December 3rd, 2007


When nations are brands, war is bad PR

Flying to Venice a couple of weeks ago I was leafing through Inflight -- Easyjet's imaginatively-named in-flight magazine -- when I came to an article about the joys of Warsaw. "Make a pact to discover Warsaw," ran the intro, punning daringly on the name of the military alliance between iron curtain states. The article itself began just as brazenly: "Have you ever wondered why David Bowie has called one of his tracks from the LOW album Warszawa? Why Joy Division used to call themselves "Warsaw" back in the late 70s?" Um, let me guess? Because they wanted to conjure a "low" mood of urban desolation and sadness? Because they wanted to evoke chilly memories of ghetto massacres and concentration camps? It's a wonder the third rhetorical question wasn't "Haven't you ever wondered why Ian Curtis committed suicide?" Welcome to the thin ice, topsy-turvy world of national rebranding.

When I got to Venice I was confronted with something similar, but at least this time actually intended to be satire: Finnish artist Adel Abidin's "Abidin Travels" was a room in the Nordic pavilion turned into a travel agency advertising tourist trips to Baghdad. It was tragedy raised to the level of farce. But it was also an exercise in branding. One doomed to failure, certainly, but -- as the Warsaw article shows -- not quite as far from the realm of plausibility as we might think.

An art history grad student recently wrote asking my thoughts on a symposium paper she was planning on the idea that national identity in art is obsolete. I replied that I didn't think national identity was obsolete at all. Events like the World Cup, the Olympic Games, Miss World and the Venice Biennale all show how strong nation is as an organising principle. Various studies have shown that it's getting harder, not easier, to cross national boundaries, thanks to what I've called "the paranoid security state". Statehood for Palestine is a big subject in the art world just now, showing that nationalism isn't just a 19th century ideal. The current -- and extraordinary -- collapse of Belgium isn't because nation as a concept is dead, but because Belgium contains two nations which hardly talk to each other at all. Arguments against the nation tend to sound very 90s-retro now.

But what I think has changed is that nation functions rather differently than it used to. It functions now as brand. This isn't a particularly shocking insight -- it's built into the assumptions behind the Inflight magazine and the Baghdad Travel Agency. But it gets interesting when we extend it beyond tourism and culture, and start positing the idea that a nation's -- or a city's -- fortunes ride on its perceived image. How reliable is it, how exciting, how attractive do we think its exports are? How close to its actual performance is its perceived performance? What could be done to close that gap?

It's this work -- the quantification and visualisation of subjective perceptions of nations and cities -- that has become the life's work of branding consultant Simon Anholt. After years of market research with Proctor and Gamble, Anholt set up his own agency and produced the Anholt-GMI Nation Brands Index and the Anholt-GMI City Brands Index. Sure, this is just another marketing consultant carving himself a career. But I find the data these people present -- and the way they present it -- rather fascinating. Ronald Inglehart (of Inglehart Values Map fame) was just this guy who worked for IBM and handed out questionnaires to their staff all over the world. But he took the data and built up an incredible system for profiling cultures -- something that appeals to me because I travel so much, and experience these cultural shifts subjectively. It's great to see them charted (and visualized) in a slightly more objective way.

Anholt polls people all over the world about their perceptions of particular nations then plots his findings in hexagons. You quickly learn to read the shapes as multi-dimensional "empathy blobs", showing whether a particular nation is highly rated as an exporter, for tourism, government, for its people, its investment opportunities, its culture and heritage. It isn't so much that these are the nation's real strengths and weaknesses, more that this is how people perceive them. So, for instance, Anholt -- presenting himself as "one of the world’s leading specialists in creating brand strategies for countries, cities and regions" -- can tell South Korea that the nation really needs some serious PR work to get its image better in line with its performance. And he can tell Israel that its public image ranks worst of all the nations surveyed in the 2006 poll because of its war on Lebanon, and that "to succeed in permanently changing the country's image, the country has to be prepared to change its behavior... a reputation cannot be constructed: it has to be earned".

Some other findings that interested me: in the first Anholt ranking (2005), Sweden was the world's overall most positively-rated national brand (and here Anholt's image rating correlates, interestingly, with Richard Florida's rating of Sweden as the world's most creative country -- and perhaps also Bin Laden's quip that if he'd hated freedom he would have attacked Sweden). Last year's index found that the EU as a collective brand "has become the most significant super-region in the eyes of the global consumer, when compared with the United States (10th place) or China (20th place) which are typically featured as strong economic brands". Someone tell the Euro-sceptic British!

British mistrust of Europe might be Freud's "narcissism of minor differences" at work, but it's probably more to do with memories of war. For similar reasons, perhaps, Anholt also finds that most Asian countries hate Japan. Chinese and Koreans are the only people to actively avoid buying Japanese goods, for instance. While the Japanese think that visiting China for tourism would be "exciting", "fascinating" and "risky", the Chinese think that visiting Japan for a holiday would be "depressing", "predictable" and "unpleasant". Everyone thinks Japan has great culture -- except the Chinese and Koreans, who think Japan "lacks culture".

Overall, America's brand image has been disastrously tarnished, and Anholt makes no bones about the reason: war. "The deep unpopularity of US foreign policy... is dragging down what are still pretty positive results in the areas of trade, exports, investment and popular culture. Many (including myself) have predicted that if the poor image of US policy persists, it may begin to have an effect on people’s acceptance of US products." The US government is perceived by pretty much everyone except the Japanese as "unpredictable", "sinister" and "dangerous". This, thinks Anholt, has an impact on people's acceptance of US products, and therefore on the entire US economy. The Neocons, in short, have ruined everything.

Despite its participation in the recent American wars, Britain comes out of the Anholt surveys pretty well. "The British people are ranked higher than any other nationality, and score exceptionally well on qualities such as “educated”,“polite”,“honest”,“trustworthy” and “intelligent”... although they are also described as “boring” more often than any other country".

That should be my cue -- as a British person myself -- to stop this lecture before I bore the pants off you, but I can't resist adding something about cities. Anholt's first city ranking had Berlin at 10 (and London at number one). His second saw Sydney knock London off the top spot, and Berlin fall to 17. Interesting to compare the Anholt city image list with Monocle magazine's Most Liveable Cities list, which this year "polled" this ranking (mostly by asking Tyler Brule and his assistant Fiona what they liked):

1. Munich
2. Copenhagen
3. Zurich
4. Tokyo
5. Vienna
6. Helsinki
7. Sydney
8. Stockholm
9. Honolulu
10. Madrid
11. Melbourne
12. Montreal
13. Barcelona
14. Kyoto
15. Vancouver
16. Auckland
17. Singapore
18. Hamburg
19. Paris
20. Geneva

My list of course has Tokyo on top and Berlin at number two, and the only PR I have to do is getting Hisae to agree.