Where are you taking your summer vacation this year? Chances are you’ve booked a trip to a country that passes the test of a strong “country brand.” This might sound strange given that people usually choose their destination of choice based on attractions, culture, food, shopping and other offerings, but all of these elements merely fall under the brand image that a country has created for itself and how successful it has been at capitalizing on these assets.
It also may seem as though many countries that are tourist and investment destinations sell themselves, while the image of a developing nation is too tarnished to be promoted. Country branding, however, has become a must today to rise above the media “noise” and communicate the essence of a nation and its identity. Effective country branding, in fact, not only boosts a country’s tourism industry, but also affects the way people view products from a particular region, can encourage foreign investment and propel a smaller state to international standing on the diplomatic scene.
Moreover, when a government takes the steps to brand their country, they can create a deeper sense of belonging for their citizens and rally their national pride, even adding to the nation’s culture and heritage by unifying national symbols, such as how Australia uses its kangaroo to uniformly represent it. Proactive branding, above all, is important for a country’s communication because it can prevent any outside influences from imposing their own image on the country and can even immunize the country from negative publicity.
This level of immunity continues to grow in importance as more and more travelers, political commentators and ordinary citizens log onto the web and voice their opinion or experiences traveling in a certain country. Blogs, photo sharing websites and travel review forums have as much power today to shape a nation’s image as media reports. As such, gaining the immunity to negative publicity necessitates a visionary but realistic brand strategy that translates what the country stands for into a unified positioning and identity. A country’s brand should capture the spirit, values and ambitions of the people of that nation, which add up to a whole that is unique, truthful, distinctive, sustainable, relevant and attractive, in order to be a powerful brand when communicated.
The country brands and communication campaigns that have struck a chord with audiences, such as “Incredible India,” Spain’s “España” and Canada’s “Keep Exploring,” communicate a picture of each country that is true to its nature, highlighting the many facets of its landscape, culture and people, while also being contemporary and relevant to audiences by focusing on their interests and what the country can offer them.
Yet, in order for any nation to communicate its brand effectively, it must first look internally to its government agencies, local companies and other parties that must buy into this vision to become ambassadors for the new country brand. In Britain, the Labour Party in 1997 decided to re-brand the country as “Cool Britannia,” but failed to get the British people’s support, because of the party’s over- emphasis on creative services rather than manufacturing and industry that make up the core of the nation. The result of this was that branding project ended up being shelved.
Once stakeholders believe in the brand, however, it can be communicated consistently throughout the country as well as externally, without becoming the political property of one particular administration or government, but rather considered a national treasure to be passed down from one guardian to the next.
When all parties are onboard, a country can then take an in-depth look at how it is perceived within its borders and by other people, as well as examining its strengths and weaknesses to form a clear strategy that will target all of its audiences, from tourists to potential investors to its own people. The key then to developing the strategy should be based on communicating the essence of the country, making certain that the image of the country is true and modern, communicating consistently, ensuring continuity in the strategy from one administration to the next and using creativity and innovation to translate the complexity of the country to the world in a simple, effective and memorable manner.
Only then can we lay out a clear action plan to communicate the brand, whether through different media campaigns, various events or activities that can promote the brand or other channels, such as a website dedicated to the brand that can cater to tourists interested in learning more about visiting the country.
Unfortunately, when probing Middle Eastern country brands, no single national brand stands out as a strong contender. Many have tried, including Egypt, Dubai and Lebanon and most recently Qatar and Bahrain, but all of these branding efforts lacked in one area or another. They were either missing the true “soul” of an effective country brand, being unable to consistently implement the brand across government agencies and enterprises, failing to differentiate the brand from other regional competitors, or mixing the country’s “soul” with the “flesh” by diluting the country’s essence with profit-driven messages.
This situation points at a lack of drive amongst regional nations to put their faith in the brand-building process and a misunderstanding of the branding exercise as one that can be done only superficially, touching-up the country’s outward image without tackling deeper- rooted internal issues.
For Middle Eastern countries to take the step towards timeless, internationally-recognized brands, they must first overcome the challenges before them. These range from defeating existing prejudices against many of the region’s countries to finding their unique inherent edge that truly entrench diversity in the region.
None of this can be done without instituting internal awareness within each nation to deepen the understanding of country branding amongst government officials and the local population, as well as the creation of a legal framework that can eradicate the current lack of conformity in national branding and symbols in the region. Finally, holistic reform is at the heart of a convincing and rooted country brand, as a strong brand needs strong leadership and a unified nation behind it to be communicated and embraced.
Until a nation has become successful in developing a powerful and mature country brand to represent itself, it is likely to always be regarded by others on the international stage as a hesitant adolescent who has yet to truly forge a personality.
RAMSAY G. NAJJAR is chairman of S2C