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Packaging a Nation

Ivan Chermayeff Entire countries are selling themselves with ever-more sophistcated branding campaigns.

Photo: Ivan Chermayeff

"If you use words like brand, people find it inappropriate and superficial for a nation," says Wally Olins, the chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants, who created a campaign for Poland. "If you use words like reputation and perception, they agree. A lot of it is semantics. Nations have always been concerned with reputations. America stands for a set of ideas and ideals—you can call them a brand. All empires were brands. The British Empire was constructed as an empire with a heroic set of ideas that were heavily propagandized. But branding is propaganda."

In other words, says Lodge, "every country already has a brand, whether they like it or not." The trick is to align the perceptions out there with a nation’s most attractive qualities—which aren’t always obvious. "Everyone wants to say ’We’re warm and friendly,’ " Olins says. "You have to look at whether they have to change perceptions or whether they have to change realities. Many of the countries in Central Asia you can’t work with, because they treat their citizens very badly. You can’t shine a light on them without revealing how ghastly they are."

But that sword cuts both ways. Practitioners of nation branding, eager to construct a positive image and, at the same time, constrained by the adage that one cannot put lipstick on a pig, occasionally find themselves urging clients to engage in significant reforms, not because their behavior is wrong but because it’s off-brand.

"The relationship between Poland and its neighbors has been bad," says Olins. "The relationship between Poland and the Jews has not been good, but you can turn that around. You can have a massive reconciliation program, like the one in South Africa. We recommended that as an example of something they should do."

"If ever a country in Europe needed to change its brand," says Allan, "it’s Serbia. They need to find their war criminals and hand them over to the European justice system and to deal with nationalism." But shouldn’t they do that because ethnic nationalism is virulent and sheltering genocidal war criminals is wrong?"That’s a brand strategy," says Allan. "I don’t differentiate."

Spain, India, and New Zealand are almost universally acknowledged to be the crown jewels in the recent annals of nation branding. Spain, Lodge says, transformed itself from a sleepy low-rent vacation spot for the British and German working classes to a hip, cutting-edge cultural destination. And it’s not just the hotels that did the work—Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, avant-garde cuisine, a booming tech sector, and Joan Miró’s charming, playful logo all conspired to bring in both tourists and investment. "They shifted to a better-educated target," Lodge says.

The Incredible India branding campaign stresses both the subcontinent’s natural beauty and its status as an enormous economic engine in South Asia. It is credited with increasing tourism in the difficult post-tsunami travel environment. New Zealand capitalized on the exposure it earned from serving as the gorgeous, real-world fairy-tale backdrop to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. "They took an isolated, rural, English-speaking country in the South Pacific that got there by accident and turned it into the idea of purity," says Olins. "Very clever." The country increased its annual intake from foreign tourism between 1999 and 2005 from $3.2 billion to $5.2 billion.

The most peculiar aspect of nation branding is the message sent to the residents of the nation that is being branded. When it comes to tourism-centered campaigns, that means telling Scots to, well, act more Scottish (not to mention being nice to tourists). For his Bahamas campaign, Duffy had to figure out how to get Bahamians to buy into an idea of the Bahamas developed by a guy from Minneapolis.

In other words, place branding is, to some extent, people branding.

"You cannot dictate a brand to a country," says Lodge. "What you have to do is develop a strategy with which the inhabitants identify and say, ’Yeah, that’s us. If I continue behaving this way, then I’m delivering Ghana-ness, or Spain-ness.’ "

Some might accuse Lodge and her colleagues of delivering brand-ness.

"What it boils down to," says Olin, "is manipulation and seduction. That’s the business we’re in. That’s the business of life."

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