Sustainability Justifications in Nation Branding Communications – Research Findings

This research insight into sustainability justifications in nation branding communications by Meri Frig, doctoral candidate at Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki (Finland), is the first of a series of articles, case studies and interviews this year on sustainability, now a key requisite for place reputation and competitiveness. 

In times where values and perceptions are undergoing massive changes, the “good country” credentials of nations are going to become more and more important for their attractiveness as places to live, work and visit. Both researchers and practitioners need to take a closer look at the links between (place) sustainability and (place) branding and marketing, and how we can connect the two.

Meri, what motivates you to research nation branding?

My doctoral dissertation is about sustainability communication. I got interested in nation branding when I saw that certain nations aim to be portrayed as sustainable. I find it fascinating how boundaries between institutions are blurring: how, in this case, nations adopt discourses from the market sector.

It will be interesting to follow whether this competition regarding which countries are, or are seen as, ‘good’ will manage to foster sustainable development or provide any solutions for sustainability problems.

At the IPBA conference in London last year you presented a paper titled “Sustainability justifications in nation branding communication”. Can you share with us your key insights, or findings?

The paper sheds light on sustainability in the Nordic [European] context – for the study, I analyzed how countries communicate about sustainability. In specific, I analyzed, based on a sociological theory, to which principles these actors appeal to when making sustainability claims.

Interestingly, in most claims sustainability was connected with efficiency, technology, and science and research. This could be due to the growing clean-tech market or for the purpose of getting together different actors and groups, without major value clashes.

In your view, which are the main challenges with regard to communicating sustainability in connection with place branding?

What makes sustainability communication inherently challenging is its complex, uncertain, and multidimensional nature. Sustainability is characterized by typically invisible causes, distant and indirect impacts, as well as various perceptions and interests.

Sustainable development includes the three dimensions of environmental, social, and economic sustainability, which should all be included and preferably in balance. However, some acts may be environmentally sustainable but not, for instance, socially responsible.

Since the introduction of sustainable development, a number of different, even contradictory, interpretations and uses of the concept have emerged, as different actors have interest in its understanding and, consequently, in the solutions offered.

Some acts are regarded, or are claimed to be, highly sustainable by some actors and are unsustainable to others. For example, governments may claim an energy policy to be highly sustainable, while environmental groups or non-governmental organizations criticize the same policy.

The word sustainability does not in fact mean anything in itself but only in connection to another topic.

Some make a distinction between strong and weak sustainability: ‘weak’ sustainability still prioritizing economic growth over environmental protection or social welfare.

Nevertheless the word sustainability is used very frequently and commonly, perhaps precisely because it means different things to different audiences and because the notion can be used to describe very different things. The word sustainability has a very positive connotation.

Corporate social responsibility, for instance, has been suggested, rather than having a precise definition or meaning, to be understood as a forum for sense-making, diversity of opinion, and debate regarding social norms and expectations.

Nation branding, of course, is not only about communication, and in the end, it only truly matters what is being done, not said. At the same time, communication is very important for sustainable development. Sustainability problems are social problems, involving issues of global commons. Communication is needed for different actors to work together and it has a central function in implementing instruments for sustainable development.

How has your view on sustainability and nation branding communication changed since you conducted your research?

I now understand its more complicated nature, how the communication work includes the collaboration of different institutions as well as actors: representatives of the private as well as the public sector, and journalists.

In addition, practitioners as well as theorists commonly agree that place branding is entirely different from product branding: in the nation branding context, branding – if it can be called that – really means leveraging and trying to communicate well what already naturally exists.

Are there any other, related issues or observations which you’d like to mention?

Place branding is a fascinating area of study and practice, especially for those who are interested in multidisciplinary work. However, in place branding, a clear distinction must be made between destination marketing, which aims at increased tourism, and nation branding that is more connected to public diplomacy.

Sustainability, as well, may mean very different things in these two different fields: in destination marketing sustainability may refer to, for instance, eco-tourism, whereas in nation branding energy policies would be a frequent topic linked to sustainability.

Thank you Meri.

Meri Frig is a third year Doctoral candidate at Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland. Connect with Meri on LinkedIn.

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