Populism: how does it impact place brand equity – especially the brand value of countries? A timely question which we put to our panel of place brand specialists (in alphabetical order – highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research or as speakers).
Our key takeaways:
- Populism tends to address the cultural or economic grievances of “ordinary” people.
- Populist measures can discredit the reputation-building efforts of place branding initiatives, aimed at attracting visitors, investors and talent.
- Populist measures can weaken place brand equity when they fail to align with a place’s distinctive characteristics that are attractive to potential visitors, investors, residents.
- Place branding requires consistency, to build trust. Populism tends to chip away from stability by creating confusion and unpredictable behavior.
Populism can be very well a way to broadcast the message of specific place brands. This might have both positive and negative consequences for the place’s brand equity. While populism is seen in many cases in negative terms, taking the example of Trump and the USA, it can also have positive connotations. For instance, it has been part of many Latin American social movements.
It depends on whether populism is working in favour of improving place brand metrics, or against? Overall, place brand equity benefits from sustained and focused investment, as well as policy direction.
Typically, in my view, opportunistic government-sponsored efforts often support advertising-led strategies that have an adverse impact on place brand equity in the absence of an integrated brand strategy, as they tend to lack credibility and an organising idea.
More research in this area would help to better understand the correlation between populism and place brand equity.
Taking into account that place branding is not just about what a place talks about, but mainly what a place does, populism can have a significant negative impact.
If we agree that populism essentially involves a way of governing, through a charismatic leader, where charisma leads to the engagement of less favored classes, we can see it as an important signal for the international community, and in such terms, this signal is never positive.
If we also agree that places, especially countries, are part of a global value chain, that same negative signal can have a negative impact on country brand perception.
One example of how populism has impacted national foreign policy is Brazil, whose government is still in campaign mode, catering mostly to those who elected it, regardless of the consequences for the country’s image.
We need to define populism first. Taking one definition given by the Collins dictionary, populism is “a political strategy based on a calculated appeal to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people”.
One hypothesis is that populism has a negative effect on place brand equity. We can hypothesise that a place in the hands of populism is externally perceived as a place of discontent, crisis, and conflicts. Such discontent, crisis, and conflicts are often not represented or are even hidden by official place branding campaigns, as widely commented and discussed in the field.
But I think that we should not overlook the negative impact of populism on place brand equity concerning its internal component, which is linked to insiders’ and so to citizens’ perceptions.
As populism is nurtured by the problems of a community and, as the Collins dictionary puts it, is based on a “calculated appeal” to “interests or prejudices” of people, populism needs to boost especially and only the perceptions of what is unsatisfactory, negative and what is risky and uncertain, ultimately creating an atmosphere of fear.
We need to be clear on the meaning of the terms. Populism refers to a political stance that focuses on the people of a nation, rather than on the ruling elite.
I define brand equity as meaningful points of parity and difference that help differentiate a brand from the competition.
If populism has any effect on brand equity, it is to raise the profile of the culture as a differentiator, as opposed to tangible assets. This is not a new concept. Descriptions of the local culture are often used to communicate why a location is a good choice to visit, live or invest capital in.
Populism – expressed in claims such as “stronger alone”, the building of border walls, withdrawal from international conventions such as the Paris Climate Agreement – is the antithesis of place branding.
Place brand equity encompasses realistic and perceived assets or place qualities that are associated with a place and distinguish it from others. So-called ‘populist’ manifestations of anti-globalisation sentiment, such as the presidency of Donald Trump in the USA, or Brexit in the UK, can be perceived as an attempt to re-establish or reconfigure geographical and institutional borders.
Example: the poignant take of Mr. Trump to literally build a wall along the US-Mexico border and to put “America First”. These ‘populist’ actions and expressions generate negative outcomes for place brands, if we understand place branding processes as the result of participatory approaches or embedded in governance.
Populism equals isolation, whilst place brands equal – or should equal – cooperation and mutual support across spatial and institution borders.
Audience segmentation is the key here – look at Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) or “Keep America Great” messages. They resonated well with certain segments. They were even repeated in other contexts, such as the Hungarian one, while certain others were repelled by the idea.
Even a “protectionist” message, such as MAGA, might increase a nation’s brand equity. Weirdly, even nationalist populism has a global audience.
One of the key elements of any branding – whether it is place branding, product branding or personal branding – is consistency. And consistency is the first thing to be offered on the altar of populism, where the current mood of the population is being chased, rather than standing strong on the ethics, norms and identity of the society. Consistency builds trust, the most valuable currency of any communications. You know what to expect and what you can rely on.
Populism eats away at the pillars of the place brand, by creating confusion and skepticism through inconsistent, sporadic behaviour. If this goes on long enough it will ruin the foundations of your place brand, making it worthless in both soft power as well as the value of origin for your product. And each such move of inconsistency will be a warning sign to talents and investors to stay away.
Populism has always played a role in that local people have taken part in the building of a tourism brand, for instance. However, nowadays some political parties have used tourism as one of their main tools of communications, especially where overtourism is becoming more of a problem.
So, the involvement of local associations, neighbours, and locals, as well as all the private stakeholders, is starting to affect brand equity.
There are various definitions of populism but they all involve a basic people-versus-elites posture, often served with a side of easy scapegoats (immigrants, religious or ethnic minorities and others who are deemed responsible for all that’s wrong) as well as nativism (protecting the interests of native-born inhabitants) and authoritarianism.
While there’s an ongoing debate about the most meaningful measures of place brand equity, tyrants and the populist movements that fuel their rise just don’t enhance the image of a place’s presence, its potential or values (like welcoming and creative). It’s easy to see why they generate uncertainty and unease.
Tourism numbers are more ephemeral than other longer-term brand equity perceptions, but they are a useful bellwether of attitudes to places in an era of rising populism. Geopolitical stability is of crucial importance to tourism.
In the US, the impact of persistent trade tensions and border policy uncertainty has generated what many call the “Trump slump.” Most tourism industry analysts would accept that the image of the U.S. abroad has definitely suffered.
According to the The New York Times, the US share of the international long-haul tourism market has been falling from a peak of 19.2 percent in 2015 to 16.8 percent last year. Hawaii’s tourism office said that Chinese visitor arrivals fell by 36 percent in May and 27% for the year.
In Europe, the scenario is similar. In 2016, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, countries enjoying geopolitical stability saw their tourist flows increase, while others experienced significant losses, despite a 4% overall growth in world tourism. Travellers moved towards calmer places like Spain and Portugal, which saw an increase of 30% and 13% respectively in tourist arrivals in one year.
Place brand equity is rooted in the idea that place brands are valuable. This value accrues from multiple sources: historic associations with the place; notable people and cultural attributes; architecture; economic variables.
Populism is an approach that appeals to “ordinary” people, often through the lens of economic or cultural grievances associated with the “other”, and often in opposition to out of touch “elites.”
While there are often racist tropes associated with populism, there are also many examples of place brand equity defined by the economic or cultural traditions of “ordinary” people.
My father’s country of origin (Italy) is one example. Italy struggles with the dark side of populism in many ways. But its place brand equity is rooted firmly in the cultural traditions of “ordinary” Italians, most notably around the arts, food, etc. What happens to this place brand equity in an Italy where these cultural traditions of “ordinary” Italians evolve and change?
We see similar tensions in many traditional countries in the Middle East and Asia, although these political systems are often judged through a different lens than European or American ones.
Populism refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”. The term developed in the 19th century and has been applied to various politicians, parties, and movements since that time, although it has rarely been chosen as a self-description.
So, populism could drive and catalyze the sense of place and identification (empowerment), but also could harm place equity by creating a ‘parallel reality’ which, eventually, could negatively influence the place and its brand equity.
This depends on the kind of populism that is taking shape. What we have recently seen in Europe and in the USA is the emergence of a form of politics that has focused on people in societies who feel that their concerns are being ignored by the elites who govern their countries, regions and cities and towns, most especially so at the level of the nation-state.
Increasingly political parties can win power on the basis of policies designed to appeal to people who feel aggrieved, neglected or ignored, who feel displaced or at risk in some way, often having a fear, grounded or not, of the “other”.
Most recently, in both Europe and the USA, this has been distinctly expressed as a fear of high levels of immigration by people who locals feel are “not like us”, often coming from societies with very different norms and cultures with different values, and behaviours. Fears that can lead locals to believe that their culture is under attack, that their jobs are at risk, that their health and welfare systems are being abused.
This form of populism can damage a country or city brand equity, if it is not dealt with or if it is ignored.
The brand equity of a place brand is often based upon a complex mix of factors, such as the quality of its health, welfare and education services, the quality of its built environment, the quality and care of its natural environment, the quality and extent of its employment and investment opportunities. And, more recently, its attitude to immigration and the acceptance of the “other”; a mix of tangible valued environmental, economic, social, well-being and health “goods” that, together, constitute its brand equity.
A typical element of brand equity, particularly for potential investors and for tourists is the stability of the place, stability of its governance, of its institutions, of its policies and programmes and how it responds to populism when that turns ugly or violent.
Related to this is the extent of disruption that populism can cause to policy implementation and formulation and the damage to perceptions of the place among external audiences brought about by a media that may be divisive when taking sides in reporting on the nature and impact of populist movements. This “disruption” can influence brand equity in a significant way, as it can send messages about the place in upheaval.
How to measure the impact of populism on brand equity is a challenge that urgently needs to be addressed by those who specialise in brand equity assessment.
Populist movements are growing strong around the world, in a way that we cannot ignore. Unfortunately, much of their activity revolves around the obsolete versions of such notions as ‘patriotism’, ‘identity’, ‘community’ or ‘pride’. In their understanding, these terms connote keeping rather than sharing (values, resources, ideas), tribalism instead of inclusion, and sense of superiority and distrust over cooperation and equality.
In this sense, populism can become a genuine threat to place brands, especially those that attempt to foster other values and ideals within the international community. While they may suggest in the short-term that they’re strengthening national and local identities, in the long run, they are a lose-lose game: one where communities exclude themselves from a highly interconnected world, giving up a part of their reputation and other assets.
This we have seen, for instance, in the case of Brexit or some post-communist countries, as well as the US and Turkey.
A difficult question, to which the answer is going to depend on both the definition of populism and the definition of place brand equity. In general, though I’d say that it ultimately depends on how the current reputation of the place relates to the particular direction of populism in that place. We should not forget that ‘populism’ has become a label – often used by the political establishment – to negate new political movements.
There’s not one ‘populism’, which renders the premise of the question problematic. With that said, there’s obviously some countries (but also regions and cities) whose images are changing for the worse due to their particular version of ‘populism’. However, the question is if such damage is permanent – places with strong reputations might not suffer any long-term damage when power shifts back.
Populism always harks back, towards the ‘golden age’ and the ‘happy times’ of pure bliss, before the nation was ‘eroded’ and ‘corrupted’ by the forces of modernity, globalization, and technology. It always looks inward, searches ‘for the soul’, the purity and integrity of the true national self. Who can resist such a high moral ground? Isn’t it a boost for the national identity, and hence, national success?
The heart of populism is, however, empty. It is impossible to ‘rediscover’ the national self in the midst of old ages, as it is to turn an adult into an infant again. The national self is to be found in the present, not in the past, and in the context of a globalised modern world, not out of it.
The rise of populism is a symptom of a nation in distress and at a loss. It does not bode well for its place brand equity. As the nation withdraws from the world, so the world becomes wary of it. Visitors and investors hold their horses, cautious of being unwelcome. Internal soul-searching, in the meantime, leads nowhere. The country descends into short-termism until it finds its feet again, and starts looking into the realistic future, not a romantic past.
Populism (which often goes along with nationalism, racism, isolationism, the spreading of various related conspiracy theories, and may result in violent acts or just plain old political foolishness) can have extremely damaging effects for a nation brand. It may tarnish the brand for years, even decades, if a negative image of the country under questions persists.
Populism usually conveys the image of a country unsure of its own identity, or identities, and not firmly rooted in the ideas of liberal democracy, which for most observers, all in all, is not a selling proposition in terms of general likability.
Populism can influence the priorities which leaders demand of a place brand. If the issues are fundamentally aligned to the place brand, then this populism can serve to amplify the place brand proposition and be a catalyst for engagement and greater leadership. However, populism can reflect short term issues and could, if not truly aligned, derail a clear vision and purpose or result in mixed messages and confusion.
Take, for example, the current focus on climate change. Leaders may be demanding that their places and nations have a voice on the topic. But is that voice well considered, based on fact, authentic, or sustainable? These are the political challenges many of us face when steering our programmes through global issues.
On a short-term logic, populism influences place brand equity a lot – if you think about trust and also tourism as dependent variables. It remains unclear, though, what the long-term effects are.
International cooperation is very important in place branding – as is the image of a place to be open-minded. Both areas are massively harmed in the current populism examples.
Populism is the intellectual version of suburban sprawl: it’s the same formula everywhere you go, it means nothing, and those who profit from it care nothing for their audiences. It’s selfish, superficial, and dangerous, and a drain on the positive energy we seek in a place brand – is who we are at our best.
The opportunity is to identify those who are most attracted to populism and to involve them in a more meaningful evocation of where they live and who they are. But it’s so hard.
As the great Glasgow slogan says “people make places”. But that’s not populism. It’s a clever way of conveying the city’s brand spirit, while involving its people, through social media engagement, in an ever-evolving conversation that underpins the brand – the medium being the message.
The distinction between popular involvement and populism is critical: the former informs the brand character; the latter is the coward’s response to pressure. Real populism, whereby places pander to the lowest common denominator without intellectual heft to underpin the brand risks eroding brand equity. This is seen most frequently where politicians and ill-informed commentators pander to populist pressure or vested interests (which are often one and the same), resulting in a ‘me-too’ brand image.
So, populism erodes brand equity by failing to be single-minded or persistent enough in identifying a place’s distinctive characteristics. But not just that: it leads to wasted promotional investment in promoting a bland brand, which will not stand out or inspire anyone; it is intellectually dishonest, as it pretends to do something it can’t; and it traduces the image of a place by failing to lift it above the clamour of the marketplace.
Previous questions answered by the panel here.
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