Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke

A few months ago, when airwaves were abuzz with talk about Africa because of the G8 meeting in Gleneagles and the Live 8 concerts, I heard British branding expert Simon Anholt on the BBC, talking about the concept of “nation brands”. A throwaway line caught my attention: “Ethiopia is well branded to receive aid, but poorly branded as a tourism destination”. I went out and bought his recent book, “Brand New Justice”, which explores the intriguing (to me, at least) idea that a better understanding of how branding works would help developing nations make money by selling products to wealthier nations.

It’s a good book – in the month I was carrying it around in my briefcase, I pulled it out and showed it off to friends at least half a dozen times because an idea mentioned in the text came up in conversation. I reviewed it a few days back on WorldChanging, and have been a bit surprised by the hostility of some reactions I’ve received. I’m guessing the reaction is less to Anholt’s specific ideas, and more to the notion that there’s something potentially good to be found in the dark art that’s produced the Nike swoosh or Coke red.

Some of the criticisms appear to object to the fact that Anholt is looking for ways for nations to succeed within the ruleset of global capitalism rather than rejecting that ruleset. Like Anholt, I’m a realist, and I think what’s most interesting about his proposition is that he believes it’s possible for individuals and companies in poor nations to benefit from current economic systems without waiting for their overthrow…

Perhaps the most radical idea in Anholt’s book is the idea that nations, as well as companies, have brands – as he suggests, Ethiopia has a brand strongly associated with poverty, famine and external relief. It’s difficult for Ethiopian companies to overcome the influence of this “nation brand” – a luxury resort in Addis Ababa would probably have difficulty attracting tourists because many would have trouble resolving the apparent contradiction betwen a national brand associated with poverty and a corporate brand associated with luxury.

Anholt is interested in documenting brand impressions on the national level and in helping nations strategize about ways to change their brands. Starting this year, he’s been producing a national brand survey in conjunction with internet research firm GNI. The survey queries 1000 internet users in 10 high development nations about their perceptions of other nations – what do they think of the other country as a tourism destination? As a manufacturer of products? What do they think of the laborforce, the culture, the music, cuisine and art? Do they approve of the nation’s governance? Is it a place they’d consider opening a factory or making investments?

The results of these queries is a “Nation Brand Hexagon”, which evaluates a national brand on six key characteristics, as well as a ranking score based on a sum of all those scores. According to Anholt’s figures from spring 2005, Australia has the strongest nation brand (characterized by strength in tourism, people, investment and governance, and weakness in exports and culture/heritage), followed closely by Canada (which has almost identical strengths and weaknesses.) The US has a surprisingly weak brand in Anholt’s calculus, ranking 11th of the 25, above Spain, Ireland and Japan, but behind many smaller nations – the US scores strongly on exports, tourism, people and investment, but very weakly on governance and culture. This is a bit paradoxical given US strength at creating and exporting cultural products (TV, movies, pop music), and probably reflects a weakness of the survey – it measures attitudes, not behaviors. People may not like US culture very much, but they see American movies with alarming regularity, often to the detriment of their local film industries.

The strength of developed nation brands in Anholt’s index and the weakness of the brands of developing nations (which occupy the bottom 11 positions on Anholt’s list) might point to the uphill battle developing nations face in rebranding themselves… or it might just reflect that it’s difficult to compare radically different economies on a single scale. Still, it may be encouraging for Brazil to discover that Anholt believes it has the strongest of all developing nation brands, placing several points ahead of economic powerhouse South Korea. And it should certainly be a caution for China to discover, despite its success in export markets, Anholt’s survey ranks the nation dead last in the “exports” category, suggesting that products made in China are less desirable than those made in Egypt, Russia or India. Again, the survey measures attitudes, not behaviors – the world may buy lots of Chinese-manufactured goods, but we’re sure not happy about it.

Where it’s harder for me to take Anholt seriously is his tendency to ascribe “brand qualities” to nations, declaring that “one of Canada’s primary brand qualities is purity”. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time looking at Ed Burtynsky‘s photos of Canadian mines (or met one too many drunken Leafs fans at the Boston Garden), but this seems like a reach to me. Then again, ascribing intangible characteristics to the tangible is what marketers do… and one of the reasons I’m not a marketeer.

But as a data geek, I feel the need to offer a slightly more quantitatively rigorous method for calculating brand association. I wrote a tool about a year ago that uses data from a specialized Overture search engine to figure out what terms people are searching for when they search for a nation. For instance, the tool tells me that when people search for “Belarus”, the most common associated term is “tractor”. While I may associate Belarus with psycopathic authoritarian dictators, many search engine users associate it with inexpensive farm equipment.

According to my Overcluster tool, users searching for Canada were very often searching for travel (high scores of “travel” and “air”) and environmental information as well as for Canadian pharmacies and for immigration information… indeed, Overcluster seems to suggest that web searchers think of a country they might want to visit, bank in, buy drugs from or emigrate to. Australian terms are similarly wholesome, with over 15 of the top 20 associated terms relating to travel – we’d like to go to Australia, drink the wine, and possibly emigrate there as well.

Brand associations get a bit more complicated as we move into the developing world. After “ancient”, “travel”, “map of” and “tour”, the next most popular match for Egypt is “sex” – searching for “egypt sex” on Google yields a gay personals site that prominently warns “Gay sex or any homosexual activity in Egypt puts you at risk of arrest, deportation or imprisonment and any sexual encounter is undertaken at your own risk.” In other words, the association of Egypt with gay sex may not be the brand association the Egyptian government is looking for, though it appears to be a prominent connection in the minds of web searchers.

I suspect that the information a tool like Overcluster turns up (which I wrote primarily because I was interested in what subconscious associations web searchers had with different nations) could be extremely useful to folks like Anholt… but only in cases where there’s a brand impression at all of the nation. A search for my beloved “Ghana” turns up a set of terms that are probably widely used by Ghanaians (domestically and abroad) searching for information, not non-Ghanaians trying to learn about the country – “news” and “latest news” are prominent, as is “web”, a search that will turn up Ghanaweb, a popular national news and bulletin board service. While it’s great that Ghanaians are newshounds, it would be better news for the economy if people were searching for “vacation”, “travel”, “beach”, or even “cocoa”.

(The things you learn with Overcluster! I had no idea that Ghanaian secondary school students could obtain results of their school exams online – “waecdirect.org” is the ninth most popular search term associated with “Ghana” – the search takes you to the West African Examinations Council’s website, which allows an online search of exam results.)

How does a nation with no brand profile at all take advantage of Anholt’s branding advice? How does Ethiopia shed its “famine” brand if no one but Ethiopians are searching for the nation at all? Is this a concept that’s only useful for nations sufficiently developed to market sandy beaches or export tractors?

4 Responses to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”

  1. Ben Mack says:

    Yes, countries have brands. I think of this every time I see Chillean sea bass or wine on a menu.

    Moreover, countries AND first families hire Public Relations companies. Hill & Knowlton represents more countries and first families than any other company that I know of, but I’m not on top of these statistics, so I don’t know if that is still true. What that means is that a private PR company then negotiates many international media deals, a relatively invisible united nations of sorts.

    I think people who enjoy the fine essay above will be well served by reading Mickey Z.’s 7 Deadly Spins or Perkins’ Confessions of An Economic Hit Man. Both of these books deal with the branding of countries.

    I am pleased to see the material above so well covered.

    However, sampling issues of the research discussed is important to take into consideration. Who is polled? Many international studies only draw from participants with telephones. That greatly skews the results in less developed countries. In many countries, answering questions candidly is a brave act.

    In the United States, most of the time, answering polls is safe. But, the results of polls are regularly ignored. When 80% of Americans favor some sort of socialized medicine but this is an initiative that is considered politically crippled, what they mean is that since no private company will make billions off the proposition that no politician should support it.

    So, much of what is presented as the branding of a country is actually the branding of corporate interests as if they represented the desires of the populous.

    That’s the real trick of branding, making one thing seem as if it stands for something else. Look at the word liberate. How liberated is a dead Iraqi? Or, is all my talk just intellishit?

  2. quixote says:

    Very interesting, and also many useful insights / new takes on perceptions. However, it is somewhat a case of old wine in new bottles. He calls it “branding.” It used to be called “preconceived notions.”

  3. Kate says:

    But, supposing they wanted to, could government officials in Ethiopia take the idea and develop an advertisement for their country, to run on western television networks say, that challenged the ‘preconceived notions’ about Ethiopia that they see and hear?

    I recently heard a teacher of English who spent six months in Ethiopia talk about her time there, and she siad the first question her students asked her was what she knew about Ethiopia. Before she came, she didn’t know much (to balance famine, she did know about Ethiopia’s fame in Olympic distance running). The high school students she spoke to were clearly aware that their country had a brand, and concerned about it. I don’t know whether they thought of a brand as a tool they might be able to shape for their own use.

    I remember also seeing one well-made, well, infomercial I guess, about illegal immigrants and the slave trade that still goes on in the U.S. U.S. ads create brands for other countries, as people have pointed out. (Also talked about this in a modernism class; the Victorian idea that travelling in space can take you back in time still turns up in ads for Carribean cruises.) I wonder how often it’s deliberate, and how often it’s ignorant. I don’t see much TV. It seems that at least a few organizations here are trying to use advertisements to change national brands now… or I hope so.

  4. I think what one needs to do is not take “branding” and immediatly interpret it as “commerical marketing mechanism”. If you look under the surface of this popular interpration, you see what branding itslef is: conscious creation of an identity meant to quickly and as fully as possible communicate that identity.

    It’s not about Mongolian Goat Cheese; it’s about how Mongolia as a whole – politically, geographically, natural resources, culture, etc – is percieved and “understood” in the “collective consciousness” (popular culture, media, etc.)

    Of course there are good and bad sides to branding: pigeonholing vs. attention garnering and focussing, etc.

    Branding is an act. It is the intention behind the act that matters, and how it is carried out. The act itself is meaningless.

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