Brand integrity

Countries and regions should stop spending money on image and focus on reality.

In 1998, I published an essay arguing that, in the age of global markets and global competition, places have brand images just as corporations do, and that their progress and prosperity depends to a remarkable degree on the power and appeal of those images. But my phrase "nation brand" was soon transformed into "nation branding", partly thanks to a collusion between ambitious marketing firms and naive or impatient governments, captivated by the prospect of a magical short-cut to a better reputation.

The meme I carelessly released has spawned its own consulting industry, its own branch of academia, and between one-third and one-half of all the countries on earth now recognise the existence of the concept to the extent of researching it, spending vast sums of money on it, and setting up agencies and departments to work on it. Today, on an almost monthly basis, one reads about some desperately poor country blowing millions of dollars of its donors' or taxpayers' money in a ­futile attempt to generate international admiration of its assets or achievements, instead of doing something to deserve a better reputation by making itself into a better place, or by engaging in a more principled and useful way with the international community.

There is no evidence that any country, city or region has ever succeeded in measurably improving its international standing through advertising, public relations, logos, slogans or websites - indeed, it is virtually impossible to find a government that has even bothered to measure the ­effectiveness of such initiatives. They spend the money to make themselves look modern and dynamic, safe in the knowledge that they will be out of office long before anyone realises that it has achieved precisely nothing.

Part of the problem is confusion, often deliberately fostered by the communications industry, between promoting tourism and national image. Tourism promotion is, in principle, straight­­forward: you have a product to sell (a holiday destination), you have a target audience (people shopping for a holiday), and you use marketing communications to inform and excite the latter about the former. If well done, tourism promotion is demonstrably effective and, to some extent, the same approach works for the other products and services that countries produce too: foreign investment, cultural and sporting events, exports, education. It's all relatively honest and relatively transparent. But the idea that you can use the same communications tools to manipulate the deeply rooted perceptions people have in their minds about a place, is simply false. This isn't sales promotion, it's state propaganda.

Propaganda only works when you control all the channels of information reaching your audience. One of the good things about globalisation is that it has made propaganda impossible, because nobody - Murdoch included - now controls even a fraction of all the channels of information reaching people around the world. Whatever you say about your country using paid media channels will be contradicted by a thousand other media channels.

The use of PR to brand nations is another scam. It's based on the notion that a country's standing is a consequence of how positively or negatively that country is portrayed in the media and that, if country A can only persuade the media in country B to speak well of it, its reputation in that country will improve. But national images run far deeper than this. What people in country B believe about country A is part of their own national culture; it's something they imbibe almost from birth, and it's unbelievably difficult to shift.

Academic research has shown many times that stories about a country in the media, whether positive or negative, merely tend to reinforce people's existing prejudices. The effect tends to be agenda-setting rather than opinion-forming; as Bernard Cohen wrote in 1963, "The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about." One fascinating implication of this line of reasoning is that if a country is worried about its reputation, it might be better advised to work on keeping itself out of the international media, rather than generating more coverage.

Not surprisingly, it's usually the countries with the weakest reputations that spend the most money on public relations. Headlines from the last few years include: "Kazakhstan hires Policy Impact Communications for $1.5m to enhance the country's reputation in the United States"; "Sri Lanka pays PR firm £3m to boost post-war image"; "Egypt hires PR to revamp its image"; "Israel hires PR firm on 60th birthday for a political facelift".

None of these countries appears to have shown any noticeable improvement in international standing since these campaigns were carried out, and one can't help wondering whether all these millions might have been better spent on activities more likely to earn them a better reputation and prove themselves to be valuable and principled members of the international community: some high-quality diplomacy, for example; some enlightened and memorable cultural relations; a major contribution to shared global challenges such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, human rights or terrorism; perhaps even some foreign aid to countries less well off than themselves.

Luckily, British governments have never really fallen for the seductive trap of international propaganda, and have usually accepted the fact that countries are judged by what they do and what they make, not by what they say about themselves. Past governments have sensibly distinguished between the straightforward promotion of sectors (which is the vital job of bodies like VisitBritain, UKTI and the British Council) and overall national standing, which is patently beyond their direct control. Britain is lucky enough to have one of the most perfect national images of any country on earth, and attempting to meddle with it is mere vanity and hubris.

Earlier this year, however, two events occurred that allow us to see how easily control of these matters may be lost. First the BBC announced that, because of cuts in its grant from the Foreign Office, it was axing much of its foreign-language World Service broadcasting; second, in the same week, the launch of a Mexican-built supercar prompted presenters of Top Gear to engage in some silly offensive banter about how cars reflect the national characteristics of their country of origin, and so this car would be slow and feckless. I was living in Mexico at the time and there was public outrage and a great deal of anger against Britain.

It seems deliberately perverse of the government to slash the budget for one of our most important pillars of public diplomacy, the World Service, saving about the same amount as it probably costs to make a single season of Top Gear. We appeared to demonstrate that the UK is more interested in making money by hurting other countries' reputations, and our own reputation in consequence, than in building international goodwill by providing valuable services to humanity. Once a nation stops bothering with long-term investments, it tends to start dabbling in short cuts. So what's next: a new campaign to brand Britain?

Simon Anholt is an independent policy advisor who helps national, regional and city governments develop and implement strategies for enhanced economic, political and cultural engagement

This article first appeared in the New Statesman supplement 'Competition in a New Society: Cities and Regions'