Promoting the Grand Duchy's openness, dynamism and reliability © Frank Weber & binsfeld
Promoting the Grand Duchy's openness, dynamism and reliability © Frank Weber & binsfeld

Can a country's global brand be improved by marketing?

13 April 2018

Do you like Luxembourg more than you did five years ago? Do you think of the Grand Duchy at all?  If the answer to both those questions is ‘no’, then the Luxembourg government has wasted the $1m it spent, in 2016, on a marketing campaign to improve its global brand.

As one of Europe’s smallest sovereign nations – it is roughly the same size as the US state of Rhode Island – Luxembourg invariably caught the world’s eye because of its reputation for helping large corporations evade billions of dollars in taxes. This shady image was satirised by local arts collective Richtung22 who launched a communications campaign with the motto “It’s not illegal if you do it in Luxembourg”.

To be fair to the Grand Duchy’s government, they are far from the first administration to spend millions trying to spruce up the country’s national brand. This strategy was especially popular in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, as new nations sought to attract tourists, promote exports, woo talented workers and win a slice of the international events market.

Some of the world’s foremost advertising geniuses racked their brains to produce such cringe-worthy slogans as “Ukraine. All about U”, “I feel SLOVEnia” and “Good idea, Slovakia!” In 2009, the government of the fledgling state of Kosovo paid BBR Saatchi & Saatchi $6m for a campaign called “The new Europeans”, featuring an ad in which young people collectively completed a Kosovo-shaped jigsaw puzzle on a sunny day.

Do any of these campaigns actually work? It’s hard to say. You could argue that countries have always had ‘brands’, even if they weren’t always accurate – the British were famed for their stiff upper lip, the Germans for Teutonic efficiency and the French for having 246 kinds of cheese, most of which stink.

These stereotypes were mysteriously formed, reinforced and honed over centuries. Their endurance is reflected in one of the most famous stories in advertising industry mythology. Jerry Della Femina, the Madison Avenue executive whose career inspired Mad Men, was once asked to suggest a slogan that would persuade the American consumer to love Panasonic.

Stupefied that the Japanese consumer electronics giant was not content to merely sell shedloads of products to Americans but wanted to be adored by them, Della Femina mulled the request over in silence before joking: “What about ‘From those wonderful folks who gave you Pearl Harbour’?”

Changing such stereotypes and prejudices in a few years, even with the slickest marketing campaign and a blockbusting budget, is never going to be easy. Ironically, one of the most successful national rebranding exercises of the past 25 years was not state-sponsored – the ‘Cool Britannia’ vibe sparked by the advent of new prime minister Tony Blair, Oasis and Tracey Emin’s ‘Bed’ in the late 1990s. Much derided in retrospect, ‘Cool Britannia’ did, for a time, imbue British society with an optimism seldom seen since the 1960s.

In the late 1990s, Simon Anholt, an employee at advertising agency McCann Erickson, first suggested that many successful corporate brands came from countries that were strong brands in their own right.

As Anholt noted, in the Journal of Brand Management, British electronics retailer Dixons “launched its own consumer electronics brand in 1982 under the mock-Japanese name Saisho, because it rightly believed that a British electronics brand would carry little credibility”.

Given that link, Anholt asked, couldn’t countries be rebranded in the same way as companies? The answer, he has reluctantly come to conclude roughly 20 years later, is probably not – or, to be more accurate, it’s hard to find reasonable proof that it can be done.

If anything, a country like Brazil – which he identified as one of the most promising candidates for a makeover – has a worse brand now than it did in the late 1990s.

It doesn’t help that some agencies can be economical with the truth when talking to their clients. In 2004, when Muammar Gaddafi hired Monitor Group to polish Libya’s image, the US consultancy assured him that his biggest challenge was a “deficit of positive public relations”. A 200-page strategy document, devised to turn Libya into a competitive, egalitarian, regional leader by 2019, did not prevent Gaddafi from being shot by his own people in 2011.

Creating a new national logo, devising a catchy new slogan and even hosting an event like the Olympics or the World Cup – the latter strategy now increasingly ridiculed as “sportswash”– are all, Anholt believes, less effective in changing a country’s brand than actually doing good things. So, for example, the ‘E-stonia’ brand did not start out as a marketing concept, it reflected the Baltic nation’s technological leadership.

Borat, the satirical character created by Sacha Baron Cohen to caricature Kazakh culture, proved an immense challenge for the Kazakhstan government. The government of the ninth largest country in the world had invested heavily in its brand and, outraged to see it being spoofed in a $260m-grossing movie, accused Cohen of being an agent of a foreign government and demanded that the comedian’s Da Ali G Show be banned from British television.

Realising that such heavy handedness was only strengthening stereotypical views that the country was a tin-pot dictatorship, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, back-tracked, joking at a press conference that he would love to meet Borat. Although American academic Robert Saunders claimed that Kazakhstan had made lemonade out of satirical lemons, it would probably be more accurate to say Nazarbayev’s government carried out a reasonable damage limitation exercise.

One interesting aspect of Saunders’ analysis is how small details can hamper a country’s branding effort. The central Asian republics of the former USSR have suffered for the simple reason that their names end in “stan”, a suffix associated in many Western minds, through the stereotype of Afghanistan, with enormous corruption and regional instability.

Anholt’s recent scepticism has not prevented a boom in the business of branding countries or, for that matter, cities. The homepage of industry journal The Place Brand Observer is populated by such headlines as “How the Oslo brand toolbox supports the city branding of the Norwegian capital”.

In contrast, Anholt has created The Good Country Index, which ranks nations by what it actually does. This index has its quirks – it’s hard not to wonder what Belgium had done in 2017 to be ranked as the nation that made the greatest contribution to global culture – but at least it doesn’t pretend that every country’s challenges can be resolved by correcting a “deficit of positive public relations”.

Luxembourg’s government may be cheered to know that it came 19th on the 2017 index, six places ahead of the US and one below Japan. Maybe that $1m wasn’t entirely wasted.

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