Sunday, November 25, 2007

Is Italy going out of fashion?

Some further thoughts on Italy, following a series of very interesting discussion groups with various academics, politicians, journalists and business people in Milan last week.

It seems pretty clear to me that Italy's brand is not actually declining in absolute terms: the reason why Italy's scores are falling faster than almost any other country's in the Nation Brands Index is because the world is changing its mind on a number of issues, and Italy is being very gradually 'squeezed out' of the new scenario. As I've often said, country images really don't change very much; it is somewhat easier to spoil a country's image than improve it, but even that is pretty hard work. People seem to need these easy, comforting stereotypes that enable them to put countries in convenient pigeon-holes, and only abandon them if they really have no other choice.

People's views of global issues, on the other hand, can and do change much more rapidly. And this is quite natural: the main reason why national images move so slowly is because most people spend so little time thinking about other countries. If a person in Canada or South Africa or India spends six seconds per year thinking about Italy, it's not surprising if their perception of Italy remains largely unchanged for years on end.

On the other hand, people in Canada and South Africa and India may spend several minutes - even hours - every day thinking about big issues like climate change, poverty, war and diseases, religion, the cost of living, oil prices and whatever else the media is full of at any given moment. In consequence, their views on such subjects are being constantly updated, or at least refreshed with new information.

What Italy seems to be facing is not a loss of attraction in its image, but a decline in the relevance of that image for many people.

In other words, Italy could be going out of fashion.

Judging by the profiles of countries that people admire more as time passes, there are at least three areas of reputation which seem to have become critical in recent years:

1. A country's perceived environmental credentials. This is rapidly becoming a 'hygiene factor' for a country's basic acceptance into the community of nations.
2. A country's perceived competence and productivity in technology, which seems to be the standard proxy for modernity: and people, on the whole, admire modern countries.
3. A country's attractiveness as a place of learning and economic and cultural self-improvement: in other words, a destination for personal advancement.

Italy scores poorly in all three of these areas:

1. Worse than being just another country that isn't perceived to be doing very much in the area of environmentalism, it is perceived as a country with a hugely important natural and cultural heritage that isn't doing very much to look after it.
2. Italy, like Germany, is perceived as a country with mechanical rather than technological excellence: Ferraris and Fiats are great engineering products, but people are slow to accept Italy as a source of high technology (witness the difficulties faced by Olivetti when it tried to market its personal computers internationally).
3. And although Italy is a country most people would love to live in, they really only think of it as an extended holiday destination. When it comes to answering the critical question "what's in it for me?", Italy is not perceived to offer much.

Part of the problem is the view that Italy is not to any great degree an English-speaking nation, so the prospects for internationally useful educational or work experience or qualifications are very limited. The way to fix this, I firmly believe, has less to do with the standard of English-language teaching in Italian schools (which is admittedly poor) and more to do with the fact that English-language television is routinely dubbed into Italian rather than subtitled. Children don't spend many hours learning English at school and usually don't pay close attention: but they do spend hours a day watching television, and watching it quite closely. If a proportion of the programmes and movies they watch have English dialogue and Italian subtitles, they will learn English almost without realising it. Certainly, most of the countries where foreign television is subtitled have higher standards of general competence in English than the countries where it's dubbed into the local language.

And a word to the cultural protectionists who would 'protect' their populations against the rising tide of Anglo-American popular culture: competence in English has no real political or cultural significance any more. English is not the language of Britain or America or Australia or anywhere else: it's the operating system of the modern world, more like Windows than Word, and if you can't use it then you can't easily participate in the international community. Places that resist the rise of English on the grounds that it brands them as pro-American or pro-British are missing the point: it makes them globally competitive and doesn't brand them as anything in particular, except possibly as competent and modern. Oh, and there's plenty of good quality film and television programming made in the English language (and not all of it in Britain and America either) which will neither warp the morals of young people or destroy their native culture. A smaller proportion of higher quality English-language television broadcast in the original language will do far more good than the current high proportion of poor quality programming dubbed into Italian.

In the end, this final question about whether people would like to move to a country to study, live and work, is a good measure for the overall attractiveness of the place. Whatever people might think about a country's products, policies or culture, if they believe that they can improve their personal prospects by moving there, it means that they ultimately approve of the place (the United States, despite all the negative views surrounding its foreign policy and cultural and economic hegemony and the brouhaha about its failed public diplomacy, is still by a long way most people's preferred destination for education and professional development, and this is one of the main reasons why I don't believe that the country's current unpopularity is in any sense terminal).

It goes without saying that Italy's weakness in these three areas is neither absolutely deserved nor absolutely undeserved. There are plenty of great places in Italy for foreigners to study for internationally respected and relevant qualifications (Bocconi University in Milan, to name but one); some of Europe's most committed environmentalists are based in Italy; and some of Europe's most innovative, successful and highly reputed technology firms are Italian. The problem is that these facts are not feeding into the popular 'story' of Italy: they are known only by limited groups of people with specialist knowledge, and can do very little to shift the vast weight of Italy's traditional international image - the country of la dolce vita.

Italy's problem is that it is considered by the vast majority of people as a place that is decorative but not useful. The Italy that the world wants is full of attractive, soft, lifestyle values - it's a place where, at least in their minds, they can retreat from the troubles of the modern world - and people simply don't want that attractive myth, that imaginary refuge, 'contaminated' by the things that the rest of the world worries about. Italy wants, and needs, to work: but the world wants it to stay on holiday.

Not much you can do to fix that, at least not without wide-scale, long-term political and social reform, a prospect which with every change of government seems less and less likely.