Andrej Kóňa on Destination Slovakia, Nation Brands and Country Reputation

Andrej Kóňa in this interview gives us intriguing insights into Slovakia – a country which, as destination, is best known internationally for its capital city, Bratislava. Less favorable, Slovakia recently made headlines for the murder of a journalist. Whether and how such events impact a country’s reputation and brand is one of the topics Andrej discusses in the interview.

Learn about:

  • The relevance of a place’s reputation for tourism;
  • Destination marketing practices and trends in Slovakia;
  • Difference between destination marketing and branding;
  • Bratislava destination challenges and how the city can overcome them;
  • How public diplomacy influences country reputation and image;

Andrej, for your doctoral studies you looked at the links between place reputation and inbound tourism – how do the two influence each other?

Reputation is linked to everything. My father always says: “you build your reputation over a long period, but you may lose it in a second”.

In one of his books, Simon Anholt illustrated the power of reputation by asking his readers if they would expect a Japanese or a Chinese DVD player to be more expensive. Reputation is related to everything and humankind has been working with it for ages.

When massive protests were launched in Slovakia because of the murder of a journalist, I recalled two similar cases. I looked at them in more detail and, using statistic indicators, I examined whether foreign media commentaries on the political situation of a country would be from a short-term or long-term perspective, and how fast the behaviour of foreign tourists would change. The data clearly showed a link.

In such cases, I would call on ministries of foreign affairs and state representatives to work more actively with foreign media during such events, via their communication departments. I don’t think that this is being done sufficiently, or that all parties involved have a clear idea about the country’s reputation – or the impact of such events on country reputation.

You just wrote a book about destination branding for professionals in Slovakia. Which are the main trends and developments in the country, with regards to destination branding and marketing? What are the challenges?

Regarding destination marketing, Slovakia is still in the “visual-advertising era”. I feel that everybody is competing for who will update their logo more frequently, or who will implement the latest graphical and visual trends in their communication. They forget (or are unaware) that what they consider the first step, should usually be the final one – if we are speaking about genuine place branding and reputation management. This is one of the reasons why I wrote my book “Destination Brand”.

In 2013 I met Simon Anholt at the Slovak Embassy in the UK. He confirmed what I had long been thinking about – that destination or country branding is not about the visual aspect, but rather about emotions and reputation.

The challenge in destination management in Slovakia is clear – we have very few professionals to manage our destination brands. And those few are usually marketers or people focused on tourism, employed by destination marketing organizations. It is thus more than necessary to teach them how to become destination brand managers.

This need to educate and update professionals on destination branding best practices applies to small, local or regional destinations, but also to Slovakia as a whole. I would love to introduce national trainings focused on the management of destinations and their brands. And I strongly believe that Simon Anholt will visit Slovakia again, just like in 2008.

At the same time, Slovakia should rethink the organization and financing of national agencies. Instead of the Slovak Tourist Board, it should establish an agency focused on the presentation of Brand Slovakia. Such a new agency should start with researching and adopting best practice from abroad, rather than focusing on its own logo.

In your view, what is destination branding about? How do you differentiate between branding and marketing?

Brand is about promising the quality of a service or a product. It is a non-material set of assets, which an organization acquires over time. Your brand is essentially what people are saying about you when you are not in the room.

In comparison, marketing is only a process and a set of activities for creating and maintaining your brand. And logos are at the very end of the entire process.

The simplest way to explain brand is hunger. You may satisfy your hunger with some pizza or a juicy steak. This choice you make depends on several factors, but basically it is about your preferences.

However, food preferences are acquired based on your previous experience, or on the recommendations of people around you, whom you trust. The process of preparing your meal may be called marketing and the final look of the meal on your plate is the logo.

Branding sounds simple, but is really a demanding and long-term process, which uses many tools (marketing, strategic planning, etc.). It should not be reduced only to marketing thinking; branding is more about psychology, sociology and the ability to foresee the impressions which individual activities linked to a brand will have on recipients, or target audiences.

Slovakia is not yet widely known internationally as a tourist destination. Which advice would you share with destination marketers and branders in your country on how to reach international audiences and potential visitors?

First of all, it is necessary to become detached from your own territory. Our destination marketing organizations focus too much on people living in a particular destination. An advertisement very rarely reaches beyond the borders of the destination within the country.

Another problem is the language barrier. Quite a large number of Slovaks speak English, but they are afraid of using the language. Bratislava is a positive exception; here an organization named Bratislava Tourist Board has been actively focusing on foreign countries for a long time.

In the current situation, my advice would be to try to turn tourists – particularly foreign ones – into brand ambassadors of Slovakia. So moving away from a strict tourism focus. At the moment, Slovakia lacks a brand manual or communications guideline at national level, which, togethe with a long-term country brand development or management plan would allow it to be much more effective in its presentations aimed at reaching foreign audiences.

However, it is worth noting that the President of the Slovak Republic, Mr. Andrej Kiska, presents his country in a really excellent manner. The same is true about the President of the Slovak Parliament, Mr. Andrej Danko, who talks about his plan to apply for the Winter Olympics in 2022. This would be an excellent opportunity for Slovakia to become more visible and to present itself.

Bratislava, being so close to Vienna, is becoming a popular place for digital nomads, reflected by the growing number of Airbnb apartments available. In your view, what could or should the city do to avoid overcrowding and protect its liveability (e.g. affordable rents for locals)?

One of the pillars of communication and presentation of Bratislava is precisely its proximity to Vienna, since the journey takes as little as one hour. However, Budapest is also only a 2-hour drive from Bratislava!

The question is how Bratislava can present those parts of the city better, which are not within the historical centre. The way to avoid overcrowding is to get the message across that Bratislava is not only about the historical centre, even though from a historical point of view it is the most attractive part.

It i worth pointing out that Bratislava is already putting a strong focus on destination management, rather than just marketing or visual identity work. Other destinations in Slovakia should draw inspiration from it.

Judging by the literature reviewed for your doctoral studies, which topics linked to place branding do you think deserve closer examination – which research gaps did you find?

First, it is necessary to start with Simon Anholt. He is crucial for this topic. Despite the fact that he changed his priorities over the years, his books – such as Places or Brand America should be mandatory reading for every destination manager.

Another pioneer in this topic is the late Wally Olins. His publications are extremely inspiring, even at present. But nothing compares to personal consultation. Both my meeting with Simon Anholt regarding country brands, as well as my meeting with Jeremy Hildreth regarding destination brands, helped me progress a great deal.

It is my sincere recommendation for everybody – if possible, to meet professionals and to want to continuously grow and learn from them.

In terms of topics which need more research, studies on gamification and its connection to destinations are not sufficient, in my opinion. Likewise, virtual reality which will soon considerably change the way we look at destinations. The destination will move to the tourist, which is the opposite of how destinations are working at the moment, trying to lure the potential tourist to the destination.

For me, virtual reality is the key for communication between a destination and a future visitor.

Having previously worked in a governmental position, in your mind how does public diplomacy work influence the reputation of countries and cities – as destinations?

Diplomacy has always been and will always be the first point of contact with a foreign country. The way in which diplomatic offices are managed abroad, how they communicate and present themselves, and what policy they foster in a particular country will always shape the perception of the country and its nation.

Culture is most extensively exported through public diplomacy. Events such as the National Week of France, the Week of Italian Cuisine or other initiatives focused on the public which promote a country abroad, are the ways how to shape opinions.

I have already mentioned my research on the negative perception of a country as a result of informing about its bad political situation – public diplomacy has its place here as well. There are still countries which have no institution through which to communicate their country or nation brand. Such a role is then performed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – as is the case with the Slovak Republic.

I remember an interview which you made with Joshua Miller ,in which he describes the importance of information acquired through research for the needs of public diplomacy. This is an important topic for me as well. It is very important to plan; but for planning you need a lot of input and information.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

I believe in modern destination branding; I feel a huge shift also in Slovakia. People are starting to perceive place branding principles more and more, but there is a long way to go until they let go of visual identity as the core element of reputation management. But this paradigm change is crucial.

Ccountries, cities, people or products are not seen as they present themselves as a part of their marketing, but are judged by the impressions they make.

Thank you, Andrej.

Connect with Andrej Kóňa on LinkedIn, via Facebook, Twitter or check out his website,

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