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Nation Branding ; From Cows to Countries and Beyond

Branding cattle

Over the years, we’ve devised brand strategies for companies, products, services, media and people. Many have a provenance. And now cities, regions and countries are in on the act. The reason is usually to  increase market competitiveness, recognition and demand.  This often goes hand in hand with stakeholders requiring a more advanced approach to manage their operations. This thought process inspired early Egyptians around 2000 BC to brand their cattle and also inspired retailers to promote their names on their goods at the end of the 19th Century. With the growth of  ’emerging’ markets, such as, China, India, Eastern European, South American and African countries, there are new and genuine threats to both developed and other emerging nations. Thus it’s no wonder that so many are now embracing the concept of ‘nation branding’.

Why bother with nation branding?

This is the first question nations must ask. According to Hy Mariampolski, “the goal of nation branding is to make positive elements more manifest and place the negative elements into latency” (1). Potential benefits include attracting more tourists, boosting inward investment and exports, attracting talent, enhancing currency stability, international credibility, influence and self-esteem (confidence, pride, ambition, resolve). While easily said, imagine the problems in motivating a few thousand people in a company to deliver a common and appealing audience take-out.  Futher with countries, magnify the challenge by millions, and the reasons to bother with nation branding are more easily understood.

What does nation branding mean?

Even when applying brand thinking to packaged goods, there is a misconception that branding is just a logo or advertisement. However, that is the tip of the iceberg. With organisations and countries there is much more beneath the surface. Thinking about countries as a culture is useful. Richard L Daft defines culture as “a series of values, standard interpretations, insights and ways of thinking that is shared by members and passed on to new members” (2).  We prefer “as ‘glue’ that provides a common understanding to focus and motivate people to a common end.”  The term ‘cultural branding’ also applies to the concept of nation branding as it better conveys the range of variables to manage:

  • There are symbols or visible aspects of culture such as the flags of nations, anthems, the landscape, buildings, iconography and dress code.
  • There are the institutions, structures and processes to manage the nation. Such as The Queen, Parliaments, local councils, laws, the media landscape, tourist boards, retailers, trade organisations, etc.
  • Also accepted behavioural norms – the rules and means by which we live and communicate.  “How are you today?”, “G’Day mate”, “Top of the morning to you” etc.  There are also beliefs, accepted truths or opinions about what is or isn’t important. “Eat 5 (pieces of fruit or veg) a day”, “… drink (any) water”, …drink water with added fluorides “… play sport” etc.

All intertwine, influence and communicate to other nations, the media including businesses and tourists.

How to change a nation brand?

The notion or image of a brand is defined by its audiences – what they think and feel about a nation. Entrenched national stereotypes are difficult to change. So the start-point is to first understand their provenance – what’s good and strong and what’s weak and poor? Then to define what the brand should be in the future. To be credible and believable it must be truthful. It should also combine or re-express the good and design-out the poor. To change and embed the new stronger and more vibrant image in audiences’ minds takes time. Ensuring consistent and appealing communication through media and people requires the consistent communication and behaviour by organisations and people alike. Like organisation culture change programmes, aligning national hearts and minds to a common goal, requires a multi-year effort.

Scotland the brand

In 1995 Scotland was one of the first nations to embrace the concept of nation branding (3). However, direction and momentum behind the initiative has changed with changes of Government. Since devolution of power to the Scottish Government in 2004 the concept of branding has gained in significance. Nevertheless, much remains to embed understanding and align the various national stakeholders.

Marketing Inspiration

A nation brand is the sum of all of its parts; symbols, institutions, behaviours and beliefs. The terminology is relatively new but the underlying brand concepts are familiar.

Lessons that apply to successful brands in all walks of life apply to nation brands. They thrive through clear and distinctive communications and also engaging and exceeding the expectations of their customers or audiences.

Building nation brands requires consistent, coordinated and concerted effort over time. This requires audience and stakeholder engagement to create a brand vision and strategy.  Further by inspiring and uniting national organisations and individuals to create and implement plans to deliver the brand. This is where the difficulty lies.

Establish guidelines to make sure that the sum of the parts reinforces the whole. For example, a brand architecture that defines the role and message of the Tourist Board, Board of Trade and others. Also create a ‘brand book’ (or website) to define the symbols and images used online, in literature and exhibitions.

So what’s the next branding challenge: Perhaps Planet Earth? The Kryptonians had better look out!


(1) Hy Mariampolski, QualiData Research Inc. New York, ‘Selling Brand Brazil’, Coppead School of Business, University of Rio De Janiero, Rio De Janeiro, April 2010

(2) Richard L. Daft, ‘Essentials of Organization Theory and Design’, South Western College Pub, 2000

(3) Reproduced by courtesy of the Scottish Government

Guy is a leading UK marketing consultant with a background at major brands and in the media. He is Founder of The Marketing Directors, a successful research and marketing consultancy working with aspiring and global brands in the UK and beyond. He is co-author of The Marketing Director's Handbook with Tim Arnold.

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