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Simon Anholt's skepticism on place “branding”

Here is an interesting recent article by pioneer on destination branding, Simon Anholt. Though I can't agree with most of it - especially the part that states that public relations campaigns are useless for a destination - I do see his point on the fact that countries' competitive branding are preventing this world to become a more collaborative scenario for all. And to be honest, my childhood persona would like to believe him but I can't help thinking it's naive to expect everyone to share anything in this world. That's just not the way it is. Hence, I'd suggest: let's work to what we have - destinations competing for their best branding - and see which benefits the world can take out from that. A major one, in my opinion, is the opportunity to bring cultures together and "educate" through tourism.

Final thought: it's ironic to see Anholt complaining about countries' competition while being founder and publisher of The Good Country Index -

Anyway, here goes his text:

Place branding revisited

Published on October 22, 2019

Simon Anholt Founder and Publisher at The Good Country Index

I’ve been interested in the images of countries, cities and regions since the late 1990s. I coined the term “nation brand” back in 1998, and since then I’ve advised the governments of more than fifty countries on their international images, and studied how this affects their ability to perform trade, tourism, foreign investment, cultural and diplomatic relations. I founded an academic journal on the subject, now in its fifteenth year, and I’ve built up more than a billion data points of research measuring the images of countries and cities each year since 2005.Fast forward to today, and most countries, cities and regions worry constantly about how they are perceived: by tourists, by investors, by other governments and institutions, by mobile workers and students, by international public opinion, by consumers. Many of them spend vast amounts of taxpayers’ money attempting to improve their “brand image” through advertising, social media, public relations and logo design.And it simply doesn’t work. In all the years I’ve been working and researching in this area, I’ve never seen a single, properly researched case study to prove that any place on earth has ever moved the needle on its international image by means of communications. Countries have always been judged and will always be judged by what they do, over decades and generations: never by what they say about themselves.And yet, governments are so anxious to believe that improving the image of their country is a simple matter of messaging that they persist, year after year, in burning billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on futile propaganda campaigns that invariably sink without trace.Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with straightforward tourism, trade or investment promotion: the country’s products and services must be marketed. But the idea that you can use these techniques to manipulate what the world thinks about your country is simply false. If it were really possible to “brand” a nation in the eyes of the world, I’d probably be living in the Third Reich or the USSR today instead of (just about) in the European Union: few people have understood “nation branding” better than Goebbels or Stalin.I haven’t had much to do with this field during the last five or six years, as I’ve been focused on very different projects, like the Good Country Index. But I was invited to speak next month at the City Nation Place conference in London, where government officials from around the world meet up to discuss national self-promotion, so I thought I’d better do some research and find out how things had moved on.I'm sorry to say that the discussions haven’t advanced one millimetre since the 1990s. Governments, instead of learning from their predecessors’ expensive mistakes, are still burning vast amounts of public funds on futile propaganda, on logos, slogans and public relations campaigns, in the deluded hope that telling people how wonderful their country is will somehow make them believe it. The only thing that’s changed, as far as I can see, is that governments now have a whole new medium on which to blow more tax revenues than ever: social media.Call me old-fashioned, but I think if you’re spending public money on anything at all, even if it is a glamorous mystery imported from the private sector like “branding” or “digital marketing”, it should be transparent, measurable and accountable. And if the investment doesn’t produce a measurable return, that fact should be recorded, rather than being buried and the error repeated by every new administration.But what has really disturbed me is not so much the failure of institutional learning and the almost criminal diversion of state funding away from policies that demonstrably improve people’s lives. It’s the assumption behind these activities: the idea that national competitiveness must still be the primary driver of public policy. A whole quarter century had passed since Wall Street was in the cinemas; business and society have changed beyond recognition; almost nobody wears red braces these days; and yet in government buildings all around the world, greed is still good, and domestic dog is still busily figuring out how to eat foreign dog.The realisation that countries are still fixated on competing against each other, rather than working together to solve the grand challenges of climate change, conflict, disease, poverty and human rights abuse, is seriously depressing. America First, Britain First, China First, Russia First, India First … when will we ever learn that life on earth is not a sprint to the finish, with winners and losers? It’s a team game, and either we all survive, or we all perish.And there’s a curious endnote here. My billion datapoints of research show very clearly that there’s only one way to improve a country’s “brand image”, and that’s by co-operating and collaborating, consistently and imaginatively, with the international community, in order to tackle the challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Or put more simply, if a country wants to be admired, it has to be admirable.Ironically, it turns out that the most competitive form of national behaviour is collaboration.


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