Can a nation be rebranded?

A brand is a mental blueprint for consumers. Virtually anything can be branded. Branding can be organic. Branding can be deliberate. Branding is malleable to an extent. You can virtually brand anything including products, people and objects.

Nations, too, come branded, sometimes willfully and sometimes by accident. A nation gets a brand identity based on its strength of delivering a quality product consistently over time (Eg: Switzerland for tourism and banking, USA for freedom, Italy for food and fashion, etc.)

However, an interesting question to ask is whether nations can be rebranded? A huge challenge would be to rebrand a negatively perceived national identity. Take the case of some nations that have been branded as “rogue” or “terrorist.” These nations have a long journey to positive identity. So what do these nations have to do to build a positive image?

First, let’s look at what leads to nation branding. A nation is branded based on availability or lack of natural and human resources. Usually these resources, also called strengths, are consistently demonstrated by a nation to its trading partners over time. Strengths can be positive in nature. Those that are negative usually have a devastating impact on a nation’s image and economic health.

Rebranding a nation with a negative image is challenging but not impossible. Any marketer worth their salt knows that you cannot brand or rebrand a product that doesn’t have its “house in order;” more so in the case of troubled nations. To rebrand a nation, a nation must have two things in order:

1. Infrastructure: Hard (transportation, energy, water management, communication systems), and soft (financial, education, health care, legal systems, system of government) institutions that put a nation at par with competing nations.

2. A people skill or talent: Based on available resources that differentiates a country from competing nations (Eg: France for wine).

Once these two requirements are in place, an identity for a nation starts to emerge. At this point, based on the second criteria, it is important to recognize the significance of creating a brand image.

A nation that plans to undertake a deliberate branding activity must realize that the key to branding is creating trust — of doing something consistently well over time — with minimum or no disruptions in quality and delivery of the goods or services. Trust instills confidence among a nation’s trading partners.

The next step is to replace old knowledge about the country in question with new in the minds of the trading partners. Prior knowledge of a country is a result of high levels of “awareness” and a strong negative “image” that a country may have acquired unintentionally over time. Though challenging, replacing old information with new requires tremendous effort and persistence.

Brand awareness consists of brand recognition (eg: recognize a country, Italy) and brand recall (recite from memory the brand in a product category. eg: Italy for food). A nation must create brand awareness through repeated exposure and burning the brand in the minds of the consumers for later recall.

A brand image creates positive associations to the brand in memory. It is a combination of direct experience with trading partners and a robust integrated marketing communications strategy (word of mouth, country reports, etc.).

But before undertaking a rebranding activity, a nation must gain collective consciousness and moral fortitude to be recognized in the community of nations by relentlessly striving to attain infrastructure and a people skill or talent.

Clearly the process of rebranding a negatively perceived nation is a highly sensitive exercise, as it is conditional to a nation firmly rejecting its past and moving forward with a new image and brand.

Article by Vijay Krishna, first published here. Mr. Krishna , Ph. D. is professor and coordinator of the advertising program, Indiana University Southeast.