The importance of protecting our nation brand as a key strategic asset

Miller Matola, CEO  Brand South Africa – That we undoubtedly live in a time of global economic upheaval is not in doubt, nor is the fact that South Africa is far from immune from the buffeting of these negative economic winds. The recent strikes that have hit the mining and transportation sectors, combined with the country’s downgrade by several rating agencies, and the subsequent negative media coverage, are all testament to this. It is all too easy during challenging times to look at South Africa in a purely negative light and to view the country’s socio economic outlook in an environment of only ‘doom and gloom’. However, perspective is needed, together with recognition that it is imperative for the long-term socio-economic good of the country to ensure that our nation brand is protected and its reputation on the global stage safeguarded. The message that needs to be sent to the world during difficult global economic times is that South Africa is very much open for business and able to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

Recent negative reporting in the media on the country’s socio-economic outlook, together with overall subdued business sentiment and comment, is not conducive to protecting our valued nation brand. To put things into context, only last year, the country achieved significant success in its nation branding efforts when South Africa was awarded the title of most valuable nation brand on the continent, by the UK-based Brand Finance plc. the world’s leading brand valuation consultancy. The wave of optimism and goodwill generated by the country’s hosting of the World Cup saw us uniting together, sending a positive message to the rest of the world. This and other macro-economic interventions made by our country; resulted in South Africa maintaining a relatively stable economic environment during the midst of global economic downturn.
As emerging market economies around the world can testify, positive nation brand equity can directly support efforts to attract direct foreign investment and promote greater economic growth for a country. South Africa is competing in an increasingly competitive world marketplace for the attention of foreign investors, tourists, strategic partners and export opportunities. Maintaining a positive nation brand is essential in meeting the country’s aspirations and goals in this regard. The benefits and outcomes of successful nation branding are potentially immense as they have both financial and non-financial implications. Such benefits and relative advantage over other nations are especially valuable to a country in times of economic uncertainty, as is presently being experienced around the world.

However, if South Africa is to achieve ongoing and sustainable success in all the facets of the country’s reputation that make for a successful nation brand then we need a step change and shift in mind sets. As a nation, we need to unite with one strong voice, committed to thinking, acting and speaking positively about the many things that South Africa is getting right, instead of constantly focusing on the negative and stimulating global negative sentiment. We also need to ensure that the ups and downs that seem to characterize our journey towards becoming the nation that we all envision are smoothed through concerted and seamless actions support a consistent and coherent narrative about where the country is going.
Leaderships across various spheres of our society, government, business and civil society, must be a central feature of everything we do to inspire confidence in our efforts and vision to become leading nation on the continent and globally.
This week sees the launch of the 2012 Anholt-Gfk-Roper Nation Brand Index, a useful benchmarking tool to assess South Africa’s overall global nation brand reputation. The Index provides a unique barometer measure of the reputation of 50 nations from North America, Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and the Middle East/Africa. The fifty nations, most of them developed economies, are ranked by panels from 20 other countries; including Commonwealth countries, emerging markets and developed economies such as USA, UK, Germany and others.

For the second year in a row, South Africa has been ranked 36th out of 50 nations, no mean feat given that many countries have fluctuated wildly in their overall reputations and rankings as a result of the global economic and political challenges taking place over the past year. We have recorded some gains in the rankings this year, surpassing fellow BRICS members India and Russia on Governance (although this still remains a challenging area for us) and moving ahead of South Korea and China on the People pillar. From a nation brand perspective, we must not lose sight of what we are getting right. We must ensure that we capitalise upon the world’s positive perception of the country in key areas such as culture (ranked 28th place in the Index), nature beauty (ranked 15th in the Index) and sporting excellence (16th in the Index). Interestingly, South Africans rank themselves 7th overall in the Index behind the US, the UK, Germany, Australia, France and Switzerland, a vote of confidence that is seemingly lacking at the current time and which needs to be rectified. It is not all good news, however, and there is much work to do to address the lower rankings for South Africa in such areas as Exports (ranked 37th) and Immigration/investments (38th), together with the reputational deficit when it comes to quality of life as a result of high unemployment and economic disparity, challenges that need fast and effective solutions.

In today’s increasingly challenging global socio-economic environment, there will undoubtedly continue to be challenges. Ultimately, South Africa’s citizens, business and government need to unite behind a single goal of finding the necessary solutions to these challenges instead of bemoaning the situation and, as a result, damaging our nation’s reputation. It is in everyone’s best interests to work towards building a competitive, confident and prosperous nation; underpinned by a positive narrative consistent with the vision of our National Development Plan. Such a narrative will only emerge once all South Africans begin to “live the brand”. The goal of nation brand reputation management is to drive economic growth, create jobs, and alleviate poverty, enabling a better life for all citizens. We all have a shared responsibility to safeguard the reputation of the nation as it has the ability to contribute positively to so many areas that are important to us as a country, from building a sense of national confidence, to promoting foreign direct investment, driving exports and encouraging tourists to visit. All elements are inextricably linked, therefore ensuring a consistent and positive voice as a nation to the outside world is critical. As nations seek to communicate their vision and relevance in an increasingly competitive world the importance of a communicating a consistent message cannot be over-stated. If South Africa is to be better equipped to absorb the shocks of the global economic slowdown, we must safeguard our nation brand reputation; and speak with one united voice that sends a message to the world – that South Africa is a proud nation, committed to addressing its challenges and still very much open for business.

First published in City Press, 28 October 2012.