Branding: From Cows to Countries and Beyond

Branding cattle
Branding cattle

Over the years, we’ve devised brand strategies for companies, products, services, all forms of media and personalities. Many have a provenance or are associated with a place. And now cities, regions and whole countries are in on the act. The driver is usually to  increase competitiveness in a particular market which means that there is a need to improve recognition and stand-out of an offer. This often goes hand in hand with stakeholders realising that there is a need for a more advanced approach to manage their operations. This thought process inspired early Egyptians around 2000BC to mark their cattle and inspired retailers to promote their names on their goods at the end of the 19th Century. With the growth and increasing number of  ’emerging’ markets, such as, China, India, Eastern European, South American and African countries, there are new and genuine threats to both developed and other emerging nations.  It’s no wonder then that so many are now embracing the concept of ‘nation branding’.

Why Bother with Nation Branding?

This is the first question nations must ask. According to Hy Mariampolski, “the goal of nation brand marketing is to make positive elements more manifest and place the negative elements into latency” (1). Associated benefits include attracting more tourists, boosting inward investment and exports, attracting talent, enhancing currency stability, international credibility, influence and self-esteem (confidence, pride, ambition, resolve). While easily said, imagine the problems in motivating a modest few thousand people in a company to align their activities to achieve a common and appealing audience take-out. Then magnify that by a few factors of ten with countries and underlying challenges and reasons to bother with nation branding are easy to grasp.

What does Nation Branding mean?

Even when applying brand thinking to packaged goods, there is a popular misconception is that branding is just a logo or advertisement. Of course that is the tip of the iceberg; with organisations and countries there is much more beneath the surface. Thinking about countries as a culture is useful. Richard L Daft defines culture as “a series of values, standard interpretations, insights and ways of thinking that is shared by members and passed on to new members” (2). Another way of thinking about culture is “as ‘glue’ that provides a common understanding to focus and motivate people to a common end.” The term ‘cultural branding’ is useful to apply to the concept of branding nations for it starts to suggest the range of variables that need to be considered and managed. There are many symbols or visible aspects of culture such as the flags of nations, anthems, the landscape, buildings, iconography and dress code. There are the institutions, structures and processes by which the nation is managed. Such as The Queen, Parliaments, local councils, laws, the media landscape, tourist boards, retailers, trade organisations, etc. Underlying both are the accepted behavioural norms – the rules and means by which we conduct ourselves and communicate with others. “How are you today?”, “G’Day mate”, “Top of the morning to you” etc. Finally there are beliefs, accepted truths or opinions about what is or isn’t important. “Healthy living is about eating 5 pieces of fruit a day”, “… drinking (any) water”,…drinking water with added fluorides “… playing sport” etc. All of these factors are intertwined, influenced by each other and combine to send a message to other national Governments, media influencers, trade buyers, consumers and tourists.

How to Change a Nation Brand?

The notion or image of a brand is defined by its audiences – what they think and feel about a nation. Where national stereotypes are entrenched in minds they are difficult to change. So the start-point is to understand those views – what’s good and strong and what’s weak and poor? Then to define what the brand should be in the future. To be credible and believable it must be rooted in a truth and flexed to consolidate or re-express the good and design-out the poor. To change and embed the new stronger and more vibrant image in audiences’ minds takes time. Ensuring consistent and appealing communication through media and people requires the consistent application of communication and behavioural guidelines amongst organisations and individuals representing a nation’s interests. Like organisation culture change programmes, aligning national hearts and minds to a common goal and outcome, requires a multi-year effort. Establish guidelines to ensure that the sum of the parts reinforces the whole. For example, a brand architecture that defines the role and messaging of the Tourist Board, to the role and messaging of the Board of Trade and other bodies. Create a ‘brand book’ (or more usefully a website) that defines the symbols and images used online, in brochures and literature, in exhibitions and so on.

In 1995 Scotland was one of the first nations to embrace the concept of branding (3) though direction and momentum behind the initiative has changed with inevitable changes of Government. Since devolution of power to the Scottish Government in 2004 the concept of branding has gained in significance though much remains to be achieved to embed understanding and align the various national stakeholders.

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Marketing Inspiration

A nation brand is the sum of all of its parts; symbols, institutions, behaviours and beliefs. The terminology is relatively new but the underlying brand concepts are familiar.

Lessons that apply to successful brands in all walks of life apply to nation brands. They thrive through clear and distinctive communications and offerings that engage and exceed the expectations of their customers or audiences.

Building nation brands requires consistent, coordinated and concerted effort over time – by engaging audiences and stakeholders to create a vision for the brand. And by inspiring and uniting national organisations and individuals to create and implement plans to deliver the brand. This is where the difficulty lies.

The next branding challenge: Planet Earth? The Kryptonians had better look out!


(1) Hy Mariampolski, MD, QualiData Research Inc. New York, ‘Selling Brand Brazil’, Coppead School of Business, University of Rio De Janiero, Rio De Janeiro, April 2010

(2) Richard L. Daft, Essentials of Organization Theory and Design’, South Western College Pub, 2000

(3) Reproduced by courtesy of the Scottish Government

Need help to develop your brand? Get in touch with The Marketing Directors’ brand marketing consultancy .

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