Redefining Places: How Branding Cities and Countries Can Change Perceptions

A VIEW FROM THE TOP

Great cities and nations all have their own unique characteristics, ranging from geography, history and culture to quality of life and work opportunities. But a place’s distinct brand can be hard to define and is often based on perception—formed by a combination of experience and reputation.

American marketer and author Seth Godin defines a brand as a set of “expectations, memories, stories and relationships” that drive the decision to choose a company, product or service. 

Just as consumers choose one company over another, our decision to choose a destination for vacation, for example, can also be driven by brand. Similarly, businesses may make decisions on market or office locations based on perception and branding. Cadillac, for instance, recently moved its offices from Detroit to New York City to show its dedication to the luxury market. 

But New York wasn’t always considered upscale. In the late 1970s, as the city’s reputation was being tarnished by high crime rates and poverty, the New York State Department of Commerce launched the iconic “I Love New York” campaign in an effort to change perceptions and appeal to “out of towners.”

Just as consumers choose one company over another, our decision to choose a destination can also be driven by brand. 

Today, we associate New York City with excitement and ambition, Paris with romance and style, Rome with history, and Los Angeles with glamour and fame. But other cities are less distinguishable, and in some cases, carry a negative association that can have far-reaching implications on their economies.

So how do we form these initial impressions, and what can a country or city do to change them?

Rina Plapler, a partner at brand agency MBLM, who has worked on rebranding campaigns for St. Lucia, Mexico, Qatar, Peru and the Government of Dubai, among others, says branding a nation or city is similar in many ways to branding a company. But, not only can it be more complex, it can have political ramifications.

Plapler sat down with Blueprint, presented by CBRE, to talk about the business of reshaping the way we think about places.

When it comes to branding, can we think about countries the same way we think about companies?

A country’s brand is, in a lot of ways, the same as what any brand is. It’s providing an umbrella, a core idea for a country to leverage, and it needs to be a succinct and strong idea that they can deliver with impact.

But the additional challenge in country branding is that it tends to be very multifaceted, and you have to be careful that something that’s overly branded can trivialize important issues and often lead to negative perceptions and backlash. You can’t realistically say that countries in troubled parts of the world today are “fun-in-the-sun” kinds of places. You have to look at the larger environment and circumstances surrounding a country brand to come up with something that is compelling.

What informs our perceptions of a nation or city?    

Consider a Snickers [candy bar]. You get it off the shelf and you eat it, and that’s your experience of the brand. It’s pretty much you and the Snickers. But when you’re in a country, there are so many things that impact your perceptions. If you have a bad ride from the airport to your hotel because the driver is scamming you, all that branding work of the country goes by the wayside. There are so many stakeholders, from the customs officials to the taxi drivers to the service people to the citizens of a country that impact a brand, which makes it a much harder thing to really activate effectively.

How can businesses help define a nation’s brand? (For example, IKEA in Sweden, or BMW in Germany.)

Those are two strong examples. When you look at BMW or Mercedes, they’re precision, they’re engineering. Those are characteristics of what you hear of Germans and Germany. It’s not just that they’re great cars. IKEA is about simplicity, affordability, ease. Again, those have certain connotations. Dubai is known for luxury, so having the Burj al Arab or the Burj Khalifa—these biggest, tallest, best things—further promotes that brand.

Of course, we know that there are tons of branded exports as well. Chilean sea bass, Egyptian cotton, Colombian emeralds—all those types of exports have done a good job of using their country brand as a way to associate positive perceptions with their product, and those in turn go back to the country if the product is strong and positively received.  

Then, more broadly, if you look at a country like the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, which we branded many moons ago, the fact that a lot of businesses have made the UAE their hub or their base in the Middle East creates a lot of momentum on the business brand level. A lot of banks, for example, left Bahrain and moved to the UAE once a handful of banks made that commitment. Certainly, the idea of a critical mass or a new regional hub does a lot to create buzz around the commercial viability of a country brand.

What are some of the most misunderstood countries in the world?

There are so many factors that go into being misunderstood. There’s so much going on, on the geopolitical level, that impact a country’s brand. We worked with Qatar, and I’d say at the time it had a slightly different perception on the world stage. It had birthed Al Jazeera, which was seen as bold in a region that has a lot of “yes” and head nodding. It was allowing freedom of the press. Qatar had been an independent country since its formation.

There really is no country brand for the United States if you think about it. That, to me, is amazing.

They had been on the political stage really trying to push more diplomatic ties with other countries in the region, and [there are] other examples that made them independent and going their own way. All of those components are still true. But a brand doesn’t exist in isolation. You can see how it changes over years just by political events or circumstances that a country has.

I think “Brand USA” is one of the most misunderstood just because it’s largely silent. There really is no country brand for the United States if you think about it. That, to me, is amazing.

I think a lot of African countries are misunderstood, or their brands could be much stronger in telling the remarkable history and topography that they have to leverage and don’t. There are so many opportunities right now. I think the Middle East has a lot of tremendously historic countries. Obviously, again, the world being what it is, I think there’s a lot of fear about getting involved or visiting those countries.

Branding can only do so much. It’s possible, but challenging, to change what perceptions people might have, especially if they’re fear-based, unless you’re in the country and realize it’s nothing like you thought.

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