YOUR NATIONAL BRAND
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
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 marketingweb.com, "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
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.