A new north

Nouveau North is a new media initiative that seeks to reconnect Canadians with the Canadian spirit and introduce its value abroad. Created by Payam Shalchian and Jamie Black, Nouveau North’s mission is to communicate the authentically Canadian ways of living, working and doing in a manner felt to be currently missing from both brands and the media landscapes.

Placesbrands talked to the founders Payam and Jamie to explore their thoughts on the current state of Brand Canada.

When was the ‘Eureka!’ moment that gave you the idea for Nouveau North? 

Payam Shalchian – I don’t think that there was a ‘moment’ per se, but rather a series of conversations over the span of a couple of years that slowly brewed this idea in our minds. Towards the end of 2014, we arrived at a moment of realization: we needed to convert thinking to doing. We thought the time is now! That’s when Nouveau North was crystallised as a tactical plan; a plan for us to deliver value and be true to our purpose as an organisation.

We’d been discussing whether there is a lack of focus on how the Canadian spirit is captured in Canada and how it’s painted globally. We sensed a lack of clarity around what ‘Made in Canada’ means in the global context, and we do see a massive change in how we define geography and national identity. We’re hoping this project can initiate and facilitate the discourse as we seek clarity around these topics.

Jamie Black – I completely agree here with Payam. One thing I’d like to add is that for me, this is a pure outcome of collaboration. I don’t think it would have happened without the two of us coming together. We each bring a set of skills, experiences and distinct background to the table.

How would you sum up the current ‘Brand Canada’ in a nutshell?

Ps–If we explore beyond the artefacts in which mass media encapsulates Canada (e.g. hockey, lumberjacks, beavers, etc.), the brand has evolved rather organically and has adopted and adapted to change vicariously over the past century.

Strategic and proactive place branding is a relatively new genre of activity in the north. Yet the Canadian brand as a social construct has embraced the same values all along: diversity, inclusivity, openness and tolerance. Can we say that these values have been driving brand Canada? What now? Where do we go from here? We hope to find out.

Jb– I think it’s one in transition at the moment. Embarking on fully embracing its potential. In some ways you can say the same for many countries. I think the nations that recognise the need to evolve their symbols with the evolution of their people, products, experiences and culture will be the ones to remain most competitive when it comes to trade, tourism and desired migration.

‘Brand Canada’ is very strong globally, but I’m not sure if you would define it as a legacy brand, hence it has untapped potential. Historically, ‘Brand Canada’ was anchored around a few strong symbols and they made sense to bring a bilingual, multi-cultural country together. Today it’s working to keep pace with the nation’s desire for greater global relevance, especially its emerging urban experience.

From what you’ve seen during your travels abroad, how does the world view Canada?

Jb– For me, it’s very segmented, and not in a bad way. I always remember something Simon Anholt said along the lines that “the average person only has three countries on the top of their minds, the USA, the place they went on their last holiday and where they may have relatives.”

I’m paraphrasing, but through travels you realize that the impressions people have of a place come from direct experiences they’ve had as opposed to impressions built up from global media. Canada contributes to the forming of its identity through symbolic actions in my opinion, whether positive or negative, and relies less on ambient media.

I always remember being in Belgrade and our taxi driver pointing out a building that was bombed by NATO and still not rebuilt. It really makes you stop to think, here I was in a country with a recent negative association with my homeland yet, I felt as if I was in the most hospitable place I had ever been. I think that speaks volumes of what the world can think of Canada. In addition, I’ve had countless experiences of individuals expressing their favorable opinion of Canada as a place to study, visit, do business with and ultimately emigrate to.

Ps– Based on my experience, having immigrated to Canada, and having lived and worked in Europe, Canada is often perceived as a destination. I don’t mean destination the way it’s framed by the tourism industry, but rather destination as the geography of choice for living.

It was fascinating to hear from a group of agricultural studies graduates from schools in Dusseldorf planning to move to Canada to explore the land from sea to sea. It was also fascinating to hear my parents (and many other families uprooting their ties and coming to Canada) explaining their choice for higher quality of life and prominent social security.

What’s the role of media in constructing a nation brand?

Jb– The communications of arts and culture through media such as film, literature and music is fascinating. I’m not sure how to describe it but sometimes it’s single handedly the most powerful thing you can experience about another place. I’m not sure it has a direct role in constructing or supporting the nation brand, instead, I would advocate, that individuals, organisations and governments have the responsibility to share it with others.

My stance is to authentically create media that are a reflection of the host nation and culture, as opposed to creating products destined for export markets. My last point here, is that I’d love the CBC to have a larger international remit, much like BBC and Al Jazeera, albeit at a smaller scale. I see that as a missed opportunity to reinforce our nation brand.

Ps– Increase awareness via facilitating the discourse, disseminating the knowledge and provoking the minds of thinkers and doers.

How does Nouveau North hope to contribute to the existing narrative?

Jb– For me, I think it’s about working hard to ask the questions that may help us see things in a different or more positive light. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly have our challenges, but wouldn’t it be better to start solving them on the heels of other successes around us? I think it’s about extending the existing narrative, planting seeds of imagination with our readers of what things are and ultimately could be.

Ps– I believe our first step is to start talking about our narrative, what our narrative is and how the existing narrative is catapulting us into the future global context. Then we’ll be looking to strategically build upon the optimism and positive attributes of the current narrative.

As Jamie puts it, we do have a good thing going, but do we talk about it in the right context? In the right framework? And with the right mindset? That’s where I think Nouveau North will have an impact on the subject matter as a new media platform. Content is our product, discourse is our service.

What would you say are the present risks to Canada’s brand? 

Jb– I think there’s an assertive element to Canada’s brand at the moment. It’s been ruffling some feathers, especially in stances on foreign policy and climate for example. Many are not used to it. I think audiences over time have grown accustomed to a perfectly indifferent Canada, where exceptional positive contributions were made globally over time, while otherwise staying out of the spotlight.

I believe it’s part of the process towards maturing and my advice for brands, destinations, and businesses increasingly trying to leverage brand Canada, is to be mindful of how they are asserting themselves and which traits of our identity they are drawing from.

Ps–Even though I’d like to encourage us to rethink the challenges facing Canada’s brand as opportunities rather than risks, I do believe there are challenges, which if left unaddressed would create roadblocks to realising the true potential of one nation’s collective identity. I tend to cluster these challenges into two buckets:

1- Public awareness; Are Canadians ready to be Canada’s brand evangelists?

2- Organisational readiness; Are our organisations, institutions, businesses, infrastructure, etc. ready?

How would you like to see Brand Canada develop in the future?

Ps– A brand built on a true purpose, reflective of the Canadian values and carried by its people.


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