Despite the growing interest in nation branding both in theory and practice, the academic treatment of nation branding has been narrow and cursory, writes Jay Wang, director of the University of Southern California (USC) Center on Public Diplomacy, in a recent article on the Center’s public diplomacy blog. Reason enough for The Place Brand Observer to take a closer look at the nation branding concept.
Nation Branding – From Concept to Theory
Back in 2010, Ying Fan¹ noted that “as an emerging area of interest, nation branding is driven largely by practitioners and there is an urgent need for conceptual and theoretical development of the subject” (p. 98).
Jay Wang’s observations published in the USC Center of Public Diplomacy blog second this stance. Because “the study of nation branding sits at the nexus of soft power, public diplomacy, and brand communication”, Jay calls for an “interdisciplinary approach to arriving at a theoretical synthesis.”
Jay’s definition of nation branding as “the application of branding principles to a country’s external communication for desired perception and understanding” leaves the term deliberately open. He also points out that:
Nation branding is not a balanced portrayal of a country. The congruence between brand perception and reality is a perennial concern.
Jay further writes: “Nation branding is a highly selective representation that accentuates the positives. By its very nature, it is not a balanced portrayal of a country. The congruence between brand perception and reality is a perennial concern in such efforts. But as the contemporary communication ecology has become decidedly transparent, the content and expressions in a nation-branding program can easily be questioned and contested.” Consequently,
The potential loss of trust as a result of gross misrepresentation is incalculable and can be very difficult to recover. That’s why the incentive for credible and authentic branding outweighs that for exaggeration and propaganda. (Wang, 2014)
“Improving a nation’s image does not necessarily lead to structural transformation in global relations. But a positive image—as cultivated through branding—contributes to a nation’s soft-power resources,” Jay writes.
Influence of branding on national image is limited
The function of branding in improving a nation’s image is important, but limited, Jay further observes. “Branding is never a default solution to solving image problems facing a nation…Even when branding is considered as a viable option, it is only part of the organizational strategy and is never the entire strategy.”
Jay concludes that, while branding is crucial to making a nation’s external communication and interaction more compelling and engaging, it certainly is not a be-all and end-all, and that it would be naïve to assume that one nation-branding program can alter a nation’s image once and for all.
Jay Wang is right, nation branding is a diffuse concept that offers itself to many possible interpretations. From my own research on nation branding I have learned that opinions vary as to what exactly the term means, how useful it is, and whether a nation can or should be branded at all.
Judging from Kaneva’s² (2011) extensive review of scholarly work attributed to nation branding, literature on the topic is far from homogenous but varies significantly. She offers a useful distinction between technical-economic, political and cultural-critical perspectives on nation branding in academic literature. Yet, in practice these perspectives often overlap, making a waterproof categorization of nation branding literature difficult.
Jay Wang calls for synthesis. Synthesis, however, is not very likely considering that the various nation branding perspectives are nurtured by diverging underlying ontological assumptions with regard to social power and national identity. I would even argue that synthesis is not always desirable, as it might lead to the silencing of some of the more marginal (and perhaps most important) voices from the cultural-critical field.
Nation branding practitioners need to be aware of the potential ramifications resulting from endeavors at branding a nation. Not just regarding a nation’s image abroad, but the effects it might have on people’s self-perception, sense of belonging and national identity, especially when gaps between brand promise and reality receive unfavorable attention from overseas media, as has been the case with the economically hugely successful clean, green and 100% Pure New Zealand branding.
As Olins and Hildreth aptly put it in their 2011 book chapter³, “in the more successful instances of nation branding, the focus seems to be more internal than external – that is, more attention is directed to how the nation perceives itself than to how the nation is perceived by outsiders” (p. 56).
¹ Fan, Y. (2010). Branding the nation: Towards a better understanding. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 6(2), 97-108.
² Kaneva, N. (2011). Nation branding: Toward an agenda of critical research. International Journal of Communication, 5, 117-141.
³ Olins, W., & Hildreth, J. (2011). Nation branding: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In N. Morgan, A. Pritchard & R. Pride (Eds.), Destination brands: Managing place reputation (3rd ed., pp. 55-66). Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Featured image by US Army, showing a scene at the Olympic Games Beijing opening ceremony in 2008. Flickr creative commons
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