Experts Say Nation Branding Efforts Should Reflect Country’s Fundamental Realities

ASTANA – Experts discussing nation branding at the 12th annual Eurasian Media Forum in Astana on April 24-25 agreed that the reality on the ground in a country should match its marketing efforts in order for those efforts to be successful.

That sentiment was expressed during a forum panel discussion titled, “Image is Everything! What is the Cost of Promoting a Country? Who Would Benefit from the Country’s Publicity.” The panel included such recognised figures as American political strategist Roger Fisk, UK-based nation branding expert Simon Anholt, Samruk Kazyna Welfare Fund Managing Director Darkhan Kaletayev and the International New York Times President Stephen Dunbar-Johnson.

What was clear from the discussion, chaired by Al Jazeera presenter Adrian Finighan, was that no amount of money spent on advertising and marketing campaigns can help a nation change its image if the underlying reality on the ground is not addressed. “You cannot put lipstick on a pig and expect a change,” said Fisk.

Anholt noted that, ironically, North Korea was the only country in the world that actually got its nation branding right, meaning that its international perception fully reflects the image the reclusive country’s leaders wanted to have.

Most panelists agreed, however, that Singapore, which is one of the powerhouses of Southeast Asia, was one of the most successful countries in terms of nation branding because the world could see its economic success and glistering skyline, even without setting foot on the tiny island. Other countries with a successful experience in nation branding mentioned at the forum included Chile and South Korea.

But the power of image branding, costing taxpayers great amounts of money, is unassailable.

The panelists agreed that branding efforts can’t distort the underlying reality and that the citizens of the country being branded need to be consulted and to have a vocal involvement in how their homeland is portrayed to target audiences, be those foreign direct investors, tourists or migrant workers.

“The key to powerful, enduring, sustainable and totally honest nation branding lies simply in portraying the reality and not hiding the home truths,” said one expert who was not part of the official panel.

Countries also needed to be aware that the modern media environment of 24-hour news, blogs, Twitter and other social media can cut through a nation’s carefully crafted image. One Twitter tweet, one Facebook post or one high-trending blog is capable of destroying anything Madison Avenue’s finest brains have concocted.

Events on the ground can also cut through branding efforts. Ukraine, for example, was on few people’s radar in the West and was largely seen as a successful post-Soviet nation with a harmonious society, hard-working citizens and an ancient culture. But recent events have significantly damaged that image in the world’s eyes.

The fundamental positives of Ukraine remain despite recent events, however, and should be the building blocks of a nation branding campaign, said one branding expert not on the panel and independently consulted by The Astana Times who has worked in Ukraine.

“Our experience in Ukraine, for example, taught us that while the positives are plentiful, the underlying sociopolitical issues would eventually come into play on the world stage, rendering all nation branding exercises irrelevant in the short-term. However, the fundamentals of Ukraine, its educated and engaged populace, geographical significance in terms of being an energy bridge from Russia to Europe and its ancient civilisation remain facts and when the political issues are resolved, the fundamentals will be back in the spotlight for the world to see. These are the toolkit ingredients of nation building,” he said.

In terms of the forum’s host country, Samruk Kazyna’s Kaletayev told delegates to the forum that Kazakhstan enjoyed a positive, progressive image in front of the international target audience and that this encouraged foreign direct investment (FDI) to influential Kazakh companies and also inspired a confidence in the global investment community because of the image of stability and consistency.

He added the sovereign wealth fund invests heavily in corporate social responsibility initiatives, not expecting a monetary return but knowing that such investments yield returns in terms of goodwill and corporate image for the country. He cited the sponsorship of Astana Pro Team, the country’s highly successful cycling squad, and said it brought high visibility to Kazakhstan and the capital Astana. He didn’t foresee any direct return on investment for the money actually spent, but he said the returns on image building, public relations and simple goodwill were incalculable.

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