Anholt: Countries Must Earn Better Images through Smart Policy

Simon Anholt, an expert on “nation branding,” says countries cannot change international perceptions through advertising “propaganda” but must earn better images through coordinated policy efforts.

November 6, 2007

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nation branding, the business of applying corporate marketing theory to countries, has only existed as such for a decade. Simon Anholt, a specialist who advises countries on their national brands and edits a journal on place branding, first used the term “nation branding” academically in an article (PDF) published in the Journal of Brand Management in 1998. Since then, consulting practices advising countries on ways to improve their national brand image have increased rapidly. Anholt says, however, there is major confusion over how countries can and cannot effectively change their images. He says efforts to use straightforward brand marketing like advertising to change overall perceptions of a country are “utterly futile” and encourages a more organic process in which countries change their policy, in a coordinated manner, to earn a stronger brand.

First, briefly, can you just explain what nation branding is? Countries have always worked to portray themselves in one way or another. Is this just a new word for an old phenomenon?

In some ways, yes. One thing that is new is that people are starting to understand a couple of notions from brand theory, which are relatively useful in the way countries manage their reputations. The first is the idea of the brand as an asset, a reputation asset. That’s a very useful concept that has come from brand theory to countries. A second concept from branding which is very useful for leadership, for politics within countries, is the idea that a brand is more than just a strategy for marketing something better. It’s also a way of encapsulating the fundamental common purpose of an organization, and thus trying to achieve some forward momentum and some effective common behavior. These are all ideas that come from the corporate sector, and if they’re intelligently and responsibly applied can be quite useful to the way a country is run.

This isn’t just about tourism.

No, it’s certainly not just about tourism, and that’s the thing that more than any other I’ve tried to introduce into the discourse over how countries represent themselves. Traditionally it’s been done purely from a sector point of view. You have the tourism board saying how wonderful the country looks and how welcoming the people are. You have the investment-promotion agency saying almost the opposite, that it’s super modern and full of cars and roads and railways. And you have the cultural institute telling everybody how wonderful the film industry is. And you have the government occasionally doing public diplomacy, and perhaps occasionally attacking its neighbors. They’re all giving off completely different messages about the country. It’s not very surprising that most countries end up with very fragmented, out of date, confusing, unhelpful images. So I suppose the primary principle I tried to introduce here with the original idea of nation branding is that if all of those stakeholders work together and try to agree on some kind of common long-term strategy for the country and its role in the world, they’re far more likely to be able to influence the way it’s perceived.

What is the Nation Brands Index, and what sort of consulting do you do with countries?

Well the Nation Brands Index is a major global survey I’ve been running every three months for the last nearly three years. It polls about 26,000 people from thirty-five countries around the world. There’s a similar study I do called the City Brands Index that does the same thing for sixty cities. It basically asks people a number of questions about their perceptions of those countries. From the scores that people give to those countries on a range of different questions, we can then build up a picture of how strong or how weak or how positive or how negative the image of that country is. Quite a large number of governments, as well as tourist boards and investment-promotion agencies and other public and private bodies, now use this as their main tool for tracking image.

That’s a small part of my work. My full-time job, if you like, is working as a policy adviser to the governments of, at any given moment, seven or eight different countries. I work with a small team consisting of, usually, the head of state, two or three ministers—foreign affairs, economic affairs, culture, and so forth—the head of the tourism board, a couple of chief executives of major corporations, particularly if they export, and one or two figures from civil society. That could be a religious figure, or even a sporting figure. I work with this team of people in a series of one-day conversations, as I call them. We try to work out a plan for how the country can position itself in the world, and what are the policies and innovations and investments the country needs to undertake to earn the image it feels it wants and desires.

How big of a business is this? Can you give a sense of how much business you’re doing?

There’s an important distinction to be made between what I’m doing and what the rest of the nation-branding industry is doing. As far as I’m aware, the other practitioners in this area are mostly people in the business of communications. The assumption is that there are good things about the country that people don’t know and that need to be better communicated. It’s a sales job. That’s a very big business. The PR agencies and also the advertising agencies earn enormous sums of money marketing countries. If you include in that the sector-specific marketing that’s done for tourist boards and investment agencies and so forth, then really it’s quite a large business.

What I do is quite different because I don’t tell countries how to do marketing. I advise them on what sorts of policies they need to undertake in order to earn the reputation they feel they deserve. I’m probably alone in doing it that way. There’s certainly no shortage of countries that are interested in this kind of stuff, but there is a shortage of countries that are prepared to take the pain and the effort necessary to earn themselves a better image.

You don’t think that straightforward brand marketing works very well for countries?

No. It works if you’re trying to sell a product. That product could be an export, or tourism, or anything of that sort. If the basic message you’re trying to get across is, “Buy this, it’s good,” then marketing communications—if it’s good, and well funded, and persistent—can be very effective. But if you’re trying to change people’s perceptions of the country as a whole then it’s utterly futile. People believe what they believe about countries because they’ve believed it all their lives and they’re not going to change their minds because a twenty-second ad on CNN tells them to. People immediately recognize that kind of communication for what it is—propaganda—and they will instinctively reject it or ignore it.

So in a way the term nation branding really misbrands itself?

Yes absolutely. I will be the first to admit that I rather regret having coined that phrase. I meant something simple when I first used the phrase nation brand. I meant that nations have images—they always have—and that those images are as important to their progress as the brand images of products are to the corporations that own those products. What I didn’t mean is that you can directly manipulate perceptions. From that point of view, absolutely, nation branding is quite the wrong term. I use it less and less. My latest book is called Competitive Identity. That’s my attempt to replace the phrase nation branding—it’s a deliberately boring phrase to try to stop people getting so excited about it.

You run a journal, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, which is really the main source of academic literature on nation branding as a field. Can you talk a bit about the field, academically? What are the main points of controversy?

Because the field is very much in its infancy, the academic side of things is in a curious state—a state of immaturity and turmoil. Part of the problem is that there is enormous interest in this subject from the younger end of the spectrum. I’m getting two or three emails a week from students at graduate or postgraduate level saying they’re doing their thesis or their dissertation on the branding of their country or the branding of their city. A lot of them take a real pride or interest in getting this done. It seems to be something that touches citizens in a very profound way. But there are almost no experienced scholars at a higher level writing about this stuff. That’s gradually improving now. We’re getting more serious scholars from public policy and international relations and economic fields becoming more interested in this and starting to turn their attention to it. At the same time, some of the graduate students who started taking an interest in this field when it began to emerge five or six years ago are now writing some quite mature work on the subject.

From a foreign policy slant, do you think the rise of consulting on nation branding or competitive identity is a good thing?  What is the policy upshot here?

It’s potentially a very dangerous thing. Although my experience with senior government officials and civil servants is that they are highly intelligent and well-educated people, they still aren’t particularly familiar with some parts of private-sector practice. A great many of them are rather in awe of marketing and communicators. There’s this feeling among government circles that the folks who know how to sell Nikes know a thing or two about public persuasion and communication. This makes them [the governments] rather easy victims for a lot of the communications consultancies who will go along and show them an attractive slogan or a nicely designed logo and will sell it to them for an enormous amount of money. There’s very often no attempt at measuring the effectiveness of that—unsurprisingly, given that it generally doesn’t make any difference. So it’s potentially quite a bad thing, particularly because there are so many people out there attempting to communicate this image that it’s possible to change the image of nations through marketing and communications. And that’s fundamentally unsound.

However, it’s a good thing in one respect, because it does give a bit of a break to some of the poorer and weaker countries. By correctly understanding these issues and managing them well, they do have an opportunity to participate in the global marketplace as niche players, which a few generations ago they wouldn’t have had the chance to do. The old system was that a country could only really succeed in the world if it had conventional military or economic or political power, which meant that 99 percent of countries in the world had lost before they started. If we move toward a marketplace model, which globalization is compelling and which nation branding is a part of, then you have the interesting situation where a small, poor, remote or less-known country, is nonetheless is able to find a niche in the marketplace because of one interesting thing it does that appeals to one sector of the public.

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