Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Monopoly and Patriotism

A friend in Latvia has alerted me to the Monopoly World Edition website, where you can vote for the cities that will be featured in the new, 'global', edition of the game. Apparently Riga - which I mentioned in an earlier post as one of my favourite European cities - has risen from 46th to 9th position since a newspaper article mentioned the contest. Naturally, thousands of the good citizens of Riga got voting, and succeeded in pushing their city up the rankings.

I say 'naturally', because almost nothing is more natural - or more powerful - than people's love of their own city, region or country.

A similar phenomenon was observed last year when the Swiss film-maker and adventurer Bernard Weber had the brilliant idea of creating a ranking for the New Seven Wonders of the World. This event resulted in over one hundred million votes being cast around the world, as ordinary people voted frantically to get "their" national landmark recognised as one of the new seven wonders.

It's striking because such events are somewhat unfamiliar. But if you think about it, equally dramatic displays of widespread and energetic patriotism are regularly triggered for every football World Cup, every Olympic Games, and to a lesser extent for contests such as 'Miss World' and the Eurovision Song Contest. Whenever people have an opportunity to boost the profile of their home town or home country, they do it, and in huge numbers.

Clearly, powerful forces are being unleashed here, and in a way it's reassuring to find that in our age of globalisation such a simple and elemental instinct as patriotism is alive and well - and especially encouraging that it usually manages to find its outlet in harmless fun.

Such contests are undoubtedly 'good branding' for the places that do well in them: in one way or another, they will help to raise the profile of the place, increase tourism numbers, encourage other kinds of commercial interest such as foreign investment and trade, and boost the number of people who decide to study, work and relocate there.

But all those millions of ordinary citizens certainly aren't voting for their home town because the tourist board has asked them to - most people are blissfully unaware that their city or country even has a tourist authority, and many even complain about the number of foreign visitors cluttering up their streets - or even because they necessarily see a direct connection between their vote and their future prosperity. It appears to be something purely instinctive, an almost automatic outpouring of group pride, and the expression of our own identity through the place that made us.

As I reported in the 3rd Quarter Report of the 2005 Nation Brands Index, the way in which people rank the 'brand images' of their own countries follows a fascinating pattern. Every country in the overall Top 10 of the NBI ranks itself first, while every country in the bottom 30 rates one or more other countries higher than itself - with the exception of two of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India and Ireland. It's impossible to say whether this is cause or effect: do people rate their own country highly because they know how admired and admirable it is, or does the fact they they rate it so highly help it to become admired and admirable?

The reality is that it's probably both at the same time. Ask 100 Chief Executives the secret of their company's strong brand, and half of them will probably tell you that it's the belief of their own staff in that brand and its values. Loyalty builds success, and success builds loyalty, and no place on earth - city, town, country, village or region - can hope to make others respect and admire it unless it first respects and admires itself.

But of course there's a catch. As with anything else that involves getting large numbers of people to make the effort to do something they don't normally do - even if it's only a matter of visiting a website and clicking on a button - there is a limit to how many times this force can be successfully unleashed. Yes, people undoubtedly do feel a strong pride in their own country or city, but their energy to express it is, like anything else, limited. You can't keep stoking the fire of patriotism forever: unless provided with new fuel, it will eventually die down and burn out.

Governments should reflect on this. Poking the embers of a population's love of their country will, nine times out of ten, produce a blaze, and this is a trick that any child can perform. But keeping the fire going for generations is a steeper challenge altogether.