An article from the Nairobi Business Daily, quoted on the Allafrica.com website, tells how the 'Brand Kenya' initiative, despite a great deal of goodwill, has failed to get off the ground. Various reasons are given for the project's lack of momentum, including the absence of sufficient political will: it is certainly true in my experience that unless such projects have the sustained and personal backing of the head of government and, preferably, the head of state, they are unlikely to go very far or last very long. Without such authority and commitment, there is little incentive for the various stakeholders to collaborate, and they will soon revert to 'business as usual'.
What rather appalled me about the article, however, was the unquestioned assumption that a lack of funds was the real reason for the failure of the project. Various people are quoted, mentioning staggering sums of money, and pointing out that these are inadequate because they are less than the average corporation spends on advertising, and therefore well below the minimum required to 'brand' a country.
When are people going to learn that building a better profile and image for a country has little or nothing to do with advertising? Countries can't simply buy their way into a positive 'brand image' - especially if, like most African countries, their current image is very negative or very weak. Imagining that the world's perception of an entire country can be shifted by an instrument as weak as marketing communications is an extravagant delusion.
I long to be shown a single example of how a country has demonstrably and measurably improved its international image through advertising or marketing: in all the years I've been working in this field I have never once seen a properly documented case study of effective 'nation branding' where marketing activity is directly linked to lasting image change.
Every country that has ever succeeded in noticeably improving its reputation - South Africa, South Korea, Ireland, Japan, Germany, Spain - has done so as a result of economic or political progress. The advertising and PR campaigns which occasionally accompany these 'branding miracles' are never the cause of them, although they have sometimes been helpful in making people aware, both inside the country itself and abroad, of the changes that are taking place, and thus shortening the normal lag between reality and perception.
Creating a better image for a country is often far cheaper and always infinitely harder than people imagine. It's about creating a feasible yet inspirational long-term vision for the development of the country and pursuing that aim through good leadership, economic and social reform, imaginative and effective cultural and political and trading relations, transparency and integrity, infrastructure, education, taxation and so forth: in other words, substance. The substance is then expressed, over many years, through a series of symbolic actions which bring it memorably, effectively and lastingly to the world's attention.
Nations have brand images: that much is clear. And those brand images are undoubtedly very important to their progress in the modern world. The theory of brand management can be helpful in understanding those images, measuring and monitoring them, investigating how they have come about, and providing the strategic direction that will ultimately change them. But brand marketing cannot create that change.
What Kenyans need to understand is that creating a more positive national image is not a one-off project that government needs to take an interest in. Earning a more positive national image is, quite simply, what good governance is all about.