Nichole Fernández 2020
The practice of nation branding combines public interests and resources with corporate practices and commercial aims through the creation of campaigns intended to increase foreign investment and create a competitive international image. As an industry, nation branding took off in the late 1990s, to become a fast-growing, new specialist area for consultants. Practitioners in the industry believed that the branding process that had been so successfully used by corporations could also be applied to nations (Olins 2003). To them this was a logical progression from the reputation management of which these nations were already engaged. Nation branding goes beyond simply government propaganda or tourism promotion, but rather consists of a multitude of activities that form a comprehensive, top-down, government driven and funded initiative that appropriates corporate branding strategies to a nation. The practice of nation branding encompasses outward facing ‘cosmetic’ changes to logos, slogans, and associated tourism media, as well as investment initiatives, economic policy, and public planning. Nation branding can also be directed internally, as a part of a broader effort to create a sense of nationhood among the general public.
As an area of academic critique, concerns are often raised about the implications of nation branding. This literature addresses what it means to market a nation, and examines how this practice relates to neoliberalism. It also questions whether nation branding is merely replicating older practices of cultural imperialism, and looks at its consequences for democratic governments. More recently, academic researchers have also investigated the role of the media in the production and circulation of branded content. However, this sort of academic scholarship on nation branding is marginal to the vast literature produced by practitioners in the field.
In 2011, Nadia Kaneva called for greater academic interest in nation branding and published a now highly-cited review article on nation branding. In that article, Kaneva (2011) observed that the majority of published literature on nation branding came from marketing, business, and international relations sources that unreflectively saw nation branding as a positive and essential practice for nations in order to compete internationally. Kaneva’s commonly cited definition of nation branding ‘as a compendium of discourses and practices aimed at reconstituting nationhood through marketing and branding paradigms’ (Kaneva 2011, 118) demonstrates how the practice exists at the intersection of national identity and business. Because nation branding is largely about marketing and branding, as well as an exercise in soft power, the literature has until very recently been dominated by praise from many practitioners in the field. For example, the leading Journal of Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, which was tellingly founded by the nation branding practitioner Simon Anholt, tends to publish articles that are highly supportive of the industry, rather than question the wider implications of branding as an essential function of the nation.
The following sections will outline a selection of the major works in sociology, anthropology, international relations, and communication, which take a more critical approach to the implications of nation branding. This article aims to provide a general overview of scholarly literature in order to enable greater understanding of the increasing commercialisation of nations.
Nation branding as an extension of late-capitalism
A key strand of academic research on nation branding approaches it as a part of a wider trend whereby nationalism has become increasingly commercialised. Researchers in this tradition note that nation branding involves nations using corporate branding practices in order to frame their communities in terms of their economic competitiveness: to sell the nation. The nation as a brand is ‘an identity deliberately (re)defined according to the principle of competition and strategically (re)oriented toward the market’ (Fehimović & Ogden 2018, 3-4). In this way, nation branding is both a consequence and a perpetuator of neoliberalism and free-market competition. This has led many critics of nationalism to see nation branding as an extension of a late capitalist era where the nation ‘is thus increasingly realised as an economic function’ (Graan 2013, 175) and ‘connected to ideological and economic changes on a global scale’ (Ståhlberg & Bolin 2016, 275). Nation branding, from this perspective, is more than just branding, it is used to create ‘identity, status, and recognition’ in order to preserve ‘territorial sovereignty’, and to respond to ‘emergent conditions of “late modernity”’ (Browning 2015, 196).
Wally Olins (2003), a well-known consultant and supporter of nation branding, explains how we live in a time where everything is dominated by brands, and where everything must be marketable, commercial, and profitable, even nationalism. While his work lacks a reflection on the wider impact of the dominance of branding, he provides a good example of how marketing nations as brands developed seamlessly within the advertising industry. Branding and identity are inherently interconnected, therefore branding national identity seemed highly logical, and also necessary for nations within an increasingly globalised economic world. Olins emphasises a brand’s ability to evoke strong emotions. Brands ‘have immense emotional content and inspire loyalty beyond reason’ (Ibid., 19). Both brands and nations can spur similar feelings of allegiance. For Olins branding nations is also a logical extension of the public relations and identity communication that already exists within and between nations. However, the difference between the nation building and national representation that nations engaged in previously, is that nation branding’s ultimate goal is creating a national image that is solely intended to enhance global economic competitiveness. Sue Curry Jansen argues that ‘what distinguishes nation branding from these efforts is that the primary motivation, the raison d’être, of nation branding is commercial ambition’ (2008, 122).
Olins goes on to argue that nation branding is the new norm, and that every nation will be seen as a brand whether or not they intend to: ‘every nation has an identity: they can either seek to manage it or it will manage them’ (2003, 169). Through the process of nation branding, however, practitioners argue that nations can improve their identity, making the nation more economically competitive and reducing global inequality. ‘The promoters of nation branding market it as a powerful equaliser – a way that countries without the economic, military, or political clout of superpowers can compete in the global marketplace’ (Volcic & Andrejevic 2011, 604). However, against such bold claims, the reality of nation branding, as we will see in the next section, is that it reproduces inequalities. Practitioners also overstate the ability of nation branding to create any significant economic change. ‘As symbolic commodities, nation brands do, in fact, yield profits for various beneficiaries – including media corporations, local and international brand consultants, and certain political and economic elites – but not necessarily for the nations they allegedly represent’ (Kaneva 2017, 188).
While nation branding does not necessarily increase economic gains, it is still a cause and consequence of a wider reframing of the nation within the neoliberal logic of economic competition. The literature on ‘commercial nationalism’ (Volcic & Andrejevic 2011; 2017) or ‘consumer nationalism’ (Castelló & Mihelj 2017) offers a way to theorise the changing role of the nation in an era of neoliberalism and late-capitalism. This research has argued that traditional theories of nationalism ‘have not fully recognised the importance of markets, commerce, and consumption in the process of nation-building’ (Volcic & Andrejevic 2017, 3). Instead of becoming irrelevant with the increase of transnational institutions and supranational politics, ‘nationalism, far from being weakened by the world-wide spread of capitalist economy, became one of its indispensable building blocks’ (Castelló & Mihelj 2017, 559). In this context nationalism is characterised by a dual process whereby there is ‘simultaneous nationalisation of the commercial and commercialisation of the national’ (Ibid., 561). In this way, nation branding acts as one of the main forces of commercial and consumer nationalism where the nation becomes more and more dependent on using commercial branding for public diplomacy, international recognition, and nation building.
For academics like Jansen and Christopher Browning, nation branding is more critically observed as part of this process of transformation, as society moves towards late-capitalism/postmodernity. In a world where ‘governments are brands and corporations make public policy’ (Jansen 2008, 137), Jansen, as well as Browning (2015), see globalisation and ‘late-modernity’ as a central force in perpetuating the existence of nation branding. In her article on ‘designer nations’, Jansen argues that nation branding has become a force of globalisation, in the sense that branding ‘explains nations to the world’ (2008, 122). Nation branding is also simultaneously fighting against globalisation’s post-national trend by re-establishing and branding the nation as a legitimate economic force in a modernising era (Aronczyk 2013). However, the globalised ‘late-modern’ world that created the need for a fixed nation brand also requires flexibility of identity and the capacity to cope with constant change. Nation branding is ‘in danger of ignoring the reflexivity central to late modernity, which arguably makes such strategies attractive in the first place’ (Browning 2015, 196).
Discussions of late capitalism often comment on the growing importance of the image. This focus on imagery is evident in the rise of visual branding that applies corporate branding aesthetics to national governments. While researching how former Yugoslav governments portray themselves online, Zola Volcic argues the focus on appearance in branding the nation forms part of this ‘time of postmodern neoliberalism in which the “image is everything”’ (Volcic 2008, 396). In an article on Qatar’s logo, Shannon Mattern argues that ‘By branding the nation, we erase it and put in its place a multinational corporation’(Mattern 2008, 494). Within this visual representation of the nation ‘what is branded is a simulacrum of a nation’ . Mattern states that this sort of nation branding is not ‘benign’ instead it acts to actively turn the nation into a fetishised ‘market-driven entity’ (Ibid.). More recently, Kaneva (2018) has also demonstrated how nation branding creates a simulated version of the nation that is not concerned with nation building but rather with creating an ‘imagined community’ defined in economic terms and for the economic benefit of private corporations and political elites. Therefore the nation becomes constructed through nation branding, to quote Katja Valaskivi, ‘in an attempt to redefine the social imaginary of the nation with means that appear compatible with the circumstances of “global competition” and cultural capitalism’ (Valaskivi 2013, 500)
Nation branding and power
As seen previously in the discussion of Olins’s work, industry often claims that nation branding is essential for countries seeking a foothold in the global arena. Ultimately its proponents argue that, in order to gain political and economic power, nations, especially small ones, must have a brand. ‘In this view, nation branding is understood as an essential strategic tool as nations compete against each other in the global marketplace for scarce resources, such as tourists, investments, qualified workers, or political goodwill’ (Kaneva 2017, 179). Nation branding has, in this way, also been approached as a tool of political diplomacy and soft power. The difference between nation branding and other forms of political diplomacy lies ‘in the means used to wield the power’ (Castelló & Mihelj 2017, 560). As a form of political power that utilises marketing consultants, ‘nation branding is a feature of the corporatisation of soft power’ (Surowiec 2017, 3). Therefore, research on nation branding often aims to expose the political and economic power imbalances at play in shaping the way the nation is branded.
Mellisa Aronczyk’s book, Branding the Nation: The business of National Identity (2013), provides a comprehensive study of both nation branding consultants and the national governments that hire them. Aronczyk shows how these brands are presented as more than a strategic means of generating capital. Rather, she argues that nation branding creates ‘legitimacy and authority’ in an international political field (2013, 16). This new image of the country creates a positive global appearance that is intended not just to increase foreign investment and international trade, but also in such a way that this positive image can reverberate back to the nation forming a sense of national pride and belonging. These nation brands, though often outward-facing, do ‘influence the social imaginary of a nation’ (Valaskivi 2013, 486). However, this image is often a top-down construction where external consultants largely determine what aspects of the nation are valuable and marketable.
When the nation is branded, the country simultaneously undergoes a process of differentiation and normalisation (Aronczyk 2013). The country’s image is used in order to distinguish it in a competitive field and to convince investors, corporations, and tourists to choose it above other nations. At the same time, the country is positioned as being standard, safe, and stable – thereby normalising what makes the country valuable (Ibid.). In this regard, nations will usually be branded as different but not ‘too different’, resulting in a lack of any significant variation among nation brands. Thus, often ‘nations end up looking the same’ (Valaskivi 2013, 500). This homogenisation of value makes diversity problematic and creates an unsustainable image of the nation (Aronczyk 2013). However, this value is not determined by members of the nation, but is instead constructed with regards to international political influence and power.
Many economically smaller nations, and nations with a poor international image, are motivated to invest in expensive nation branding campaigns. This has largely been studied in countries of Eastern Europe, but there is also a growing interest in other areas, such as Latin America (Fehimović & Ogden 2018). In order to redefine their nation after the fall of the Soviet Union, almost every Central and Eastern European nation has turned to nation branding experts for an international image makeover (Kaneva 2012). Despite the growth of nation branding and its seemingly vital importance to these Eastern European nations, most of this research gives a fairly bleak account of nation branding. Most Eastern European countries tend to have a long history of a ‘top-down’ approach to politics, with the result that it is the government of the day that ultimately decides the nation’s brand (Kulcsár & Yum 2012). This brings up debates about who has the right to brand the nation and make decisions of national identity construction. Nadia Kaneva shows how the top-down idea of nation branding is an instrumental approach that ‘unapologetically espouses a form of “social engineering” that allows elites to manipulate national identities. It ignores relations of power and neglects the implications of nation branding for democracy’ (Kaneva 2011, 121). Additionally, many of these Eastern European countries attempting to join the EU have enlisted the help of Western European consultants. This opens up even more questions about whose right it is to brand the nation and the role of Western European narratives on the formation of national identity.
Dina Iordanova’s research (2007) on the branding of the Romanian region of Transylvania brings up additional critiques of nation branding in smaller nations. Since the 1990s, the Transylvanian government became aware of the profitability of capitalising on the Dracula imagery of Transylvania that was already established in the west. Referring to the process as ‘self-exoticism’, Iordanova shows that, while voluntary, ‘in poorer nations where the domestic consumer market is not solvent cultural entrepreneurship is underpinned by decisions made on the basis of perceptions of Western (entertainment) market demand’ (2007, 47).
In the case of Latin America, Dunja Fehimović and Rebecca Ogden have argued that nation branding ‘amplifies existing geopolitical inequalities’ (2018, 21). Nation branding builds on, commercialises, and profits off of the exotic representation of the “Third World”, reproducing distinctions between the modernised West and an underdeveloped Latin America. In his research on the Colombian branding campaign “Colombia es Pasión” (“Colombia is Passion”), Juan Sanín shows how the campaign succeeded in redefining the nation and became a proud national symbol. However, this representation of the nation was still a creation of the elite that reproduced Colombian and Latino stereotypes resulting in a superficial image of Colombia emptied of diversity ‘in which the only ethnic and civic principle unifying diverse people into a national community is passion’ (Sanín 2017, 54). Instead of offering a way to place the Latin American nations on an even playing field with those of the West, nation branding would create ‘new economic, political, and cultural layers to historically-shaped inequalities, cementing the unbalanced power dynamics already present in the nineteenth century’s world of nations’ (Fehimović & Ogden 2018, 21).
Reflecting the arguments outlined above, Kaneva reiterates that in the academic research you ‘repeatedly find in each nation-branding case study the subordination of public interests to market principles and the commercialized reproduction of dominant identities within branded narratives at the expense of marginalized groups’ (Kaneva 2018, 638). What Kaneva is arguing, however, is that this is not just a case of nation branding campaigns creating incorrect representations, but rather that it is through media circulations that these representations create a simulated reality of the nation. Therefore, nation branding is not about nation building for the greater good of the national community. Rather it is determined by international demand, directed at an outside consumer market, and profited upon by international private organisations and political elites. ‘In other words the simulation nation is also “imagined”, but it is imagined primarily for the benefit of media audiences who are, by and large, located outside the nation’ (Kaneva 2018, 641).
Consultants have touted nation branding as a necessary step for nations, especially for smaller and poorer ones, to survive and compete in the global arena. As a result, nation branding is now widely considered to be a key task of national governments. Nations now must “sell” themselves in order to attract investment, tourism, funding, etc. But while they are advised to do this in order to gain political and economic power internationally, they are instead subject to existing global power dynamics, where larger western markets decide what is valuable. International political and economic power dynamics therefore dictate how nations should brand themselves, and which elements of the nation they must omit in order to be successful. From this perspective, the nation is imagined according to the values and the consumption of an international audience.
Nation branding and democratic values
We have seen that nation branding replicates global power dynamics and is based on top-down campaigns that largely exclude ordinary members of the nation from branding decisions. Aronczyk (2013), however, provides an alternative vision of nation branding as an opportunity for the nation to engage in a public dialogue on who ‘we’ are and where ‘we’ want to go as a nation. In this view, nation branding could be approached as an exercise in democratic nation building. However, as discussed, nation branding campaigns are ultimately not created with the wider national membership in mind. Even the “Colombia es Pasión” campaign, which did involve ordinary Colombians and succeeded in becoming a national symbol, was originally intended to be a merely temporary campaign, wherein decisions on national representation were determined by external consultants with an international audience in mind (Sanín 2017). Similarly, in the case of Slovenia’s 2007 branding campaign, which ostensibly placed the general public at the core of the rebranding exercise, it has been noted that it was ‘purely promotional’, and ultimately still produced a commercialised version of the nation for economic elites (Volcic & Andrejevic 2011, 609). Nation branding campaigns therefore are not an exercise in democratic discussion of nation building but instead show how ‘public national resources are transferred into private hands and governance is outsources to corporate experts’ (Kaneva 2017, 188). These nation branding campaigns are publicly funded representations of the nation for investors, tourists, and other interested parties outside of the nation. This is one of the reasons academic critique on nation branding has questioned the relationship of nation branding and democratic values.
Jansen (2008) uses Estonia as an example of nation branding intended to construct a more economically advantageous international image after the cold war. For Jansen the problem of nation branding resides in the creation of a ‘monologic, hierarchical, reductive form of communication that is intended to privilege one message, require all voices of authority to speak in unison, and marginalise and silence dissenting voices. The message itself is, by design, hyper-visible, but the decision making involved in arriving at it and the multiple agendas incorporated within it are neither legible nor visible in the classic liberal sense’ (Jansen 2008, 134). For Jansen, nation branding is inherently narrow and normalising, as it simplifies a nation, privatises national identity, and turns identity into a commodity. Furthermore, the industry’s lack of transparency and open involvement makes nation brands undemocratic constructions of the elites. This argument is reflected in Scotland the Brand, which argues that ‘no monoculture project is possible’ (McCrone et al. 1995, 69). What the authors want to point out here is the impracticality and unfeasibility of creating a representation of a nation as one cohesive unit. Nations are not homogenous states and any effort to represent them as such will unavoidably create an unequal power dynamic. ‘All essentialist attempts to create mono-culture will inevitably build in power assumptions, and in this scheme of things gender will be skewed. The same will be true of race, religion, class or any other social dimension we examine’ (McCrone et al. 1995, 70).
Jansen argues that the practice of branding may work for corporations that want to create a succinct, reduced message and control the product image through constant regulation, supervision, and authoritarian control. However, in a democratic system of government, creating a consistent and controllable national image should not be a ‘desirable national goal’ (Jansen 2008, 122). Browning comes to a similar conclusion about nation branding arguing that while making national identity a commodity it presents this identity as narrow with no diversity creating ‘bland marketable homogeneity’ that is fixed. This lack of diversity and fluidity of identity comes at a ‘cost to democratic pluralism’ with ‘the potential to produce disembodied artificial caricatures of self-identity that undermine it in the long run’ (Browning 2015, 212). Browning argues that ‘branding promotes particular conceptions of good citizenship that can simultaneously enhance the sense of democratic deficit and elitism that often surrounds debates about national identity and purpose’ (Ibid., 196).
As previously discussed, for many scholars, nation branding is different than other ways of representing the national community because it is outward facing, predominantly externally influenced, and largely for commercial purposes (Ståhlberg & Bolin 2016, Castelló & Mihelj 2017, Fehimović & Ogden 2018). It is a focus on representing the nation based on economic aims that Jansen believes is undemocratic, representing an overall ‘drift toward privatisation of foreign policy’ (Jansen 2008, 124). The nation is now being imagined differently and nation branding is proof of this: ‘if previously the nation was constructed as a collective community in relation to political legitimacy and citizenship, it is today imagined as a competitive entity in a global economy’ (Ståhlberg & Bolin 2016, 275). Browning argues that nation branding is at odds with the ideals of ‘democratic pluralism’ (Browning 2015, 212)’ Mattern makes a similar claim stating that through nation branding the state ‘marginalizes differences, masks inequalities, and promotes depoliticization. What is ultimately branded is a corporation-nation seeking to appeal to a clearly defined set of stakeholders’ (Mattern 2008, 492). The criticisms of nation branding presented in this article, however, are highly shaped by the authors’ background in the discipline of communication and media studies. What is still largely lacking are empirical studies on nation branding from nationalism scholars that take a deeper look at how nation branding relates to the democratic role and values of nations along with questioning the impact of nation branding on nationalism.
Simon Anholt, arguably one of the biggest names in nation brand consulting, has since removed himself from the nation branding business. In an interview with The Guardian (Subramanian 2017) he seemed to express regret about the way nation branding has commercialised nations. He now focuses on the idea that for nations to have good international standing, they need to make real changes in governance and be good global actors. This means that instead of a slick corporate branding campaign, they need a government with local and global humanitarian policies, positive cultural contributions, democratic governance, etc. Anholt states that ‘the upsetting thing about this lie called nation-branding, […] is that it encourages so many countries, who really can’t afford it, to blow wicked amounts of money on futile propaganda programmes, and the only people who benefit are these beastly PR agencies’ (Subramanian 2017, np). Yet, even though Anholt and others have begun to consider the negative impacts of nation branding, it is still a prominent industry with more and more nations branding and then rebranding themselves.
Nation branding continues to reproduce inequalities and international competition. Less economically developed nations employ the practice with the aim of increasing their competitive position. Larger nations continue to exploit their position by engaging in the activity without due consideration of the impact it can have on other nations within the international arena. In essence, any nation that engages in nation branding ‘is a nation that imagines itself as a product for consumption, rather than as a democratic community in which the government’s task is to distribute public resources to create maximal well-being for the maximal amount of people’ (Valaskivi 2013, 500). Nation branding does not build a national community for the good of the nation, it builds a national community that answers to the desires of international consumers. ‘By spreading images and narratives that inspire a sense of shared identity and collective pride, nation-branding campaigns refashion Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” ( 2006) in line with neoliberal principles, reconfiguring citizenship, identity, and the public sphere in the process’ (Fehimović & Ogden 2018, 8). Nation branding actively reimagines the nation through neoliberal logic and in doing so creates a nation distinct to that theorised by Anderson and other modernist theorists of nationalism. Now the question that academics must ask is not whether nation branding has any impact on the way the nation is constructed, defined, and imagined, but when ‘the nation becomes analogous with corporations’ (Valaskivi 2013, 490), and what sort of impact defining the nation this way has on the imagined political community.