Branding nations a big business (2002)

I have a dream. Well, more like a nightmare actually. It’s about megamergers and “branding.”

In my nightmare, the big fish AOL-Time/Warner swallows up Viacom, which previously ate Paramount, MTV, and CBS. Then the weapons contractor General Electric, which owns NBC, lazily swims into the picture like some Spielbergian great white, and gobbles up AOL-Time/Warner.

Then a mouse then appears: a really big one, in scuba gear (hey, it’s a dream, not a script outline). The Disney mascot chows down on GE, and finishes off Sony and the Gannet news chain. With foreign ownership rules eased up in Canada, the ravenous rodent then swims up the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and thunders down Bloor Avenue on a media feeding frenzy. The Hollinger Corporation —gulp. The Thomson Group — gulp. The Torstar Chain — gulp. The North American perimeter falls under the falsetto diktat of The Mouse. Marketers and Mousketeers becomes as one.

The Rat of Homeland Security then “brands” the North American Free Trade Area as “Ameri-Disney.“ At this point I invariably wake up screaming, wearing a big-eared souvenir hat from Anaheim. Then I wake up again, this time for real.

Its not that weird a dream. Of the hundred largest economies in the world, more than half are corporations, not countries. And as national sovereignty diminishes under corporate assault — while national and ethnic tribalism paradoxically increases — marketers see new opportunities in “branding“ entire nations.

That’s right, turning nations into brands. You may remember the "Cool Britannia" campaign from the turn of the millennium, when Tony Blair solicited marketer’s help to sell the Labour Party’s authorized version of Britain: one with straight teeth, central heating, and well-behaved soccer fans.

The Cool Britannia account went to brand consultants Wolff-Olins, a British firm. According to company co-founder Wally Olins, "the tradition of nation building, far from being new, is largely a nineteenth century, or at least a post-1789 phenomenon; it was amateur in its origins." Before the world had the weapons of mass communication, tribal sentiments were manipulated by the tag-team of church and state. The latter appealed to domestic fear of neighboring countries to engineer a suitably jingoistic frame of mind. So I guess, in contrast, the idea of selling a nation like a bar of soap counts for progress of a sort.

Poland, Portugal, Copenhagen, and Germany are all working with Wolff-Olins to revamp their international images. Undoubtedly the branding efforts will play to each nation’s strengths, while playing down any perceived weaknesses.

Switzerland, for example, suffers from the perception that it’s a rather dull place: "a nation of phobic handwashers living in a giant Barclay's bank," in writer Jonathan Raban's estimate. If I were branding Switzerland, I'd lay off the cheese angle (boring), and play up the Swiss invention of LSD and the cuckoo clock ( crazy-ass).

According to, "successfully branding nations can have a major impact on the fairer distribution of global wealth, by helping to fill the image gap for countries that don't (and probably can't) stand for the traditional icons of national strength such as power, wealth or sophistication." Fair enough, but I suspect that this mindshare stuff goes beyond typical tourist industry bumpf, and merges with that ol’ turd-polishing machinery of propaganda. It’s about manufacturing consent rather than cannons, but it’s still propaganda.

It’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about the new mania for branding nations, after what we've seen what marketers have done with running shoes. British management consultant Peter York once argued that Nike's "swoosh logo means precisely what the crucifix meant to an earlier generation in ghettos -- it promises redemption, vindication and a way out." That saddest thing is that this nonsense apparently works on consumers.

Let’s not forget that the polarity of branding can be reversed, to demonize, rather than advertise, a nation. Just prior to the Gulf War, a Washington public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, cooked up the bogus story of Iraqi soldiers tossing babies from incubators in Kuwait hospitals. This early effort at branding Iraq, paid for by the US government, went down very successfully with the American public.

Yet it’s best not to enlist Mickey and Minnie for public relations this time around, as the US did during World War II. With bombers being readied for Baghdad, much of the rest of the world already smells a rat.

Geoff Olson