22 August 2010

FOUR POINTS: Why Nation Branding is the Toughest Task of This Decade

It’s been just a month after the final whistle, signalling the end of the World Cup, and already South African retailers are complaining that their business uptick has been short and swift to decline back to pre-match levels.

With respect, I think they’re quick to whine. Soccer has brought the country together like nothing else has ever done – and South Africa will see the knock-on effects in tourism and trade long after the incessant shriek of vuvuzelas is but a distant ringing in our ears.

But what of other countries competing to be successful in the 21st century? How will they vie for attention, investment, visitors and home-grown talent, and the allure of global events like the World Cup? Why should they care?

This issue of FOUR POINTS poses the questions: Do countries have the collective will to come together to build a brand that is believable and supported by its citizens? Or do they even think it’s worth the effort?

Here’s my take from The Little Red Dot:

Repeat after me: Nurturing. Transforming. Collaborative. Daring to dream. Got it? One more time.

These are the attributes that form the backbone of the new Singapore brand; the cornerstones of a new nation branding strategy led by the National Marketing Action Committee (NMAC) to shrug off perceptions of Singapore as a staid, sterile place.

Do these values propel us in the direction we need to go as a society? Sure, I’d say so. But do they resonate with each of us on a personal level? Hmm, let me think about that.

Singapore, you see, has always tried to be all things to all people. Well okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh; but when you have zero natural resources, a fairly short history, and a smidgen of land to call home, you bend over backwards, and do what you can to attract visitors, talent and investment. Our latest tourism campaign is a case in point.

But more and more, nations are going to have to compete on the singular value that they provide in terms of either their physical or service offer, their heritage, their ambition or their character. Imagine France without fashion, Germany without engineering excellence, or Japan without consumer electronics. We will have to achieve the same psychological shortcut to the consumer’s mind, if we hope to survive and thrive.

According to Simon Anholt, global guru on the subject, a place-brand strategy is a plan for defining “the most realistic, most competitive and most compelling strategic vision for the country, region or city”. Consider this: Most of us spend a few fleeting seconds each year thinking about a country on the other side of the world. So unless that country always seems exactly like itself every time it crops up, there is little chance that those few seconds of attention will add up to a preference for its products, a desire to visit the place, or an interest to go work and perhaps live there for a spell.

What do people think of when they think of Singapore? Efficiency, hopefully. Casinos, unfortunately. A clean and green city, perhaps. Michael Fay and the cane. Crazy car prices. No chewing gum. And a national trait (‘kiasuism’) that can only best be described as being ‘afraid to lose’.

Why is this so? I think it’s because we are, in a manner of speaking, an unforgiving society. By that, I mean we have literally no margin for error. Put a foot wrong, and everybody knows. (We’re packed like sardines in this island-nation.) Push a poor policy, and the whole country will feel the fallout. We simply don’t have the option of moving upstate and starting anew, or retooling the system in a few pilot districts and seeing if that will work better. As a result, we embody the mindset Andrew Grove famously spoke of (“only the paranoid survive”), but we’re off the pace when it comes to nurturing a true entrepreneurial spirit.

A good country brand can open doors, smooth relations, and make it easier for a government, companies or citizens to operate outside its borders. In this regard, Singapore has done rather well: I reckon we punch above our weight. This month's terrific National Day parade, and our performance to date as host of the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, will go a long way towards embedding new associations whenever the Singapore brand is mentioned both at home and abroad. And the fact that we have good, clean government gives me hope that our nation will one day deliver on its brand promise.

We just need to rally behind what it promises to be ...

Point: Hilton Barbour
Location: London

Quick little game. Indulge me. Close your eyes. Right listen carefully as I read out names of places I have called home ... ZIMBABWE ... ENGLAND ... CANADA ... Okay, open them.

No doubt you got a quick mental image. Failed state. Economic collapse. Uneasy government sharing alliance. Run away corruption in Parliament. And don’t get me started on Zimbabwe or Canada.

The point being nation branding is fantastically difficult to do in real life. No brand stands still, but nation brands are perpetually buffeted by forces way beyond those of any other category in my opinion.  Some amusing examples...

Backlash against “French” fries after France refuses to join the Iraq war coalition.

Backlash against “British” company BP after the debacle in the Gulf.

Nation branding so often, therefore, relies on stereotypes (nice simple device that, aint it?) but those can come unseated very quickly.

Business example: For several years the City of London moved heaven and earth to unseat New York as the financial center of the known universe. This 2007 Fortune article eloquently describes the fight for brand dominance in the financial arena. A mere 3 years later and that brand is in tatters. A global recession driven (partially) by this need for “category dominance” has made the idea of London as the financial capital as a rather sick joke. I’m also not sure that any other capital city is rushing in to assume the mantle of “category leader”.

Social example: My adopted homeland of Canada does have IMHO a very established global brand. Expertly portrayed in this famous advertising example for Molson beer. So it was quite a shock for those attending the Vancouver Olympics to see the “laidback” and “relaxed” Canadians exhibiting such rampant nationalism and in-yer-face gusto. It has created a tremendous amount of soul searching amongst Canadians. It amuses me more that Canadians aren’t sure that their reaction to winning 14 Gold medals (including the prized Men’s Hockey) and being the “most winning host nation in Olympic history” is entirely appropriate or “Canadian”. Some worry we’ve become too American. Heaven forbid.

So what’s a “nation” brand manager to do? Be too successful and a global recession might put all your efforts in the toilet. Be too consistent and the natural exuberance of your countrymen might topple your well-crafted brand of “polite civility”.

But what you can’t do is stand still. Especially if you’re not one of the BRIC nations who are the current flavours of the month in every economic, cultural, sporting, tourism category known. South Africa is currently riding a wave of global brand awareness – how long before that awareness, empathy, equity fades? What are they doing to keep the flame (and appeal) of their brand alive?

In every category, the recession has caused a tightening of budgets. For holidays, for business investment, everything is being re-evaluated. If your nation doesn’t work even harder now, it really could be left behind.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m sure glad I worked in easier categories like Carbonated Beverages, Energy and QSR.


Point: Joy Abdullah
Location: Malaysia

“Global fund managers look to trim Malaysia holdings”

This was the screaming headlines a few weeks ago in KL. That article goes on to say, “Malaysia was the second-LEAST-favoured destination amongst global emerging fund managers according to a recent poll released this week.” Followed by an elaboration on how the Administration has been attempting to raise the country’s profile in order to be a competitive destination for global portfolio investment.

Unfortunately on the ground level, there seems to be a complete mismatch of intent and execution. It seems there is no concerted, strategic game-plan in place. The only “plan” that seems to be executed, year on year, without change is the “Malaysia. Truly Asia”– Tourism Malaysia’s hallmark signature line in pretty picture ads and TV commercials. So what has this brand community given back to the brand?

Annual tourism numbers and foreign exchange earnings. Good.  But has that translated back into Foreign Direct Investments in the form of attracting financial, knowledge and technological investments into the country?

NO! On the contrary Malaysia has been losing out to its smaller neighbours in this crucial area. With giants like China and India rapidly growing and countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam projecting strong brand attributes and developing a strong “nation brand” identities, using a singular identified competitive advantage such as outsourcing by Vietnam, BPO in India.

Malaysia seems to have lost its way in this battle.  The “brand management” of the country i.e. the administration needs to create a distinct, positive and professional brand identity for the nation in place of the current “sun, sand and blue skies” identity which Malaysia has. This is not a competitive edge as:

1 – It’s similar to many other countries communication—Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius etc;
2 – it only appeals to part of the global community (Europe& USA) , not the entire global community;
3 - it doesn’t communicate any key advantages that Malaysia offers in order to attract foreign investments.

As my friend from the 'little red dot' has succinctly written –- each nation would need to have a 'singular value' which is what would be recalled when thinking about that country. Malaysia too needs to find its 'singular value'. It currently lacks this. As a result the recall for the nation is oft only for a holiday destination, but not as a business destination.

Point: Ben Gaddis
Location: Austin, Texas

As a marketer, and more importantly an American, I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve never really thought about the idea of “nation branding”. The concept never crossed my mind until this post and I would venture to guess that most American’s would say the same. That being said, here’s my humble opinion from the States.

In the US, it seems we struggle when it comes to the idea of our “brand”. We face numerous challenges as we continue to develop and nurture “Brand America” (as I’ve deemed if for the purposes of this post). Let’s look at two:

Leaders of the free world
The idea of nation branding takes on new meaning when one is considered by many to lead the free world. Brand America, probably more than any other nation, is composed of not only the typical national branding elements (destinations, citizens, history, etc.) but also our foreign and domestic policy. With a constant spotlight on our policies, brand sentiment rises and falls with every political action.

Ex. –Ponder if you will all of the attention directed towards Arizona’s new immigration policies. I would venture to guess that many outside of the US, whether they have read the law or not, believe that we are less of a welcoming nation because of it. Right or wrong? Well, that’s another column……but I do know that it greatly affects the brand. Yet I doubt that many consider the immigration policies of the 23rd most populous state in other nations they are considering vacationing in.

We’re proud of our brand
Americans are a proud people. We take pride in our nation and in turn, our brand (whether we think of it as a brand or not). In fact, that brand seems to be performing pretty well overall when measured against typical brand metrics. I have absolutely nothing to back this up but I would be willing to wager that Brand America is probably the most recognizable brand in the world. Most Americans seem rather content with the status of the brand and what is stands for. In my personal interactions outside of the US, for the most part the idea of the US as land of opportunity still seems to shine through. Yet as Americans we become extremely defensive when our brand is criticized or challenged.

Like any large brand, our biggest challenge as a nation seems to be realizing that “success” is far from perfection. There is still plenty of room for improvement. The focus moving forward needs to be on understanding that we can improve our brand’s perception in the world without compromising the values and beliefs that make up our brand.

So how do you tackle the issue of nation branding? As my mate from Zimbabwe alluded to, it seems to be a problem best handled by those smarter than myself. I think I’ll go back to the easy stuff, like measuring ROI on social media or running PR for British Petroleum.

07 August 2010

A Great Brand Is Brought Low

The newswires have been humming all day with the revelation that technology giant HP's CEO Mark Hurd has been forced to resign on the back of a sexual harassment probe and his falsifying expense reports to conceal his relationship with a female marketing contractor.

As a shareowner, I'm disgruntled. HP's stock is down almost 10% from its Friday close. While investors blink from the realization that the departing CEO's shenanigans have wiped about US$9 billion in value off the company's books, it looks as though he is still going to make off with a multi-million dollar severance package.

As an ex-employee, I'm devastated.  I used to work for a great company that traded on the strength of a culture reflecting the values of legendary founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard -- and the morale of a 150,000-strong workforce that believed in the HP Way. (During my stint with the company, 90% of us once voluntarily agreed to take a pay cut in order to stave off otherwise inevitable layoffs.) Today -- judging by the vitriol obviously written by insiders and which passes for comments at the end of the news stories -- that esprit de crops is long gone from the ranks of a gripeforce gutted by wave after wave of reorganization and the seeming inequity of it all.

Finally, as a student of strong brands, I'm discouraged. A brand is a fragile, porous entity.  It can be punctured by all manner of barbs -- some from within, some from the outside. The result is the same: a leaky bucket oozing goodwill and equity built up over the years. Make too many holes, and soon the brand will be running on empty.

Of the world's top 100 global brands in the year 2000, only eight would have appeared on a similar list, if one had been prepared, in 1900. A great brand can't just have a scintillating decade before fading from the social consciousness; it needs to run the full race, and finish well.

HP is too strong a brand to keel over and die just like that, but it has taken a body blow. Whether it'll recover and finish well, will depend on the people of HP -- all 304,000 of them.  The twin peaks of history and destiny loom over their shoulders.  I pray they'll respond.