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The European Union: To brand or not to brand?

photo credit: loop_oh via photopin cc

photo credit: loop_oh via photopin cc

By Lidija Globokar

A European Union place brand definitely exists. Perhaps it’s blurry, with unclear messages and no ‘branding father’ but, nevertheless, it exists. Place brands can often come into being, whether branded deliberately or not.

The EU Brand

Places have been branding themselves since places have existed. Wally Olins actually examined the historical context of country branding and came to a similar conclusion. The only difference between now and then is that now governments and other organisations brand themselves on purpose, whereas before the process of branding occurred naturally. The EU is still in the phase of ‘natural branding’ because, as already mentioned, there is no institution responsible for branding the EU. Of course, many campaigns are indirectly made to promote the EU, but since there is no official definition of the EU brand it remains open for discussion and interpretation. Perhaps this is also one reason why so many campaigns conducted in the name of the EU or one of its institutions fall on deaf ears…but this is a topic for another day.

Given the fact that the EU brand exists, yet still lacks an official definition and a brand manager, we should take a closer look at its strong and weak points, identify areas for improvement, and cite potential threats.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Peace is one of the EU brand’s strongest assets. Some people would perhaps argue that peace is an outdated EU value, but the fact the EU recently won the Nobel Peace Prize simply re-emphasises the importance of this old-fashioned brand strength. It is one of the cornerstones of today’s European Union and remains most definitely a strong point of its brand today.

Other strengths include democracy and its long brand history, that our youth especially tend to take for granted. And what about the amazing diversity in which we live? Not to mention the multilingualism and multiculturalism that the EU brand stands for. Hence the EU brand is unique. Some marketers would die for such a unique product…and by the way the EU has helped to increase prosperity in its Member States. In today’s tough times this may be hard to believe, but it remains a fact – and a great strength.

Although I would call myself a europhile, I also want to be fair, realistic and neutral in this assessment. Yes, the EU brand has weaknesses too (just like each of us…). The intriguing aspect about the EU brand is that some of its strengths are at the same time weaknesses. Honestly, 24 official languages? What other inter-or supra national organisation has so many official languages and hires so many translators and interpreters as the European institutions? Don’t we all sometimes ask ourselves how people from 28 different countries can manage to work together? And who genuinely understands this complex construct: EU? An average EU citizen? I have my doubts.

Of course, all these questions are highly provocative. I have at least one argument against each of the weaknesses that I’ve listed so far. Yet it’s reality and the EU brand suffers precisely because of these weaknesses. In my opinion there’s also a lack of leadership and an internal lack of communication; not forgetting the uniqueness that also represents an obstacle. The EU brand’s complexity is very difficult to understand, explain and communicate. This brings us back to the lack of leadership.

Opportunities and Threats

Back to some positive aspects; the opportunities. There are a tremendous number of existing networks and initiatives that deal with the EU and European topics. These are initiated by actors both inside and outside the European institutions, and much more attention should be paid to them. Imagine if they all spread the same message – this would achieve huge outreach to the Europeans.

What about non-Europeans or people who live outside the EU? They usually have a far more positive image of the EU and its people. If we stood still for a while and listened to their opinions (although they often don’t know the difference between the EU and Europe) we would appreciate the EU much more.

Guess what comes next? There it is again, uniqueness. The EU brand seems to have multiple personalities. And yet it is hard to define uniqueness as either a good or a bad quality. Nonetheless, uniqueness represents an opportunity and also a threat. What if it loses one day its raison d’être? People will question (even more than today) the need for such a supra-national institution. This brings us to another threat: euroscepticism. This rising power or movement represents one of the toughest challenges for the EU brand. It’s very hard to convince someone who is against you to believe in you and even to love you. Sometimes I’m surprised by how “personal” a brand can be. A love brand has a really strong brand personality.

But …back to the threats. There are still many for Brand EU to tackle, fight against or (simply) erase.

As we all know, the EU consists of various member states and each would like to have his piece of cake. When you see national governments saying that the bad things come from Brussels and the good things come from them, you start asking yourself “Then how should an average EU citizen know what to believe?”. The EU brand suffers this negative ‘noise’ from outside (= the national press) and media is extremely tough to manage. Of course, media freedom is untouchable, but it would certainly help if journalists stopped telling lies and spent extra time doing their research.

There are still several threats that I’d like to mention, but I will finish with one that touches my current professional field: communications. The EU brand suffers from both an internal and an external lack of communication, which is a really problematic deficit. A brand that doesn’t communicate properly will sooner or later either damage its reputation or die. Yet this shows that the EU brand has never been properly defined, which to some extent explains the poor communication.

I hope that one day soon the EU brand will find its branding father to guide it, because I do believe it’s worth it.

Screen shot 2013-08-14 at 21.12.17Lidija Globokar is based in Frankfurt and handles PR and communications for MSL Group. Previously, Lidija spent over 2 years working in Brussels, including stints at the European Commission and Parliament. She is fluent in four languages, and has worked in multiple locations across the European Union, including Ireland, Germany, France, Belgium and her native Slovenia.

Contact Lidija: Email | LinkedIn 

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Sam North (98 Posts)

Istanbul-based freelance journalist, writing about place branding, soft power & public diplomacy.


One Response to “The European Union: To brand or not to brand?”

  1. Tom Buncle says:

    Good article….a big issue, which many would say is not possible. Nevertheless, you’ve raised some interesting questions and identified some common threads that might one day come to be seen as EU brand values.

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