Think of a country where you grew up or where you’ve spent a lot of time. Now, take your associations of that place and try focusing all that experience into a cultural package that would introduce and make this country memorable to someone who has never been there. Countries like Spain, Germany, Britain and Kosovo are doing just this type of thing to “brand” their nation. Ad agencies are now hired not only by corporations but also by countries hoping to re-package and re-present themselves with a refreshed, refocused, magnetic national brand.
When done well, nation branding can accentuate collective truths about a country and attract the interests of a potential foreign investor or tourist. Branding can allow a nation torn by recent political strife to undergo a collective search for identity and self-determination to refresh its outlook. But, there are also voices contending that when something as diverse and complex as a country gets “branded,” somebody is going to get burned by stereotyping and oversimplification.
In Maud Lavin’s Graduate Visual Communications Seminar this semester, we focused on branding as one of the core issues of design and began to specifically discuss this idea of branding nations. This led to a series of writings that touch on the value and validity of nation branding and how this will impact the responsibilities and roles of future designers in the cultural marketplace.
What follows are excerpts expressing varying opinions on this subject. Jennifer Pincus compares the role and weight of the national brand to that of the corporate brand and presents ideas on how much branding is already a part of the public thought construct and must be worked with, not avoided, by nations. Marine Bouvier takes on the issue of nation branding as a means of controlled stereotyping using the example of recent French attempts to re-brand themselves to the American tourist. Yi-Nung Chou takes us on a fantasy journey through nostalgia for the future and the possibility of playing with the consumer’s sense of time and historic association to re-brand a personal identity.
Otherwise known as “frogs,” the French are usually depicted as men with curly moustaches, on bicycles, wearing “funny hats” or berets, with a baguette in one hand, and a glass of red wine in the other. This is a stereotype: “a conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion or image.” It appears usually in three major forms: incomplete information, simplification and generalization. How, then, does stereotyping relate to the practice of nation branding?
In a worldwide market, countries compete against one another for tourism, investments, presence in elite groups, and buyers for their exports and services. Due to globalization, countries are trying to be as easily recognizable as major branded products, using the same tools, and to have a simple, clear, and direct national identity. But a country is a complex entity (not a product) with a history, a culture and tradition as well as a government, an economy, political and public figures, international relations, and social services. In using product-marketing tools, a country communicates a direct and simple image, but in doing so promotes only incomplete information.
Since 1984, France has created a brand and a logo that present a modern country, a place of beauty that welcomes travelers and that stands for quality. This brand has been the subject of a study realized in 2000 by the Système d’information géographique which established that France “has a strong image with a good potential, but this image has been subjected to a reductive logic that doesn’t correspond fully to the truth.” Even though this study emphasizes the success of the brand itself, it still recognizes that by reducing the notion that is France to a logotype and a series of images, there is a danger of losing the country’s real meaning. By applying the tools used by major products (simpler entities than a nation!), nation branding summarizes a complex entity, often to the point of distorting the truth. It is like creating a stereotype: it promotes only incomplete information. However, instead of acknowledging this initial mistake, France is now working to make this brand stronger. Its goal for 2004 is to extend the brand to all aspects of the country, not just tourism.
In order to promote a successful identity a country has to express an image of conformity. All of its parts, from tourism to political relations, have to work together to promote the same clear representation. Following recent political disagreements between France and the United States concerning Iraq, a web survey was conducted that confirmed a change in American public opinion on France. Close to 40 percent of Americans who had arranged future trips to the country changed their plans, 66 percent of them expressed the fear of “not being welcomed.”As a direct response to this, the French Ministry of Tourism created an advertising campaign: “Let’s Fall in Love Again,” which consisted of short films and promotional travel packages presented in fifteen U.S. cities from June 2003 to March 2004. The films were a series of testimonies of Americans who love France done by public figures such as a New York firefighter, jazz player Wynton Marsalis, movie superstar Robert DeNiro, and director Woody Allen. The campaign went so far as to create a contest with a prize: a dream vacation for two at the Chˆateau de la Bourdaisière, where the reality TV show “Joe Millionaire” had been filmed. To further this effort, and to prove to Americans that they are welcome in France, a series of personalized advertisements were published in major U.S. newspapers such as The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. The advertisements told of returning American visitors who had experienced no hostility in France. Even though France made all of these efforts, it still suffered a decline in American tourism of approximately 13 percent in 2003. It is only upon an amelioration of public relations between France and the U.S. that France will once again be a destination of choice for American travelers. Nation branding creates a simple view of a country by implying that all of its parts have to reflect the same image. Nation branding, like stereotyping, is a simplification of the country.
I have established that stereotyping and nation branding are the same in the way they are created, but their results differ. A stereotype is often a negative image, while nation branding is a positive one. In the case of France, a stereotype is that French are “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” while its national brand promotes a welcoming modern country that stands for quality. This is due to the origin of the representations. A stereotype is often created by people outside the group it concerns and is a criticism of that group. On the other hand, nation branding comes from within the country in trying to control its own representation in the global market. Its purpose is commercial: it promotes the country itself and in doing so, creates a positive image. We can therefore understand nation branding as a stereotype because it is created in the same way, but this stereotype is nevertheless a positive and controlled one.
We are constantly absorbing new images whose aim is to lock a brand into the farthest reaches of our mind. The concept of branding is not something new or unusual when it comes to products or companies. Its goal is to sell. However, when we talk about branding a nation, it seems the topic becomes different and more controversial. Other factors suddenly enter into the equation and the idea of comparison (corporate branding versus national branding) is, some argue, inappropriate.
But why shouldn’t we model national branding strategies more closely after those of corporate branding? The most successful companies are those whose brand is remembered. Why shouldn’t the same idea hold true for a nation that must compete in the global marketplace? To position itself in the marketplace, a nation must have some amount of recognition in the mind of their intended audience. A logical approach to achieve this is to create a brand that accentuates the critical attributes of the nation that will set it apart from the rest.
Allen Adamson writes in his article, titled “What’s your brands job?” published in Advertising Age, that “the brand is the essence of a company itself. Corporate brands have one of two roles: They either stand for ‘authority’ or for ‘assurance.’” A brand that is known to be the best in its category, without question is the leader of the industry and has the role of authority. When we think about such a branded company, we don’t question its ability to stand apart from its competition. (Think of copy products and Xerox comes to mind, think of fine leather handbags, Italy is a leader.) Italy is a country that has positioned itself as the authority on design of luxury consumer products. We consider such products imported from Italy to have a certain elegance about them, no finer exists.
Tourist web sites such as nationmaster.com, kasbah.com and visiteurope.com promote Italy as a nation that can provide everything that anyone could ever desire. Whether it be fine art, sports, cuisine, historic architecture, or music, all of this embodies the (advertised) spirit of Italy. This packaging of attributes, this branding campaign, is vital for establishing and maintaining an identity that reflects the key aspects of a nation. Nation branding is not restricted to tourism pitches but includes cultural efforts which can range from touring symphonies internationally to teaching English in schools. In the U.S., we have become a culture so accustomed to the idea of branding that we don’t realize how integral a part it plays on so many different levels. In fact, branding has become an unspoken mandate for corporate and cultural entities who want to matter. It is precisely because of this that we shouldn’t be afraid to develop nation branding models as we do with corporate brands.
Design is not only for selling, but also can be used to imagine and build an ideal future. For me, a brand is a dream, and this dream is based on the real world-and more. The most wonderful thing is that I can make my dreams come true through consuming some specific brand. Women like me who can’t pay for a pair of Prada shoes, buy Häagen-Dazs. Brands have the power to make a poor girl become a princess. And this is branding’s important power—the power of fantasy.
In the present, all of us dream of the future and for nostalgia at the same time. Time and brand hold the same power-fantasy. We can see a brand through design, advertisements…but we can’t see time. We can own a personal, private time (a memory or a dream), but it is hard to own a personal brand. So, how about branding time?
Computer game Yi-Nung 2004
The main character Yi-Nung (nickname Eno), is an Asian girl born in the year 1982 (I was born in 1977). Eno is super pretty and talented (really?). At least she is dressed well (not wearing a “Chicago” T-shirt bought from Walgreens), and always wearing make up. She has a lot of decorations on her body, all of them representing the year 2004 fashion design. People who play the character Eno, must find her best friends, Mariya and Ai. They will help Eno with her language problem. Eno must visit all the galleries in Chicago, take the CTA to buy art supplies and not get lost, use English for class discussions, visit the Field Museum, know where American Girl Place is, not miss any deadlines. They must complete all these tasks or they will fail the game. Through this game, people will enjoy Chicago 2004. The food that Eno eats is famous in Chicago like thick stuffed pizza, not McDonalds. The place Eno shops is Marshall Field’s, not Walgreens and Jewel. SAIC’s buildings become beautiful and huge, and the Chicago CTA is clean. People on the streets are all dressed in Gucci, LV, YSL. Eno’s friends talk about art all the time, they do not say, “Oh, I am poor, I need to get some money.” Eno’s favorite drinks, Eno’s favorite snacks . . . all are specially designed. And all the objects in the game are for sale in the real world. So everybody can imagine that she is Eno.
There is an area named “Tamsui” in Taiwan which is famous for selling “history.” It retains some historic architecture—some built by the Dutch, some by the Japanese. In Tamsui, you can see weird scenery like McDonalds neighboring an antique Dutch building. Together these scenes compose the Fake and Fabulous Taiwanese Dream. Branding time needs skills. Because time is also involved in cross-cultural design, we dream our past life and others at the same time. Both of them make each other more elaborate. That is why I tried to beautify some elements of my computer game. But not every detail, I also kept some reality at the same time. So people can easily follow me to look through time with a smile. I am excited about branding because I can immerse myself in a dream bridging real and surreal worlds. And I am always satisfied after I wake up from this dream.
My theory is when we design a brand, we must think about what will be left after time. Consumers treasure moments of happiness, so a brand should include tiny elements that make people smile. For me, one might be a food coupon, for you, maybe football. However, all of these things compose “now,” and after 30 years, all will be deformed, beautified, and an element of our nostalgia.