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    Is There a Case for National Branding?


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/2003

    Can national branding improve export competitiveness? Branding experts, business executives and government officials debated the issue as part of the Executive Forum process.

    When looking at strategies to increase national exports, decision-makers typically consider options such as promoting priority sectors, encouraging investment, the role of ICT (information and communication technology), market research and promotion campaigns. Developing a national brand - and managing it to increase export revenues - is usually furthest from their thoughts. And yet, though unusual and provocative, few topics in the Executive Forum debates intrigued participants more.

    A positive national image is an essential ingredient for export promotion, and also for investment promotion. Should countries invest in national branding as part of the image-building strategy? National branding represents a considerable investment.

    National branding consists of developing an image and communicating it, both internally and externally, based on a country's positive values and perceptions that are relevant to export development. The brand concepts, once researched, tested and defined, are then used as the basis of targeted promotional campaigns, when encouraging trade, tourism and inward investments.

    Few 'branding' models

    Very few countries have successfully launched a national brand. Even developed countries do not find brand management an easy task. Hardly any research has been available on branding initiatives in developing countries. The Journal of Brand Management has documented several cases, and Executive Forum participants contributed research papers and presentations. These are available on the Executive Forum web site (http://www.intracen.org/execforum).

    As a result of Executive Forum debates, participants from Ecuador, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Malta, Pakistan and other countries are looking more closely at national branding in the export strategy process. These participants can also be contacted through the Executive Forum site by searching the network members' database.

    Sectors suited to national branding

    Tourism, and eco-tourism in particular, are the obvious associations made with national branding. Tourism is a fast-growing business, and developing a national brand can be part of an effective strategy in managing national growth in tourism. One key point to retain regarding tourism and national branding is differentiation. Sun and sand are essentially commodities, noted the experts. In developing a national brand that will support tourism growth, a country's unique architecture, history, art and other cultural forms must be included, if it is to be applied successfully.

    National branding can be used successfully for other sectors, or a combination of them, as the case of 'Scotland the Brand' shows. Some 350 member companies from 23 sectors adhere to a common branding initiative, and boost both visibility and sales as a result.

    For those countries that do not consider national branding to be a viable option at present, sectoral or firm-led branding is an alternative. In the case of Colombian coffee, the process was conscious and the results were productive.

    Other branding has been perhaps less managed - Italian shoes, German cars, etc. In none of the country cases cited is the national 'character' equivalent to the national branding. However, clusters of firms in a sector with comparative advantage can clearly tap into national 'characteristics' as branding elements to help promote sectoral exports from that country.

    Marketing your identity

    Two points stand out from the research papers, discussions and debate:

    • First, countries must be sure they understand how they are perceived abroad. They need to invest in researching external perceptions of their national traits and products. Otherwise the promotional campaigns will fall flat.

    • Second, national characteristics selected for promotion must have a basis in business reality.

    ITC has researched and compiled what it believes are cases of 'best practice' in determining whether countries should consider brand development, and how they go about it. Managing an existing brand is equally challenging. Among the many case studies presented, Scotland the Brand is useful for its attention to sound research, quality assurance, financial sustainability, communications strategies and public-private partnership approach. But strategy-makers should be clear: brands are not about smoke and mirrors. They are based on national values. If exporters do not reflect these values, no promotion campaign will make a brand credible.

    In an increasingly globalized world, with both information access and information overload, however, there is a benefit in harmonizing messages and communicating them creatively to the right audiences. As branding expert Wally Olins remarked, "It is those who have yet to start who need branding most.

    Is national branding for you?

    The experience of countries with successful national brands suggests that there is a 'best practice' way to decide on the relevance of national branding (or re-branding). This involves the following steps:

    1. Confirm readiness

    Is national branding a strategy to adopt that will bring a competitive advantage - that is, improve a country's overall export base? Which national values are relevant for products or services being exported? Are there sufficient companies and production capacity to justify the effort? Are benefits likely to be higher than costs in the long run?

    2. Set up a working group

    Include politicians, civil servants, industry representatives, media, educators and figures from sport and the arts. Decide whom you are trying to influence and confirm how these target groups perceive your nation. Start by identifying and defining your critical audiences, both internal and external.

    3. Identify a core idea

    Identify the internal and external perceptions/images (positive, negative, neutral, none, etc.) of the country, and identify the discrepancies between the external and internal perceptions/images.

    Then identify the positive values that could be associated with national branding of products and services. Trace some existing best practices/models for national branding which could be useful to study further for inspiration and guidance.

    A 'core idea' should emerge, from which a branding programme can be developed. "Find out what you've got that makes you different, then create something around this. Sun, sea and sand are not a core idea, they represent commodities and there is no margin in commodities trading. Differentiation is more effective when it comes to food, architecture and culture," branding guru Wally Olins advised Executive Forum participants.

    4. Coordinate presentation of the core idea

    Ensure that key public and private sector entities dealing with tourism, investment and export development convey the core message in their marketing programmes.

    5. Differentiate the messages

    Once the core idea has been developed, modulate it for each priority audience. Create a visual idea, which you can also put into words. The words should encapsulate what the concept stands for in different circumstances.

    6. Manage the messages

    Do not let the government run it. Create a structure that is going to be there when the government changes. Ensure that the brand is promoted among local audiences as an asset and protect its credibility through establishing and managing standards for usage.

    7. Establish a long-term time frame

    National branding is a long-term initiative. A 20-year time frame is realistic.

    Contributors: M. Scholer, ITC (coordinator); D. Conrad, S. Rodas, N. Domeisen, ITC; R. Estrada, Executive President, CORPEI, Ecuador; T. Houston, Chief Executive, Scotland the Brand; T. Walvis, Stardust Ventures, the Netherlands.

    Natalie Domeisen was part of the group that coordinated national branding research for the Executive Forum, and moderated the regional Executive Forum debate in South Africa.