Within days of the Bardo museum in Tunisia being targeted by gunmen more than 50 tour operators cancelled their traditional stop over at the Capital depriving the local economy from a significant lifeline.
The seemingly largely unplanned attack on the museum is an admittedly extreme example but it makes the case between a country’s reputation and its ability to make money and grow its economy which means that it has direct impact on the opportunities it can then afford its people.
A country is, essentially, a brand. Like any brand it has brand equity (i.e. real value which is the result of industry, natural resources, etc), brand strength (the perception of the value of the brand) and brand values (what it stands for in terms of its presence). Like any other brand a country needs brand ambassadors, fans and even critics in order to keep it growing, evolving and honest.
What is not quite so evident for most countries is the connection between the perception of their brand and their ability to access capital, attract talent, become destinations for travel and business and exert influence. The US, for instance, is the most powerful nation on Earth from a military point of view. It is also a nation whose brand enjoys the greatest value in terms of brand equity (after all it has NASA, gave us the Internet and it’s the place where Hollywood is located, to mention but three ‘jewels’ in its crown). Yet, it’s only fourth in terms of perceived quality (Germany was the first). Perceived quality affects a multitude of decisions from consumer purchases guided by a “Made in XXXX” label to where to invest money in specific sectors like banking and manufacturing.
Reputation is Key
When a country’s ability to get richer depends on its brand value, arguably everyone within its borders is affected by it, as well. It comes down to reputation (which has a halo effect) for example, Germans are perceived to be industrious, Americans entrepreneurial and the Chinese hard-working.
Reputation is defined as the willingness of someone to do business with you when they have never had direct contact with you before and as such it is made up of some very specific elements. A country’s political system, for instance, and the impact that it has on its social fabric are key to the perception of its brand value.
Consider for instance that:
New research, independently commissioned by Barclays Corporate Banking, shows that products labelled Made in Britain command a considerably higher premium when sold abroad than those with no declared country of origin.
Such is the brand value of a nation that “British” actually means more in terms of how much consumers will pay for an item than “English”, “Scottish” or “Welsh”.
How the factors that build reputation influence visitor behavior is shown by the analysis of a report carried out by the World Economic Forum.
In that regard, everything begins to matter. Consider, for instance, the effect on the visitor experience when Bulgaria makes Wi-Fi free on its beaches in summer. Not only is there an opportunity for family and friends to participate vicariously in a holiday experience but visitors to the country need not feel cut-off from their social contacts, connections and networks. The experience of travel then becomes not just an opportunity to recharge one’s batteries but also one to broaden the common frame of reference of the wider conversation that is taking place across the world.
Countries As Brands
A brand, however, is never just the result of a logo, or a professed set of values. It is the result of its workforce who, in an empowered social media space suddenly can make or break it through their conduct and behavior. Companies find this difficult to handle well. It’s not like you can send a memo round that will ensure everyone will say the right thing in a social media environment. Nor can a two-hour session a year in staff-training ensure that the person talking to the public shares completely the professed company values in a way that will help create a connection with a customer. For that to happen there has to be an internal company culture that makes those values emerge through the conduct of everyone within the company, regardless.
It’s the same with a country. Unless there is a culture that creates transparency, honesty and accountability, all of which help to establish trust in the expected quality of the experience, it is highly unlikely that its brand is going to have much perceived value or help attract more tourists, more investors, better strategic partnerships or more important alliances.
Without brand values countries and companies are reduced to largely powerplay relationships where they trade-off something for something else, connecting so they can ‘give’ something to another entity and ‘take’ something in return. The problem with this sort of activity is that it focuses almost exclusively on what’s good for them and forgets the end-user: visitors and customers. Yet it is they who actually create the value of a brand.
Nations have began to ‘get it’ of course. There are several brand index reports that take several metrics into account when it comes to assessing a country which is why countries suddenly appear to focus so much on the creation of their very own logos.
The Chain of Accountability
This ‘new’ world order which links a country’s worth to the sum total of the activities of its citizens and the workings of its government, runs on a chain of accountability rather than a chain of command. Businesses that fail to hold their regional governments accountable and work with them to develop a local brand will find themselves struggling to make it on their own, their efforts diminished as a result.
Regional governments and agencies which, in turn, do not work with national bodies to align common values and produce a workable brand will also find themselves being sidelined. Their efforts next to useless. The links inexorably lead down to local jobs, local economies and people's lives.
When countries are entities that have a brand impact their behavior is key to developing their reputation. They also become directly responsible for their fate. Their ability to grow and develop into a great brand, or not, is underpinned by their ability to have a sustained internal dialogue based upon good communication lines and a total alignment of values. When this happens it makes everyone accountable, equally. This sense of shared effort and shared values has not always been evident as nations grew and their mechanisms of governance evolved. This is about to change.
Search and Social Are Important
Opinion is driven by individuals. Sentiment comes from experience. This is why both search and social media play an integrated role in brand visibility and reputation building. It is also the reason why traditional government initiatives to build a country’s brand and reputation are no more valid than traditional marketing that simply bludgeons its potential consumers with “buy from us, we’re great” messages.
The fact that we are only now having this conversation is indicative of how ‘blind’ we have been to the forces that shape a country. When we all used to be unable to see past the impact of our very small, physical circle, we were all largely compartmentalized in ‘boxes’ that precluded analysis or understanding. Bad end-user experiences were reshared beyond our earshot. Country and region dynamics were mostly invisible to us. No one knew why things did not work quite the way they are supposed to.
The world is more transparent. We can now both see the elements at work and measure their impact, and when you can measure something you can work to improve it. There really are no excuses for poor country brands any more than there are excuses for poor customer experiences with brands.
UPDATE MAY 2015: One Europe shared this infographic for tourism suggesting that nations that do not look into tourism as a way to bolster their economies are missing a significant beat.
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World Economic Forum Report on Travel Tourism and Competitiveness (pdf)
Country Brand Ranking and Tourism (pdf)
Country Brand Index
Value of “Made in Britain”
“Brand Britain” of value to British Businesses
Germany world’s strongest brand
The Value of Brand Britain
World’s Most Unfriendly Countries for Tourists