The more I learn about this new world, the more I grasp of the future, the more I look at empowered consumers and hear about digital citizens, engagement and communities, the more I am convinced we can learn from nation branding. Shame, though, that states and governments are so slow in adapting to the new reality and how to use our tools to support with the creation of nations and engagement within communities.
1 – State versus Nation
A state is the political, legal entity. It’s based on the monopoly of power and uses laws: “in a democracy the purpose of a state is to create a nation ‘to influence everything which has a significant bearing upon the social fabric, so as to create in men’s imagination a sense of participation which is no longer directly symbolized by any social structure.’”(Faure, 1996, p.83).
A nation is therefore a sense that is unique to every individual, that can vary in strength, significance and meaning and that cannot be prescribed from above but is based on (voluntary) engagement. The nation – as the brand – is based on and defined by the people within. The most important components of national identity – as discovered by Keillor and Hult in 1999 – are cultural homogeneity and national heritage.
Translate this into our environment – the state is the corporation, the nation the brand: So how can we get individuals to participate and build our nation? How can we facilitate and strengthen cultural homogeneity without being too restrictive and controlling and what are the traditions we have, the legends we tell?
2 – Citizens
In a nation, the citizen is the most important entity of all. The citizen defines the culture and is defined by heritage. The citizen is the strongest ambassador. The citizen has rights and responsibilities. The citizen pays taxes. The citizen votes the executive and legislative. When citizens participate, society and nation flourishes.
So let’s treat our employees and our customers like citizens. We want employees to join the cause, to participate in our common goals, to share our vision, to be there voluntarily, to take their rights and responsibilities and to take them seriously. Every day is a campaign to be voted into office, every day we need to show vision, leadership and earn the trust. And as any good government does, be transparent, make tough decisions and share the rational with our citizens, because, you know what; they are self-determined adults and appreciated the respect and the heads up.
And just notice the shift in perception when seeing customers as citizens (besides the points mentioned above): Now they become part of the whole, not just a part to be serviced, no, but a part that is self-determined. Yes, we will lose control over our brand, but what is even more important: the brand is alive. Yes, we might only become a facilitator, an infrastructure or a marketplace, a state, a framework for a community to thrive, but the brand will grow stronger. Embrace your citizens, invite them in, share with them, work with soft power instead of hard power. And at the same time, protect the majority of the decent citizens from the few cowboys that are not interested in the common good.
3 – Heterogeneous brand communication
A nation speaks with many voices: every time you travel abroad, every time you meet somebody from a different nationality, you as a citizen are an ambassador for your nation. And these people to people communications and actions – based on experience instead of hearsay – are much stronger than any traditional diplomatic approach. Just think about the time when you met an individual that has completely swayed your opinion about his or her country of origin. That can only be done person to person and you yourself need to experience it.
Especially with the advent of social media this becomes true for any corporate brand – every interaction of an employee is more impactful than the latest corporate PR release. That becomes even more intricate when we see our customer as citizens and therefore as actors/participants within our brand’s network and system. A homogenous brand, a homogenous brand communication is a thing of the past, now it’s heterogeneous. Everything communicates, everybody communicates. Let it flourish.
And that’s where the circle closes to the first point, only a strong culture within a clear framework, combined with clear vision and a community of shared experiences are the foundations of the truly successful brands.
Faure, J. (1996) “Forging a French Fighting Spirit: The Nation, Sport, Violence and War”, in Mangan, J.A. (ed) “Tribal Identities – Nationalism, Europe, Sport”, London: Frank Cass Publishers
Keillor, B. and Hult, G. T., “A five-country study of national identity – Implications for international marketing research and practice”, International Marketing Review, Vol. 16, No 1, 1999