Nicolas Papadopoulos on Country Image Research and Nation Branding Trends

For today’s place branding expert interview we take you to the Canadian capital, Ottawa: Meet Nicolas Papadopoulos – Chancellor’s Professor of Marketing and International Business at the Sprott School of Business of Carlton University – among the first to conduct research on country image and country-of-origin effects.

Learn about:

  • How “Country image” and country branding are two sides of the same coin;
  • How terminology such as “place” can sometimes be confusing and divisive;
  • How his view on the practice of country branding has changed over the years;
  • Why country image matters enormously regarding buyer behavior;
  • Which country brand rankings he finds the most useful and trustworthy;
  • The main challenges and opportunities for country branding research right now;
  • Four books every place branding professional should read.

Nicolas, can you briefly describe your current professional roles and responsibilities?

My base is at the Sprott School of Business of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and my formal title is Chancellor’s Professor of Marketing and International Business. I have been at Carleton for many years, following an early career in business with 3M, Procter & Gamble, and Exxon and then a brief stint at Lakehead University in Canada.

I have held several administrative positions at Carleton, including as director of my school, associate dean, and so on, and have worked on numerous committees and special task forces over the years, but admin work was never my focus and I did it more as a matter of happenstance or “duty” than choice.

Instead, in addition to teaching I have stayed committed to the research side of academia throughout, and have also engaged extensively in executive training and consulting, with private and government organizations.

Above I said my “base” is at Carleton, because essentially I work with a broad group of researchers all over the world, leading or participating in research and related activities.

When did you first come across the concept of country branding? Do you remember your initial thoughts?

Oh yes, I remember! The first contact was with the idea of “country image” and its impact on countries’ products, back in the 1980s. A research review back then showed convincingly that the topic was very important and yet there were too few studies on it. That got many people, myself included, excited about looking into it more carefully. I remember thinking, why isn’t there more work here? More to the point, what is country image? How does it work? Whom does it affect, how, why, under what circumstances?

Research into country image skyrocketed after that time. For our part we launched the first-ever multinational study focused specifically on it, with consumer samples from 8 countries. We published the area’s first book, “Product-Country Image“, in 1993, then did the biggest-ever consumer study in 20 cities worldwide.

To date we have conducted over 70 studies with over 30,000 samples of consumers, business buyers, tourists, investors, and others, examining various facets of the nature and role of country images.

Meanwhile, a year after our book came Kotler’s book on “Marketing Places“, and a few years later Peter van Ham’s article “The Rise of the Brand State” in 2001, and we had come full circle:

The “country image” folks were working on the “demand” side (how do consumer perceptions of country images affect their market behaviour). The “country branding” folks focused instead on the “supply” side (what marketers do to manage the images of countries as producers and exporters, tourism destinations, and so on), and we all suddenly realized that the two were sides of the same coin.

We commented on this and outlined the interactions between “image” and “brand” in an article published a year later as part of Simon Anholt‘s special issue in the Journal of Brand Management, in 2002, which itself was the first-ever issue dedicated to the idea of nation branding.

Product-Country Images book by Heslop and PapadopoulosNow at the end of 2015, how has your view on the practice of country branding changed?

Over time I realized that we were building “silos of thought” and were missing out on the incredible synergies we could achieve if only we allowed ourselves to “think outside the box”.

International marketers were (and most still are, unfortunately) talking only about “countries as exporters”. People in tourism were speaking about “tourism destinations”, which could be anything from cities to continents. Those interested in local development were limiting themselves to small areas, such as cities or even neighbourhoods.

The terminology alone is divisive – we all know that a “place” can be anything from our dining room to the universe, and yet people continue to look only at whichever version of “place” happens to be of parochial interest to them.

So the one major change for me and my team is that while we started looking at “countries” only, we later expanded our view to include any “place” regardless of size, to consider places as both producers and destinations, and to focus on the various different manifestations of “place” and the interactions between them.

Professor Nicolas Papadopoulos at Carleton University, Canada

A key research focus of yours has been on country image effects on buyer behaviour. Which are your main insights on this topic?

That country image matters, and matters enormously, regarding buyer behaviour. Whether or not a consumer knows where a product is actually made, or where a service actually originates, doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, many researchers have consumed a lot of ink to argue that in our globalized world people actually don’t know and don’t care where goods come from.

What matters most isn’t the place where a product was “made-in”, but the place with which the marketer wants to associate that product.

Yves St Laurent may be made in China or Sri Lanka, but what matters is that it’s seen as French – which is why so many brands around the world “borrow” elements from origins that are considered more reputable than their own.

Wine makers from around the world use French brand names, as do fashion marketers, just like in the modern craze over “Greek” yoghurt: Virtually every dairy producer in North America has used Greek-language brand names (FAGE (eat), OIKOS (home), etc.).

Your thoughts on the growing number of country brand rankings? Which ranking do you find the most credible/useful for your work?

On the one hand, there’s a few too many, one might say. On the other, I tend to prefer “the more, the merrier” scenarios. Overall, this industry seems to be in the growth phase of its product life cycle, which means that more and more competitors will keep coming in, until some plateau is reached and the weaker ones are weeded out.

If we have many place brand rankings, some will be of more interest to some people, some more to others, and overall those that provide the greatest utility to the greatest number of users will be the ones that survive in the long run.

Personally I like, and use, several of the rankings of the United Nations (e.g., the Human Development Index), the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, IMD’s World Competitiveness Ranking, the Brand Africa and Brand Finance lists, and several of the “best” and “worst” country indices by Transparency International.

As you can see from this selection, all have been around for a while, all are credible, and each serves a unique purpose not found in the others.


Where do you see the main challenges – and opportunities – for country branding research at the moment?

The challenge lies in that there’s too much of it, often not well argued, and that at base we don’t even know what we’re talking about – there are no widely accepted definitions of the key terms, for example.

Today the field of country branding research resembles the Wild West model: Anything goes. The few authors who have attempted systematic reviews of the field have ended up listing long litanies of problems followed by equally long lists of how to fix them.

Meanwhile, if we look at Simon Anholt’s original list, in that special issue of the Journal of Brand Management in 2002, of “what needs to be done”, we’ll quickly notice that… most of the items on it have not yet been addressed, 13 years later.

In more ways than one, this is also the opportunity for the field: So little is known, and so much remains to be done, that the scene reminds us of… the Wild West! The area is an open field of opportunity, and the fact that it is also fraught with problems is par for the course.

As strategists like to say, the Chinese have the same word for “crisis” and “opportunity” – and nation branding research fits this thinking very well.

Reflecting on your research linked to place branding, which findings strike you as the key lessons – or implications for management?

That there are important cross-over effects between various areas where a place’s image has a role. For example, our 2011 article in the Journal of Travel Research showed clearly (even though the model for showing it was very complex…) that a place’s general image, product image, and tourism image interact with each other in various ways.

This notion of interaction has been in nation branding thought essentially from the outset, but because of the many difficulties it presents in research, it had never been studied before. Much remains to be done, but at least we, and a few articles that have followed along similar lines, have taken the first few steps to show that such interactions exist.

The implications for management are enormous. As with academic research, place marketers rarely talk to one another across fields – the best example is tourism and investment agencies, both of which aim to promote the same place but neither ever coordinates with the other.

The result is that the same person receives one message as investor, another as tourist, another as consumer, and so on, all about the same place, leading to confusion.

Research that studies the interactions can point to areas where coordination is most needed and can be the most useful.

A recent article in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy looked at the nation branding of Catalonia. One of the findings was that civil society is increasingly involved in state affairs and public diplomacy. Do you agree?

Yes, and also I feel it’s about time. There are at least two ways of looking at this.

First, the need to involve “the public” in nation branding has been stressed from the earliest days of the discipline by every serious observer in it, from Anholt on down.

For place (or any) marketing to work, there has to be (a) a satisfactory exchange and (b) credibility.

If, for example, a country’s tourism agency advertises “friendly people”, it has to generate buy-in from those people so that they indeed will be “friendly” toward visitors. This means that the public must get involved, and also that the public won’t get involved if the agency’s promotional campaign doesn’t match what that public believes is right.

Second, a key distinguishing characteristic of our age is that social media has made even the most remote or unlikely individual able to participate in global affairs. “Movements” of all kinds sprout within minutes when something captures the public imagination on YouTube, Twitter, or other media.

Therefore, increasing involvement of “the people” in public affairs, public diplomacy and place branding included, is as inevitable as it is welcome.

Nation Branding -book by Keith Dinnie 2nd editionFour books every place branding professional should read…

With no intent to promote either myself or close friends, and notwithstanding that three of the books are older, I believe that…

… my book with Louise Heslop, “Product-Country Images: Impact and Role in International Marketing” (1993), is still the best treatment on the broader subject of “what is country image and how it works”, which must be understood before one can deal with “how to manage it”

… needless to say, Keith Dinnie‘s “Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice” (2nd edition, 2015) is the base book for anyone working in this field

Philip Kotler‘s original “Marketing Places” book (1994), co-authored with D.H. Haider and I. Rein, is still the best all-round book on the theme – better, I think, than some of its region-specific sequels

Eugene Jaffe and Israel Nebenzahl‘s “National Image & Competitive Advantage: The Theory and Practice of Place Branding” (2nd edition, 2006), was and remains the best book that combines the “image” (demand) and “branding” (supply) sides of the field.

Thank you, Nicolas.

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