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Month: October 2015

Polar opposites

photo credit: Justin celebrates Diwali (Photo by Joe Pacione) via photopin (license)
photo credit: Justin celebrates Diwali (Photo by Joe Pacione) via photopin (license)

What’s next for Brand Canada?

Canada has been engulfed by a whirl of publicity over the last few days as its Liberal party swept the boards in the national elections. The new leader, Justin Trudeau, is young and dynamic, the polar opposite of his predecessor Harper.

Trudeau has already made some bold statements. Just 24 hours after winning the elections, he informed Obama that Canada would no longer participate in bombing Isis. He also promised to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees to start new lives in Canada.

Will Trudeau make Canada into the definition of a ‘good country’? What damage did the previous government do, and how can it be undone? Does Trudeau represent the true Canadian identity?

“We’ve become knuckle-draggers on the international scene, someone told me recently,” says Jeannette Hanna, founder of Trajectory and Toronto resident.

“People will be watching Canada carefully, especially at the upcoming climate change conference in Paris [COP21 in November/December]. If we offer something open and collaborative, it will say a lot for Canada’s willingness to reclaim strength by being a global citizen and a progressive society.”

“We [Canada] have a lot of ground to make up in international goodwill,” says Hanna. “We lost a lot of territory in our own self-image as well as global image.”

Canada has long been seen as a progressive and welcoming place. In the past it became a popular destination for those seeking to start a new life, many of them leaving behind difficult environments in countries such as Iran.

But the actions of the previous government began to erode Canada’s reputation for tolerance, in particular through its ‘control freak’ actions towards Syrian refugees. Harper admitted that his officials had been running ‘security audits’ on refugees’ files that had already been approved by the UN. As a result, the resettlement process for these people was slowed down, in a time of crisis.

Canada’s record on tolerance was severely tested again by Harper’s stance on the hijab. Over recent years there have been just three incidents of women refusing to remove the hijab during their Canadian citizenship ceremony.

“The Harper government tried to make this into a big national and divisive issue. But everyone asked ‘why?’ Because it had very little to do with anything. He was playing to people’s worst fears, but it clearly didn’t work,” commented Hanna.

“Canada was seen in the past as a ‘great multi-cultural success story’ – so to call into question our stance on refugees and tolerance, cuts pretty close to the bone.”

Jamie Black is a brand strategist and founder of Nouveau North, an online initiative to reclaim Brand Canada through media.

Black says: “It’s a fresh opportunity for a new government to address some of our biggest challenges – from climate change to indigenous rights and inclusion. Under Harper things were moving in a direction, which ultimately the majority wasn’t content with.”

“It was like a one-man vision to push us in a direction that was fundamentally against our nature. I’m glad it stopped in its tracks.”

Hanna added: “This [election] has been a pivot on the values that really define our sense of place and what we care about as a nation. That was really what the election was all about. It was more than just a rational discussion about the economy,”

“We’re going to be a different voice in the global conversation, an alternative voice – not US-lite.”

In search of the big picture

Washington DC

Nation branding seems a natural fit for Foreign Policy Magazine. Since its founding in 1970 the magazine has become known for reporting diplomatic and political developments from around the world.

That’s where the Nation Brand Institute (NBI) comes into the picture. To be launched in the near future, the Institute aims to provide a high-level research and knowledge sharing forum, bringing together insights from practitioners, academics and diplomats worldwide.

Placesbrands travelled to Washington D.C. to speak with Amer Yaqub and Emily Simon, who are leading the NBI, in an exclusive interview about the Institute and its goals.

Why did Foreign Policy decide to start a nation brand initiative?

Amer Yaqub: Our clients told us that they needed it. The traditional partnerships that media companies have had with countries have normally been based on advertising. But countries now see the need for much more sophisticated strategic advice.

The Nation Brand Institute (NBI) will focus on best practices around the world, on practitioners, on all of the academic knowledge that’s out there. It will apply all this to solve the challenges of our clients. So the quick answer is: there are a couple of different variations out there, but they have a very narrow mandate. Ours is going to look at the big picture.

Emily Simon: For example, with countries that are focusing on trade and investment, or on policy advocacy, or tourism, or on a particular issue, we can help them transmit their messages to various audiences. There’s a very academic debate going on about the differences between public diplomacy and nation branding, about whether or not it should be a part of diplomacy.

We don’t get involved in that, as it’s a very competitive environment and so we think all countries should use the latest marketing tools to tell their stories. But we feel very strongly that use of these tools must be backed up with strong policy overall.

We’re excited about the launch of the NBI because there’s such a need for effective communication, to create a dialogue and a vocabulary that’s going to work for both government and practitioners. There’s also a need to get over the ‘hump’ about advertising and marketing being ‘bad words’ for countries to use. The truth is: these are just tools. Like any toolkit, it includes many other tools as well. We consider these tools essential for reaching the target audiences that matter to countries.

Nation branding is plagued with misunderstanding. Many still believe that ‘branding ’a country is the same as advertising it. This has caused widespread negative reactions and has been a proven recipe for failure. What’s FP’s stance on this debate?

AY: Authenticity is at the heart of everything. The reason why this perennial debate comes up about advertising being viewed as the essence of nation branding is because advertising is the easiest thing for governments to look to as a comparison point. It’s easy because they see it every day.

But the hard work, the research of finding a key analytical strategy, of having the right people in place with the right amount of time and expectations, that’s not so easily seen by governments. They just see an ad campaign and say ‘Ah, so that’s what you mean by nation brand’. The challenge is to educate them on the whole process.

ES: I think the intellectual capital on nation branding can be enhanced, and I see a gap in terms of research on this topic. I also think skills training and development is important. Today’s diplomats have to wear so many different hats, they are event planners, researchers, and marketers.

On top of that, they’ve also got their more traditional diplomatic functions. There’s a need for them to become more comfortable with some of the more traditional marketing tools and understand what they can take from the private sector in order to do their jobs more effectively.

There’s also the need for better understanding of how social media can be used in a more effective way. There’s a hunger for best practices on that and many countries are becoming increasingly sophisticated in this area.

But it’s still very hard to know what’s working. These platforms are changing and evolving all the time, and so it’s key to give countries the tools they need to use social media effectively and keep up with the changes.

What topics would you say are currently driving the broader conversation on nation branding?

AY: Social media, for one. There are a lot of diplomats around the world who are doing social media really well. The US ambassador, the previous one this fall, did a great job when he landed in Russia. He was viewed as an enemy at first, because of his background, but he used social media in a very compelling way to create a conversation with different groups of people in Russia.

The State Department has invested a lot of resources in that. We’re working with a government that we can’t name right now, but they have shared their whole strategic plan for social media and we’re very impressed with how sophisticated they are in understanding the realistic expectations of what social media can do.

I often worry that people in government underestimate the problem and overestimate the ability of tools to solve the problem. One of the key aims of the NBI is to talk about ‘what’s realistic?’ for social media. It’s very sexy and it seems like everyone is doing it, but what can it realistically accomplish?

There are countries, such as Israel, that have empowered their diplomats to tweet without having every tweet approved. Many layers of getting permissions from the top levels don’t chime well with the immediacy of social media and the news cycle.

ES: Social media is very personality-driven. For example, the French ambassador here in D.C. has a really powerful Twitter presence. He’s sophisticated, engaging, allows his voice to shine through, and doesn’t shy away from debate.

I think it works best when you can get leaders in place who are comfortable with the tools, who know how the tools can be used, even if they’re not going to be using them on a daily basis. They should also have a great communications team as well, that is empowered and has support from the top levels.

How will the NBI help countries to achieve better brands?

AY: That’s part of what the NBI is set up to do, which is separate from the FP editorial team. Our goals will be to share best practices and to find out what works.

Our own experience with Foreign Policy has taught us a great deal. In terms of social media, we have knowledge that we can leverage from accumulating over one million social media followers.

Although the needs of a media company are not necessarily the same as those of a sovereign client, the initial research we’ve seen out there demonstrates just how many models of social media use exist.

Good social media use demands urgency, catching the news cycle; everything in short bursts, as opposed to long thought-out strategic plans.

ES: One of the keys in social media is figuring out who the right audience is. When a country adds people on Twitter they sometimes interact in an ad-hoc way. Many countries may lack the ability to map out their target audience, and that’s something that we’re going to help them with.

How will FP take a leading role in shaping this conversation?

AY: Various countries have been told they need a nation-brand plan, but they don’t even know where to start. They need a structured approach and methods are key in this. In the Internet world, Twitter quickly became the hottest thing for everyone to focus on, but really that’s only one way of measuring brand effectiveness.

Part of it relies on members’ issues and questions, but we’re going to assume that the NBI will benefit a range of clients at whatever point they’re at in the cycle. If they’re very sophisticated we’ll make sure there are different levels of discussion and engagement for them.

What’s important also are the big picture things, i.e. how to get started with a nation branding strategy, what do we need to accomplish, what are the tools we can use that are already available, how do we measure the success of the strategy, what is the time-frame, and so on.

There are a lot of things on the plate, but the basic model is to understand where countries are at in the process, create the structure for them to follow, and leverage the research that we’re doing in order to fill the gap with quantifiable science.

ES: There are two main elements that we think will be valuable for the NBI. Firstly, case studies, which we think bring a lot of value in learning by example. We want to make sure that members have access to examples of places that have been successful previously, and to discuss what made those projects work.

The second is networking, so we do a lot of events here at FP, and often they are most useful afterwards when everyone starts talking, and sharing additional ideas beyond what was discussed on the programme. We want to create a dedicated forum where people who are passionate about these issues can come together and share their ideas and network, bounce things off one another and so on.

It’s kind of happening ad hoc all the time, and people will come to us, but we want to create a forum where this can happen more vigorously.

AY: I’m struck by how there’s a certain element of ‘is it cool?’ to be on the nation branding side, when you’re working in these governments. I don’t think that in most places, people really dream of being the ‘person in charge of nation branding’. It’s similar to the perceptions of HR in many ways.

Some companies ‘get it’, most famously Jack Welch at GE. They elevate HR to a role similar to the CEO, or very close. The countries that ‘get it’ are going to put their top talent on nation branding, and not view it as a detour to a more interesting career in traditional diplomacy.

Another goal of the NBI is to help legitimise nation branding as a field worthy of serious investment, time and energy and also to help attract the best people. For the young generation joining the State Department, this is part of their jobs, they get it, and they know that social media can effect change in a way that public diplomacy from ten years ago couldn’t.

How does FP Group, with Foreign Policy as an advertising-driven publication, plan to keep the Nation-Branding Institute unbiased in its approach?

AY: We’re not going to work with clients and use examples from anything we’ve done publicly, because of confidentiality, but absolutely we’re going to be objective. There’s no need to hide from the fact that this is a challenging world and we’re all struggling to figure out the right mix.

The goal isn’t to embarrass or humiliate anyone; but instead it should be a positive experience of learning both from mistakes and also from best practices. America makes mistakes all the time, but we need to learn from those.

There will be cases made publicly available when you’re going to be able to say that what they’re doing is ‘wrong’, perhaps even ‘morally wrong’ and the NBI will absolutely showcase it.

And finally, which country has the strongest brand these days?

ES: I really admire the nation brand of Britain. In particular, the recent ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign was a remarkable example of using a key milestone, the London Olympics, to gather the necessary political will to create an overarching brand function that can be tapped into by pretty much every agency across the government. The unity of message that exists in that campaign is really rare.

One of the challenges that many other countries face is that every single agency uses different logos and different messages. But the GREAT Britain campaign overcame that issue by creating coordinated messaging that was valuable for trade and investment, for tourism, for education, for culture and the arts, you name it.

Their creative arts section was beautiful, just really nice to look at. So I often find myself referring to that campaign when people ask me what I admire in terms of nation brand.

Is bigger really better?

Social community of birds

Every territorial marketing professional has been faced with the following dilemma at one point or another: “How can I get my social media community to grow?”

That inevitably leads to a slew of creative ideas from all sides. Marketing professionals advocate for social media advertising.

Creatives push great community building ideas into your hand, while graphic designers come up with cool new forms of photo tweaking to make the post more ‘shareable’ and ‘likeable’, along with so many other things to help us reach more and more people. This all happens in the name of growing our ‘digital communities’.

This is usually a laudable goal, but most people rarely stop to think about it and answer a simple question: Why?

Why do place brands need 1 million fans on Facebook, or followers on Twitter, or in Instagram or Pinterest, and so on and so forth?

Most government officials at all levels of government, be they at the city or nation level, answer with something along the lines of “bigger is better”, or “the more the merrier”, or even “because my neighbour has a bigger community”.

These answers lack focus, depth and direction, and as a result, the social media strategies of these place brands are just that, directionless.

But what happens when you keep these answers and paraphrase the question, turning it into, “What’s my place brand getting out of these efforts?” Then the answers provided by these government officials can no longer be justified.

Place brands have to rethink their strategy, and truly define what they want to accomplish from their digital activities. This gives way to the construction of real ‘place communities’.

There are some interesting examples out there, like Sweden’s Twitter profile, where each week a different Swede takes charge of the account. This has created a community of people who actually have a better understanding of Sweden, gathered on the official website.

While it’s true that all these people are Swedes, they are also a key audience of the brand, as they now have more reasons to love their country, and have become stronger advocates of the Swedish country brand.

Other place brands are more focused on churning out post after post of beautiful landscapes and incredible destinations. But sometimes the storytelling is too focused on the way they see the world, and not enough on how the rest of us see ‘them’. Once more that’s a difficulty.

To overcome this, it’s necessary to build a storytelling structure that’s universal enough yet authentic enough to engage the intended audience while retaining the local flavour. While this sounds difficult, there are many available tools at the disposal of us marketers.

Clichés are probably the most powerful of these. We may hate them, but trust me, nothing says Mexico louder than a ‘Mariachi sombrero’, or France than a ‘French beret’.

This may enrage the local population, who feel that the cliché misrepresents them. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for a skilled marketer can take that cliché and turn it into a matter of national pride, while at the same time using it to convey a message to a foreign audience. It all depends on whom you want to talk to.

It brings us back to the question: “Why is my place brand on social media?”

The answer should be simple. To build a community of likeminded people who truly like my place, and are genuinely interested in hearing about it.

A new way of approaching the problem is by turning it into an issue of quality over quantity. It’s not about how many fans/followers your brand has; it’s about how strong your online community is. That’s the only way you can get people to step away from their Facebook or Twitter page and actually go book a flight to see all the wonders you’re talking to them about.

In a sense, that’s the ultimate goal of place branding and territorial marketing, to bring people to see our homes, and if all goes well, for them to invest there.

By Daniel Reyes

Daniel Reyes is former Chief Communications Officer of the Colombia Country Brand Office. He now works as a private consultant in strategic communications, with an emphasis on place brands in the digital sphere. Follow Daniel on Twitter, or find him on LinkedIn.

Stoking city pride

Liverpool across the Mersey
photo credit: Sunrise over the River Mersey, Liverpool via photopin (license)

Placesbrands talks with Liverpool-based brand agency Uniform about galvanising citizen participation, rekindling a sense of civic pride, and keeping the smart cities of the future definitively people-focused.

Congratulations on being named twice in the City Nation Place place branding awards shortlist! How did you feel upon hearing the news?

Proud. These are two very different projects. Wirral Waters is a truly transformational project. Doing it right is more important than doing it quickly (the right considered approach is more important than rushing through the process to publicise a ‘logo’). Our client at Peel has been very supportive of the approach. Everyone is determined to make this the finest placemaking project that we’ve seen to date by working with the community.

As for Liverpool, this is a big city project on a city with an upward trajectory, but maintaining momentum can sometimes be more difficult than starting from scratch. It’s been complex but fulfilling to see the execution and support.

I’d like to talk first about the Wirral Waters regeneration project. Tell me about the approach Uniform used to get citizens on board with the project. What specific challenges did you encounter? And what are your thoughts on the importance of citizen participation for place branding as a whole?

The challenge was simple: 40 years of industrial decline, high unemployment and low aspirations. People had forgotten what it was like to be asked. Stimulating conversation in that environment isn’t easy – traditional workshops simply don’t work so we had to create our own tools that sparked debate, provoked comment and built aspiration.

We designed a multi-layered approach to maximise engagement. We held face to face meetings with many local community leaders, most of whom had been involved first-hand in Birkenhead for 20+ years. Also, we ran workshops with parents and groups of children from different schools across the town.

We also used the following approaches to inspire citizens and get them involved:

1.Create your own identity.

Take inspiration from the past history of the place to draw your own logo. Use photographs where you want. Create a name.

2. Who Lives Here?

People make a place, not buildings, so who do local people think will live in this transformed location? Sitting in groups, each person had to complete a profile of the person, giving the name, age, marital status, number of children, occupation, personality, and likes/dislikes.

3. Start Building Your City

We wanted to hear what local residents thought Wirral Waters would become, so we gave them a large map of the development and a sheet of stickers. They had to map out luxury apartments and family homes, schools and restaurants, affordable homes and sports centres, cinemas, – this was a starting point – they were encouraged to add their own.

4. What’s On Guide

We asked them to name the type of events that would local, national and international visitors to the new development? Again, we provided reference inspiration and highlighted the waterfront, green spaces, large docklands as ref.

5. Wish You Were Here!

We asked them to write a postcard from a tourist from this new development. What highlights would stand out? We encouraged ambition!

6. Imagine the Headlines!

Once the new place has been launched to the public, what do you want the media to say about it? We gave them an empty template with a masthead. The aim was to get a better picture of perceptions, which would allow us first hand information and allow us to take positive action, communicating feedback back to the developer, allowing local people to influence the future of the place, which it did!

How would you say Liverpool’s image has shifted over the last decade? 

Physical change is always at the heart of a project like this. People could see the regeneration underway. As a place, Liverpool has been an undervalued resource for decades and that sense of pride had diminished as a result. But a revitalised city returned that sense of pride. Major redevelopment, like the Liverpool One shopping centre, has been key, as it gave other businessmen and women the confidence to invest in the city. Liverpool suddenly had the footfall to support a flourishing independent sector.

Credit is also due to the Mayor’s ongoing investment in landmark cultural events, like the Giants, Liverpool International Music Festival and the variety of incredible festivals on the waterfront. Liverpool has rediscovered its place on the stage. It’s a great place to visit, to work and to live.

How has Uniform’s work with Marketing Liverpool helped develop the city brand? 

Stakeholders in the city were passionate about the Liverpool brand, but it needed clarity. What were they buying into? What were the benefits to them and to the city? By creating a clear offer and a framework everyone knew exactly what was expected and where it was going, while the creative look and feel built on the proposition of ‘dynamic creativity’ positioning.

In terms of effectiveness, it’s too early to say. But Marketing Liverpool has been committed to rolling it out across all touch points, so the visibility is high which is key to success.

What’s Uniform’s core place branding philosophy?

We have seven principles when it comes to place branding. At the core is the idea that places should be crafted by the people and owned by the people. It’s about experiences, and memories. You have to take everyone with you throughout the process.

Having a strong reputation and a clear sense of identity is now a pre-requisite for any city to be successful. If a city is consistently telling the same authentic, credible and motivating story, then in time it will start to achieve some control over its image. But ultimately it’s what you do that builds a reputation. As a place are you doing enough interesting things that express who you are? We live and breathe these principles.

Finally, in the wake of this double accolade, what are Uniform’s 2016 place branding goals?

We want to work on the most interesting place brand projects; outward-looking, future-facing and ambitious. We’re constantly in conversations with city leaders and developers about how they can develop. This includes how to create the framework to allow a sense of place to happen, naturally and authentically, along with the tools needed to allow this to continue strategically.

Uniform are advocates of the mantra that people make places, so it’s important that we don’t let the smart city agenda become a campaign for efficiency, forgetting the role of people! We’re just completing a report that looks at the role that technology can have on place. Play will become an increasingly important part of creating a sense of place.

Follow Uniform on Twitter.