Quick: Where do Panama hats come from?
If it sounds like a trick question, that’s because it is. For most of us, the counterintuitive fact that Panama hats are from Ecuador—and that Teddy Roosevelt unknowingly condemned Ecuadorian haberdashers to generations of obscurity when he famously wore one of the hats on a 1906 visit to the Panama Canal—is of little consequence. But to Ricardo Estrada, the misnomer constitutes a marketing problem.
"It’s unfortunate," says Estrada with a sigh. "But I think it would be difficult to change the name—maybe we call it the Ecuador hat and nobody will buy it."
Estrada isn’t selling Panama hats. As the director of the Export and Investment Promotion Corporation of Ecuador, he’s selling his homeland. And the fact that one of its most recognizable innovations is named after an entirely different country represents a lost opportunity. Not because he wants to export more of them but because he wants people to think of Ecuador every time they see someone wearing one. Every straw hat will be a swoosh, and Ecuador will be Nike.
If you think Ecuador is a 107,000-square-mile nation of 13 million on the western coast of South America, bordered by Colombia to the northeast and Peru to the southeast, well, you’re right. And Coca-Cola is carbonated water, high-fructose corn syrup, and caramel color. But neither formulation exactly has product flying off the shelves. And just as Coca-Cola has invested millions, if not billions, of dollars over generations to convince consumers that Coke has a personality, an attitude, a lifestyle, a whole menu of emotional experiences wrapped up inside each can, Ecuador and dozens of other countries are using increasingly sophisticated versions of "brand theory" to attract visitors. Indeed, place branding may be more important than ever, both as a way of standing out from the competition and as a ballast against the buffeting winds of an increasingly global popular-media culture that can shape perceptions drastically and in an instant. Exhibit A: Kazakhstan, as represented in the viciously satirical (and highly successful) film Borat. Could the damage to the image of that Central Asian country—seen in the film as a backward, anti-Semitic, dictatorial regime that’s tolerant of incest and spousal abuse—have been mitigated by a branding campaign?Who knows. But it’s clear that Kazakhstan’s triage public relations campaign (ads touting its religious tolerance and ties to the United States in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune) was a case of too little, too late.
"They have to live with it now," says Creenagh Lodge, the head of Corporate Edge, a branding and communications firm in London that has worked with everyone from Guinness to Adidas to Namibia. "Kazakhstan just has to knuckle down and start a war of slow and well-focused attrition on that bad reputation."
"Places in the past were founded on natural resources," says Malcolm Allan, a brand consultant and cofounder of Placebrands, which worked with Estrada to develop a brand for Ecuador. "Now destinations are valued for their people and their intellectual capital. Every place is in competition with every other place. So you need a brand strategy."
Ask Allan what, precisely, that means, and you’re likely to face a barrage of trendy jargon and consultant-speak. But the upshot is this: It’s not enough to launch an ad campaign asking people to come and visit your country. The messages have to be "on-brand," and everything about your country—or at least everything you want people to know about it—has to fit into an artfully constructed conceptual latticework. "We want people to see Ecuador as a whole," Estrada says.
From Botswana to Namibia to New Zealand to Spain to the state of Washington—if it’s a place, somebody’s branding it. Botswana recently hired Placebrands out of a sense of regional competitiveness. "South Africa has engaged in a process of nation branding, and the whole of southern Africa is our competition," says Esther Kanaimba, the director of communications for Botswana’s Export Development and Investment Authority. "We’re hoping that we’ll be able to come up with a brand, a signal, an appreciation of what our country can offer. But at the end of it all, we may say we don’t need a brand."
Of course, when it comes to southern Africa, Botswana’s competitor and western neighbor Namibia has been getting all the buzz lately, thanks to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who gave birth last May. "I was reading the newspaper," Kanaimba says, "and I said, ’Why aren’t they here?’ Our Chobe National Park is so magnificent. Maybe you can get one of your celebrities to come to Chobe." The celebrity phenomenon can yield mixed results—what has Madonna’s controversial adoption of a baby in Malawi done for that country’s reputation, its brand?
If you are smirking because you realize just how silly it is to talk about places—actual physical parcels of land on top of which are situated buildings, vegetation, people, and animals—as though they were tubes of toothpaste, you’re not alone.
"I think on the face of it, it does seem weird," says Joe Duffy, the founder of Duffy & Partners, who has worked on campaigns for the Bahamas, among many others. "It’s not a bottle of shampoo. But, basically, a country is a product. People are going to spend their money on that brand franchise. And it’s competing with similar products."