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The nation brand – obstacles and possible solutions in a tough international environment

by on April 18, 2014

The purpose of the “The Mannequin Escape” as an advert is to brand Sweden as a country of fashion. It is supported by VisitSweden which is Sweden´s official travel and tourist information company and “Going home to fashion, Stockholm” is a call to the public (especially fashionistas) to visit the capital city of Sweden where trends in fashion appear “faster than in Oslo”. (Svenskefilmer:YouTube 2012)

The names of states around the world are often associated with certain words, may they be positive or negative. Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor, author, researcher and speaker on nation brands, points out a few stereotypical but common examples: “Nigeria? It’s those scam emails. Japan? Technology, expensive… Britain? Posh, boring, old fashioned. Switzerland? Clean and hygienic. Sweden? Switzerland with sex appeal.” (The Guardian 2006)

The question is if nation states are able to handle the complex work on nation branding (like a scholar in favor of the elite model would suggest) or if the international system has become so complex that other international actors become obstacles that affect nation brands negatively, beyond the control of states, like a scholar in favor of the pluralist model would argue. (Smith et. al. 2012:169-171)

This piece of work is made to examine obstacles like terrorism, diseases and the spread of controversial and harmful international news, films and video games. There will be a short evaluation if the states can prevent or decrease these negative impacts on foreign publics and enhance the nation brand or if they are out of states control.

Fig. 1. A beautiful view of Switzerland, that was ranked as number one on the FutureBrand Country Brand Index 2012. ((Future Brand 2012, Geonice 2014)

The competitive market and terrorism

In an increasingly interdependent but competitive world, states are highly involved in a game about limited resources, stimulation of export business and a hunt to attract tourism, talents and foreign investments (FDI). To be able to “play this game” successfully, nations need developed distinctive brands, effective branding and marketing techniques (Fetscherin and Marmier 2010) and a dynamic, international network of state, business and NGO relations, that can, for example, restore flawed international credibility, stimulate international relationships and increase international political influence. Nation branding is a complex, politicized and multi-year process, where a positive nation brand takes years to develop, but can be destroyed within minutes. (Fetscherin and Marmier 2010)

In this complex system it is possible to see that non-governmental extremist groups like al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Boko Haram and Hezbollah also operate more advanced due to developed technology. If the name of a state is constantly connected to terrorism in international news channels like for example al Jazeera, BBC or CNN, that state (or even region) gets negative publicity, when it comes to for example stability and political and security policies, and a pessimistic picture of the state is created among foreign publics, investors and business men, which may cause a negative trend regarding tourism, business, economy and foreign relations. In 2011, “the areas most impacted by terrorism were the Middle East, Pakistan, India and Russia with 7473 fatalities…”. (ReliefWeb 2012, Vision of Humanity 2011)

Some harmful events (both for victims but also for the countries that were targeted as regions for terrorist networks) were the 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA, the Bali bombing in 2002, the 7th July bombings in United Kingdom 2005, the bombings of a train in Madrid, Spain 2004, the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, (Sciolino 2004, Home Office 2006:15,19, 9/11 Memorial 2014) the bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania 1998, and the shootings at the Westgate mall in Kenya 2013. (Home Office 2006:15,19, 9/11 Memorial 2014, Reuters 2013) However, these kinds of events and negative effects on the nation brands can be controlled and prevented by an update of security policies and operations, (Home Office 2006:15,19, 9/11 Memorial 2014, NewsXLF 2013) international cooperation and strategic improvements regarding foreign policies and communication. However, not all states are able to easily enforce structural improvements and some high risk states like Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya (Vision of Humanity 2011) might struggle, partly because of corruption, unstable institutions, but also because groups, classified as terrorists, have a strong foothold in certain regions of the countries. (NCTC:Boko Haram 2014, NCTC:Al Qaeda 2014, Reuters 2013, NewsXLF 2013)

On the other hand, it is possible to control and prevent terrorism by closer and improved cooperation (for example between Kenya, UK, USA and Israel)(BBC News 2013) and help to update security systems both nationally and internationally, which will also will be in the interest of other states, if the terrorists are posing a treat to the international system and/or an interconnected stability.

George Musamali, a security analyst, tells BBC News about the shootings at the Westgate mall 2013, Kenya (the largest economy in East Africa) and how the lack of leadership, discipline, coordination, instructions and information regarding both the military and the police, caused confusion and resulted in several officers being shot to death by their own forces. The CCTV cameras also show soldiers looting the stores. (NewsXLF 2013) This event has spurred fear and increased hesitation among foreign investors and made damage to Kenya´s vulnerable brand. (ENCA 2014) The pessimistic down-process can be argued to be a consequence of a poor security system connected to a vulnerable security environment where al Shabaab had chances to use loop holes.

The problem with long-term diseases

Another threat to a nation´s reputation and economy is diseases and one example of that is the outbreak of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) which caused a global export ban, covering UK live cattle, and meat in 1996. In March 2006, ten years after the first outbreaks, the global export ban was lifted by the European Union but the questions of safety made both France and Germany very resistant, and the European Commission and the European Court of Justice had to warn and even take legal actions against these states (BBC News 2006) The BSE was a long-term issue where the British state authorities had not much of a chance to restore any reputation before the disease was classified as over and then the foreign public was highly suspicious. However, even if promotional campaigns for British beef did not have much of impact on the international fear, the quality of British science and vets played a role in calming the foreign public down (Leonard 2002:4) and this means that nation brands in general, can be restored by smart strategic communication and therefore its possible to say that a state and its network of cooperating actors may have difficulties to maintain or save the reputation during the process, but can gain control again when the disease is over by being well-organized and innovative.

Fig. 2. A cow skull. (Jueves 2013)

When soft power slowly kills

A different threat to nation brands at the international arena is when the brand is damaged by another actor´s soft power diplomacy like for example movies, TV-programs and video games. By looking at the list of banned video games, it is possible to see what games that are posing (according to the specific country) “harmful” pictures of specific countries. In China for example, all games that are considered to defame the Chinese government are banned. That includes Battlefield 4 (discrediting the national image and a threat to national security), (Sinha 2014) and Command and Conquer Generals and I.G.I-2 Covert Strike (posing a bad image of China and the Chinese army). (China Daily 2014) In Pakistan the video games Call of Duty Black Ops II and Medal of Honor Warfighter are banned because of giving a negative picture of Pakistan (Makuch 2013) and in Saudi Arabia, both Assassins Creed and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare were banned because of violence and negative portrayal of Muslims and Arabs. (Henderson 2011)

Those games are banned in the countries that are put in a bad light, but on the other hand, they are spread internationally and therefore the negative perspectives abroad are maintained. That may challenge attempts of nation branding, especially for states that already struggle with negative reputations and a “weak status” on the competitive, international arena. However, there are counter-methods to decrease negative international influences (that are difficult to control) and instead provide a more diverse and positive picture, by having exchange programmes, seminars, training and conferences. (United States Department of State 2014) This will help in building real and virtual networks and is a chance to show foreign publics the complexity of the state and promote the good sides and outplay simplified stereotypes in video games, films and TV-channels maintained by NGOs, MNCs or other states. For example, research by the British Tourist Authority “showed that people who come to the UK invariably report that they leave the country with a more positive impression of it than when they arrived.” (Leonard 2002:14) Joseph Nye explains that the students are not converted when they go back home, but he or she will go back with a more sophisticated and complex idea of the state´s strengths and weaknesses. They may still be “critical of American policy on Israel or they will go back and be critical of American policy on capital punishment. But they will have a deeper understanding of why it is that American treat gun control differently than Europeans.” (Leonard 2002:14)

Swedish innovators take advantage of the international interest in gaming industry and boost the nation brand not only by producing and exporting computer games (like Battlefield) but by hosting DreamHack, the world´s largest digital festival with more than 22.000 players from all over the world (on every event). DreamHack is promoted on the official site of Sweden and is a smart way to draw attention and market the state as a high-tech and modern country by making people visit and have a real-life experience of their virtual interest and explore expos made by a row of international companies and Swedish universities. (DreamHack 2014, Sweden 2014)

Cross-border events to strengthen brands

It is of vital interest to build relationships with non-state actors and connect to grassroot-projects, especially within and between states of main importance, to enhance the power of the brand. One good example of a non-governmental project was the Formula 1 Global Marketing Challenge, “designed to bring U.S. and Saudi Arabian graduate and undergraduate students together in the wake of a post–9/11 mediated reality.” (Payne 2009) The students created a marketing communication plan for Saudi Arabia’s first ever international sports event, the Formula 1 Speed Boat Race, and this intercultural communication activity with individuals from diverse backgrounds, religions, political climates, and cultures showed that public diplomacy efforts outside the usual state-centric domain may increase and strengthen nation brands, cross-border cooperation and credibility. (Payne 2009) Therefore, it is important that state authorities develop their networks to directly or indirectly support non-governmental activities and exchanges, since they can increase positive relations instead of negative public opinions created by damaging publicity and actions. This method is very different from simple nation branding and selling messages, since it involves real-life exchanges and people are given a whole picture of the country.

If the country has the chance to host world events like the Olympic Games (Olympic.org 2014) the World Expos (EXPO 2020: Dubai, UAE 2014) or the Eurovision Song Contest (Eurovision Song Contest, Copenhagen 2014) the state will be able to boost the nation brand, especially since foreign audiences will take part of the event in real-life or through media, since these kinds of events get a lot of international media attention. For example “with over eighteen months of celebrations and international coverage—from the Royal Wedding to Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee—brand UK has captivated millions around the world. However, garnering approximately 900 million viewers, over six million visitors and 100,000 hours of broadcast coverage, the 2012 Olympic Games were the pivotal moment in showcasing British heritage, pageantry and nostalgia”. (Future Brand 2012)

The World Expos are key events for “the global community to share innovations and make progress on issues of international importance such as the global economy, sustainable development and improved quality of life for the world’s population.” (EXPO 2020, 2012) In 2020 the Expo will be held in Dubai (the United Arab Emirates) and the first Expo ever to be hosted by a Middle Eastern city. The event will cost about 8 billion USD to organize, but is expected to deliver 23 billion USD in revenue (BBC News World 2013, ExpoPlatform 2013) and additional, positive worldwide attention to the city and region.

New media and Diplomacy 3.0

On the other side, both events and exchange programmes are very expensive and reach a limited number of people at special occasions, plus they may not be possible choices for every state. These are some reasons why public communication need to be developed and increasingly used as a two-way, interactive tool based on social media and the internet. Even though the quality of the engagement will not be the same as that achieved through traditional and expensive face to face programmes these tools have proved to be useful in main events like Barack Obama´s presidential campaign 2008 (Lipton 2009:2), and the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions and elections. (Hussain and Howard 2012:16) The new media tools will increase opportunities to interact with foreign audiences and gain influence in a complex, contemporary, international system, especially for less well-known states with limited, traditional power capabilities (like size, military power and economic strenght). (Batora 2005:1) Further support for the importance of new media as public diplomacy and branding tools are that states at the top of the The FutureBrand Country Brand Index 2012 like Switzerland and Sweden (that are ahead of technology and communication) are taking the digital advancement seriously. (Future Brand 2012, Future Brand 2014) Sweden, for example, is promoting the Diplohack, which is a multidisciplinary event, made to develop models for how digital diplomacy can contribute to real world change (Wired.co.uk 2014) and Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs and an active user of Twitter, argues that traditional diplomacy will remain but that more of the discussions made behind closed doors should be done in the public domain. “Whether this is the start of Diplomacy 3.0 remains to be seen, but it’s a start of something new. We´re still at the very early stages of something and its not going to replace all diplomacy in the world but it will fundamentally transform interactions between governments and people all across the world.” (Wired.co.uk 2014, TEDx Talks:YouTube 2014)

Hear Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, talk about the internet as a network of power for free societies, democracy and digital diplomacy. (TEDx Talks:YouTube 2014)

Innovation and cooperation

State authorities can handle most negative effects like terrorism and negative publicity on nation brands by being innovative and open for international cooperation. However, some countries have a greater ability to successfully make themselves through, than a vulnerable state with less national stability and weaker status at the international arena. In this kind of a state, the security systems needs to be improved, so foreign investors and tourists can be safe, which is of fundamental importance if the nation branding is going to be fully successful. Further developments regarding for example foreign and national policies and actions plus reduction of corruption may also increase a good reputation, regardless what state.

Exchange programmes and world events are great opportunities to show the global community the good sides of the state, but often they are extremely expensive. Therefore, a more advanced public communication system gives loads of opportunities to reach foreign publics and promote, communicate and discuss various issues. Public diplomacy connected to nation branding, must constantly be updated so the states will be able to successfully compete and cooperate, since “switching from polo on horseback to water polo does not change the principals or their objectives, but the contest is still profoundly transformed by the change in setting.” (Kirshner 2006:1)

Twitter has 241 million monthly active users and is increasingly being used by diplomats like for example Vegard Ellefsen, Norway´s Ambassador to NATO ( ), William Hague, British Foreign Secretary () and Susan Rice, the United States National Security Advisor () to communicate with followers and update on various issues. (Follow Diplomats on Twitter 2014) However, Twitter is also used by the general public as a tool of gossip and fun and this music video reflects both sides of the coin. (AVbyte 2013)

Bibliography

Images

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Fig. 2. Jueves (2013) Vacas Flacas. (Online)

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2 Comments
  1. Globalist permalink

    Very well written and well constructed! Interesting arguments regarding the development of games in contrast to nation branding 🙂 Also, the Dubai Expo 2020 seems very interesting and generates so many benefits, although in regard to branding of UAE they sure do know how to brand themselves as the centre of the world. Thanks for sharing your view on the topic, was fun to read and feel somehow more enlightened!

  2. kimchi86 permalink

    As always a very interesting read!
    However, I would perhaps attempt to revise the length, if you’re planning on including this in the portfolio. I see the relevance, but all case studies are maybe not necessary to get the point across, even thought I personally applaud all the different cases used to demonstrate problems in practice. Also, excessive wordiness might be useful to reduce in order to shorten down the piece, e.g. the list of various different bombing/terror attacks and the caps for the video clips included. As the readers are meant to watch the videos anyway the text might be redundant 🙂

    Again, good job!

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