Friday, November 30, 2007

Denmark's Good Name

Just back from Billund and the annual conference of the Invest in Denmark agency, where the discussions were about Denmark's image in the world, its profile in developing countries, the links between public diplomacy and investment promotion, and the importance of the 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen.

Denmark is a good example of a country which might easily fall into the trap of thinking that its national image is virtually as good as it can be, and there's little point in worrying about it. But of course this would be a mistake, for two main reasons:

1. Denmark is well known and highly reputed in its immediate neighbourhood, and for several centuries its good name has made commercial, cultural, social and political relations easy and pleasant within that neighbourhood. But suddenly, along comes globalisation, and Denmark finds that it's no longer competing and trading with its neighbours, but with countries on the other side of the world, where its history and identity are virtually unknown. Of course, Denmark has the 'Scandinavian premium' (because Scandinavia is a powerful international "brand"), but in the countries where many of Denmark's future trading partners, tourists, consumers and strategic partners will come from - notably China, India, Brazil and Russia - the country itself is relatively unknown. Used to being well-known and respected, this is a difficult concept for Denmark to adjust to: but adjust it must.

2. Denmark's image in the global popular imagination is, like the images of most countries, rooted in its past. Its story is one of an overwhelmingly white, prosperous, Protestant population carrying on in that effective, egalitarian, social-democratic way that it has for centuries. But of course the story is no longer true, and excludes an ever larger part of the population. This way trouble lies: nobody likes living in a country which still presents itself to the world - and is regarded by the world - as the kind of country where people like them couldn't possibly live.

Denmark's image took a battering last year as a result of the cartoons crisis, a subject I have written about elsewhere. The Nation Brands Index suggests that most of the fallout from this sorry episode is now over, and in most countries Denmark's ranking is as high, or indeed higher, than it was before the cartoons were published. But Denmark learned an important lesson from the cartoons: in today's world, countries are no longer considered as loose collections of different groups - the government, the media, businesses, ordinary people, famous people - but as single players on a global stage. If one component offends, the whole national entity is likely to be implicated. It's not fair, it's not clever and it's not logical, but it's the way public opinion works.

And this tendency of globalisation to reduce the complexity and diversity of countries to simple, one-dimensional 'brands', creates enormous problems for democratic governance. It is unthinkable for a liberal, secular, democratic state in the modern world to attempt to control the actions and communications of all its stakeholders; and yet the consequences of the actions and communications of a single stakeholder, public or private, are apt to have a profound impact on the shared reputation of all.

That reputation, as Denmark discovered to its cost, is the most precious asset of a country in the age of globalisation. As Iago says in Shakespeare's Othello,

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

(Othello, Act 3, scene 3, 155–161)

Shakespeare speaks of personal reputation within society, but the point is no less true of national reputation within what some people hopefully call the 'community of nations'.

Under the tyranny of international public opinion, what is diverse becomes homogeneous and what is complex becomes simple. In order to live at peace with others and tolerate or even enjoy their differences, it is essential to particularise, but the fatal tendency of humanity is always to generalise.

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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The slow decline of 'Brand Italy'

I'm in Italy this week for the launch of the Italian edition of Competitive Identity, and have been wondering what I can tell the Italians about the international image and reputation of their country.

Not a lot, is the simple answer: Italy has the seventh best national image in the world, according to the Nation Brands Index, coming top for tourism and second for culture. Its ranking is only let down by rather poor scores for business and governance, as you might expect. Italy's image is, in fact, virtually the opposite of Germany's: very strong on the 'soft' side where Germany is weak (people, landscape, culture, fashion and food brands) and weak on the 'hard' side where Germany is strong (governance, economy, engineering brands). It occurs to me that a merger between the two would probably create the strongest all-round national image on the planet...

And yet there is a worrying undercurrent when you look more closely at Italy's rankings over the last two-and-a-half years: not only is it the most volatile of any Top 10 country in the Index, but it is also in steady decline. Italy's rankings have dropped by 2.3% since the questionnaire of the Nation Brands Index was stabilised in the last quarter of 2005 - which may not sound much, but at this rate Italy will have a weaker image than Mexico in ten years' time.

Italy's decline looks gentle but in fact it is the third steepest of any country in the Index, apart from China (which I have written about before), Hungary (I don't know why - any suggestions?) and South Korea (which, tragically, is often confused by respondents with North Korea, so one can't give its results too much credence).

In an age when it seems that every government is frantic to understand and manage its national image and compete more effectively in the global marketplace, Italy's leaders seem happy to sit back and wait.

Perhaps such a wealth of landscape, culture, cuisine, history and world-famous brands creates a certain complacency. But there are competitors creeping up on all sides, and one can't help wondering just how long that bed of laurels will remain so comfortable.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Brand Kenya Fails - Why?

An article from the Nairobi Business Daily, quoted on the 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.

Who says?

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.

This year's Nation Branding Masterclass

Just recovering from my annual Masterclass in London, sponsored by BBC World, which was attended by trade, tourism, foreign affairs, culture, sport and other officials from 52 countries. This was the second of these annual events and on this occasion I invited guest presenters from some of the sectors involved in shaping the images of countries and cities: public diplomacy represented by David Steven of Riverpath Associates; sport represented by Greg Curchod of TSE Consulting in Lausanne; culture represented by Brigita Stroda of the Latvian Tourist Board; tourism represented by Sue Warren of Mjesto; and measurement and evaluation represented by Patrick Spaven of Spaven Associates. The audience was even bigger and more diverse than last year, and it's fascinating to meet so many practitioners and scholars from all over the world, brought together by a discipline which, ten years ago, didn't exist at all. During the coming year, we will be taking the Masterclass to a number of locations in the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Americas.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Latvia and the legacy of Communism

Just back from Riga, one of my favourite European cities, where I have been working for the last six months with the Latvian Institute and a coalition of ministers, private sector and civil society leaders on an identity strategy for Latvia. Latvia faces a problem which is common throughout its neighbourhood: the urgent need to try and rebuild a national identity and reputation which the Soviet Union almost entirely deleted. Without a positive profile, everything that countries like Latvia want to do on the international stage is doubly difficult, whether it's trade, international relations, tourism, investment promotion or simply participating freely and productively in the global world.

This is one of the less recognised impacts of Communism: by cutting off all movement of trade, culture, people and communications between its satellite states and the rest of the world, the Soviet system effectively destroyed the public identities of these countries. Now, they have to painstakingly rebuild those identities, brick by brick.

The lucky countries are the ones which were left with beautiful cities - like Riga, Prague, Ljubljana and Budapest - as they have been able to attract plenty of tourists to their capitals and thus re-open a dialogue with the West, and beyond: for the Ryanair generation, the appeal of such places has little to do with their past, and everything to do with their nightlife, their affordability and their fashionability. The countries and cities without obvious tourist appeal and without budget airline links have a far harder task ahead of them.

Spain, too, had an easier job 're-introducing' itself to Europe after the death of Francisco Franco, because his rule was short enough for Europeans still to share a common memory of Spain as a dynamic, modern European democracy. People only needed to be reminded of this, and to be reassured that Spain was once again open to the world and open for business, and Spain could pick up the pieces of its shattered reputation again. But few people outside Eastern and Central Europe have any conception of countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary or the Baltic States as free countries with their own proud histories, cultures, personalities, products, landscapes, traditions, languages and people.

There are few bigger crimes than what was done in the name of Communism during the last century: entirely obliterating a country's good name and its history and identity, along with the centuries of its progress and cultural growth, and like some global game of snakes and ladders, sending it back to square one to fight for recognition in a busy, highly competitive, and largely indifferent world.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Trophy buildings and city branding

People keep on asking me whether commissioning a big, glamorous new building will "brand" their city. It seems to be the question of the month among city governments.

The answer is that it depends why you're doing it, and how original the building really, objectively is. If the building is highly expressive of something clear and interesting that your city is telling the world about itself - like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Sydney Opera House or the Kunsthaus in Graz - then it might be a very effective piece of 'branding' (although it will achieve nothing on its own - it has to be one well-chosen part of a very long term series of substantial actions that make the story real). If, on the other hand, it's done for its own sake and there's no real long-term strategy behind it, it will add nothing to the city's overall image at all.

Most 'trophy buildings' aren't expressive of anything in particular: they are just very large glass and steel filing-cabinets which, if they communicate anything at all, are simply monuments to money, power, modernity, technology, and the desire to show off. You need a veritable forest of such buildings before they really mean anything - and that meaning is only how much money there is in your city.

"Make me a landmark building" is no kind of brief for an architect: but "tell the world our story" might be. Buildings must say something about their city and the country, or they are just bricks and mortar. Or steel and glass.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Protecting national image against unpopular foreign policy

When states are engaged in foreign policy directions which create widespread international ill-feeling, it is important that the population of the country is given an international voice, and permission to broadcast a different point of view. Otherwise, if the policies are deeply unpopular and prolonged, there is a risk that international disapproval can eventually contaminate other more precious (and innocent) aspects of national life. The Nation Brands Index shows, for example, that disapproval of the American invasion of Iraq is starting to affect the world's view of the American population, American products, American culture and even the American landscape itself (people rate it as less beautiful than they did when I started running the survey two years ago).

In such times, it is important to remind the world of the distinction between State and Nation. The traditional view of governments is that in times of conflict, it is important to create a picture of domestic solidarity and support for foreign policy: in fact, it is probably wiser to do exactly the opposite, if the government truly has the long-term interests of the country at heart. The more a government allows and encourages dissenting voices to emerge from its own citizens, the more principled actions that are carried out - even or especially if they are politically opposed to the foreign policy - the more emphasis that is placed on cultural values, and so forth, the more effectively the core 'nation brand' is protected against the damaging effect of the government's overseas adventures. And this act of protection is essential, because a strong and positive 'nation brand' is fundamental to doing business, attracting talent and capital and visitors, supporting the government's other international engagements, and eventually to recovering the esteem in which the nation is held once the foreign policy has run its course.

This does not mean that business, or culture, or society have to become apologists for their government's foreign policy: quite the contrary. They should be allowed to express dissent, encouraged to 'defend the honour of the population', and helped to speak more loudly about other aspects of national life. This is why, in the United States, the work of Business for Diplomatic Action is so important: by encouraging good 'commercial diplomacy' amongst American businesses operating abroad, it is helping to protect the 'brand' of America against further damage, and ensuring a quicker recovery of the national reputation once the policy direction changes.

This argument suggests that in times of unpopular overseas engagements, it might be more productive for a government to invest heavily in areas such as tourism promotion, cultural relations and export promotion than in overtly political public diplomacy: dropping bombs out of one plane and leaflets out of the next is patently futile, and trying to persuade people who feel they have good reason to hate you that they should love you is likely to be counter-productive. You can't argue with public opinion, and it is very difficult to change the subject. But strong reminders of the reasons why perhaps people liked your country in the first place is likely to do less harm and might even do some good.

Philanthropy (when it's international in scope) is also important in shaping national image because it's one of the few ways in which the people of the country can "speak" directly and unofficially to the rest of the world, and thereby remind us that we shouldn't deduce too much about the character and values of the whole nation from the policies of its government. The act of giving away large sums of money makes news on its own account, and is thus a self-amplifying and self-promoting means of demonstrating that the values and morals of the population are still in good shape.

And, increasingly, sub-national actors such as states, regions and cities can, by acting on moral principles that differ from those of the national government, help to prove that it might make sense for people in other countries to be against the government, but not against the nation. Such players have the advantage that their images are not usually associated with any particular politics, and that they can 'do' international relations without being held responsible for foreign policy. California's stance on climate change is a good example of this: and with the increasing political and economic power of cities, it is clear that city diplomacy is likely to play a significant role in international relations in the coming years.

There is, alas, no such thing as international democracy, and no matter how deeply people in other countries might be affected by the decisions of the US President, they have no say in his or her election. In the absence of such mechanisms, it is all the more important that the people of the country, its businesses and culture, have the means to separate their 'civil' reputation from the 'statal' one which is both the responsibility and the dessert of their government.

National governments will find, no matter how moral their foreign policies, that from time to time it is difficult to avoid making enemies. It is at such times that being able to call on different voices is the best insurance policy against longer term reputational damage. A prudent government will see the sense of investing constantly in longer-term cultural, commercial and social relations with other states, and building up a substantial international store of goodwill, respect and mutual understanding, at least partly in the expectation that such events will, sooner or later, probably occur.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Jamaica might have something to learn from Switzerland

Just got back from Interlaken, where I spoke at a conference organised by Promarca. Switzerland is one of those very few places whose identity is so powerful, so positive and so universally understood and admired, that the main task facing Swiss industry, Swiss people and the Swiss government is not how to improve or even maintain their national image, but to protect it against contamination from sub-standard products, firms from other countries claiming to be 'Swiss-made', companies using the Swiss flag without authority, and many other related threats.

Only a few other places have this kind of reputational power: New York (you can put "I ♥ New York" on a t-shirt and it's immediately worth more money), Amsterdam, London, Italy, France, and that's about it. Most other places on earth face a much harder task: how to earn that kind of profile in the first place.

There are a number of other countries out there whose natural, national identity is also well worth protecting, even if their "brand image" isn't quite as perfect as Switzerland's. Jamaica is a prime example: for decades, the sounds of Reggae and the colours of Rasta and all the rest of that extraordinary country's rich national identity have been loved, admired, recognised around the world .... and then stolen.

Jamaica has scarcely ever benefited economically from its national identity: the American and Spanish-owned resorts make most of the money from its tourism, the foreign sports shoe and clothing companies that decide when Rasta is cool make the money from its colours and images, the foreign record companies make the money from its music - and the extraordinary thing is that Jamaica keeps producing the culture without ever enjoying more than a small portion of its benefits.

As Switzerland figures out how to protect and manage its natural intellectual assets around the world, a host of countries like Jamaica might find that a very interesting case to study, and perhaps to emulate.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Interview at Council on Foreign Relations

There's an interview with me by Lee Teslik on the Council on Foreign Relations website today. Lee makes me sound clearer and more logical than I probably really am, but it's a good general statement of where I feel the "business" of place image and branding is at the moment. It makes you realise how far this subject has come during the last ten years or so, and the prognosis for the next ten is pretty exciting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

China's image lacks appeal, not strength

As I reported in last quarter's edition of the Nation Brands Index, China's international image is sliding quite rapidly now: exactly the opposite of what China's leadership was hoping for in the buildup to the all-important Beijing Olympics. China's score in the Index has always been very weak on the 'governance' and 'people' axes, but is now losing rather than gaining ground on 'products'; it is still ranked very positively for 'culture', but not 'tourism'.

The recent welter of episodes relating to dodgy products made in China has further damaged the brand image of the country, and, if it continues, will significantly slow down the process of taking the 'Made in China' brand from merely ubiquitous to actually trusted, and ultimately desired. I once predicted that within ten years' time, we would start to see American and European products being launched on the marketplace with fake Chinese-sounding names in an attempt to make them appear more desirable than their real country of origin would allow: but this goal - which, let us not forget, Japan managed to achieve in just a few decades - looks further off than ever.

The Chinese leadership is frantic to create a better 'soft power' image for China in its potential marketplaces around the world, and the huge investment in Confucius Centres, the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai Expo, its increasing aid donations in Africa, the more moderate and collaborative foreign policy in some areas, the acquisition of trusted Western brands by Chinese companies, are all part of this strategy. In his recent speech to the 17th Party Congress, Hu Jintao spoke again of his aim to create trusted Chinese export brands - echoing the same promise made several years ago by the then Vice-Premier Wu Bangguo, as I reported in my 2003 book Brand New Justice - but this ambitious and complex manoeuvre is proving exceedingly hard to stage-manage on China's own terms.

Part of the problem is that China is a bull in the global china shop, and is becoming simply too powerful to be able to carry out the delicate manipulations necessary to build a positive and trusted image in other countries. Take yesterday's news that the Chinese oil firm PetroChina has trumped US rival Exxon Mobil to become the world's biggest firm, with a market capitalisation of a trillion dollars: no matter how you tell a story like this, the reaction of many ordinary people is more likely to be fear than liking or respect.

Brand China is going from invisible to overbearing in one leap. At least the United States enjoyed a couple of centuries of admiration and affection before starting to experience the downside of its success in the global marketplace.

As I pointed out in Brand America, America's current image problems have at least as much to do with its achievement of many of its economic aims as its frequently unpopular foreign policy: the world loves and supports a challenger, but let it succeed in its challenge and acquire the power it seeks, and the love will quickly turn to fear, and the fear to hatred. China is getting there in one short step.

China has the economic and increasingly the political strength to do pretty much whatever it wants: but the one thing it cannot do with all that power is to make itself much liked. And as its leadership has clearly understood, being liked is the fundamental prerequisite for building modern, market-based Empires on the U.S. model.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Pakistan and Mexico: Acts of God and Acts of Men.

Talking about Pakistan's international image may sound irrelevant, trivial, even absurd, at this point in the country's history, but the simple fact is that every country on earth depends on its good name in order to achieve its aims in the globally connected world we live in today.

At some point in the future, when things have stabilised a little, Pakistan will find that its ability to interact effectively and profitably with other countries will depend to a considerable extent on its good or bad image; its ability to lure back its most talented emigrés and stem the tide of those leaving to study and work abroad; its ability to attract business and leisure visitors as well as foreign investment; the quality of its engagements with other governments and multilateral agencies: all of these transactions will be considerably easier if Pakistan's reputation improves, and they will prove a constant, uphill struggle if its reputation remains as weak and negative as it has become today.

With the current state of emergency, almost daily violence and constant political and social upheaval, the international image of Pakistan is in tatters, and is probably the last thing on President Musharraf's mind as he fights for his political survival. But there will come a day when the country needs to think again about restoring its damaged reputation: and the longer the country remains in free-fall, the harder a task this will be.

The Mexican government probably isn't much concerned about its international reputation at the moment, either: with the southern state of Tabasco partly under water, its main concern must be to get assistance to the population as quickly as possible. But when major natural disasters happen, people often do worry that it will damage their country's international interests by spoiling its image: and they are usually wrong. Most of my research suggests that the things which happen to a country (such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks) seldom affect people's perceptions of that country in any profound or lasting way: what dramatically changes the image of a country is the things that the country - its government, its people, its industries - does, and especially to people in other countries.

The population of Pakistan quite rightly feel that they are as little to blame for their country's current woes as the people of Tabasco: but they are nonetheless likely to suffer the consequences of them for very much longer. Mexico will recover from the floods, people will rebuild their lives and their communities, and life will return to something like normal for the majority of those affected; before very long, world opinion will focus on another disaster, and will forget the Tabasco floods, just as it has begun to forget Pakistan's devastating earthquakes of 2005.

But simply because Pakistan's present troubles are man-made, their effect on the world's perceptions of the country will persist, and Pakistan will struggle for decades to present itself to the world as a responsible, trustworthy ally and partner in trade, tourism and politics.

Acts of God can harm a country in many ways: but it is acts of men that cause the most lasting damage.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Albania, Karen Hughes

Just got back from Tirana and the Economist's Round Table with the Government of Albania, and was greeted with the news that Karen Hughes, Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy at the U.S. State Department, has resigned.

Two countries battling against a negative image they are convinced they don't deserve, two sets of officials asking "why do they hate us?", two countries complaining that the good stories just don't seem to be able to get out.

Albania is in many ways the typical case of a transition state whose reputation lags painfully behind the reality: since the end of Communism, the country has made notable social and economic progress, but this appears to have had almost no impact on popular perceptions of the country. The 'professional' audiences - such as investors, diplomats, tour operators, bankers and business people - are, of course, better informed about the place, and some of them are quite excited about Albania's prospects, but the general public is twenty years behind the curve. From the way most Europeans talk about Albania, you would think that King Zog was still on the throne.

Albania's problem is the fact that most people are far too busy worrying about their own countries and their own lives to give much thought to a country they know little about and will probably never visit, and they are unlikely to go to any trouble to update the shallow, convenient, prejudiced narrative they hold in their heads about such places. Modest progress, growing stability and sensible reforms don't make headlines and don't interest people who have no personal connection with the place. Evil tyrants, self-styled monarchs, repulsive regimes, shocking repression: these are the stories that make the media and become the common currency of a country's international image.

If I've learned one thing in the years I've been working in this field, it's the sad, simple fact that public opinion will never voluntarily 'trade down' from a juicy story to a boring one.

Karen Hughes, with her energetic and well-meaning attempts to communicate how tolerant and benign the USA really is, to publics that, largely, detest the place (and for, largely, very good reasons) suffered from the same misapprehension as the the Government of Albania: both think that nice stories will kill nasty ones.

They are both wrong. Strong stories can only be killed by stronger ones.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

First Comments

This is my first post on the new blog, so it has to be on the main issue. And the main issue is - as it has been ever since I first started writing about this subject - what do we mean by place branding/nation branding?

So, I don't want to nag, but let me stress for about the millionth time that Place Branding is not a marketing or communications discipline. It's not about how places promote or 'sell' themselves. It's not about slogans, logos, PR campaigns or other forms of advertising. It's not tourism promotion. It's not government spin or propaganda.

Place Branding simply recognises that, in the modern world, the reputations of places are incredibly important to their prosperity and progress. Places with powerful and positive reputations find that all their transactions with other places are relatively easy and productive, while places with weak or negative reputations find that everything is relatively difficult.

In other words, places, just like companies, have brand images, and those brand images are crucial to their performance. This is where the term 'place brand' comes from.

What proper place branding doesn't claim - and never has - is that countries or cities can improve or enhance their reputations in the same way that companies can. You can sell a product or a service with advertising campaigns, but places aren't products.

Most places have, over many years, acquired a certain image because of the things they have done, the things they have made, the way they have made or done these things, or perhaps because of the things they haven't done or made. This gradually creates a very stable, very deeply rooted set of beliefs or prejudices about the kind of country or city it is.

And you simply can't change that fixed belief by buying advertising space and arguing with people about your image, or contradicting what they already believe. People know what that is: it's called propaganda, and it doesn't work any more.

So the phrase I would like to have engraved on my tombstone (he added cheerfully) is this:

A reputation cannot be constructed. It can only be earned.

So place branding is a strategic, policy-making approach, designed to help places build on the strengths that will earn them a better reputation.

It takes time, commitment, imagination, leadership and energy. It takes close coordination between government, companies and civil society: because all three are co-owners and co-managers of their nation's or city's reputation.

Your thoughts on this and on any other matters are very welcome and much appreciated.

This is a big, difficult, important and complex subject. Almost every day, as I travel around the world working with governments on their policies and strategies, new aspects and new questions about this discipline come to light. So over the next, ooh, twenty-seven years or so, I will try to jot these thoughts and dilemmas down on this blog as they emerge.