Do Nation Brands need to be managed?
Why speak of Nation Brands?
Like in any competitive environment, the global economic arena requires that those brands that want to stand-out and be recognised as leaders behave in a particular way, consistent with their Brand Identity, i.e. consistent with the image that they want to project of themselves to their “target markets and audiences”. While this is a bit easier for organisational, product and service brands, it is less simple for national brands. The reason is rather simple. National brands are often managed by governments or government appointed entities driven largely by political considerations. Since the behavior of all governments is almost always driven by narrow state interests, the conduct of governments is often opportunistic, therefore unpredictable. Good, successful brands are those that offer predictable levels and quality of service delivery. They are successful because their consumers or patrons are able to go back to them over and over again because they know what they will get for their patronage or hard earned cash. In the same way, countries that achieve higher levels of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from multiple sources are those that boast independent democratic institutions that offer a level of predictability to investors, tourists and others.
Erratic Nation Brand Behaviour
Examples of these are many. Countries, mostly – but not exclusively – in Africa, that lack independent institutions of democracy make it hard for foreign tourists, investors and state institutions to develop faith in them. It is hard, for instance, for potential tourists to choose a vacation destination if the political, health, transport infrastructure, banking, etc. regimes in countries under consideration are known to be unreliable and prone to change negatively at the drop of a hat. Countries that are also seen to entertain relations with suspect international organisations and rogue states also end up with tarnished brands, lumped together with those of the institutions and rogue states that they are perceived to be closed to. Negative national brand perceptions can therefore rub-off on friend nations; ending-up in massive quantities of resources being required in order to differentiate them from their “friends”.
Brand South Africa in all this
South Africa’s perceived sympathy with the Zimbabwean, Sudanese and Libyan dictators has not made it easy for Brand South Africa to sell itself effectively in global markets. Some former friends have also ceased to take it as seriously as they did when former President Nelson Mandela was still in power. The country’s attempt to have former Ivorian President, Laurent Gbagbo, retained in power even after years of avoiding democratic elections and, after they were held, refusing to leave office when he lost the elections, confused many friends of South Africa, even on the African continent, e.g. Nigeria, the West African power house. The recent refusal by South Africa to grant access to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, apparently at the behest of Communist China, has done much to further damage the reputation of Brand South Africa as one that was meant to stand firm in the fight for the human rights of the downtrodden from all over the world. South Africans, the supposed brand ambassadors of Brand South Africa, were also left confused, angered and less proud to associate with their own elected government. The ruling party in South African has become a master in national brand self flagellation.
Nation Brands must be carefully managed
Increasingly, countries have to deliberately put measures in place to manage their reputation. Leaving negative perceptions to correct themselves by some stroke of luck is no longer the way to go. Hopes were raised the world over when US President Barack Obama was first elected. He extended what seemed to be a hand of friendship to nations of the world and, in a large way, positively changed the way in which George W. Bush managed Brand America and in how the latter was perceived, especially in the Arab world. Since then, Obama’s perceived inability to fend off the unending/ returning economic recession, on the one hand, internally damaged all hope that had come with his ascension to power and, on the other hand, the dictates of political survival and real politik – every American President’s desperate need to be elected for a second-term – erased much of the hope that he brought with him. America’s predictable and, seemingly, blind, support of the State of Israel against the opinion of much of the world, has returned perceptions about Brand America almost back to where they were during the Bush presidency.
To conclude, all national brands have to be managed with their “brand aspirations / brand vision” in mind. The democratic institutions that get put in place and respected according to the rule of law – with no one seen to be above the law – and the general manner in which states carry themselves, including their voting patterns within the United Nations (UN) and its many structures, will determine the image and brand positioning over time. Respect for freedoms aimed at encouraging free speech, association, choice of faith, etc. also contribute to national brand positioning and, by extension, perception.
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