation gets tarnished (especially as they are seldom replaceable as brand personalities are in the corporate world)?

The synthesis of the research culminates in to the following point: the most influential method of nation branding is public diplomacy by individual citizens, be they well known players or individual fans, interacting with other citizens of other nations. The effectiveness of this public diplomacy depends on the level of pride, ownership and voluntary participation of the individual citizen towards his or her own nation brand.

Football as the mirror of a society’s structure

The structure of a society is reflected in the football style: The weaker the structure, stability and organisation of a society, the less likely they are to have a successful national football team. In parts of Africa, for example, the anarchy that exists in the set up and in the society has such an impact on the national football team’s performance on the pitch and that it infringes on any chance of success. This also has a negative impact on the external perception, doubly regrettable as a good performance by a national football team leads to very positive benefits for the country.

Traditional nation states as the cradle of success

Success and style of football reflects the structure and organisation of society – the citizens are the brand, they define the brand and only if voluntary participation is given will the brand be authentic and reach its full potential. Another critical building block is the political leadership that builds stable structures and outlines the vision thus enabling nations to compete regularly and successfully – be it on or off the pitch. The consistent performance is what establishes the perception and therefore the reputation of a nation and once established, change is not easily forth-coming. The impact on the external perceptions of a nation brand will be influenced by many different activities, yet the Football World Cup has the highest impact of re-affirming old perceptions or beginning the process of gradual towards a new external perception.

The mirroring of a nation’s socio-political and psychological structure on the football pitch consequently leads to the result that established traditional modern nation states will be the most successful on the pitch. Recently established nation states don’t have the solid structures needed for success yet. And postmodern states are in danger of losing their structure as heterogeneity grows and potentially eradicate their competition based selection and thinking due to egalitarian influences, which again has a negative influence on the performance on the football field.

(Click here for a link explaining the different stage of developments for states)

A postmodern state can only continue to be successful if it manages to integrate foreign born talent. In the European Cup 1996 the Dutch team imploded due to cultural difference between ethnic groups within the team. The current German team, however, does seem to have a strong and consistent group, even though they include players from Turkish, Polish and Tunisian ancestry. So a state can suddenly increase his talent pool through immigration.

The other interesting dynamic is about coaching staff. It seems to help a postmodern state (as well as recently established nations) to employ a manager with a traditional nation state approach, whereby employing a manager who uses a postmodern approach often fails, interestingly, at all levels three levels – be it recently established, traditional or postmodern. Just think about the difference between Erickson and Capello, Klinsman’s disconnect at Bayern Munich, etc – it will be interesting how Erickson fairs with Ivory Coast.

This finding also informs the debate about nurture versus nature: While a certain skill level needs to be in existence, it’s only with coaching, good organisation and a stable structure that a nation can become a successful footballing nation.

Ways of building a successful football culture

Building a successful football culture is very beneficial for a nation brand. Brazil is a good example: as a great deal of its reputation is founded on the national football team and its player. The team instils pride into the Brazilian citizens and supports social cohesion, while creating a very positive external perception. Any development of this scale takes time, a consistent effort, knowledge and a degree of general education – as any successful nation branding activity.

There are other ways of impacting the external perception of a nation brand via football. One would be the development of individual players onto a level that is good enough to play in European club football as the nation brand is heavily influenced by individuals. One risk of this strategy would be that after all of this investment the outstanding individual should decide to change his official nationality to be able to play in the World Cup should his nation’s team not be strong enough to qualify. Another way would be for nations that want to improve the reputation of their brand to build a club that can compete and be successful at the highest level and therefore gain reputation which can be transferred to the nation brand itself. The rational is the same as that of country of brand origin, only potentially quicker to realise as it is smaller and possesses less heterogeneity than a nation brand itself.

External and internal perception are intrinsically linked

The impact of a national football team’s performance on the external perception of a nation brand is intrinsically linked to the impact of the performance of a national football team on the internal perception of a nation brand.

For less well known nations a good performance combines the positive external awareness with increased confidence by the citizens: after Greece won EURO 2004, the whole country changed. Winning increased the people’s morale enormously and gave the citizens a desire to show the world that they are good at other things as well as football. At the same time the world became more aware and interested in Greece and all things Greek. This was heightened by Greece subsequently hosting the Olympic Games. The victory also had a positive impact on the players: before winning the competition they were perceived as average players, since this success more of them now play in top European leagues. The victory gave them the confidence that they can beat the best teams and made them believe that they can compete with the best in club football. At the same time, the victory also changed the perception of the external observers and more Greek players are now being perceived as better than average and able to compete at the highest level. At the same time, Greece achieved their success under the German manager Otto Rehagel, which reinforced Germany’s external perception and changed the positive perception of Greece in Germany. At the same time Greece is a good example on how only sustained succcess on and off the field stabilizes the perception of a nation brand and how quickly it can change.

For well known nations this link between internal and external perception also exists. A World Cup provides the opportunity to create a positive patriotism, while pushing the ugly face of extremism to the sidelines. Sporting events provide the opportunity to re-appropriate national icons and emblems. In the case of England, the nation brand was tainted by right wing extremists who were also responsible for trouble at sporting events. Having a majority of citizens supporting and identifying with the performance of the national football team enabled the reclaiming of the St George’s flag and it return from the right wing back to the centre of society, which in turn effects the external perception of England and underlines the modern, diverse and inclusive character of the nation brand.

The accuracy of perception depends on the observer

The external perception, in the opinion of the experts, is influenced by the knowledge, perception and stereotypes of the observer as well as by the structures and understanding of reality by the observed system.

For example, in Germany football is viewed far more as a science and the team’s coaching is built on scientific, measurable methods. In turn German football is viewed by external observers as well organised, reliable and in the mould of quality engineering.

Where Germans are all about statistics, Brazilians are considered to be all about dance, rhythm, movement and tempo adjustment, nevertheless their system is still highly organised and complex as is the Brazilian football team. In Brazil, however, football is seen as an art form and this internal reality is to a certain extent matched by the external perception of foreign observers.

The extent of the overlap and accuracy between the two depends on the observer’s technical knowledge of football, their general knowledge of the nation in question as well as their own cultural upbringing.

Perception influences policing

In Euro 2000 England fans were perceived as a symbol of fear by the police in Belgium (Reicher et al., 2004 – for more detail on references, click here). Interestingly, this led to the police behaving differently towards England (as well as German) supporters, in contrast to supporters that were perceived as more peaceful and potentially led to a vicious cycle of perceived aggression from both sides and ultimately conflict and violence:

This is also an important point why perception and influencing perception is crucial, in this case maybe even life-saving, and can lead to a vicious circle of perceived realities embedded in stereotypes that are difficult to change.

Two important principles

Psychological crowd behaviour underlines two important principles that run through this series and are core for nation building, branding and communication: Firstly, crowds (and therefore populations) are not in their nature homogenous, however they behave homogeneously when faced with an external attack (even a perceived one) on their values and beliefs. Secondly the importance of soft power:

“…public order policing has shifted from a focus on force to a focus on escalating force to a focus on negotiation – and moreover, on which appreciates the need to treat different sections of the crowd in different ways (Reicher, et al, 2004, p.565).

Creating positive awareness and external perception for a nation is desirable and can be positive as described above. It might even in the short term allow internal and external communities to turn a blind eye to problems, it nevertheless never eradicates them.

Ultimately, the creation of a strong and successful nation brand starts from within, otherwise discrepancy between internal and external perception as well as clear disconnection manifested in real life counteracts all positive external achievements, therefore will need to be solved for lasting impact and a truly holistic brand experience.


Here’s a short summary of all the key findings

  • The performance of a national football team influences the external perception of a nation brand in relation to the degree of awareness, perceptions and knowledge that already exists in the mind of the audience.
  • The stronger these perceptions are, and the better well known a nation is, the less the performance of a national football team influences the external perception directly nevertheless slow gradual change can be achieved.
  • The lower the level of awareness, perception and knowledge that exists in the mind of the audience and therefore, the less well known a nation is, the higher the impact of the performance of a national football team on the external perception.
  • Participation in a football world cup, especially if repeated, can lead to lasting change for less well known nation states.
  • The World Cup will become even more important as a stage for nation branding, as media usage is expected to become more personalised and fragmented.
  • The building of a successful football culture becomes beneficial for any nation brand. It can be achieved on different levels: national football teams, famous football clubs and/or internationally renowned star players.
  • The more top players of a given nation play in the top international football clubs, the higher the impact on the external brand perception.
  • The combination of creative star players and a successful campaign of a national football team in a major tournament will lead to the highest impact on a nation brand.
  • As the structure of the society is mirrored on the pitch, it suggests that established traditional nation states will be the most successful footballing nations.
  • Postmodern states will continue to build on their success if they manage to integrate foreign talent which will be helped through their still significant reputation as a football power.
  • Increased heterogeneity and changed media consumption will put even more importance on the individual as a personalisation of the nation brand and on public diplomacy through interaction between citizens of different nations.
  • Star players are the anchor of a nation brand and can influence its perception by transferring their own values onto the values of the nation brand.
  • The citizen becomes an increasingly important actor in nation branding, which signifies that successful nation branding needs to be built on pride, ownership and voluntary participation.

Article by Felix Wetzel