Top Gear – Mexico episode highlights power of nation brands

The recent episode about BBC’s motor show Top Gear’s remarks on Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican products highlights the sometimes under-valued power of nation brands. The episode vividly showed to what extent countries are haunted by stereotypes and cliches, and how commercial brands and products are many times judged by their country of origin rather than by their actual qualities.

As all of you know by now, Top Gear presenters managed to outrage most of Mexico when, during a studio discussion on the comparative merits of sports cars from Germany, Italy and Mexico, one of them suggested that vehicles reflect the national characteristics of their makers, adding that a Mexican car would be “lazy, feckless, flatulent”. And all hell broke loose.

However unfortunate this opinion was (and it certainly was), as a matter of fact there exists a relationship between national brands and country brands. Some people might think it is a simplistic idea, but it is safe to assume that it is mostly true, at least on the perceptions layer (which is the one that counts, by the way).

In the automotive industry, where there is a reduced number of car makers, this relationship is a well-known and widespread cliche. Swedish cars, for instance, are perceived to be expensive and safe, and that’s exactly some of the attributes Sweden is known for. Seat-branded cars are considered as attractive and sporty, but only medium-quality, and that’s exactly how Spain is usually refered to. Skoda is low-budget, and so is the Czech Republic considered. Dacia is cheaper, and so is Romania regarded. Tata is even cheaper, and so is India.

Of course, it’s not that Romania is considered cheap just because Dacia is a cheap brand. But the opposite isn’t true either: Dacia is not considered cheap just because Romania has a low-wage labour market. The thing is that both things are partly true and influence and feed each other, as in an endless spiral.

This phenomenon is one of the basic tenets of nation branding. Commercial brands from a specific country influence the nation brand, and in turn nation brands influence brands coming from that country. Both things happen, at the same time.

Because this relationship does exist, Top Gear presenters used stereotypes, whether positive or negative, to refer to German cars as “well built and ruthlessly efficient” (just like Germany itself, most would agree with) and added that Italian cars were “a bit flamboyant and quick” (isn’t Italy considered as stylish and lively?).

Refering to the Mexican-made Mastretta MXT, the presenters also used stereotypes to disparage the quality of the car. “Why would you want a Mexican car? A Mexican car is just going to be a lazy, feckless, flatulent oaf with a moustache, leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle known as a coat,” one of them said.

Another commentator then described Mexican food as “like sick with cheese on it”, while another suggested there wouldn’t be any complaints about their banter because “the ambassador is going to be sitting there with a remote control, snoring”.

Not surprinsingly, Mexico’s ambassador to Great Britain sent an official letter of complaint describing the remarks as “offensive, xenophobic and humiliating”, and threatened legal action under the UK’s Equality Act, while hundreds protested via the BBC’s Spanish-language website BBC Mundo, demanding an apology.

The BBC issued a statement conceding that while the remarks were “rude” and “mischievous”, there was “no vindictiveness” behind them. The corporation continued, “Our own comedians make jokes about the British being terrible cooks and terrible romantics, and we in turn make jokes about the Italians being disorganised and over dramatic, the French being arrogant and the Germans being over-organised.”

Top Gear presenters’ comments might be seen as offensive, racist, xenophobic and so on in Mexico, and that’s reasonable, but Mexicans would be missing the point. Brits are not to blame for having a bad image of Mexico. Mexico and Mexicans are to blame. Before any Mexican reader goes berserk, let me explain this apparently harsh statement.

The fact is that Mexicans haven’t managed to replace that negative images with anything better. They haven’t proved that they are different to that. They haven’t produced a plethora of evidences showing that image is undeserved. They haven’t managed to offside such ‘biased’ views. They haven’t displaced old images with new images. And so the cliches persist.

As Simon Anholt says, people only change their mind about other countries when there is no other option available. Only when the evidencies are overwhelming we allow another image to permeate our brain and replace the old one, and even in that case we do it with some resistance. We are reluctant to change our old, intimate, self-built constructs.

Prompting those perceptions to move towards the desired direction is a country’s responsability. To a great extent, every country is ‘guilty’ for its own image abroad. It’s easier to blame the ignorant, stereotyped and prejudiced foreigners, but that attitude, while humane, is completely ineffective.

Every country, not only the government but also the people, the companies, the celebrities, is responsible for its own image. It’s up to the country, and not to foreigners, to protect it if it’s a good image, or to improve it if it’s mostly negative. Just like companies invest a great deal of efforts to protect the good name of their brands, countries ought to take care of their nation brands.

And no, slogans and ads won’t change the image Britain (or any other foreign country, in fact) has of Mexico. A good country image, a good nation brand, is not bought with advertising – it’s only deserved. And only when there are plenty of visible reasons for that.

Article by Andreas Markessinis