Are nations also brands?

Founding Partner at Third City, writing about how brands are coping in the social age.

Gabriel García Marquez, the Nobel-prize winning author who died last week, always had an ambivalent relationship with his home country, Colombia. He left for good in 1981 but would often wag the finger at his compatriots complaining once "we're scandalized by our country's bad image abroad, but we don't dare admit to ourselves that the reality is worse".

Marquez’s comments were made at a time of terrible insecurity and Colombia, so long defined by ‘three Cs’ (coffee, cocaine, conflict) has begun to reinvent itself. But it is still one of the most unfairly stereotyped nations on earth, proving that like brand image, long-held national perceptions can be very hard to change.

The Colombian tourist board acknowledged as much with its campaign “Colombia, el riesgo es que te quieras quedar” (‘Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay’) but it has since taken a new tack, embracing its prodigal son with the slogan “Colombia is Magical Realism” a reference to the writing style Marquez made his own (see above).

Opportunistic it may be, but this slogan shows the importance of cultural storytelling in creating a national identity. No matter that Argentinian authors invented magical (sic) realism - in ‘nation branding’ as in commercial branding, perception is everything. Marquez might not have liked that idea, with all its overtones of cultural imperialism, but no one disputes that he shaped how the world sees his birthplace.

The idea that nations are also brands was advanced by another elder statesman who passed away last week. Wally Olins, who all but invented branding as a discipline at his agency, Wolff Olins, dedicated the later years of his career to talking about nation branding, which he thought was key to economic growth in a globalized world.

Olins argued that just as Bismarck invented the values that define modern Germany (‘efficiency’, ‘engineering excellence’, ‘hard work’) so nations that want to escape from historic stereotypes can do so, if they take their brands seriously. New Zealand’s shift from post-colonial backwater to service and tourism hub is a good example of this.

Olins’ ideas were controversial; for some critics, the word ‘brand’ has superficial implications that make it unworthy of the lofty idea of nationhood. But Olins rejoined that countries have always branded themselves, it’s just that it hasn’t always been called branding.

HIs crucial point is that brands cannot be created from nothing. Instead, they must reflect truths about the subject. In this, nation branding is no different from the branding of products or services, but it is just as important.

As Olins puts it,

"You don’t change people’s perceptions of a country with advertising. You change people’s perceptions by finding the truth, finding an idea that embraces that truth and putting it through everything."

This is one sentiment that Marquez, who left advertising to dedicate himself to writing about his continent, could surely have agreed with.

Mark Lowe is a founding partner at Third City. Following him on Twitter @markrlowe

The Drum recently spoke to I Love New York's chief marketer, Rich Newman, who proclaimed the city's brand as 'the best brand in the world'.

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