Business Times

Lanka's "brand image" - can it be improved?

By Simon Anholt

Sri Lanka is one of many countries today that have developed a strong and active interest in its international image, and are beginning to try and understand whether it is possible to exercise some influence over it, rather than leave it to the mercy of international public opinion, ignorance, and the media.

I first wrote about the idea I called nation brand in 1996, and described how the reputations of countries today are like the brand images of companies and products. The globalisation of markets and communications has created a situation where countries all need to compete with each other, a little like businesses in a marketplace. Whatever those countries try to draw in (investors, aid, tourists, business visitors, students, major events, researchers, travel writers and talented entrepreneurs), and whatever those countries try to push out (products, services, policies, culture and ideas), is done with a discount if the country's image is weak or negative, and at a premium if it's strong and positive.

The problem is that most people don't know and don't care about most other places. We all navigate through our complex modern world armed with a few simple clichés, and they form the background of our opinions, even if we aren't fully aware of this and don't always admit it to ourselves: Paris is about style, Japan about technology, Switzerland about wealth and precision, Rio de Janeiro about carnival and football, and, in the opinion of far too many people, Sri Lanka is in danger of becoming merely a synonym for conflict, poverty, corruption, instability and violence. For a country that has so much going for it in terms of natural beauty, cultural heritage and human capital, this is indeed a tragedy.

Most of us are much too busy worrying about ourselves and our own countries to spend very long trying to form complete, balanced, and informed views about six billion other people and nearly 200 other countries, and we accept these stereotypes without questioning them. We make do with such convenient summaries for the vast majority of people and places - the ones we will probably never know or visit - and only start to expand and refine these impressions when for some reason we acquire a particular interest in them. When you haven't got time to read a book, you judge it by its cover.

These clichés and stereotypes - positive or negative, true or untrue - fundamentally affect our behaviour towards other places and their people and products. It may seem unfair, but it's very hard for a country to persuade people in other parts of the world to go beyond these simple images and start to understand the rich complexity that lies behind them.

This is why responsible governments today have a sacred responsibility to understand and monitor their national image, and try to hand that precious asset to their successors in at least as good condition as they received it.

The problem is that while more and more governments today understand the critical importance of national image and reputation to their progress and prosperity, very few of them really understand how to influence it. After I coined the phrase nation brand, it gradually become distorted, mainly by naïve governments in willing collusion with ambitious consulting firms, television networks and media sales operations, into 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 commercial marketing communications: in other words, state propaganda.

Yet despite repeatedly calling for it over the last 15 years, I have never seen a shred of evidence to suggest that this is possible: no case studies, no research, and not even any very persuasive arguments. I conclude that countries are judged by what they do, not by what they say, as they have always been.

Of course, countries can market their products and services very effectively through the traditional channels of communication: the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, for example, is doing world-class work in this area, and undoubtedly helps the national image by doing so. Global brands like Dilmah also play a crucial role as 'informal ambassadors' for their country of origin. But nothing less than an effective coalition of all sectors, public and private, working to a common strategy, over many years, can help Sri Lanka to get beyond the level of a two-dimensional and negative stereotype in the global public imagination.

The message is clear: if a country is serious about enhancing its international image, it should concentrate on the 'product' rather than chase after the chimera of 'branding'. There are no short cuts. Only a consistent, coordinated and unbroken stream of useful, noticeable, world-class and above all relevant ideas, products and policies can, gradually, enhance the reputation of the country that produces them.

Every country that has ever succeeded in measurably improving its reputation - South Africa, India, Ireland, Japan, Germany, Spain - has done so as a result of economic, social or political progress, and usually a combination of all three.

This is why creating a better image for a country is often far cheaper and always much harder than people imagine. It's about creating a viable yet inspirational long-term vision for the development of the country and pursuing that aim through good leadership, economic and social reform, imaginative and effective cultural and political relations, transparency and integrity, infrastructure, education, and so forth: in other words, substance. The substance is then expressed, over many years, through a series of symbolic actions which bring it memorably, effectively and lastingly to the world's attention.

Desiring a better image won't make Sri Lanka a better country. But making a better country will unfailingly produce a better image - and there are many ways of making this process more reliable, faster, and more durable.

(Anholt is an independent policy advisor, author and researcher. He developed the concepts of the 'nation brand' and 'place brand' in the late 1990s, and today plays a leading role in this rapidly expanding field).

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