In the late 1990s, I found myself getting more and more interested in the way people perceive certain products and the countries they come from, and the complex ways in which the two are linked.
Many years would pass before I realised that the question of national image was much more than a curiosity at the fringes of marketing: it would prove to be a new and powerful incentive for governments to join the global fight against climate change, poverty, inequality, conflict and the other global challenges.
In 1998, I wrote an essay in a marketing journal. In the paper, I explored the idea that all countries have images, and in our age of advanced globalisation those images have become increasingly important. A country with a powerful and positive image (like, say, Switzerland) finds it pretty easy to attract tourists, foreign investment, students and researchers, international events, consumers for its products and services, and the attention and respect of other governments and the media.
All this adds up to yet more progress and prosperity for countries like Switzerland. On the other hand, a country that fewer people know about (Suriname, for example) or which has primarily negative associations at this point in its history (like Syria), finds it difficult and expensive. To put it simply, countries in good standing trade at a premium; countries in poor standing trade at a discount.
However outdated, inaccurate and unfair the popular images of countries may be, I wrote, they still have a huge impact because they influence the choices people make about what to buy, where to visit or work or study, where to invest, whom to believe and whom to trust. In an interconnected and interdependent world, the casual and often uninformed beliefs of billions of ordinary people, driving their everyday behaviour, truly determine the fate of nations.
Made in a country you love
To illustrate my point, I described how people will happily pay a premium for a completely new and unfamiliar product as long as it carries a familiar name: a new electronic gadget from Sony, for example. And behind the reassuring corporate brand of Sony, I argued, there was a bigger, even more powerful presence: the nation brand of Japan.
Perceptions of this sort — Japanese technology is more advanced, Italian fashion more fashionable, German engineering more reliable, American youth labels cooler — are so potent that even products from an unknown company will have a head-start in the marketplace as long as the company looks or sounds as if it comes from one of the “right” countries. And countries that can’t provide these associations to their companies, that don’t evoke this feeling of trust or excitement or prestige with consumers in other parts of the world, are lacking a basic competitive advantage. “Made in Myanmar”, no matter how good the products might be, just won’t sell as much premium tech as “Made in Japan”. The value of Japan’s or Germany’s images to their economies is almost beyond calculation.
If there was anything original in my paper aside from the phrase I coined, “nation brand”, I suppose it was my observation that the same phenomenon applies to many more aspects of a country’s international engagements than just its products. A country’s reputation seems to influence, and is in turn influenced by, everything that country makes, sells, says and does.
This effect extends from hosting the Olympics to promoting tourism; from the safety record of its national airline to the behaviour of its diplomats; from the value of its currency to the ease or difficulty with which its citizens can find a job or a university place when they move abroad.
The dangerous fallacy of nation branding
National standing matters, and it matters deeply. Yet it’s largely based on superficial, childish stereotypes which don’t begin to do justice to the real richness and complexity of those places — which was why I made the comparison with the images of companies and products.
It felt to me as if the processes of globalisation were turning the cultural, historical and human wealth of nations into little more than products on the shelf of some gigantic global supermarket.
It took me a little while to understand that my mildly ironic use of the word ‘brand’ had backfired on me. What I couldn’t have foreseen was how, in the years to come, a global throng of design firms, advertising and public relations agencies, marketing consultancies, newspapers, websites and TV channels would see this as a new and exciting opportunity to sell their advice, messages and media to governments, and to tap into a virtually limitless global supply of public money.
Selling countries looked to them like a far better and bigger business than selling banks, beer or toilet paper.
Before long, my unhappy phrase had somehow morphed from “nation brand” into “nation branding”. That tiny suffix made a big difference, because it turned an innocent observation about the importance of national reputation into something that sounded like a promise: if you don’t like the image your country is saddled with, it seemed to suggest, here are mysterious, expensive, but devilishly effective commercial techniques for improving, enhancing and manipulating it.
An idea that’s too seductive for its own good
I had failed to anticipate how governments could be seduced by an idea that was so easily reframed as a simple shortcut to a better national image: an approach, they hoped, that might deliver them rapid increases in foreign income without going to the trouble of improving the country itself.
I went into a sort of slow-motion panic and over the following years turned out dozens of articles and interviews and talks, each energetically ridiculing the notion that the image of a country could be artificially constructed: but nothing I could say or do would put the meme back in its box.
Twenty-two years after the publication of my paper, the idea that countries, cities and regions have images which need to be looked after has become a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Several times a year now, I hear about some desperately poor country wasting vast sums of its taxpayers’ or donors’ money on logos, slogans, public relations and advertising campaigns in an effort to raise its profile and burnish its image.
And, if asked, the government’s only justification is that so many other countries do it already. The whole industry is little more than a siphon for transferring public money into the pockets of media owners and communications agencies.
What a disaster. And it was partly my fault.