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Democracy as a prerequisite for successful nation branding

In a recent article Simon Anholt, the pre-emminent Nation Branding expert, stated: “Nation branding: a dangerously misleading phrase which seems to contain a promise that the images of countries can be directly manipulated using the techniques of marketing communications”. I completely agree and go even a step further, nation branding as the concept described by Anholt, never had a chance of working as it’s not based on the key tenet of brand building.

A brand lives through the people representing it, and – if governed intelligently – a feeling of pride and ownership will arise in the individual, which is an important component in the management of a brand’s reputation and image. Consequently a truly successful nation brand can only be delivered in a society with freedom of speech and freedom of choice.

The citizens are essential to the brand’s creation; they are the brand and at the same time they are the consumer experiencing the formal and informal side of the brand every day. This becomes even more evident when looking at the Top 10 nation brands, which are all democratic states and not surprisingly also birthplace of the most of the world’s successful commercial brands: America,France, Germany,  Britain, Japan, Italy, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, Spain, Sweden.

An autocratic approach will lead to failure

In autocratic societies, the governing elites use a top down approach to create a homogeneous society that follows one set of values while oppressing diversity with force. When this occurs, the brand cohesion is created through fear instead of voluntary participation. Often participation is not even wanted as the governing elites aim to control any change to ensure the consolidation and longevity of their influence.

National identity is mistaken with a national image created for external perception, which can be positive in a first instance but proves difficult and costly – in financial and human terms – to control and maintain. However, if the discrepancy between the expectation of the brand and the actual brand performance is too wide, it will be a surprise for anybody interacting with the brand due to the mismatch between brand performance and brand promise. The informal trust in the brand will be undermined, which is “a positive economic asset. If I have a reputation for honesty and fair dealing and you know that my product is something you can put your faith in, then you will be a repeat customer” (Fukuyama, 2004, p.5). Even on a corporate level an autocratic approach will hardly lead to lasting brand success.

Voluntary participation the base for successful brand building

Subsequently nation branding is not possible for every country. Before any nation brand can be developed the planners have to ascertain if the majority of the populace are voluntarily part of the nation or wish to be part of a future nation. Or are they forced to belong to a state that tries to establish an imagined community. If nation branding takes part in these states, it can help cement authoritarian leadership and lead to a repressive system of majorities on part of minorities, which ultimately will lead to extremism.

Nation branding has to turn national identity away from xenophobia into tolerance because of pride – to help a nation reach the next level in the hierarchy of developments, ascending from a traditionalist state to a postmodern state and from stopping a postmodern state of falling back into traditionalist state and exclusive nationalism.

Measuring impact differently

Nation branding therefore needs an ethical approach and cannot only be based on increasing the standing of a state in the world. Different measurements to the traditional ones of inwards investment (foreign direct investment), exports and tourism are needed such as perceived ownership of a nation which needs freedom of choice, speech and an inclusive, tolerant approach as well as increased educational and economical levels across the populace.

Interestingly enough, I believe to be successful in the future, brand managers of today would be advised to learn from nation branding and nation building activities – it’ll help successful corporate brands such as Facebook (and all the others that are build on communities) manage their challenges and growing pains.


Fukuyama, F., “Restoring trust in a cynical American Public”, Arthur W. Page Society, 2004

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