The national identity of countries can shift radically and at a speed that leaves their inhabitants gasping: think of the former Soviet Union. Here leading thinkers consider what might, or should, change in the way nations present themselves. First Paula Scher, one of the world’s leading graphic designers and a principal at Pentagram in New York, looks at how to rebrand the US. Then Simon Anholt, a pioneer of nation branding, reveals why brand Africa is a disaster. And, finally, Mabel van Oranje of the Open Society Institute and Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argue that, united, Europe’s smallest countries can challenge the world order.
It’s no secret that the US is currently suffering from a very poor image and low approval ratings all over the world, especially among people in Muslim countries. In March it came fourth, behind Iran, Israel and North Korea, in a BBC World Service poll to find the countries that are perceived to have the most negative influence on the world. The US needs to overhaul its image, brand promise, name and messaging, and change the meaning and emphasis of some of its symbols. Here are some suggestions.
The name: “USA” and “the United States of America” currently connote world power, domination, and arrogance. While the country is a world power, the name inadvertently claims all of the Americas as its domain. There needs to be more regional specificity in the name. Perhaps the full name might change to “The United States in North America”, but hold on to “US” and “the United States” or even “The States” as its abbreviation or nickname. While it’s possible for the US to invent an entirely new name, it would take too many years for it to establish broad recognition and credibility and it would initially appear inauthentic. However, the addition of “in North” to the current name serves as a qualifier and also as acknowledgment of, and respect for, its neighbours. That’s the beginning of a good message.
Brand promise and message: the brand promise of the US is currently “Freedom and democracy”. But as the tone of the US international rhetoric in recent years has become increasingly belligerent, particularly in relation to the war in Iraq, the message has shifted to “Enforcing freedom and democracy” with the notion of “abroad” implied in the act of enforcement, which is neither democratic nor especially free. It is a policing activity and, at worst, expresses militarism and imperialism.
“Freedom and Democracy” may be too relative or abstract as concepts in specific societies, and that may make it difficult for this US brand promise to be internationally embraced.
Also, the US may exhibit some overt hypocrisy by selective examples of what it accepts as “democratic” in relation to its own behaviour (ie the non-recognition by the US of Palestine’s democratically elected Hamas party and the undemocratic election of George W Bush in 2000).
“Freedom and democracy” used to be part of a bigger brand promise known as the “American Dream”. The American Dream was about possibility, a better future for one’s children. The idea was that in a democratic and free society, you could attain your dreams through your own hard work, opportunities and some good luck. Freedom and democracy were intended to facilitate this promise. The American Dream was an authentic promise and should be revived. It could now be called the “enduring dream” or the “US dream”. In re-embracing the enduring dream as the US brand promise, the country would move its overall message from “power” to “possibility”.
Symbols and language: the stars and stripes of the current US flag, while much revered, also connote militarism, imperialism and capitalism. The Stars and Stripes graphics are strong, attractive and recognisable in a number of configurations. They should be leveraged in a movable, flexible system that could exist in multiple uses (flags, banners, T-shirts, etc). The various configurations would come to mean creativity and innovation through diversity. It would reinforce again the idea of possibility.
The country’s national anthem should be changed from the militaristic “Star-Spangled Banner” to the melodic and romantic “America the Beautiful” (the Ray Charles version). Images of the bald eagle should be replaced by the Statue of Liberty, which suggests opportunity and inclusion rather than power.
In all symbols, messages and rhetoric, the US needs to move from the paternal to the maternal; the stern, rigid, punishing papa is replaced by the generous, accepting and perhaps even more powerful mama. In the new version, the US speaks warmly and inclusively, with the continued possibility of a freer, more democratic, better future for all US citizens and other citizens of the world. That’s a good brand position.
Today, the world is one market. The advance of globalisation means that every country, city and region, rich or poor, competes for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, investors, students, entrepreneurs, sporting and cultural events, and for the attention and respect of the international media, of other governments and of people in other countries.
In such a busy and crowded marketplace, most of us don’t have the time or patience to learn what other places are really like. We navigate through our complex world armed with a few simple clichés that form the background of our opinions, even if we aren’t fully aware of this or don’t like admitting it: Paris is about style, Japan about technology, Switzerland about wealth and precision, Rio about carnival and football, and Africa about poverty, war, famine and disease.
Most of us are too busy worrying about ourselves and our own countries to try to form complete, balanced and accurate views about six billion other people and 200 other countries. We make do with summaries for the vast majority of people and places, the ones we will never know or visit, and these stereotypes – whether positive or negative, true or untrue – fundamentally condition our behaviour. They affect our travel and shopping choices, who we hire, which companies we work for, which countries we give aid to or invest in, where we study, which politicians we trust and which we don’t. And billions of these little daily decisions determine the fate of nations.
When I coined the term “nation brand” in 1996, it was in recognition of the fact that the reputations of places had become as important to their progress as the brand images of products and companies. I didn’t mean that any country from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe could build a Nike-sized brand if it could only raise a Nike-sized marketing budget: I was talking about brand image as a way of understanding the challenges faced by countries and cities, not proposing brand marketing as a way of fixing them.
There are more differences than similarities between countries and companies but some of the techniques of brand measurement and brand management can, if intelligently and responsibly applied, become powerful competitive tools for places too.
Predictably, most of the expertise in this new field is purchased by the countries that need it least: the “brand images” of rich countries are usually too complex and stable to be susceptible to brand management anyway. Yet in the developing world, where it could be revolutionary, the necessary blend of mature and responsible expertise in economic development, statecraft, public diplomacy and brand management is unavailable.
Africa hasn’t just got a bad image: it suffers from what I call “continent brand effect”. Because there is so little knowledge of its individual nations, all but South Africa end up sharing virtually the same reputation. Even a relatively prosperous and well-governed nation like Botswana shares images of violence with Rwanda, corruption with Nigeria, poverty with Ethiopia and famine with Sudan.
And Brand Africa, with its simple message of ongoing catastrophe, is promoted with skill, dedication and vast resources by aid agencies, donor governments and, most prominently, by aid celebrities like Bob Geldof and Bono. Every time they make their impassioned pleas to tens of millions of TV viewers on behalf of the continent, they are building the brand of Africa, not as 53 countries in various stages of development and struggle for independent existence and identity, but as a uniform, hopeless basket-case.
This image is ideal for generating charity, but makes it ever harder for places such as Botswana, its companies and entrepreneurs, to escape these negative associations and start building a competitive national identity of their own, or to inspire anything more useful than pity. This branding is hard to criticise, because it’s done with the noblest intentions, because it does as much good in the short term as it does harm in the long term, and because so many in Africa are still dependent on foreign aid.
It is time to abolish Brand Africa, that big, bad, hopeless continent brand that ruins the chances of so many well-run African businesses and African countries, and replace it with 53 separate, distinctive nations, each with its own story to tell. But it is deeds, not words, that change people’s minds about countries, or at least open their minds to the possibility of change, and as Socrates said, “the way to achieve a better reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” We are all warmly attached to our simple narratives about other countries, and won’t abandon them willingly or quickly: it takes more than clever marketing to persuade us that our lifelong prejudices are entirely mistaken.
Several African nations have started dabbling in “branding”, wasting millions of donors’ and taxpayers’ dollars in attractive but futile television ads on international TV: products can be sold in this way, but countries aren’t products.
Experience shows that country images only change when government, business and society undergo a renaissance in innovation: new ideas, policies, laws, products, services, businesses, buildings, art and science. When all those innovations tell a simple, captivating new story about the place they come from, the reputation starts to move; the place produces a buzz, the world starts to pay attention, and people prepare to change their minds.
The most important role of nation branding is to ensure that weakly branded states – such as the African nations – can compete on equal terms with the ones that have a distinctive identity, and, as far as possible, to level the playing field.
In the struggle for competitive advantage, national reputation is a more and more significant factor, and the sooner that governments, multilateral organisations and the development community recognise that perception is as important as reality, the better their work will match the real needs of the countries it aims to help.
Anholt’s five tips for rebranding Africa
01 Have a simple, credible, exciting national ‘story’ – and share it with the entire population, not just business and government. 02 Prove that story with real policies, real investments and real innovations – don’t just tell it with logos, slogans, adverts and PR campaigns. They don’t fool anyone and cost a fortune. 03 Create a culture of innovation in every sector and encourage entrepreneurship. 04 Lead this process from the very top: it’s one of the key responsibilities of governments today. 05 Involve other institutions with longer time frames, because changing the brand means changing the country, and that’s a 10 to 20 year project.
In a world order defined by extra-large countries (a rising China, a resurgent Russia, a unilateral US) and XXL problems (climate change, terrorism, global pandemics) – small and medium-sized nations face a clear choice. They can either band together with other like-minded states to take on these formidable forces, or they can try to retain their autonomy but ultimately lose influence over their fate. With the exception of some unfinished business in the Balkans, the era of building nations in Europe is over. The future is all about networking states.
Although some European governments – particularly in France and the UK – still behave as if they were global powers, the Iraq war showed that they too are unable to shape world events when they act alone. Neither the British approach of supporting President Bush publicly in order to influence him in private, nor the French approach of out-right opposition, had much of an impact on American behaviour. Contrast the Iraqi imbroglio with Europe’s approach to Iran and you see that when the European Union unites, it can not only change US policy, but attract Russia and China as well.
Indeed, while individual European countries have been losing influence, the EU as a collective group has amassed the potential to become a new kind of superpower. With the world’s biggest single market, the most generous aid budget, the largest army of peace-keepers, and the bargaining chip of prospective membership, the Union has the means to transform the world.
The EU doesn’t project its power by threatening to invade other countries. Its primary strength has come from offering access to its market or the possibility of membership in exchange for political, legal and economic reform. The law is its secret weapon. Military power can topple governments, but the EU’s obsession with legal reform has encouraged 10 former communist countries to transform their societies – from economic policies to property laws to the treatment of minorities – by asking them to absorb 95,000 pages of legislation before joining the biggest democratic association in the world. European leadership also facilitated the creation of global legal regimes such as the World Trade Organisation, the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court.
But Europe uses its peaceful power too rarely. Rather than trying to craft a common foreign policy that would allow it to shape the world, the European Union’s member states often look inwards, failing to advance their shared interests effectively.
The biggest victim of Europe’s loss of confidence is its most stunning foreign policy success: enlargement. Politicians tally up the costs of letting new countries into the Union, but there is little discussion of the political and economic gains for Europe. The price for this wavering commitment and lack of a European perspective is turbulence in Turkey, the Balkans and Ukraine.
On socio-economic questions Europe also tends to look inwards. In spite of a barrage of statistics showing that Europe needs migration to offset the pressures of an ageing population, we are building more and more barriers to the free movement of labour. Although the European project started with a single market, governments now seem to spend more energy preventing take-overs of prized national companies by foreign ventures than they do in promoting innovation and excellence.
The European Union is a new kind of political force – neither a nation-state nor an international organisation. The best way to understand it is as a club, or a network of countries that maintain their own individual identities, but pool their sovereignty and agree to be bound by common laws. It is not always easy for Europe’s disparate countries to overcome their differences and speak with one voice. But it is only by acting together that they can effectively pursue their common interests, from combating climate change to reducing poverty, from defending human rights and averting genocide to stopping the spread of deadly weapons and addressing the causes of violent extremism.
A common foreign policy will allow Europe to super-size its influence. And a strong European voice in favour of human rights, democracy and international law will not just benefit Europeans – it will be good for the world. That is why we are working with people from around the EU to launch the European Council on Foreign Relations, a new initiative to promote a more muscular and united approach to the world.
For information visit ecfr.eu