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Last Monday I had one of these perfect conversations when everything falls into place and a bigger picture emerges: I was standing outside of Northcliffe House talking with Christophe Asselin, the event director of for imedia connections, about different topics for the next imedia event, such as crisis management and the potential and upside of creating a coalition of brands in the event of a crisis. And then it struck me – the stages of development for a brand can be aligned to the stages of development for nation states. Perfect.

Robert Cooper, a senior British diplomat, identifies three stages of development in his article “The Post-Modern State”: the “premodern zone”, the traditional ‘modern’ state and the ‘postmodern’ state. Let’s start with stage 1.

The “premodern zone”

In the premodern zone the state has yet to emerge or has ceased to exist. The monopoly on the legitimate use of force – Weber’s criterion for a state – is non existent and/or is being actively undermined to ensure and maintain the strengthening of smaller groups be it ethical of criminal (Kaldor, 2002).

The traditional ‘modern’ state

A state following Machiavellian principles and raison d’etat “protected by treaties and compacts, markers and armies” (Beck and Cowan, 1996, p.302).

The political and economical success of traditional modern states leads to increased international interaction of both state and citizen, with rising educational and financial levels, increased inward investment and immigration. At this stage the national economy ceases to exist, national borders loose their relevance, national cultures merge with each other and national linguistic loses importance (Hobsbawm, 1992) – the traditional nation state is becoming obsolete. But let’s be clear: It is a gradual and often painful transition, which faces lots of opposition due to changing the status quo and subsequently increased uncertainties. The definition of the nation by language, ethnicity and even culture becomes increasingly difficult. The nation brand experiences the following effects: its external reputation is rising and it internal identity is being strained. The modern state is transforming into a postmodern state.

The “postmodern” state

Cooper defines the ‘post modern’ state as follows:

  • The breaking down of the distinction between domestic and foreign affairs
  • Mutual interference in (traditional) domestic affairs and mutual surveillance
  • The rejection of force for resolving disputes and the consequent codification of self enforced rules of behavior
  • The growing irrelevance of borders: this has come about both through the changing role of the state, but also through missiles, motor cars and satellites”
  • Security is based on transparency, mutual openness, interdependence and mutual vulnerability

The European Union is a good example for a postmodern system, which shows that this transition is not common place and a recent development. A part of society – the defenders of the status quo and traditional modern state – will feel threatened by this change and by the increased awareness and activity of globalization. It increases the heterogeneity of society and can lead to conflict between different value systems and consequently result in a decline in social cohesion. The citizens often experience multiple identities and supra- and infranational movements undermine the traditional nation-state (Hobsbawm, 1992).

As a result local representation and communities (Stoker, 2000) or as Anholt (2005b, p.226) calls it “distributed leadership” – as well as national identity will increase in importance, with the former supposed to strengthen active participations as people have a higher degree of identification with their communities and feel that they are in charge and can make changes themselves (Crouch, 2000) and the latter needing a redefinition – consequently climaxing in a re-positioning of the brand – to include all the different value systems that exist in a postmodern society and therefore resolve the resulting disputes to build “the consequent codification of self enforced rules of behavior” (Cooper, 2002, p.13) of the citizen and to reinforce or re-position its brand in relation to the interdependence with other postmodern states – the creation of a holistic brand with an awareness that everything communicates and therefore the internal and external brand developments overlap. The internet will put further strain onto the post-modern state as the definition of communities by proximity will become less and less accurate. Communities will become more international and will be built around shared interests instead of locality. They will decrease in size, but increase in numbers.

On to brands

Distributed leadership, local representation, communities, transparency, openness … This all sounds incredibly familiar, doesn’t it? And today, I’m not referring to Cameron’s Big Society but you can see where he’s coming from, I’m referring to the realities brands and companies have to face on a daily basis, with people becoming the most important brand ambassadors and social media forcing increased levels of transparency, openness, engagement. The boundaries between consumer, employee, supplier, etc are becoming meaningless. Identity – or brand value – becomes an important glue for brand cohesion whilst using soft power, as control over a brand has long been lost. Companies and brands now face the same internal and external challenges as nation states. Some, like Twitter and anyone sharing, for example, code base, have moved already into the realm of a postmodern state and their uptake is therefore not surprising as it matches the desires and values of the citizens within these states. However, there are still several brands behaving like traditional ‘modern’ states, in this uncomfortable and painful position of being so successful that the stage requires an opening up and a move to a postmodern stance. I can imagine and have witnessed myself the internal battles between the traditionalists and postmodernists. At the same time, just remember how China – a traditional nation state – is struggling with the adoption of the social web and its desperate, but ultimately futile attempts of strangling it. The more successful China will become the more it will need to open itself up.

I find these parallels incredibly fascinating. It once again shows, nations and brands, politicians and business people are intrinsically linked, (which is kind of logical as their ‘citizens’ possess similar values and beliefs) and more often than not can we find the future for successful businesses in the present dilemmas of today’s nation states.


Anholt, S., “Editorial – Nation brand as context and reputation”, Place Branding, Vol.1, No 3, 2005b

Beck, D. & Cowan, C. (1996) “Spiral Dynamics”, Malden: Blackwell

Cooper, R. (2002) “The Post-Modern State” in Leonard, M. (ed) “Re-Ordering the World – The Long-term implications of 11 September”, London: The Foreign Policy Centre

Crouch, C. (2000) “Coping with Post-democracy”, London: Fabian Society

Hobsbawm, E.J. (1990) “Nations and Nationalism since 1780 – Programme, Myth, Reality”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Kaldor, M. (2002) “The Power of Terror” in Leonard, M. (ed) “Re-Ordering the World – The Long-term implications of 11 September”, London: The Foreign Policy Centre

Stoker, G. (2000) “Is regional government the answer to the English Question?”, in Chen, S. and Wright, T. (eds) “The English Question”, London: Fabian Society

Painting by Clay Vajgrt

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