What’s Your National Brand?

March 6, 2010

Countries attempt to brand elements of their history, geography, and produce in order to “sell” them to tourists and buyers – think champagne, parmesan cheese, and America’s National Parks, to give just a few examples. It is advertising on a large scale, and the different brands combine to form a larger idea of what each country represents. But how do countries communicate their existential selves in short, catchy words and logos – brands – when people hold conflicting ideas about what they really are at the core?

Branding is, in essence, an attempt to distil very complex ideas and feelings into a simplified name or image. It is powerful when it succeeds because humans need heuristics, that is, ways to make optimal decisions easily based on mental shortcuts and approximations, and successful brands are among the most reliable heuristics. This is why advertisers don’t sell products or services but feelings: early Listerine ads promoted fitting in by not succumbing to the horrors of halitosis; Absolut Vodka ads (by virtue of their relatively early association with the gay community) signified open-mindedness, style, class, and wealth; the ubiquitous Coca-Cola Christmas ads signify all the joy and anticipation and childish delight of the holidays in a neat, 30-second spot (I dare you to watch the linked ad and not feel gleeful). Brands are so simple and powerful that even three-year-olds can identify their favourites and what they represent.

In the history of producers and consumers, branding is a remarkably modern concept, dating back to the late nineteenth century. In the days before urbanization and the growth of communities, supply chains were no longer than neighbour-to-neighbour. Consumers knew the producers and could make their own decisions about what to purchase. As soon as more steps were introduced into the supply chain, consumers lacked this direct knowledge of the products and had to rely on the expertise of those selling the products – the retailers. Before brands, small-time retailers were immensely powerful, and not always objective, but consumers had to trust them. With brands, manufacturers sought to shift the balance of power by reaching the consumers directly, through advertising and the promise of consistency in the product. Consumers could bypass the retailers, and even influence their businesses, by demanding specific products from specific producers.

Major world events are rare and powerful opportunities for countries to bypass international “retailers” (travel agents, government investment boards, mainstream media) and reach potential consumers directly. In particular, sporting events, with their viewership in the billions, represent a major branding opportunity for a whole nation. I’m going to stay within the Commonwealth and talk about two upcoming (and one recently passed) major sporting events that exemplify this idea: the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the London 2012 Summer Olympics, and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. What are the national branding strategies associated with these events and what do they signify?

Making a profit and developing the local infrastructure is always the ostensible rationale behind hosting major events such as these. Getting tourists and investors to notice a nation is (hopefully) a great recipe for future profit. And obviously, being sporting events, a large part of the brand idea is centred around the sporting prowess of the host. Much has been made of Canada’s desire to Own the Podium, and how success in sport will spell an enduring run of national pride. First among the UK’s 2012 Olympic “Legacy Promises” is to “make the UK a world-leading sporting nation.” And South Africa is no doubt hoping for a miraculous home win in the vein of their 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph (I’ve thought for months now that Invictus is just a very expensive morale booster and marketing campaign for the South African football team). But the really interesting part of the brand images is everything else these nations are attempting to associate with their brand at perhaps the world’s most visible advertising campaign. And because brands must be simple ideas that represent more complex ones, the focus really narrows to what the host nations consider to be most important to their international reputations at this moment. What do organizers want people to think when they see a maple leaf, or a Union Jack, or funky African font? Their brand images are revealing.

Modern Canada, to those not living here, is all about beer, hockey, and politeness. Historically, it is about Pierre Trudeau and lumberjacks. (This cartoon sums up the stereotypes quite amusingly.) Surely, as the Economist suggests, Canada would use the event to attempt to re-brand itself as a “modern, youthful sporting power.” Perhaps that is so – though I believe Canada has always been seen as fairly modern and youthful internationally, so this is no great stretch. Yet the extra-sport, extra-developmental goals of Vancouver 2010 were all about uniting Canada as a nation – of many languages, regions, ethnic groups, and historical conflicts, one. They were to be Canada’s Games. This is a surprisingly insular goal, considering only those fairly well acquainted with our history and politics would consider Canada a truly fractured nation. Perhaps Canada’s diversity (and consequently potentially confusing contradictions) meant organizers had to subsume the whole nation – in all its natural beauty and dynamism and multiethnic glory – into one idea. On that score, I think they succeeded, as we do seem to be more unified (at least for the moment). And if tourists and investors believe that all of Canada (and not just British Columbia) is “super, natural”, I’m sure nobody will complain.

It may be harder for Britain, given that so many have already formed an idea of the country from its long historical and cultural global dominance. Yet the stated goals for London 2012, apart from the obvious sporting- and infrastructure-related ones, are surprisingly modest. They mainly involve inspiring young people to “take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity,” and showing that Britain is a “creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and for business.” Terrible grammar aside, these aims seem to have a theme of regeneration, which reflects the general undercurrent in the media that Britain is on the decline. Inspire the youth of today? Check. Attract new, wealthy residents and investors? Check. Attempt to stem the floodgates of brainpower and cultural capital that burst when we lost the Empire? Check. Unlike Canada’s stated goals – to show people what we are – Britain’s goals are to show people what they could be again someday. (No wonder their coverage of Canada’s Olympics was so bitterly critical.) And judging from the logo, the future of Britain is bright…pink.

South Africa is facing an even tougher challenge, as it prepares to host this year’s FIFA World Cup (currently 95 days, 22 hours, 28 minutes and 3 seconds away, not that I’m counting). It is the first on African soil, and South Africa is aiming to re-brand not only itself, but the whole continent of Africa as modern, safe, and open for business. The main media page for the event contains an article on safety preparations. This would have been unheard of for Germany 2006. The fact that the World Cup organizers had to confirm that it would proceed despite the fatal attacks on several members of Togo’s soccer team over one thousand miles away in Angola signifies that South Africa is representing the whole of Africa, and that the pressure is on. The main branding idea seems to be “surprise,” as in “the whole world will be surprised by what we have to offer.” Again, a chance for re-invention. My personal hope is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised by England surviving past the quarterfinals for a change.

The Vancouver Olympics were a great success, not only for our athletes, but for our image. I’m excited to see how the World Cup and London 2012 Olympics brands evolve while the world’s eyes are watching.

What do you think? Do these national brands sum up Canada, Britain or South Africa to you? What would you add or change about them? And do you think England has any chance of making the finals?

Further Reading:


From Antimacassars to Tweets: Clutter Through the Ages

March 4, 2010

Victorians loved their clutter. There are whole classes at my alma mater dedicated to studying things like doilies and antimacassars, Adam fireplaces with clocks on them, and the inevitable fern, and determining why they were all integral to the middle class Victorian existence.

 As I have written before, it was all about conspicuous consumption. Middle class families needed all the accoutrements of the age to show they understood and supported the progressive goals of the society in which they lived. Clocks prominently placed on the mantel showed the importance of the awareness of time and regulating one’s work day to more standardized, industrial hours, as well as support for new trends like standard time, firmly established at the global International Meridian Conference of 1884.  Gas, and later electric, light fixtures showed that residents were wealthy and knowledgeable enough to be moving to new technologies. Books were finely bound in leather and treasured in specially constructed libraries. There was comfort in things.

Today, progress seems to be signified by owning fewer things, at least in material terms. It’s conspicuous rejection. Today we praise clean lines, simplicity and functionality in design (note the rise of Ikea) over complexity and clutter. There is a whole profession dedicated to selling houses by taking away everything in them that indicates that someone who lives there has a personality.  The desired aesthetic of today is less, not more.

 Our intelligence is measured now not by what we keep with us and inside our homes, but what we have access to and are aware of, signified by our wall comments on facebook, our video uploads to YouTube, our digitized music collections and playlists. There are, of course, also material indicators: computers, mp3 players, electronic readers, cell phones – things that help us to gain this access – but the idea behind these is to get as much access from the smallest size as is possible.

 Russell Smith laments the loss of bookshelves in the Globe & Mail today, saying that in the future without them we will have less of a window into the minds of our friends and lovers. Instead, all of this valuable information will be hidden from us, locked away in an electronic box of some sort. We will never know if our friends read and enjoyed Patrick Swayze’s autobiography (yes, he actually wrote that).  Our access to our friends’ preferences will be restricted to the type of computer they own, or their preferred ISP.

The nature of our clutter is changing, but the nature of our access is changing too. Victorians accessed the “big ideas” of the day (and of all time) through investments in weighty tomes of classics (preferably in Latin, of course), and extensive decorating. They chose their clutter with care, in an effort to have “talking pieces.” Their furniture was designed to allow for observation, and they had nifty things like conversation chairs so their guests could look around the room while talking to each other. The middle of the room was considered the best place to put things – why bother having space there for silly things like walking through? Victorians also invested their time in large blocks, conversing at dinner parties and spending weeks of their summer in London or visiting various grand country homes. In general, they spent more time doing fewer things. Many then feared the rise of the train would eliminate time for thinking. Now many of us consider train rides a welcome rest from our days and an opportunity to do just that. Ironic.

Our investments in physical pieces of interest are less, but I am more interested in our decreased investments of time. Not overall, of course – I think we all read and write as much now as anyone ever did – but in focused time. Recently, a writer for ars technica complained of his eroding attention span, the result of technological progress (I highly recommend you read the whole article – if you can focus your attention on it long enough). The urgency and quantity of blog posts, twitter updates and an endless stream of emails, phone calls, and other e-news from those we know or follow, mean we rarely focus on any one thing for very long. What does this mean for our understanding of and engagement with the great questions, the ones Victorians loved to ponder with their weighty tomes? Another commentator in ars recently wrote about how our intelligence is shifting from a “contemplative” sort to a “utilitarian” sort, that is, we focus now on how to categorize and stay afloat in all the information we have instead of considering what it really means. Our ability to discuss content is limited to how much we know about it (and from where) and less what we really think about it. As another wrote in the same column:

 Most writing online is devolving toward SMS and tweets that involve quick, throwaway notes with abbreviations and threaded references. This is not a form of lasting communication. In 2020 there is unlikely to be a list of classic tweets and blog posts that every student and educated citizen should have read.

A term I read that describes our reading style now is “promiscuous.” Lots of exploration; little commitment. It just sounds dirty. I want to be a serial book monogamist – but the global proliferation of articles and updates and general nonsense is so tempting! Has our society evolved beyond bibliomonogamy?

And instead of our bookshelves and material clutter telling everyone who we are and where we get our information, our brain clutter and how we articulate our sources perform this job. I would go so far as to say resourcefulness (i.e. knowing where and how to find information) is prized in most jobs over measured thought. Terrifying decline, or positive change? How quickly will our brains evolve to process all of this information – or will they not evolve at all? Will we overwhelm ourselves with triviality?

 I note, with irony, that this post is very linky. There are at least 10 different ways here to distract your focus from this piece, and redirect it to obscure Victorian furniture or semi-professional associations liked to real estate. Perhaps the new clutter is virtual, to the extent that much of it is accessible only to those who look for it. But, like the best discoveries in a Victorian curiosity shop, some of the best discoveries today are the result of someone else’s interests cobbled together to form the whole of their personality. And the diversity allowed by our narrowed attention span is tremendous. For those who have access to it, the whole world, in a sense, is now someone’s Victorian living room. Feel free to come in and have a conversation in my comments section/conversation chair below.