Without a nation there is nothing to brand

Nation branding challenges and successes faced by Eastern European countries such as Ukraine, Bulgaria and Kosovo, in the wake of political and social change in the region since 1989, were held up as lessons in nation branding.

Professor Nadia Kaneva offered the analysis in a presentation titled “The branded national imagination and its limits: Insights from the post-socialist experience” given at a Brand South Africa Competitiveness Forum for South African academia. Held at the University of Pretoria, Tshwane, on 5 October 2016, the forum aimed at in-depth analysis of global and domestic issues influencing the reputation and competitiveness of the nation’s brand.

Presenting at the event were key academics in the fields of business, humanities and political science, from a host of South African universities and tertiary institutions.

The goal of the dialogue is to compile all presentations and contributions into a peer-reviewed journal, with a view to positioning South Africa as a thought leader in nation branding. Key to the success of that journal will be the keynote contribution from Kaneva.

Bulgarian-born Kaneva is an associate professor in the University of Denver’s media, film and journalism faculty. She is a globally respected and widely published researcher who uses critical sociology and media studies to dissect the commercialisation of politics and culture in Eastern Europe through nation branding and reputation-building.

Kaneva’s ultimate conclusion – that in order to be more effective, an imagined nation brand should align closer to and more realistically to the changes in the nation and its people – was honed through extensive research on radical changes in Romania after the fall of communism, post-conflict Kosovo during the 2000s and the relationship between Ukraine and Russia as recently as three years ago.

The lessons learnt in the research can be just as easily applied to any nation brand, especially for emerging economies like South Africa, she says.

In introducing Kaneva, University of Pretoria deputy dean of humanities Professor Maxi Schoeman highlighted the importance of getting an outsider view on building South Africa’s brand internationally, someone objective enough to weigh up the differences and similarities between the country and nations with similar histories.

The science and application of nation branding was now very much part of mainstream academia and an essential tool for governance, Kaneva said at the start of her presentation. As a legitimate interdisciplinary field, the study of nation branding included elements of media and marketing ideas, anthropological study, business theory and sociology.

Yet, Kaneva argued, developing and managing a national brand and reputation would always be a highly political and therefore delicate process, the success of which did not always lie in the area of savvy marketing or critical theory.

This was evident in post-socialist Eastern Europe countries experiencing the swift changes of political and economic experiments, Kaneva said.Extensive global multichannel marketing campaigns by Romania and Kosovo highlighted each country’s promise in its people and economics in a vastly depoliticised way, focusing on things such as tourism and investment and replacing a more realistic national identity with something more market-oriented, in other words, what “the outside world wanted to see”.

In 2009, two years after gaining independence, Kosovo’s first attempt at marketing the country to the outside world was in the form of a television commercial, The Young Europeans. While carrying a positive message of reconciliation and cultural tolerance as well as an eagerness to partake economically in the European Union, it told little about the country and its people to outsiders (investors, tourists) that would differentiate it from any other European nation.

While initially successful, there was a negative reaction from citizens, who felt misrepresented by this imagined nation brand. As Kaneva says, a rejection of idealised, imagined branding is ultimately counter-productive to what a country brand really wants to achieve.

Watch The Young Europeans:

At the crux of the argument, Kaneva says, is honesty with the nation brand, creating an identity that can actually be recognised by the people it is supposed to be representing.

Offering solutions to link the imagined nation brand closer to reality, Kaneva highlighted the following:

  • Recognise that nation branding has a political element and embrace it, with all its shortcomings and diversities.
  • Invest in programmes and policy that encourages and grows both citizen engagement and development in the nation and its brand: let people inform the national message.
  • Look beyond the data of perception ratings to formulate effective nation brand evaluation and measurement: outside views, particularly those formulated with data, are important, but other research models are necessary to get the complete picture of a nation.
  • Diminish the focus and use of transnational mass media nation brand advertising; look to niche marketing opportunities for creating a truer, most consistent national image and reputation.

Concluding her presentation, Kaneva said that reconstructing and refreshing national identities, particularly for nations with a history of significant political and societal transformation, should always consider the transformations of the people it represented, adding that, “without a nation there will be nothing to brand”.

Download full presentation

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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