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The Talking CureAt the conference, Thomas Grabner, who has promoted the Red Bull energy drink for the Los Angeles advertising firm Kastner & Partners, held up the Austrian company's "event marketing" as a model for creating a global image.

The Talking Cure

Conference participants market strategies for managing small nations' images around the world. They call it 'country branding.'

By Angilee Shah
Staff Writer

After three months, the Ukraine story went south, and remains so.

Drawing participants from advertising, marketing, government, and academe, a half-day conference at UCLA on May 12, 2006, took on the "small nation problem." Speakers asked, what does a small nation need to do in order to survive and thrive in an increasingly globalized world? And, more to the point, what does that have to do with recognizable icons like Nokia, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Madonna?

Robert Spich, a senior lecturer at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and organizer of the conference, is proposing that small countries can learn a lot from big business. Small countries, he said, profit greatly from "branding" themselves well.

"We don't sell countries yet," Spich said facetiously. "That may come in the future."

Judging by the array of presentations at the conference, "country branding" is a slippery notion that embraces not only government publicity campaigns meant to attract travel and investment but also the production of national images by other agents, especially news and entertainment media. Country brands may also be affected by the images of their own private and publicly-traded corporations, though perhaps only where the association between country and company is strong.

Small European countries may stand to gain from branding especially now that the European Union "has lost its central narrative," Spich said, citing a Financial Times article (subscription required), "Brand experts study EU identity crisis," that was published earlier in the week.

Erika Hoholick, an account director at the advertising firm TBWA\Chiat\Day, underlined the importance of branding this way: "If you don't create your own brand, someone else will do it for you."

Singapore, once seen as a "lovely, thriving city," is Hoholick's proverbial bad example. The brand changed in 1994, when American teenager Michael Fay was caned for vandalism, and has not fully recovered. Contrast a model from industry: with good marketing Johnson & Johnson and its Tylenol brand lived through the 1982 tampering cases in which seven consumers in Chicago died after ingesting pills that were laced with cyanide.

Dr. Maggie Daleo, senior vice president of Enterprise Ireland, an Irish government–sponsored program that invests in startup companies, talked about the importance of making sure that a country's brand is conveyed in the media. Ireland set out to change its Guinness-and-pubs image for one that stressed technological savvy and a position as a "gateway to Europe." High-ranking officials set the agenda, and various agencies, including Enterprise Ireland, worked together to disseminate information about what Ireland had to offer to the world of technology.

Hungarian Consulate Ödön Király said that investing in media is very expensive and does not have guaranteed results, but asserted that Hungary's experiments in country branding, principally the Smart Hungary investment campaign and related incentives programs that began in 2003, have been very successful. While the total cost of such a program is difficult to pinpoint because of the disparate agencies that participate, Király said that the central organizing agency, the Hungarian Investment and Trade Development Agency, costs several hundred million U.S. dollars every year to maintain.

Ukraine after the Orange Revolution of 2004 had a huge upsurge in investor interest, but lost momentum when the new government began privatizing companies without "managing the message" with the media, according to Dr. Preston Keat, research director of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm that estimates political risk for investors. "After three months, the Ukraine story went south, and remains so," he said.

"Branding is important, but if it's not true on the ground, it doesn't go very far," Keat cautioned.

Bad for Business

Daleo noted that images of countries can change rapidly, so managing the process is a constant challenge. The 1978 film "Midnight Express," for example, chronicled an American's experience in a Turkish prison and damaged Turkey's image for years to come. By encouraging "independent" media that put forth positive images, a country can make sure that "blips" such as "Midnight Express" do not become "the whole face of the country," Daleo said.

Hoholick said that taking on or simply replacing national stereotypes can work for countries as well. When Australia's tourism commission and Australia-based Wybin/TBWA launched the Real Australia campaign—apparently the first to deviate from staid images of the outback, kangaroos, and a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience—web traffic for increased from 30,000 to 130,000 hits per day almost instantaneously, according to Hoholick.

Angeleos Pangratis, deputy head of the EU Delegation to the United States and the conference's keynote speaker, underlined the importance of EU-U.S. trade relations, particularly in California. The conference, "Comparative Country Branding: The Small Nation Problem Solution," was sponsored by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies, the UCLA Center for International Business Research, the Anderson School, and the Southern California Consortium for International Studies.

Center for European and Eurasian Studies