Aftab Mahmud Khurshid
Indonesia 'The Ultimate in Diversity', Hong Kong 'Asia's world city', Malaysia 'Truly Asia', China 'Factory of the world', Dubai 'The Jewel in the Desert', Maldives 'Sunny side of life', Amazing Thailand and Shanghai 'China's Cheerleader'. These are but a few of the promises of the different nations and places around us. These countries have willingly created these positions and brand propositions, which people can experience internally and externally. Image and reputation are thus becoming essential parts of a country's strategic equity. Like branded products, branded states depend on trust and customer satisfaction. But unfortunately, we don't have anything unique to say or promise.
These days, individuals, firms, cities, countries and continents all market themselves professionally, often through aggressive promotional techniques. Unbranded states have a difficult time attracting economic and political attention. In the 21st century, nation brand is an important concept. Through globalisation countries compete with each other for attention, respect and trust of investors, tourists, consumers, donors, immigrants, governments of other nations and the media. Hence, a powerful and positive nation brand provides a crucial competitive advantage. It is essential for countries, both rich and poor, to understand how they are seen by the publics both internally and externally; how their achievements and failures, their assets and liabilities, and their people and products are reflected in their brand image.
Branding is relevant because consumers and investors continue to rely heavily on a country's image to make their economic decisions. Brands or images have become a shortcut to make a purchasing decision. Effective state branding not only serves to reinforce positives images but also helps to fight negative ones by shaping new images and associations.
During the 90s Philip Kotler, a renowned Professor of International Marketing and one of the pioneers of Social Marketing, dealt with the topic of place branding and marketing in his books: The Marketing of Nations, Marketing Places Europe, Marketing Asian Places and Marketing for Hospitality and Tourism. Studying our social index, we find that our people are very simple, yet hospitable and less demanding. One of our assets is our smile and we can build on this. A smile could start from the roots, say from the Airport's immigration desk where Non-Residential Bangladeshis are harassed even toady, to the hotels and other service providing places. Our very approach should be a welcoming one as each and every point of contact builds a brand. In fact, brands and states often merge in the minds of the global consumer. For example, in many ways, Microsoft and McDonald's are among the most visible U.S. representatives, just as Nokia is Finland's envoy to the world. Strong brands are important in attracting foreign direct investment, fostering external economic relations as well as to build up bilateral relations. Global village countries are busy finding their niche and positioning strategies to achieve competitive advantage and to differentiate themselves from others. With all this emphasis on brands, old-style political actors are being left behind.
Globalisation and the media revolution have made each nation or state more aware of itself, its image, its reputation and its attitude, in short -- its brand. In Belgium, for example, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has hired a team of image-makers to rebuild the country's reputation after years of scandals involving government corruption and dioxin-polluted chickens. Now, it is apparent that other European countries are joining the bandwagon. Small country like Estonia not only takes exception to the label 'post-Soviet state,' it also dislikes being called a 'Baltic' country. Estonia is promoting itself as a 'green country' to attract environmentally conscious individuals and foreign direct investment. Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also setup a special promotional programme aimed at improving the country's image. In a way, these countries are following the lead of the 'Cool Britannia' campaign launched by Tony Blair's government. The government itself was built on the brand of 'New Labour' and through this campaign they have increased exports. Countries such as Dubai, Lithuania and Nigeria have done the same.
State branding is a long-term, cumulative effort that will influence foreign investment decisions and the state's market capitalisation. The notion that a nation is a brand, which needs to be differentiated from other nations and promoted locally and internationally, is relatively new but its gaining acceptance. A good nation brand can help increase trade, investment and tourism. It can also create international standing amongst leaders, influencers and decision makers. Branding can greatly assist a nation achieve its domestic and international objectives. Diplomatically, a positive and clear image of a country can help generate interest. Economically, the image can facilitate trading concessions and incentives as well as greater flows of investments. These in turn stimulate the national economy creating jobs and increasing wealth, with consequent increases in taxes.
A brand must, however, be truthful. It must be based on reality and any attempt to brand a nation untruthfully will backfire. This is no different than for any product or service. If stakeholders find the claims or promise of quality and reliability to be false, the brand will be discredited. For a nation, this can have far-reaching consequences. A government's image internationally will affect its domestic economy and policies, and vice versa. A successful branding effort delivers benefits that transcend any government. In the same way that Coca Cola is sold through a successful global branding and marketing campaign, year after year irrespective of who owns or runs the company. The same way a good branding and marketing campaign for a country can reap benefits for it, irrespective of who is at the helm of its government. While the cost of nation branding and promotion can be in the millions, the economic rewards can be measured in billions, depending on how effective the campaign is.
Traditional diplomacy is disappearing. To meet the modern demands, politicians too will have to train themselves in brand asset management. Their tasks will include finding a brand niche for their state, engaging in competitive marketing, assuring stakeholders' satisfaction, and creating brand loyalty. As Simon Anholt, author of Brand America puts it, “When we express a preference for French holidays or Italian opera; when we instinctively trust the policies of the Swedish government, comment on the ambition of the Japanese, the bluntness of the Americans or the courtesy of the British; when we avoid investing in Russia or admire the heritage of China and India, we are responding to brand images in exactly the same way as when we're shopping for clothing or food. But these are far bigger brands than Nike or Nestle. They are brands of nations.” A brand is a valuable asset. Its value is almost half the value of the company. It creates perception, attitude and shifts the mindset.
As we meet the challenges of the 21st century, it is high time we took strategic branding initiatives to meet the goals of tomorrow. To enhance our image and reputation we have ample resources and people at hand. We need to brand Bangladesh in such a way so that the whole world knows of it as an emerging tiger from the 'land of golden opportunities'.
The writer is a brand strategist and marketing professional.
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