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An image consultant can only do so much

Marketplace Staff Jan 3, 2007

JEREMY KAHN: Marketing expertise isn’t so easy to apply to nations. A country’s identity is the sum of many things: geography, history, demographics, politics and economics.

KAI RYSSDAL: Commentator Jeremy Kahn.

KAHN: It’s not a cereal box that can be retooled quickly. To transform a country’s image, first you have to transform the country.

The United Kingdom’s “Cool Britannia” branding campaign from the mid-90s is a favorite of nation-branding gurus. “Cool Britannia” announced a Britain that was experiencing a renaissance in art, architecture, fashion, even cuisine. It was also experiencing a political earthquake in the form of Tony Blair’s New Labor movement.

Branding helped raise awareness of these changes. But branding didn’t create them. They either were wrapped up in Blair’s campaign or, in many cases, predated it. But the important thing is that the changes came first, then the marketing — that’s something the branding experts seem to miss.

In the absence of political transformation, nation branding often amounts to nothing more than misdirection.

Uganda, one of the poorer nations on earth, spent $1 million last year buying ads on CNN International touting its physical beauty. Uganda, the ads said, was “gifted by nature.” And it’s true that Uganda does have gorgeous waterfalls and silver-backed gorillas. But it also has thousands of children who spend their nights fleeing forced recruitment into a brutal rebel army, as viewers of CNN International might be aware since the story was covered extensively by the network’s correspondents.

Israel also recently spent three years and millions of dollars developing and test marketing an advertising campaign. And yes, Israel does indeed “start with I,” as the country’s new tag line helpfully points out. But so does Intifada — and it will take more than a new marketing campaign to get potential investors and tourists to forget Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

In fact, it might require something beyond the abilities of even the most talented marketing consultant: peace.

RYSSDAL: Freelance writer Jeremy Kahn lives in Washington, D.C.

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