National public-relations campaigns typically raise eyebrows. The whole idea of a country advertising itself evokes propaganda—and history’s most notable propaganda efforts, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, for instance, or Nazi Germany, carry dark connotations. Yet just in the last ten years, an industry has emerged to help countries better tailor their image. As a new Backgrounder outlines, “nation branding” has established itself as a hip new field, both in academia and consulting.
It’s no mystery why countries find the idea compelling. Public-relations concerns loom over some of the world’s geopolitical heavyweights—and the stakes include economic prowess and diplomatic power, not just tourism. “Brand China,” for instance, finds itself increasingly threatened (BBC) following a flurry of scandals over dangerous lapses in the quality control of Chinese exports. The United States, too, is besieged with bad press. Recent polling data from the Pew Research Center shows global perceptions of the United States at a nadir in many parts of the world, particularly among Arabs and Muslims, but also in Europe and Latin America. These numbers represent a stunning shift from the years between 1989 and 2001, when the world’s views of the United States, even in Islamic states, were overwhelmingly positive.
Given these kinds of concerns, the idea of image consulting is finding new traction, and a phalanx of consultants stands ready to advise any country that will cough up the fees. But does nation branding actually work? And, perhaps more importantly, is its rise a good thing? Simon Anholt, an expert on nation branding, says in an interview that the brand-consulting phenomenon is “potentially a very dangerous thing.” He notes that countries can easily get the idea that their bad policy can be whitewashed with good public relations—an idea he staunchly rejects. Furthermore, Anholt says sophisticated consultancies often find “rather easy victims” in countries hoping for a quick fix.
These risks notwithstanding, several experts, including Anholt, note the overwhelmingly positive effects truthful branding can have, especially for small developing countries. Joshua Fouts, who runs the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, says effective marketing gets smaller countries “involved in the global conversation.” Such marketing opens the possibility of countries more efficiently conveying what they do well, thus becoming “niche players”—regional finance hubs, say, or eccentric tourist destinations, or cultural centers focusing specifically on music or sport.
As for countries like the United States and China, the consensus opinion among experts remains that PR campaigns won’t work unless they are accompanied by policy changes. Karen Hughes, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, commented in a 2006 CFR appearance that “policy must match public diplomacy.” Anholt echoes this, arguing that nation branding is not the answer unless it is pursued alongside policy changes. “I don’t tell countries how to do marketing,” he says. “I advise them on what sorts of policies they need to undertake in order to earn the reputation they feel they deserve.”