Lipstick on a Pig = Waste of Time

Recently a debate arose over the fundamental meaning of branding.

The context was a call for volunteers to help with the user interface of "The Good Country," a project aimed at making the world more inhabitable for all.

Conceptually, the idea goes, we all get to "vote" on the elections taking place in other countries. Given the opportunity to offer our two cents, we will take the time to actually learn about those countries, form educated opinions, and become more aware of how one nation's actions affect the others. (See the TED Talk.)

The project's founder, Simon Anholt -- well-known for the concept of "nation branding" a.k.a. "place branding" -- does not view this effort as "branding."
I’d like to explain that the Good Country and its two first projects (the Good Country Index and the Global Vote) actually have little or nothing to do with place 'branding.' That term seems to stick to everything I do, even though I started challenging it at least ten years ago and pretty much stopped writing, editing, researching and practising on the topic in 2014 when I launched the first edition of the Good Country Index.
A policy advisor, Anholt divorced his project from the concept of branding because he sees the latter as an activity related to image, whereas policy has to do with substance.
My belief, backed up by much research (nearly 400 billion data points from ten years of the Nation Brands Index), has long been that there’s no such thing as place “branding” and that countries are judged by what they do rather than by what they say about themselves.
In Anholt's view, campaigns limited to superficial symbols are tempting, but ultimately cannot build or rehabilitate a nation's image.
The temptation for governments to spend taxpayers’ and donors’ money on logos, slogans and PR campaigns in an attempt to manipulate the images of their countries, cities and regions is a very strong one: but it simply doesn’t work and I’ve never found a single case study to suggest that it does.
Conceptually Anholt draws the distinction between image-building and more specific goals of boosting tourism or investment, which can be supported through a marketing campaign.
(I’m not talking about tourism or investment promotion, a species of national marketing which can work, and are often accidentally or deliberately conflated with nation 'branding').
From Anholt's point of view, conflating branding with policy is dangerous because doing so positions the effort as a competitive one, rather than one where we all work together on substantive improvement for mutual gain. 
I’d like to emphasize that the principle of the Good Country is countries trying to be good, not trying to look good, which is why I find the “branding” label to be a dangerous one. Countries need to become gooder (by which I basically mean that governance needs to be understood as a fundamentally collaborative rather than fundamentally competitive discipline) not primarily because it will benefit their images or trade or international relations, but primarily because it’s necessary for the future of humanity.
Anholt's research shows that when nations improve their actions, a better image results. He believes this correlation, which he has mentioned publicly, has created some confusion.
This misunderstanding is probably all my fault because in the TED talk I gave when I launched the Good Country Index in 2014 I mentioned my research which showed the link between ‘good’ behaviour and a positive national image.
The bottom line, says Anholt, is that when a country improves its practices, a better brand image results (but it doesn't work the other way around, e.g. image efforts alone don't produce a better brand).
But I simply wanted to make the point that ‘good’ international relations is also good business: I’m not asking countries to be self-sacrificing or altruistic, which would be wholly unrealistic.
For my part, reading this, I was surprised and concerned at the level of dysfunction and waste which would permit branding efforts to be limited to image-building even in 2017. Back in 2001, The Brand Consultancy in Washington, D.C. was promoting integrated brand building -- marrying operation and image. And frankly the U.S. seemed behind the times; see for example Majken and Schultz in Harvard Business Review (2001), "Are The Strategic Stars Aligned For Your Corporate Brand?"

Having been a customer for all my life, and witnessing the fact that many companies do now integrate operations and branding, I can only conclude that this issue comes down to organizational development -- or the lack thereof. In business it is clear that 360 degree branding improves the bottom line. But in the world of policy and governance, there are many complicating factors at play.

When the world's policymakers come to see that actions speak louder than words, and that positive actions do yield positive results on every level, we will see the end of branding efforts limited to image.


By Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author's own; this blog is posted in the author's personal capacity. Free for reuse under Creative Commons 3.0. Photo by Randy von Liski via Flickr Creative Commons.