October 26, 2009
State Of The Nation Brand
It should come as no surprise that America, home of the brave and of Madison Avenue, has catapulted back to the top of the rankings in Simon Anholt's Nation Brands Index in 2009 from its previous relatively low ranking of seventh. Each year, the Index measures the power and appeal of 50 nation brands by surveying people in 20 core panel countries. Not surprisingly, its author has also built quite a career advising governments and local authorities on how to improve their standing in the eyes of the world.
But measuring something is one thing and understanding how it works is another, and Anholt has some puzzling things to say about branding in general, which suggest that he hasn't quite got a handle on how brands work.
Listening to his interview on a recent CBC Podcast, Anholt says that when it comes to the term 'nation branding', he wishes he'd "never coined the damn thing." He then goes on to say that he's never seen any evidence to suggest that it's possible to 'manipulate' a nation brand.
Maniupulate? Now, there's an interesting choice of word.
A visit to his website gives us another clue as to Anholt's rather odd position in all of this. There he tells us that although "the word 'brand' is used a lot in this context, Simon Anholt’s work has nothing to do with marketing, advertising or public relations." In fact, he's keen to stress that "places can't construct or manipulate their images with advertising or PR, slogans or logos – and although some governments spend large amounts of money trying to do just that, there is absolutely no proof that it works."
Yet in the same CBC interview, Anholt puts the ascent of the USA back to the top of the index in the past year down to the Obama factor.
Which suggests that the reluctant nation-brand advisor is somehow getting his wires crossed.
For whilst Obama has set out with an admirable sense of purpose over the past ten months, it's too early for his actions to have had much tangible impact. Instead, it's evident that any connection between the new President and America's revival in the opinion of the world at large is down to the rather canny mix of 'advertising, PR, slogans and logos' which persuaded not only the American electorate but USA-watchers from around the world that he was capable of reinventing brand America.
Anholt's disdain for branding seems to arise from his confusion over what a brand is and how it works. He suggests that nation brands are too complex and unwieldy to manage in the same way as branded goods or services, but it's not only nation brands that struggle to make an impact when they talk the talk without walking the walk.
Only in a very small number of cases is branding down to advertising, PR, slogans and logos alone. Powerful brands such as Nike, Starbucks, Google and others have found that there is a cost to their reputation when the gap between talk and walk widens, particularly in those areas where those brands have taken their stand.
Brand America stands in the popular imagination for freedom and opportunity and Obama surely stood for these values above all in his march to the White House. It's no surprise then to see nation-brand America reassert itself in the wake of his successful bid for the presidency.
What a pity that influential commentators like Anholt haven't a more developed understanding of how brands work. It's too easy to dismiss branding as so much spin and window-dressing.
Whether Anholt likes it or not, his Nation Brand Index is about branding, and the same broad principles of behaviour and communications apply to these complex and unwieldy brands as they do to any of the popular products or services on offer that we regard as great brands.
Over To You: Which nation-brand do you regard as your Number One?