Olivia Parker
Apr 21, 2017

Nation branding: A complex, high-stakes game

Slogans and mascots are the least of it: ‘nation-branding’ in Asia today has evolved into a complex, multifaceted game with mega prizes on offer for winners—and catastrophe for losers, writes Olivia Parker.

Image control: A ‘cultural and social’ approach to marketing has earned Singapore “world’s strongest brand” status.
Image control: A ‘cultural and social’ approach to marketing has earned Singapore “world’s strongest brand” status.

This year marks the 50th birthday of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a group that aims to promote 10 countries in the region as one tourist destination. The alliance is celebrating the occasion with a fresh new campaign, ‘Visit ASEAN @ 50: golden celebrations 2017’, and hopes to boost international visitor arrivals to 121 million by the end of the year.

But three months in, not all commentators are persuaded of the campaign’s worth. Imtiaz Muqbil, editor of the website Travel Impact Newswire, reported in January on the “mess” of incohesive branding on display at that month’s 36th ASEAN Tourism Forum in Singapore, with three different logos being used to represent the campaign and individual countries’ stands bearing entirely inconsistent marketing.

Marcus Osborne, founder of the Malaysia-based consultancy Fusionbrand and author of Stop advertising, start branding, is also dubious about what the project will contribute to the global image of the countries involved. “I’m not 100 percent convinced that ‘ASEAN @ 50’ is going to make such a big difference and from what I’ve seen of their marketing, their branding and comms is very fragmented and very limited,” he says. “I think for tourism, or for FDI [foreign direct investment], businesses will look at a country on its own and won’t look at it as being part of ASEAN.”

Whether this patchy campaign will succeed in having an impact remains to be seen. But the general feeling among marketers today is that ‘place branding’ of this kind is at a turning point in Asia. Not only is it becoming more important, due to growing confidence and competition across the region, but the countries that are doing it most successfully have realised that it is also changing
in nature.

“The brand-building efforts of today are becoming more sophisticated, substantive and subtle,” says Koh Buck Song, a writer and consultant for Brand Singapore. The region was recently declared “world’s strongest brand” in Brand Finance’s annual Nation brands report, with Hong Kong taking second place. (The US remains the world’s “most valuable brand”, followed in order by China, Germany and Japan).

Singapore is widely seen as a best-practice nation in country-branding literature because it is so direct in its branding goals, needs and objectives, says Dr Nancy Snow, ‘pax mundi’ professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. “Singapore wants the best and brightest to come to Singapore to live and the wealthiest and most consumer-savvy to make it a luxury destination. It’s not a place that is showcasing an appeal to shoestring backpackers.”

Koh agrees. Singapore also won the strongest brand accolade because in recent years it has worked hard on “the organic building up of authentic brand value” through cultural and social means, he thinks. The newly opened National Gallery Singapore, for example, is “taking the country up to a whole new global ball game in soft power”, he says.

This is a key term in the evolution of country-marketing in Asia. “No longer is nation-branding mostly about eye-catching logos and snazzy taglines,” comments Koh. “It is now much more about soft power, culture and heritage, and much of the action can be played out below the radar.”

Koh cites China as an interesting example when it comes to soft power. Even as president Xi Jinping advances his ‘One belt, one road’ strategy, which aims to revitalise the ancient overland and maritime Silk Roads towards Europe, China has been promoting its language and customs on a more subtle front with rapidly growing numbers of Chinese cultural centres and Confucius Institutes in universities around the world.

China attempts to extend soft power worldwide through its Confucius Institutes.

The soft power of China will remain limited for cultural and political reasons, however, comments Robert Haigh, marketing and communications director for Brand Finance. “The arts are not supported at a personal or institutional level to the same extent as they are in most other parts of the world,” he says. The cultural centres are a concession, he accepts; but such initiatives will never be as effective as organic cultural exchange. 

It also doesn’t help that controversy has courted the Confucius Institutes. Some host universities have seen organised protests against them while others have terminated their contracts with the institutes after questions over academic freedom have arisen. Herein lies another essential rule of modern country-branding, says Fusionbrand’s Osborne. “Nation-branding is not about being liked, it’s about being trusted,” he insists. “Nations have to do what they promise on the tin.”

As an example of what happens when countries don’t stay true to their word, Osborne cites an (unnamed) destination he has worked with in Southeast Asia that over-promised in its marketing to a Japanese firm and then under-delivered once the firm had invested over US$3 billion. “When asked by other Japanese businesses if the country was a good place to invest, they declined to answer, which is Japanese for no.”

Beyond honesty and subtlety, sustainability concerns are also a growing priority in Asian nation-branding. With this in mind, China is embarking on new efforts to bring back blue skies to polluted cities, says Koh. In Indonesia, meanwhile, Osborne reports that initiatives to preserve forests by reducing deforestation and a crack-down on corruption are attracting unprecedented levels of FDI.

A good position on Simon Anholt and Robert Govers’ Good Country Index, which measures nations’ contributions to the common good of humanity, is also gaining traction as the kind of marker by which countries can earn admiration and—if communicated well—brand awareness, say Florian Kaefer, founder and editor of the website placebrandobserver.com. Asian nations tend to fall significantly far south of their European counterparts on this index, with New Zealand the highest-placed APAC country on the list, in 12th place, followed by Australia in 18th and Japan in 19th position.

Intrinsically linked to this, says Kaefer, is the growing recognition among leaders that for nation-branding to be effective today it needs to be focused first and foremost on “the development of suitable infrastructure or policies, rather than marketing”.

Such policy-making needs to extend to all the working parts of a country for it to have an impact, agrees Osborne. Education is a critical slice of the pie. “The global language of commerce will continue to be English for at least a generation and the language of technology is English so the ability of a country’s people to speak English is important,” he says. Singapore understood this and made English the national language of education, to its great advantage; whereas other countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines,  didn’t and may have lost out. Malaysia’s government actually reversed its policy of teaching science and maths in English in 2012, following protests by Malay activists.

“If they hadn’t done that then it would have been easier for Malaysia to move up the value chain and market itself as a destination for more service-related industries,” says Osborne.

This said, global politics may well have an impact on how important the English language will be to Asian countries in the long term. President Donald Trump’s declaration of “America first” and the US’s exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership look likely to encourage Southeast Asian nations to start looking more towards China—and away from the US—for FDI. President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has already confirmed his country’s shift in this direction and Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has hinted at the same. The resulting uncertainty about “which way they are going to go” is causing a lack of confidence in Asia at the moment, says Osborne—and if more countries end up leaning towards China it may have a significant impact on their brand reputation, from a Western perspective at least.

Shaky ties: Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe made an early move to curry favour with US president Donald Trump, resulting in an awkward press conference.

Fear of this loss of global face is pushing other countries in the region, including Japan, to steer well clear of all antagonism in a bid to keep their image clean. 

“Nation-brand Japan wants to be recognised as ‘nice Japan’ … and this image will be reinforced in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics,” says Snow. “Japan is trying to avoid any conflict whatsoever economically and culturally with its strongest ally, the United States and with Mr Trump. This is why you saw prime minister [Shinzo] Abe embrace the new president ahead of many other world leaders.”

From the prime minister at the top of society to regular citizens below, all the stakeholders in a nation need to pull together in the same direction to have the best chance of being noticed on the world stage—for the right reasons. Whatever a country’s strategy, in this digital age the bottom line on self-promotion comes down to truth, it seems. And in this regard at least, ASEAN @ 50 with its tagline—‘Southeast Asia: feel the warmth’—may be on to a winner.

Bad news and damage limitation

When headline-making disasters occur that are inextricably linked to a country, such as the two tragic Malaysian Airlines crashes of 2014, that nation’s image can come under serious threat. It’s the way the issue is managed—and the relationships the country has built up with stakeholders over time—that determines precisely how serious, says Osborne.

“Malaysia handled the crashes disastrously, was not forthcoming with the media and pissed everyone off from New York to Beijing. It also had little equity in the branding bank because it doesn’t have good quality relationships with the global media. As a result the story had long legs and still hasn’t really been buried.”

Contrast that with the Emirates plane that crash-landed in Dubai last year, he says. “Emirates has exceptional relationships with the global media, has plenty of brand equity to lean on and handled the matter effectively and transparently. As a result the story died after about a week and there was barely any impact on the number of passengers travelling on Emirates.”

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