Hume Johnson on Brand Jamaica and Nation Branding in the Americas

Brand Jamaica is the focus of our interview with Hume Johnson, in which she discusses the links between nation branding and public diplomacy and the role of public relations professionals in place branding. Hume offers valuable insights into the history of Jamaica and its many brand assets. She outlines how a more holistic approach to nation branding – less tourism-centrist and destination-focused – could benefit Jamaica’s positioning as a place to not just visit but also invest and work in.

Learn about:

  • Brand Jamaica: its history, challenges and opportunities;
  • Hume’s key insights from leading the Re:Imagine Jamaica Project;
  • Nation branding practices in the Americas;
  • The connections between nation branding, public relations and journalism;
  • Current trends and challenges in country branding;
  • How nation branding can support social justice and peace;
  • How to measure the success and effectiveness of nation branding campaigns.

Hume, do you remember what first attracted your interest in nation branding?

It was 2012 and I was at home in Jamaica as our nation recognized 50 years of Independence from Britain. The massive celebrations featured the rich heritage and culture of Jamaica, the amazing talent of our people – from our sportsmen and women, musical stars of the reggae, ska, rocksteady and mento eras, as well as a reflection on our democratic institutions, business sector and achievements in several governance indicators.

However, it struck me that what we were celebrating at home – the core features of our national identity – was at odds with the image of Jamaica projected to the world, which was manifestly tourism-centric and largely aesthetic. It was clear that the Jamaican people have been peripheralized in the construction of, and marketing of “Brand Jamaica” in favour of a Western colonial vista of the ‘islands’, so to speak. I found this disconnect troubling.

This forced me to dig deeper into the notion of ‘nation branding’ and more specifically the trends, challenges and impacts of current representations of Jamaica in the global arena.

You are about to publish a book titled Brand Jamaica: Re-imagining Jamaica’s Image and National Identity – in a nutshell, what is this book about?

The volume essentially brings together scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds to address different aspects of Jamaica’s image and global reputation. The authors explore how Jamaica has historically engaged in nation branding and the implications of its (intentional and non-intentional) construction of the nation’s global image and identity.

The papers also attempt to reconcile the lived realities of Jamaicans with the contemporary image of Jamaica projected to the world, and deconstruct the current tourism-centric model of sun, sand and sea.  Together, the chapters provide a rich, nuanced look at the validity, impact and implications of the “brand” of Jamaica.

What are your key insights from leading the Re:Imagine Jamaica Project?

In our efforts at the Re:Imagine Jamaica Project to reframe and re-imagine the way we think about Jamaica’s image and identity, we have gained the following insights:

First, the uncertainty and unevenness of global society must oblige small, developing nations such as Jamaica to leverage their image, reputation and creative/symbolic culture to attract investment, boost their economies and offer their poor some semblance of a meaningful life.

Second, the expression and construction of Jamaican identity endorsed by the government, and upon which it has relied since Independence is an exotic island paradise of beautiful beaches, tropical weather, friendly and energetic people, and reggae providing a musical backdrop.

This fixed Jamaican identity did not emerge from the people but was manufactured over time through a colonial ideology perpetuated via global media, which tend to feature the Third World, including the islands of the Caribbean as either beautiful and mesmerizing or impoverished and dangerous, or both.

These narratives do not tell the full story of Jamaica. It may be beneficial for Jamaica to begin to diversify the nation’s image. For example, we believe it is important that the Jamaican government seek to cater to more than just the current sun-sand-sea tourism-centric model as the singular expression of Jamaican identity in the world, and illustrate and express the true complexity of Jamaica’s brand image and identity.

Third, Brand Jamaica is experiencing a dialectic tension. Whereas all nation brands contain both positive and negative aspects, Brand Jamaica exhibits a perplexing combination of competing forces that are struggling for dominance.

The nation has achieved global popularity from its multiplicity of widely known music stars (Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Sean Paul, Shaggy), destination tourism – being among the top places to vacation in the world; the nation dominates athletics, producing some of the fastest sprinters in the world, including the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, and a plethora of global recognized export products – Red Stripe Beer, Blue Mountain Coffee, Jerk etc.

Yet, Jamaica has a huge crisis of governance to overcome. Consistent reports in the global media of Jamaica featuring gang warfare, upsurges in violent crime, instances of homophobic violence, corruption and economic instability has led to troubling perceptions of the country as unsafe – a dangerous paradise, so to speak. This glaring contradiction reproduces Brand Jamaica’s relative strength versus its profound vulnerability.

The positive brand narratives have historically served to elevate and position Brand Jamaica into one of the world’s most popular nation brands. However, the negatives have simultaneously served to undermine Jamaica in international public opinion, and disrupt its capacity to take full advantage of its moral, social, economic and cultural capital.

Overall, the result has been a contradictory, perplexing and problematic public image of Jamaica. Negative and positive forces are constantly tugging and pulling at each other, leaving ‘Brand Jamaica” at risk of stagnation.

Fourth, we observed that the agencies concerned with Jamaica’s brand, including Jamaica Promotions (JAMPRO), Jamaica Tourist Board, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Culture, Sport, etc., are splintered across several sectors, each on a mission independent of the other.

Establishing a comprehensive, coherent, consistent and imaginative nation brand strategy including a coalition of government, business, non-government and citizen groups is the appropriate direction for Jamaica to take.

Brand Jamaica initiatives are currently only effected in moments such as during the Olympics. We assert that, rather than a campaign approach to branding Jamaica, that Jamaican authorities integrate “Brand Jamaica” as a policy component and take deliberate steps to tackle the challenges impacting the brand. Moreover, they are well advised to exploit its positive features – promoting the country’s credentials in the creative arts, sports, business, as well as its unique history and the genius of its people.

Brand Jamaica - Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt, part of Brand Jamaica. Photo credit:

As a scholar with strong background in public relations and journalism, what role do you think either play with regard to place perceptions and reputation?

As public relations is concerned with building and sustaining beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics, and fixing those relationships when they go awry, public relations is essential to place branding and place promotion.

Public relations practitioners have huge responsibilities in building up a good public image about a place through attracting favourable publicity through advertising, planning and producing events, building successful relationships with the media, including coordinating the media appearance of local place branding authorities, researching and collecting data and latest developments on a place’s image.

Much more than this, public relations becomes especially essential in times of crisis. This is because place marketers are also obliged to not just build positive images of places but also work to mitigate the fallout of negative publicity stemming from news about such issues as crime, violence, unrest and other social issues that may cause a place to be perceived as dangerous, and unwelcoming, and do great damage to its image.

At times of sudden crisis, for example, such as natural disasters, outbreak of diseases, and conflict, public relations people are even more obligated to engage in crisis communication, helping place marketing authorities to respond appropriately to media enquiries and help to frame/reframe the narrative about the place.

Indeed it is the public scrutiny which often defines a crisis. Public relations professionals can help place branding authorities understand the various ways a nation, city or tourist destination can prepare for future crises, and prevent possible crises.

Tourism-dependent countries such as Jamaica face prolonged negative images, (even alongside positive perceptions) based on frequent global news headlines about outbreaks of crime or political unrest, and must prepare to deal with the fallout here.

People’s knowledge and perception of countries tend to be based on the information circulating on the Internet, including news media reports, not all of which is glowing and favourable. Nations must be prepared to manage negative perceptions. Public relations versus mere advertising is the way to do this.

In your view, what is place branding all about? And how does place branding practice in your native Jamaica perhaps differ from its application in other regions, such as North America or Western Europe?

For me, place branding is a process by which a nation, city, or region  attempts to proactively manage its image and leverage its assets, attributes and symbolic culture in order to enhance the place’s reputation among a target international audience, and achieve socio-cultural and economic goals.

Visit Jamaica
Jamaica destination branding campaign

At present, Jamaica is engaging more in ‘tourism or destination branding’ where the focus is on promoting Jamaica’s aesthetic features, as a destination for tourists to come for leisure activities.

So branding here focuses on tour operators, travel agents, resorts and tourism attractions as a way of attracting visitors to the island. Jamaica has experienced success with this model, attracting up to 2 million tourists annually, and having earned $2b US from visitor arrivals in 2016 alone.

Of course, while other regions of the world such as North America and Western Europe also engage in this kind of tourism-centric branding, there is equal concern with branding the country’s whole image on the international stage, covering political, economic and cultural dimensions.

So there is focus on public diplomacy efforts, economic prosperity, transparency and good governance related to healthcare, education, security, the environment etc. This is so because there is an understanding that these elements – the lived realities inside the nation, can and do impact the mental image of the nation held by others in the international community.

Jamaica, unfortunately, does not proactively engage in branding which encapsulates the entire nation – its people, place, culture/language, history, food, fashion, famous faces (celebrities), global exports brands and so on.

Jamaica boasts one of the world’s most iconic artists, in Bob Marley, who introduced the world to an entirely new form of music, Reggae, and a religious movement, and lifestyle in Rastafari. Jamaica is also home to the world’s fastest sprinters in the likes of Usain Bolt, Merlene Ottey and Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce. The nation provided the inspiration for one of the world’s most popular and talked about films ‘Cool Runnings”. This is Brand Jamaica. This is Jamaica’s soft power.

Jamaican authorities must seek to capitalize on the country’s cultural economy and aggressively pursue cultural tourism. They must also aim to promote a more complex image of Jamaica beyond the tourism model.

As a poor nation that sees its global fame and symbolic culture as part of its asset, Jamaican authorities should also seek to capitalize on the ‘Made in Jamaica’ label to gain ‘country equity’ and economic traction for popular export commodities, such as Blue Mountain coffee, Jerk, Red Stripe beer etc.

Jamaica’s current tourism-centric place branding model has achieved some successes but it is limiting. A more comprehensive alternative which focuses on the entirety of what the nation has to offer might reap greater rewards.

Which trends and challenges do you observe as a scholar and consultant, with regard to nation- and country branding, for instance in the Americas?

Historically, the Americas has suffered from negative perceptions regarding crime and violence, infrastructure, education and healthcare, and generalized poverty. It is critical that the authorities in this region accelerate steps to address the enduring challenges of governance and development. We have to overcome poverty, grow our economies, tackle corruption, improve the infrastructure – the ports, airports, the roads etc. as well as develop our human capital.

Ordinary citizens  should be able to make a living, send their children to decent schools, have a job that can offer them the opportunity to transform their lives. These factors are fundamental if the region is to gain control over its public image, and reap the benefits of its brand – one known for rich cultures, natural beauty, heritage.

More awareness of heritage and the solid improvements being made in crucial areas, such as the transformation of Medellin, Colombia from a drug and crime infested city to a vibrant, developing metropolis – or the massive infrastructure improvements and economic stabilization taking place in Jamaica – is fundamental to change perceptions.

How can nation branding initiatives support social justice and peace? Where’s the link?

The link is to be found in what the nation stands for, the causes it supports, how it treats its citizens and the values it projects in the world.

Students of nation branding all agree that countries and cities are obliged to deploy their history, geography and culture to construct a distinctive image of themselves in the world. Yet, part of this identity politics lies in ideology, the values nations uphold and the actions they take to manifest those principles.

Jamaica is a fine example of a country where nation branding initiatives can support social justice and peace. Since the 1960s when the island gained independence, it positioned itself as a progressive nation by legislating new political, and social rights to its poor, and actively participating in the global civil rights, social justice and peace movements.

Indeed, Jamaica’s rising popularity in the world throughout the 1970s onwards was premised on the ballooning success of the nation’s vibrant indigenous music culture, Reggae – then the world’s newest music genre – and its celebrity icon and number one brand ambassador, Bob Marley. The powerful message of peace, unity and love embedded in the music of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh resonated with oppressed peoples on every continent and inspired the struggle for freedom and rights in many countries. Indeed, Marley’s ‘One Love’ was named by the BBC in 2000 as the greatest song of the 20th century, while the album ‘Exodus’ was named by Time Magazine as the most important of the 20th century.

The expression ‘One Love’ – widely understood as expression of love and respect for all peoples regardless of race, creed or colour – became Jamaica’s gift to the world. It articulated the nation’s commitment to the values of peace, and justice.

Long before Marley, another Jamaican icon, civil rights campaigner Marcus Garvey, catapulted to international recognition for his philosophies about black racial identity and equality. Marcus Garvey became one of the most influential leaders emerging from Jamaica during the 1920s and 30s. Garvey’s philosophy inspired the Rastafari Movement and had a huge influence on the views of American civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who fought for equality for blacks in America and across the world. Garvey’s political actions and beliefs gave rise to social movements of activism around the world.  These grassroots movements led to further advancements in the field of civil rights worldwide.

Nation brand campaigners can capitalize on a country’s symbolic culture to support and strengthen the real struggle for peace and justice at home and around the world. Nation branders can leverage their support for these causes through legislative and policy prescriptions and communicating respect for  shared values of equality, diversity, justice and peace. Sadly, we are seeing the opposite of this being effected by the Government of the United States, one of the world’s most powerful nation brands.

How to measure the success or effectiveness of nation branding programs?

In our business (public relations), we set certain objectives we wish to pursue and evaluate our success against those goals. This is the same for any place branding project.

Changing perceptions of places takes place sometimes over a long period of time; it does not happen overnight. Perceptions change when people have information on new developments taking place in a place; or they get to experience those changes in action.

Change can be incremental and this requires some patience. This is not to say that more immediate, tangible evaluations cannot be done. For example, many of the place branding goals Jamaican authorities currently seek are achieving more visitor arrivals, recognition as a leading destination for tourism in the world, and as a bastion of culture, and to keep winning at the Olympics etc., to boost national pride and global recognition.

With these as the benchmarks, Jamaican tourism authorities can say they have reaped success. If, on the other hand, the goal is to improve the nation’s image in the international community with regard to crime or homophobia, attract inward investments and to increase civic pride in local institutions and culture at home, then the barometer to measure success would be more long term; to track people’s attitudes and perceptions over time.

3 books everyone interested in nation branding should read…

Culture Matters by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington. This is not a book on place branding per se, but it emphasizes and compels consideration of cultural variables in a nation’s ability to achieve economic and social progress.

Media Strategies for Marketing Places in Crisis by Eli Avraham and Eran Ketter. This is an important book for those countries whose brands have substantially eroded due to protracted crises, natural or man-made.

Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity by Melissa Aronczyk. This is a compelling thesis about the effects of globalization in the re-imagining and re-positioning of nations.

Thank you, Hume.

Connect with Hume Johnson on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Enjoyed our interview with Hume Johnson on Brand Jamaica and nation branding in the Americas? Share and spread the word!


Join us at the intersection of research and practice in place branding. TPBO spotlights impactful place brand stories, from showcases to our flagship yearbook. Learn from leaders in our Who is Who World Map. Connect with us on LinkedIn for insights and join our mailing list for the latest place brand impact stories and strategies.

- Introducing: World's Best in Place Branding -spot_img

Get Your Free Copy

Place Brand Leaders Yearbook 2024

Latest articles