From Nation to Corporation: An Outsider’s View on Nation Branding (Zen Marie)
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” – (US Pledge of allegiance 1892)
More so than any other institution the nation state strives to protect the liberty and justice of all who pledge allegiance to it. It creates loyalties and structures identities more than any other structure. Or does it? Despite all the grandiose statements that construct and support this discourse, nation states and national identifications are, today, increasingly problematic. The nation state is in many ways dying, if not already dead. Globalisation, internationalism or trans-nationalism are now the buzz words that inform contemporary culture, economics and politics. Identities are formed in diverse ways that do not necessarily rely on national heritage.
In this global context national governments are actively looking for new strategies to operate more efficiently in order to validate their existence. It is in this environment that the phenomenon of nation/place branding emerges, working to transform the discourse of the nation to be more consistent with a more explicitly corporate one. However, this corporatisation or even neoliberalisation of the nation is not without its critics.
For many theorists and commentators it is reprehensible to think of the nation state as a corporation. To speak about the nation as brand, to pursue the counsel of private, unelected brand consultants in branding the nation is seen as blasphemous. It screams of selling out to foreign investors and markets while exploiting the people at home. Are nations not supposed to be much nobler, much more cultured and so much more caring than the cut-throat corporate connotations that the word ‘brand’ elicits?
Wally Olins, a leading consultant in corporate identities and brand strategy, argues against such critics of nation branding. He asserts that the nation has always existed as a branded entity. He cites the changing political history of France to make his point:
“France is a nation that has had five republics, two empires and at least four kingdoms. France has been Royalist, Republican and Imperial. It has been Egalitarian and Absolutist in turns and occasionally, even at the same time, always with the same vigour, sense of destiny and intellectual conviction that distinguishes the French political and cultural scene.” – (Olins, 2004, 18)
Olins highlights that French national identity, the identity of the state and the kind of subject it protected, has been in a perpetual state of change since the first French revolution in 1789. He retrospectively reads this reinvention of the French nation state as a process of branding and re-branding. If we accept Olins’s argument, then it would seem that the contemporary move towards explicitly branded nations is simply a correction of an historical misnomer. That brand theory now properly names the creation of national identities as what they actually are; the creation and dissemination of the nation state through brand contact points. Is it actually as innocuous as it seems?
Surely it must make a difference to speak of the nation as a brand?
Olins’s after-the-fact inscription of the nation state as brand is disingenuous in the way it naturalises brand theory at the core of nation states. It denies the specificity of both nation states and brand theory. Both are constructs with lineages and patterns of interest that are different, even if they are now clustered together. If nations were always brands then to actively speak of them as such would not actually change political configurations. However, to phrase national interest in terms of branding theory raises serious questions about public transparency and accountability in relation to private economic interests.
Simon Anholt seems to recognise this dilemma as he, and other brand consultants, altogether avoid the term brand in relation to nation states. He prefers to label the enterprise either ‘public diplomacy’, as it is referred to in United States and United Kingdom government, or more recently he advocates for the use ‘competitive identities’, an older concept that he now deploys for nation branding (Anholt, 2008, 2). This change in nomenclature shows recognition of the tenuous synergy between corporate and public interest. To have a ministry of branding, which Anholt predicts is not too far in the future, would be to show the corporate underwear under national dress. It would be to signify that national and corporate interests are actually very similar and work to undermine the mythology of the nation as benefactor or protector as it reveals the nation state as an institution geared towards the selective creation of profit. Anholt seems to be entirely aware of
this as he re-brands ‘nation branding’ into ‘competitive identities’ (Anholt, 2008, 2).
Anholt is ambitious about the future of nation branding. He predicts a future where brand consultants are actively and directly involved in the scripting of public policy. His argument is based in the realisation that it is impossible to brand what is not there. An oppressive dictatorship cannot sell itself as progressive and open because people would obviously see this as a lie. The answer, for Anholt, lies in the development of public policy as frontline brand practice (Anholt, 2008, 3).
To speak of nation brands is to speak of national brand contact points. It is here that Anholt’s push towards policy development is rationalised. If you are to strategically position your brand as an attractive tourist destination alive with investing possibility, as South Africa does, then the political, social and economic reality must support this. Anything that does not undermines your position on the Nation Brand Index (N.B.I), the index devised by Simon Anholt that relies on loose polls of international perception in creating a hierarchy of nations as brands.
To develop this point further the case of South Africa the Rainbow Nation brand can be looked at, as it was presented on CNN; the Alive with Possibility advert plays followed by a news item showing burning townships and violent rioting. The May 2008 xenophobic attacks in SA caused concern across the world. Governments, the UN, foreign investors and ordinary people across the globe watched, as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ burned before their eyes. The images were generically consistent with other images from across the continent. They show an Africa torn by internal conflict, an Africa marred by death poverty and destruction. Some commentators even attempted to compare the situation to Rwanda. (See 1-4 below)
The emotional content of the televised images acted in ways to discredit any positive branding exercise. The news item acted as a brand contact point, albeit a negative and unplanned one. Who would want to invest or spend a holiday in a South Africa represented by these images? Not many. What incentive is created to invest vast amounts of money in a place like this? Not much. The events in May 2008 directly contradicted the mythology of SA as a progressive multicultural nation as the xenophobic attacks undermined the discourse of the Rainbow Nation.
In contrast to this news feature played the Alive with Possibility ad campaign that is routinely screened, also on CNN. (See 5-8 below).
The images presented in this campaign signify a South Africa that is technologically sophisticated and culturally rich. It is a South Africa that is compared to Europe and America and in this way removed from the conflict and poverty of the rest of the continent. It is a selective collage of the best sides of SA. As a deliberately constructed contact point, it hopes to encourage investment and tourism. However, following Anholt’s logic, this campaign cannot work if the broader social reality is not consistent with the reality depicted in the Alive with Possibility campaign. As contact points, they are contradictory and the efforts of South African tourism brand managers are undermined.
Anholt’s argument for a more comprehensive political involvement of brand strategists would then seem to be entirely reasonable. To follow his argument through, he would have it that brand consultants sit with the South African government and plan how to address the xenophobia problem in order to enhance the image of South Africa, to eliminate the unplanned and negative brand contact point. On the surface, this would not seem to be problematic. Xenophobia is a problem and anyone who attempts to resolve it should be commended. True, it is important to tackle social problems, but doesn’t it make a difference why and for what reasons these issues are dealt with?
The very idea of nation or place branding relies on the creation of positive identifications with the brand primarily for an international audience as opposed to a domestic one. Where do the priorities of the nation lie if social stability is a marketing exercise and public policy is a means to brand enhancement? Surely these moral and social problems need to be resolved for the people of the country as opposed to development for the perception of foreign investors?
The creation of policy and the maintenance of law and order should be prioritised, by the elected public officials, for the good of the people they are supposed to represent. The enlisting of private, unelected individuals to influence this process violates the core tenant of representation within democratic nation states. In this scenario key areas of accountability and transparency become problematic. The question of interest, political and economic, becomes another area for concern if private consultancy firms are granted more hands-on power over public institutions. Does this insinuation of corporate neo-liberal concerns within state power render the nation state defunct and lifeless? Does the nation state have any relevance in this new world order?
Nations were never pure philanthropic entities. Be it a sovereign King or Queen, an elite group of families, royal or otherwise, or conglomerates of traders and merchants, the nation has always been hierarchically organised. Besides structures of royal privilege, one needs only look to the Dutch or British East India companies to see how private interest and national interest coincided to the detriment of the masses. National representation has always been partial and national interest always biased.
Be it nation or corporation, the analysis of power, economic or political, in terms of representation and interest is complex. Be it nation or corporation, the structuring of power towards an elite or towards external interests is dangerous in its duplicity and disingenuous to the people it omits from economic and political privilege. The people, who supposedly are represented by the nation state, if not given sufficient agency or meaningful access to power, are liable to revolt in ways that can often be extremely violent, and this would definitely not be good branding practice.
• Anholt S. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy Vol. 4, 1, 1–6, Palgrave Macmillan 2008
• Morgan N, Pritchard A, Pride R. Destination Branding, Second Edition: Creating the unique destination proposition. Elsevier, Oxford 2004
Zen Marie is an artist and filmmaker. He recently joined Vega, the brand communications school as a lecturer in critical context. Besides producing documentaries he has exhibited in galleries and museums both locally and internationally. His fascination with nationalism,
especially its conceptual and aesthetic manifestations, has been a continuous theme in his work, as well as the basis for a masters
thesis in Cultural Studies at the University of Amsterdam.