Should brand consultants serve as policy advisers?

In a November 6 interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Simon Anholt, who coined the term “nation-branding,” says advertising is an “utterly futile” way to change perceptions of a country and instead argues that countries should change the way they operate first.

The traditional way of marketing a country is way off, says Anholt, with tourism boards, investment-promotion agencies, government public diplomacy agencies, etc. giving out different messages. “It’s not very surprising that most countries end up with very fragmented, out of date, confusing, unhelpful images,” he says. “So I suppose the primary principle I tried to introduce here with the original idea of nation branding is that if all of those stakeholders work together and try to agree on some kind of common long-term strategy for the country and its role in the world, they’re far more likely to be able to influence the way it’s perceived.”

Anholt does not do advertising. Rather he serves as a kind of policy adviser “to the governments of, at any given moment, seven or eight different countries. I work with a small team consisting of, usually, the head of state, two or three ministers—foreign affairs, economic affairs, culture, and so forth—the head of the tourism board, a couple of chief executives of major corporations, particularly if they export, and one or two figures from civil society….We try to work out a plan for how the country can position itself in the world, and what are the policies and innovations and investments the country needs to undertake to earn the image it feels it wants and desires.”

About advertising, Anholt says: “People believe what they believe about countries because they’ve believed it all their lives and they’re not going to change their minds because a twenty-second ad on CNN tells them to. People immediately recognize that kind of communication for what it is—propaganda—and they will instinctively reject it or ignore it.”

While in theory Anholt’s approach makes sense, I find the idea of a communications person serving as a policy adviser frightening at the very least. It is like building policy based on what will make a country popular rather than based on what will make it effective in the world. I also think his approach undervalues the traditional tools of marketing communications significantly. Brand experts are primarily marketing communications advisors, not policy makers, and they should restrict themselves to the communications arena. That said, if a country is embarking on a policy that seriously damages its image in the world, it is not out of line for a brand consultant to mention it.

One also wonders what countries Anholt is consulting to…I assume they’re not rivals are they? In general, what about the issue of conflict of interest?