Marketing Manual Basics
Sergey Mitrofanov: More or less, what we see today in the world is that people are talking about country branding. For a kind of warm-up, let me invite you to talk shortly about the latest Olympic Games in Sochi. From different sources we have heard that it is a kind of new image of Russia. What is your feeling about that? From my point of view I saw an opportunity, with good storytelling about Russian history in the opening ceremony – but unfortunately I didn’t see any future messages.
Simon Anholt: I think it is very difficult to send specific messages with a major event because, in the end, 99.9% of the audience are not going there just to see an opening ceremony, and the only thing they will really notice is whether they enjoy it or not.
You know, using a major event as an instrument of propaganda, or an instrument of communications, is incredibly difficult. It is a very inaccurate instrument for communication, and also very, very short term. I have been researching the images of countries since 2005 with the Nation Brands Index survey which uses a very, very large pool of people around the world. It is a measure of their perceptions of other countries. And generally speaking I find that major events – even the Summer Olympics – generally have very little impact on the images of countries. And when they do have an impact, it almost never lasts for more than three or four months.
SM: Could you explain why?
SA: The reality is that most of us never think about other countries. The human race is not a naturally cosmopolitan species. The people who know about, and care about, and think about, foreign countries are a tiny minority. And the vast majority of humanity is interested not even in their own country, but in their own town, their own village, their own family. And this is the reason why we think of other countries in terms of simple clichés.
The reason why people don’t think about countries is because they have no reason to.
They are not interested because the country has no impact on them. South Korea, one of the most extraordinary success stories of the last 60 years, is a country that has managed to achieve a high standard of development, and wealth, and prosperity, and stability, and peace, almost unequalled in human history. And yet it still only ranks 33rd out of 50 in the Nation Brands Index. Why? Because Korea’s success is only of interest to Koreans
And even if a country does succeed in sending out some completely different message, using the Olympics or some other means, it is only a matter of time, and usually a very short time, before everybody else then reverts to the previous cliché, because that is simpler for them and more comfortable. It is an effort to change your mind about another country and nobody wants to do it.
SM: By the way, I see a lot of interest in such branding on the part of developing countries rather than developed ones. For example, Asian states, which are also trying to come onto the global arena, are pursuing investment in their country branding. And more and more I hear from different regions – not only single countries – they would like to invest in branding to be perceived in a certain way on the global scene.
SA: There is some evidence in my survey to suggest that this is true. People who live in poorer, or less successful, or less happy countries do tend to think about other countries a bit more than people who live in very rich, or very successful countries. But it is only a marginal difference. I don’t think it is true that rich people only think about themselves and poor people think about other countries. I think there’s a small proportion of the population in every country that is naturally more internationally focused, that is interested in other people and other populations. But the vast majority just feel a general sense of superiority and aren’t very concerned about the rest of the world.
As to the reason why so many governments want to do this thing called branding – well, that’s very obvious. When I wrote my first essay on this subject in 1998, it was a little paper in the Journal of Brand Management called ‘Nation Brands of the 21st Century.’ This is, I believe, the first time the expression ‘nation brand’ was ever used in print.
It was a very naïve kind of essay, but it simply said, “In the age of globalisation, all countries are competing with each other, and the only way in which consumers can distinguish between them is on the basis of their images.” For this reason, governments, if they want more trade, more tourism, more talent, more profitable engagements with other countries, need to understand what their image is, and they need to try to improve it. And I think that point is now very well understood – it has taken roughly 15 years but now almost every government has got it – that a good national reputation is a prerequisite for profitable trade with other countries. But the second stage – how you can get a good reputation – is not understood as well.
That is the point on which, I think, we are all stuck. And this is the stage also on which my choice of vocabulary was unfortunate, because I used the term ‘brand’ and it turned into ‘branding.’ It made everybody assume that the way to get a better reputation is to somehow communicate your way to a better reputation, which is an assumption that comes from product marketing. I have spent a lot of the last 15 years trying to undo the damage that I did by coining that phrase, ‘nation brand,’ by saying to people, “Yes, you have got a brand image. Yes, it is important to you. But you can’t change it through messages, or propaganda, or advertising, or public relations. It is not a media problem, and therefore the solution isn’t a media solution.”
Using a major event as an instrument of propaganda, or an instrument of
communications, is incredibly difficult. It is a very inaccurate
instrument for communication, and also very, very short term. Major
events – even the Olympics – generally have very little impact on the
images of countries
SM: I agree with you 100%, because when I worked in corporate branding I also felt that we started with the logo and design, and only then went down to the corporate culture. In these terms, while we are talking about the country image, from my perspective it is important for these governments not to spend money on the media – the worst kind of propaganda – but maybe to make some changes inside the country.
You once mentioned the Gross Happiness Index (GHI), which is more and more important today to describe a country’s success, not GDP. It is very difficult to improve the GHI through propaganda or communications. You need to take certain steps to make people happy. And happy citizens will promote your state more effectively than media or PR agencies.
SA: Yes, there we agree. Or at least I don’t disagree with you. But that sounds to me like an extremely long way of achieving a better reputation for a country. I think your approach is logical, and I also think it would probably work. If you start from the inside – you make a better country, a more perfectly functioning state with more peace, more justice, more tolerance, and more education – then you get happier citizens, and they will naturally communicate that around the world. You are probably right. But I think you’re talking about a process that would take generations.
I am not saying it is a wrong thing to do, but I think that there is a quicker way of achieving a good reputation. It is not a shortcut, but I believe that it is likely to have a much quicker impact.
SM: How do you see it specifically?
SA: I see the thing in a different way. Of course, I agree with you 100% that countries that are not working domestically shouldn’t even be thinking about their reputation. I think countries that have got serious problems connected with the rule of law, or justice, or tolerance, or all the factors that create happiness, should be fixing that first – there is no question about it.
But if a country is basically fine in the sense that it is well governed, it is reasonably stable – whether it is rich or poor – it can start to earn a reputation much more quickly by focusing on the outside rather than the inside.
SM: What do you mean by that?
SA: What I mean is: understanding exactly where reputation comes from. Reputation does not come from success. And this is the biggest misunderstanding that I find when I am talking to governments.
One of the things that I always encourage countries to do, particularly smaller countries, is to find a problem that everybody recognises – be it corruption, climate change, pandemics or human rights – where you have some particular expertise or ambition to develop expertise, and focus on that. Make a difference, and stop worrying about your image and wasting your money on media relations, advertisements
In the last 15 years, I have advised 53 governments on issues of national reputation. Every single one of them, during our first meetings, was under the impression that they deserved a better reputation because they were successful countries. And all of my research shows that actually people are not interested in how successful a country is. They’re not really interested in whether it is rich, or whether it is beautiful, or whether it is advanced, or whether it is strong. They are only interested in what that country does for them.
This is something that should be familiar to you from the commercial marketplace. It is basic marketing. People don’t care about your product nearly as much as they care about themselves. So a good marketer will start by analysing the consumer and asking, “What does the consumer lack? What does he or she miss in their own life that I could provide, to consequently make myself relevant to them?” And I get phone calls every week from governments around the world saying basically, in different words, “What can we say to make ourselves more famous?” That’s the wrong question. There’s nothing you can say to make yourself more famous. The question should be, “What can we do to make ourselves more relevant?”
The reason why people don’t think about countries is because they have no reason to. They are not interested because the country has no impact on them. South Korea, one of the most extraordinary success stories of the last 60 years, is a country that has managed to achieve a high standard of development, and wealth, and prosperity, and stability, and peace, almost unequalled in human history. And yet it still only ranks 33rd out of 50 in my Index.
S.A. Because Korea’s success is only of interest to Koreans. It only benefited them. And if you live in Russia, or Britain, or Uruguay, or Kazakhstan, the success of Korea is of little interest to you. By definition, everybody out there has got a perfectly good country of their own and they are not looking for a new one. So they don’t care how successful other countries are. What they care about is whether that country benefits them.
So, very often when people say to me, “How do you measure success in national image terms?” I say, “The only measure of success is when you interview people around the world, they should say, ‘I’m glad that your country exists.’” That is the only measure that means anything.
So the technique, as far as I am concerned, is a very simple one. You look at the things that people around the world really care about, the problems that they are concerned with like climate change, or intolerance, or drug-trafficking, or whatever it is. Then you say, “OK, we as a country are going to dedicate a significant part of our resources to fixing that problem for our own benefit and for the benefit of the rest of humanity. And we are not going to worry about our image, because that is just vanity. We are going to try to fix this problem.”
SM: Very interesting. The case of South Korea is also very instructive. But let me take a slightly different angle and discuss how a country’s image affects our consumer behaviour. For example, for many years we have been afraid of the ‘Made in China,’ or the ‘Made in Korea’ label. But today we see Samsung in almost half the population’s hands and apartments. It also influences me as a consumer. When I see ‘Made in China’ today, I am afraid neither of the quality nor the product, in consumer electronics first of all. And in the automotive industry we also see China is coming to the market, while Korea has made a huge impact on consumers in Europe and developed countries. This is important to me as a consumer. Then I start to think about this country. Then, when I try to choose a bottle of wine, I start with the French, for example, and then go down, not in quality but down in price. I may go down to Italy, or Spain, or Chile, or the US. So we have a kind of perception that influences our life somehow.
SA: I absolutely agree. And if you look back to that first paper I wrote in 1998, the concept of the nation brand, as I described it then, came directly out of this so called ‘country-of-origin effect.’ I talked about the examples of Switzerland, and particularly Germany and Japan – three examples of countries whose images are significantly dictated by consumer perceptions of their exported products and particularly their consumer brands. I told the story of how Japan and Germany not very long ago – just 60 years ago – were both pariahs. If I had been doing the Nation Brands Index in 1946, we would have seen Japan and Germany at the bottom, where Iran is today. And yet, 60 years later – and that is not very long – they are at the other end of the Index. Japan and Germany are now two of the most admired countries on the planet.
If you look at, for example, the Human Values survey, and cluster together all the questions relating to conservative versus liberal values, and do a simple calculation, it becomes clear that the vast majority of the world’s population – roughly 80% – have broadly conservative rather than broadly liberal values. And, consequently, issues like legislation against propaganda about non-traditional relationships, and these kinds of policies, are actually not criticised but supported by the majority of the world’s population
SM: How have they achieved that?
SA: Well, very significantly, they showed the world how to trust them, through their products. And one of the ways in which I have described this process to governments over the years is as a kind of advanced, multi-faceted, 360° public diplomacy. The reason why diplomacy is a useful framework for looking at this is because you begin to realise that many things other than diplomats can perform a diplomatic function.
Products, for example, are very powerful ambassadors for a country’s image, as we have just described. And that was indeed my starting point when I started thinking and writing about nation brands. But my observation was that it wasn’t just the products. Everything that a country makes, does, sells or teaches is potentially an ambassador to the rest of the world.
And your attraction to South Korean products is the most simple and straightforward, the easiest illustration of what I mean by the principle of South Korea doing something to make it admired. What it is doing, in a very small, very simple way, is providing people with the products – the daily products – that make their lives easier or more enjoyable. And that is the starting point.
SM: What else can South Korea do beyond that in terms of improving its image?
SA: It can do culture. So, Gangnam Style is a video that in a tiny, tiny way makes people’s lives more enjoyable. And if people know that it comes from Korea, it enhances the country’s image. There is a big ‘if’ there, by the way, because the majority of the world’s population still thinks it is Japanese. There is unfortunately an assumption that electronics companies are all Japanese. But if people know that the culture and the product are from Korea, then, of course, that will improve their perception of the country.
South Korea a few years ago, partly as a result of my encouragement to them, quadrupled their foreign assistance budget. Previously it was a rich country that gave much, much less than the UN target of 0.7% of GDP in overseas development assistance. Consequently, there are now large numbers of people in the developing world – mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa – who feel glad that Korea exists, because it is providing them with a lot of development assistance. So, in a thousand different ways, it is about doing things for other people.
SM: I absolutely agree. Then we have these five other emerging countries, under one brand – BRICS – who in fact are absolutely different countries with different individual branding. For example, China is going to be another centre of power in the world. And Russia is trying to recover from these 20 years of changes.
India is a completely different type. When I travelled to India last summer I was really surprised at how their economy was developing and how they produced their new products. Unfortunately, I have never been to South Africa, but I have a lot of friends out there. And I feel this country is also in a period of turbulence today. But it has a lot of opportunities.
And Brazil, which in terms of technology is now a very developed country, on the other hand has this problem with crime in favelas and a lot of supplementary problems in connection with the Olympics and the soccer World Cup it is hosting over the next two years.
So, these five nations seem to be going their own way towards a stronger brand. In the meantime, Russia made the greatest progress in the latest 2013 Nation Brands Index. Can you say why?
SA: It is very interesting to see what is happening to Russia’s image. In the Western world, so-called liberal values are so deeply entrenched in the culture that we tend to assume that they are the predominant global culture. So we are very puzzled when we see what goes on in the Nation Brands Index. People look at Russia’s image improving and they say, “How could this be?” because it seems as if every time the Russian government passes a law which is regarded in the West as being illiberal, conservative Russia’s image seems to improve.
There is no question in my mind that rapid social change presents enormous dangers. And one of the problems of rapid economic growth in a globalised world is that it forces societies to change faster than is really comfortable for them
But to me it is perfectly obvious why that is. If you look at, for example, the Human Values survey, and cluster together all the questions relating to conservative versus liberal values, and do a simple calculation, it becomes clear that the vast majority of the world’s population – roughly 80% – have broadly conservative rather than broadly liberal values. And, consequently, issues like legislation against propaganda about non-traditional relationships, and these kinds of policies, are actually not criticised but supported by the majority of the world’s population. I still don’t know whether this appeal to the 80% is a deliberate strategy or not. I suspect it is more instinct than planning.
Now we see a process in Europe – the developing of the European Union. I feel that they more or less erase this competitive identity from nation branding. And the new generation, the ‘millenniumers,’ are more or less similar in developed and developing countries: they have access to the net, they are listening to similar music, they are wearing similar clothes, most of them speak English – bad English
The two-speed world
SM: I feel that it is more instinct. And I also believe that the result comes about because Russia now has a clear, open position that it plans to be a kind of conservative country. And you’ve mentioned this 80%. Indeed, we hear the most active voices in the media. Sometimes these conservative people are not so active in communications, and that is why we don’t hear their voices so much.
Then there is a problem of how we communicate the ideas. I mean we do it in statements rather than in the form of dialogue. Maybe that is also a characteristic of a conservative society, while liberal cultures, which are more peculiar to Anglo-Saxon communities, are more about discussion and conversation. That is why the perception at the first stage, when we make statements, is “Right, I’ll be like this.” And we try to understand it with no comments, no explanations. From a conservative society that is sometimes perceived as aggression.
SA: Right. And, of course, the problem here is that both sides of this eternal political debate have devoted over the centuries so much time and effort to black propaganda against the other side. And so, in the eyes of both sides, this whole debate takes a moral and an ethical turn rather than simply a political or a social one.
Intrinsically, conservatism and liberalism both can be good – and both can be bad. Both can be ethically positive, and both can be ethically negative. It simply depends on how one interprets them.
The liberal side has done such a good job of associating conservatism with cruelty, or with persecution of minorities and so on, which conservatism doesn’t necessarily have to employ. And, vice versa, conservatives have spent so much time and effort branding liberalism as being immoral, decadent and distasteful.
The fact is that what ought to be a neutral political debate – and it is a very important debate because it is about the future of human society – has become so emotionally charged that it is almost impossible to have the debate. And this is one of the greatest challenges that we face at the moment. If you look at the way that Russia is presented in the Western media, it is 90% emotional, and vice versa.
Governments, if they want more trade, more tourism, more talent, more profitable engagements with other countries, need to understand what their image is, and they need to try to improve it. And that point is now very well understood – it has taken roughly 15 years but now almost every government has got it – that a good national reputation is a prerequisite for profitable trade with other countries. But the second stage – how you can get a good reputation – is not
understood as well
SM: Absolutely. I track the media in different regions, not only in Europe but also in South America, and I see that kind of emotional communication. It is also part of our life. Journalists try to present the emotional part of some advanced activity, and try to make money by adding emotion to information.
SA: One other point that I think is really worth making here is that it is increasingly looking as if the topic which is right at the heart of this debate is homosexuality. And it is not by accident that this topic is at the centre of it, because it is one of the most profoundly controversial topics which human beings can imagine.
Homosexuality is a topic that will literally split the world. Because, you know, when it comes to other critical issues like violence against women or social inequality, broadly speaking everybody agrees. But homosexuality is one of those issues where it simply takes generations before a society will change its view. And this to me is a wonderful illustration of the main challenge, the main danger if you like, of globalisation. Because what globalisation does is that it takes evolutionary change in one society and it produces that same change in the form of revolution in another.
SM: What do you mean by that?
SA: Take acceptance or tolerance of homosexuality in the UK or the US as your starting point. This is a concept which, I guess, my grandparents would have found as difficult to deal with as the majority of Russians do today. To many, it is a seriously disturbing concept. But gradually, over the years, because the trend has been towards the liberalisation of society, the liberalisation of views, the celebration of individual rights, and so on, we are now at the stage where to my children the question of sexual preference is genuinely, profoundly immaterial.
They regard it as being simply irrelevant. They just don’t care whether somebody else prefers men or women. It has taken this society three generations of evolution of attitudes to get to that point. But thanks to globalisation, the consequences of that slow evolution visit other countries like Russia overnight. And the Russians, who have not been through this process of evolution, are presented with the end point of this long evolution, and so in Russia it takes a revolutionary form. This is the challenge of globalisation: a two-speed world.
SM: Yes, it squeezes the processes of accepting or not accepting some ideas that are coming from other countries.
SA: There is no question in my mind that rapid social change presents enormous dangers. And one of the problems of rapid economic growth in a globalised world is that it forces societies to change faster than is really comfortable for them. And when a country, a society, is dragged through a hundred years of social progress – let us call it progress – in the space of ten or 20 years, of course there are going to be casualties and frictions. And, of course, there is a danger to that society: can it remain whole or will it simply shatter?
On a related point, I’m more and more concerned about the idea of competition between countries. I think that it risks destroying humanity, and destroying the planet, in the end.
SM: You’ve raised an interesting topic, about the globalised world. Now we see a process in Europe – the developing of the European Union. I feel that they more or less erase this competitive identity from nation branding. And the new generation, the ‘millenniumers,’ are more or less similar in developed and developing countries: they have access to the net, they are listening to similar music, they are wearing similar clothes, most of them speak English – bad English. Right?
SA: Most English is bad English.
When countries are interested in nation branding or country branding, then of course it is absolutely right that they should look at these diplomatic tools, these different forms of diplomacy, because those are the things that work. As long as it is always understood that you are not trying to project, you are not bragging about your assets or your achievements; what you are trying to do is share them with people
SM: More or less, English has become a kind of global communication language. They are more or less similar. When I see these kinds of university teenagers – I have met them in the US, the UK, Sweden, Russia, Georgia, wherever around the world – I notice they are not thinking so much about national identity. They are thinking about their own selves: their development, careers, opportunities to enter other markets. In this sense borders might vanish one day, so there will be no need for national identity at all. That is my feeling today because of the information revolution and globalisation, which have come together either for luck or for loss – I don’t know.
SA: In fact my feeling about that is that the people within that younger global generation have not in any real sense abandoned or forgotten their national identity. They have simply put it away in a part of their mind where it is not needed day-to-day. So, if you are a young, mobile, internationally oriented student, your national identity is not a thing that you use every day. Years and years can pass without it being accessed – it is just there. It doesn’t vanish or go away, it doesn’t diminish in power.
Take, for example, one of those internationally minded students – somebody who was born, say, in Sri Lanka, speaks perfect French, studied at Sciences Po, works in Silicon Valley, lectures by internet in Singapore, and so on. If you go up to them and say, “Sri Lanka is a bad country because of the way in which the government has treated the Tamils,” the cupboard door will fly open, and that person will start defending their own country.
It is just human nature that the further you travel away from home, the more experience you have of other people, the more important your national identity really becomes to you. It stays private, but it becomes more and more important.
And what happens is not that they replace their national culture with a global culture, or that they forget their national culture and learn a new global culture. It is simply that they become bilingual and bicultural. They can be Sri Lankan or Afghan, but they can also be international.
The only other thing I would say in response to your comment is that everything you say is right and I recognise it. But don’t forget the actual proportions of what we are talking about. That band of mobile, internationally minded young people is still a very, very small proportion of humanity. And the vast majority of the world’s population today, in 2014, is still never going to leave the country, or even the village or the city they were born in. So actually it is just the very, very margins that are beginning to change. It is great, but it is not yet hugely significant.
SM: An important thing is that these young people, or this diaspora, can serve as ambassadors of their national cultures. And this is a sort of soft power, which is used today to promote countries. National cuisines are also doing this – I mean promoting the food and the culture, and consequently promoting the image of the country. It is also kind of tool for modern branding. What do you think about it?
SA: Well, when I was advising Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico, two years ago, we spent a lot of time looking at the Mexican diaspora in the US. Here we speak of 12-15 million people. And that is an incredibly powerful diplomatic service. And of course, Mexican cuisine, Chinese cuisine – that’s another form of diplomacy. So, in one way or another, this is how cultures represent themselves abroad. This is how nations form their images over time.
Homosexuality is a topic that will literally split the world. Because, you know, when it comes to other critical issues like violence against women or social inequality, broadly speaking everybody agrees. But homosexuality is one of those issues where it simply takes generations before a society will change its view
And, you know, when countries are interested in nation branding or country branding, then of course it is absolutely right that they should look at these diplomatic tools, these different forms of diplomacy, because those are the things that work. As long as it is always understood that you are not trying to project, you are not bragging about your assets or your achievements; what you are trying to do is share them with people.
The joy of culture is in doing culture, not receiving culture. It is about mixing cultures and enjoying the fusion, the cultural excitement which results from that. It is about shared experiences. And this goes right back to my original point that if you want people to like you, you have to engage with them. And simply firing off messages telling them how wonderful you are can only annoy them. They don’t care, because they don’t live in your country.
SM: Drawing our interesting talk to a close, could you just in a nutshell advise a hypothetical government on how to promote its nation brand best, I mean in the most effective way?
SA: One of the things that I always encourage countries to do, particularly smaller countries, is to find a problem that everybody recognises – be it corruption, climate change, pandemics or human rights – where you have some particular expertise or ambition to develop expertise, and focus on that. Make a difference, and stop worrying about your image and wasting your money on media relations, advertisements or propaganda.
In fact, I’m very, very positive about the world that we live in today, because there is a role for every country, even the tiniest one, as any country can take ownership of a global problem and make a difference.