Last week I was invited to address an international audience on the power of Nation Branding. It was an interesting challenge given that Sri Lanka has had its share of economic success while also being up against the issues that the West has driven towards.
But the key point that needs to be understood is that if we are to attract top dollar tourists and investors like Donald Trump, who has decided to invest in Sri Lanka, we must ensure that the perception the world has about the country is positive. Some countries invest on concepts like Nation Branding but the reality is that a country cannot paint a positive story.
Nation branding experts like Simon Anholt comments that credible statements that are generated by a country in a consistent manner tend to help it earn a reputation that is rightly deserved. Which is an interesting perspective given the challenges we are up against globally.
Nation Branding possible?
If we analyse the best practices used by countries that have gotten out of a brutal war and built powerful nation branding - like key insight picked up over time - is that there is absolutely no evidence that strong marketing messages have helped developed powerful brands.
In fact there is nothing called Nation Branding. A better word to use in practice is called ‘nation brand’, which is simply an observation about the importance of national image in the modern world. If a country doesn’t like its image – and most countries don’t – then the only way to change, update, enhance or otherwise influence that image is through the things that country does, not by the things it says. Influencing a country’s reputation is primarily a matter of policy, strategy, innovation and investment over a very long period – it has nothing to do with logos, slogans, advertising or PR campaigns. So, one can always argue that getting strong PR companies to talk on behalf of Sri Lanka will have very little impact on the end results. What is more important is building a reputation through actions.
Let’s earn a reputation
It is been proved that countries with a powerful reputations and positive image can export more products, more culture, more people, more services and attract more tourists, more investors, more immigrants and the attention and respect of other governments.
Countries with weak or damaged images find it much harder and more expensive to achieve all of these goals.
In other words the need of the hour is driving Brand Sri Lanka with substance rather than promises. Share real life stories than marketing magic. As Simon Anholt says: “A reputation cannot be constructed, it can only be earned. The question should never be ‘What can we say to make Sri Lanka famous?’ but ‘What can we do to make Sri Lanka relevant?’ Relevance is the only issue that matters. A structure developed to systematically develop reputations on this ethos can be the nation brand hexagon. This consists of tourism, people, exports, culture, governance and investment.
What Croatia did
Croatia’s country brand was hurt by its lasting associations with the brutal Yugoslav wars in the 1990s and the unwillingness of post-war governments to cooperate. Today, the brand is has an imagery as one of the most successful incoming destinations in the Mediterranean and is ranked ninth in terms of the rate of growth of its national brand as per Brand Finance and was one of only two European countries to make the ‘Most Improved’ list. Let me provide a brief overview of Croatia.
1) Exports: In late 1997, the Croatian Chamber of Economy started the Project to Visually Mark Croatian Products with Croatian Quality and Croatian Creation labels. The Croatian Quality label is given to 110 Croatian products whose properties meet high world standards.
With regard to multilateral co-operation, special attention is paid to the EU as the most important foreign trade partner because full membership of this European integration is the main strategic goal of Croatia. Therefore, branding is also seen as crucial to Croatia because it has realised that timelines for acceptance into the European Union and ability to compete against their neighbors for investment, in part depends on how they are perceived by more developed European countries.
Central Bank of Croatia 2013
2) Governance: Even though Croatia’s brand equity was hurt by its war, post-war governments have worked hard in rehabilitating its brand image. Croatia is a member of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, NATO, the World Trade Organization, CEFTA and a founding member of the Union for the Mediterranean.
Croatia has established diplomatic relations with 174 countries. As of now, Croatia maintains a network of 51 embassies, 24 consulates and eight permanent diplomatic missions abroad. Furthermore, there are 52 foreign embassies and 69 consulates in the Republic of Croatia, helping it actively engage the world in trade and culture.
3) Culture: Croatia represents a blend of four different cultural spheres. As of 2009, Croatia has 23 professional theatres, 14 professional children’s theatres and 27 amateur theatres visited by more than two million viewers per year.
The professional theatres employ 1,100 artists. There are 24 professional orchestras, ensembles and choirs in the country, attracting an annual attendance of 323,000. There are 117 cinemas with attendance exceeding 3.5 million. Croatia has 175 museums, visited by nearly 2.2 million people in 2009. Furthermore, there are 1,685 libraries in the country. It shows the people’s positive attitude towards aesthetics.
4) People: Croatia has established a high level of human development and gender equality in terms of the Human Development Index and it also promotes disability rights. Literacy in Croatia stands at 98.1%. A worldwide study about the quality of living in different countries published by Newsweek in August 2010 ranked the Croatian education system 22nd, a position it shares with Austria.
Primary education in Croatia starts at the age of six or seven and consists of eight grades. In 2007 a law was passed to increase free, noncompulsory education until 18 years of age.
Compulsory education consists of eight grades of elementary school. Secondary education is provided by gymnasiums and vocational schools. Croatia has also produced inventors and two Croatians received the Nobel Prize. Such factors will have a positive impact on the overall nation brand value.
5) Tourism: Since the conclusion of the Croatian War of Independence, the tourist industry has grown rapidly, recording a fourfold rise in tourist numbers with more than 10 million tourists each year. Tourism dominates the Croatian service sector and accounts for up to 20% of Croatian GDP. Annual tourist industry income is estimated at 6.61 billion.
Sri Lanka’s challenge
The key issue as per the Nation Brand Finance report states that Sri Lanka’s political and social reputation poses a drag on the brand. I guess following the elections on 8 January its time that Sri Lanka focuses and earns a positive perception globally.
I think more work is required to understand the details of the issue we are up against so that a sharp strategy can be developed. In my view this is of paramount importance.
2015 Sri Lanka
1) A National Marketing Committee must be set up to understand how the components of a strong Nation Brand come to play. It may be based on the work of Anholt-Roper and best practice of countries like Croatia.
2) Thereafter, one must bite the bullet and understand how the world perceives Sri Lanka. The Nation Brand Finance report will help.
3) Sri Lanka must engage the expertise of a personality like Simon Anholt so that he can guide policymakers.
4) All key stakeholders must understand the importance of Sri Lanka becoming a strong brand globally with a reputation ‘earned’.
5) There must be a quarterly monitoring system so that corrective action can happen and must be driven.
The author is a multiple award-winning marketer who has experience in brand building and category nation branding and was the 8th Chairman of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board and Head of the National Council for Economic Development. The thoughts expressed are strictly his personal views and not the views of the organisations he serves in Sri Lanka or globally.