Government Isn't Just Another Brand To Be Marketed

The focus on image is misplaced—actions speak louder than words.

Recently an interesting debate arose over the fundamental meaning of branding.

The context was a call for volunteers to help with the user interface of the Good Country, a project aimed at making the world more habitable for all.

Conceptually, here’s how it works: participants get to “vote” on the elections taking place in other countries. Given the opportunity to weigh in on another nation’s governance, they presumably would take the time to actually learn about those countries, form educated opinions, and become more aware of how one nation’s actions affect the others. (See the TED Talk.)

The project's founder, Simon Anholt, is known for the concept of “nation branding,” also known as “place branding,” which seeks to enhance the images of nations or places much the way companies try to bolster the reputations of their products. Nonetheless, Anholt does not view the Good Country as a branding effort.

A policy advisor, Anholt divorced his project from the concept of branding because he sees the latter as an activity related to image, whereas policy has to do with substance:

“My belief, backed up by much research (nearly 400 billion data points from 10 years of the Nation Brands Index), has long been that there’s no such thing as place “branding” and that countries are judged by what they do rather than by what they say about themselves.”

In Anholt's view, campaigns limited to superficial symbols are tempting, but ultimately cannot build or rehabilitate a nation's image.

The temptation for governments to spend taxpayers’ and donors’ money on logos, slogans and PR campaigns in an attempt to manipulate the images of their countries, cities and regions is a very strong one: but it simply doesn’t work and I’ve never found a single case study to suggest that it does.

Conceptually, Anholt draws the distinction between image-building and more specific goals of boosting tourism or investment, which can be supported through a marketing campaign.

From Anholt's point of view, conflating branding with policy is dangerous because doing so positions the effort as a competitive one, rather than one where we all work together on substantive improvement for mutual gain.

"I’d like to emphasize that the principle of the Good Country is countries trying to be good, not trying to look good, which is why I find the “branding” label to be a dangerous one. Countries need to become gooder (by which I basically mean that governance needs to be understood as a fundamentally collaborative rather than fundamentally competitive discipline) not primarily because it will benefit their images or trade or international relations, but primarily because it’s necessary for the future of humanity.”

Anholt's research shows that when nations improve their actions, a better image results. He believes this correlation, which he has mentioned publicly, has created some confusion. The bottom line, says Anholt, is that when a country improves its practices, a better brand image results (but it doesn't work the other way around—image efforts alone don't produce a better brand).

For my part, reading this, I was surprised and concerned at the level of dysfunction and waste that would permit branding efforts to be limited to image-building even in 2017. Back in 2001, The Brand Consultancy in Washington was promoting integrated brand building, marrying operation and image. And frankly the U.S. seemed behind the times; see, for example, the 2001 Harvard Business Review article by Mary Jo Hatch and Majken Schultz Are The Strategic Stars Aligned For Your Corporate Brand?

In business, it is clear that 360 degree branding improves the bottom line. But in the world of policy and governance, there are many complicating factors at play.

When the world's policymakers come to see that actions speak louder than words, and that positive actions do yield positive results on every level, we will see the end of branding efforts limited to image.

Copyright 2017 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity.