Daniel Valverde on Costa Rica’s Country Branding Strategy

Costa Rica is a well known – and much admired – example for successful country branding, especially due to its continued investment in sustainable development and climate emergency mitigation.

Around the same time last year, Daniel Valverde Bagnarello – who leads the country’s branding team – shared with us what makes Costa Rica so successful, from a place branding point of view. Curious about how things have evolved since then, we invited Daniel to share his thoughts and experiences in this follow up interview, especially with regard to the climate emergency and the COVID-19 pandemic, two topics which have dominated 2020 headlines and issues which have been putting country branding teams (and strategies) to the test.

We will publish an audio version of the interview shortly, as part of the Place Brand Leaders podcast.

Daniel, David Attenborough in his first post on Instagram said that saving our planet is now a communications challenge. Do you agree? And what role can country branding teams play, as communications specialists?

Sustainable development is a challenge that all countries face, and building a city or even a country brand can help achieve many of its objectives. Not only because a brand highlights its importance, but because it tells the story of how sustainable development can create economic and social opportunities for citizens.

In terms of Costa Rica, over the past several decades, the country’s vision has been to cultivate social well-being, achieve environmental stability to counteract the global threat of climate change, and develop a sustainable economy that protects both people and the environment. Because of these efforts, the country has built strong foundations to become a world benchmark for sustainability.

It is important to emphasize that whether it’s placemaking, place marketing, or place branding, working to achieve sustainable development must be done within a strategy that includes ties with politicians, businesses, and citizen stakeholders. It should also emphasize the public policies that have proven to be a flagship for the country in terms of sustainability over the years.

Malcolm Allan, in our recent podcast episode on place branding and the climate emergency, mentions Costa Rica as a good example for how country branding can be built around values of sustainability. Why does Costa Rica put so much focus on the natural environment and climate resilience in its brand communications?

Thanks to the government’s groundbreaking decisions, Costa Rica has become a veritable world leader in social progress, environmental conservation, and sustainability. In 1948, the administration officially abolished the country’s standing army and allocated all associated funds to developing robust education and universal healthcare systems.

Today, over 25 percent of land and marine territory is protected within 161 national parks, refuges, and conservation areas. New protected areas are added yearly through both private and public initiatives.

What’s more, 99 percent of the country’s electricity is derived from renewable sources, supplying clean energy to nearly all the population.

Fully aligned with its country brand strategy — currently known as Essential COSTA RICA — is a series of public policies in favor of decarbonization that were developed as part of the nationwide plan to achieve zero emissions by 2050. Not only for the benefit of the people of Costa Rica but for the citizens of the global community.

The Essential COSTA RICA brand strategy was developed to disseminate the nation’s values and to implement peace, education, and health through tourism, trade, and direct foreign investment. The brand also supports other international initiatives that seek solutions to mitigating the effects of climate change. It is far more than a marketing campaign; it remains true to the nationwide commitment to create a sustainable society for the benefit of future generations.

Essential COSTA RICA is equally committed to addressing climate emergency mitigation. For these reasons, in 2019, the country was named Champion of the Earth by the United Nations.

So, in a nutshell, a nation brand must navigate above assets which are earned or owned. If you get out of that area, as Simon Anholt and Robert Govers have mentioned repeatedly, the place brand strategy becomes propaganda.

In Costa Rica, the fundamental decisions that the country made have transcended its borders and challenged the global status quo in favor of protecting people and the planet –  all without renouncing the pursuit of economic welfare.

Sustainability and the climate emergency can be very political, especially now. What has been your experience working with the national government and private sector institutions in relation to heralding Costa Rica’s “green” credentials as a key part of your brand positioning?

The brand strategy works directly with government ministries and institutions to disseminate a values framework by requiring partner companies and products to be licensed with the Essential COSTA RICA brand. To do so, they must apply principles of Excellence, Innovation, Social Progress, Sustainability and Costa Rican Rooting in their services, manufacturing, and products.

In keeping with the country’s values and mission, the team at Essential Costa Rica developed a business evaluation protocol based on 18 competitiveness standards. The protocol, which has evolved over six years, sets a roadmap for commercial businesses and the tourism sector to assume a real and demonstrable commitment to brand values, among them, of course, sustainability.

Nearly 560 companies have committed to pursue the Essential Costa Rica license. They understand that beyond using the logo, carrying the country brand is a value-added title that champions their businesses outside of the nation’s borders. Furthermore, Essential Costa Rica is recognized in the ITC Sustainability Map platform.

A large variety of committed Costa Rican companies hold the country brand. The majority of them are small and medium enterprises (SMEs). For example, one notable business produces soluble plastic bags and sustainable household and industrial cleaning products. A line of furniture stores operates 100% with solar panels. And several sustainable hotels promote ecotourism. Even medical device manufacturers have set up operations in Costa Rica because of the country’s commitment to comprehensive sustainability.

When the private sector embraces a strategy with so much pride and dedication, it becomes easy for the public sector to follow suit. It is the union between what the country stands for and what is represented in its companies.

We know from previous conversations that managing a country branding team can be a delicate matter, especially when facing political headwinds. What bits of advice can you share with colleagues around the world, on how to succeed despite such hurdles? 

Most place branding initiatives begin in the public sector. However, long term processes that they are, they need to be able to transcend governments and avoid vulnerability when faced with political changes.

To create strategies that last over time, place brand managers should:

  • analyze the risk of capitalizing on public policies that are still in debate or only recently approved.
  • focus storytelling on attributes already consolidated within the country, and not on those that are still under construction, while closely monitoring the latter, as they could well be the basis for a future narrative.

These actions have allowed us to develop a nation brand strategy, much appreciated by politicians, that positions Costa Rica as a world leader, thanks to the decisions the country has made over the years regarding its environment, society and overall peace.

At Essential Costa Rica you seem to have managed to bring all political stakeholders together around one shared brand proposition. How did you do this?

The two elements are: formality and inclusiveness.

The birth of the Costa Rica Country Brand occurred with a vision of multi-institutional participation, backed by presidential decree.

Through our inter-institutional work, we engage Central Government authorities by aligning key messages (slogans) with the Presidency of the Republic and national ambassadors located abroad.

The relationship with our stakeholders follows a governance structure:

  • Interinstitutional Committee: A team comprised of the hierarchical leader of each institution. They meet three times per year and are in charge of the country brand’s strategic plan and alignment.
  • Technical Unit: A team comprised of representatives of each hierarchy. They meet monthly and are in charge of tactical coordination, inter-agency alignment, and the review and approval of licensing events.
  • Country Brand Management: This is an interdisciplinary team of publicists, public relations specialists, marketers, and trade experts. They are in charge of the brand’s administration, protection, and operational management.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your work?

The current global situation goes beyond a health crisis. Without a doubt, it has put all nation brands strategies to the test. And we are not an exception.

When we became aware that Covid-19 was to become a pandemic, through a thoughtful discussion process the Essential Costa Rica Country Brand Committee agreed on the main communication axes for national and international audiences, always within the boundaries of our nation brand strategy.

Which countries or regions have inspired you most recently, in how they have responded to Covid-19 or how they use the power of country branding to communicate sustainability values and strengthen their location’s climate resilience?

That is a great question, one that I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer before I had the opportunity to be on the jury for the 2020 City Nation Place Awards. I had the great chance to see first-hand the efforts countries made in the early stages of the crisis and continue to develop today. Honestly, I have to say it feels too early to judge their efforts less than one year since the crisis started.

As we’ve said before, place branding strategies have long-term impacts, so only time will tell which cases will deserve to be included in place branding textbooks concerning a crisis of this dimension.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Last year, in Honduras, the Latin American Country Brands Council was created.

The main purpose of the Council is to share best practices and lessons learned during the development of this group of place brands. This large region is colorful, diverse, productive, and resilient, and the narrative behind each brand is a living proof of it.

2020 has challenged and surprised us; yet despite the difficulties and changes it has brought, today, more than ever, we believe it is important to share our experiences in platforms such as TPBO.

Thank you, Daniel.

Connect with Daniel Valverde Bagnarello on LinkedIn. More about Essential Costa Rica here.

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