In 2017, Mexico undertook a massive campaign to redefine itself as a destination for leisure travel. The multi-million dollar “A World of its Own” campaign spanned the globe, attracting visitors to the country’s UNESCO heritage sites and helped counter news coverage of increasing cartel violence.
Mexico is not alone in its use of branding to change perceptions. Countries across the world turn to marketing strategists to build their reputations, and as social media has made the spread of news and influencer content instantly impactful, the importance of branding has reached global proportions.
But just as Mexico still carries the burden of the drug trade alongside its famous beaches, most other nations have their own reputational crosses to bear. Indeed, geopolitics are complex and missteps are increasingly branded on our collective memories.
So how can nations benefit from global brand building to attract tourists, engage investors and nurture diplomatic ties while avoiding a white-wash of their histories?
Draw from Shared Values
In Italy, the saying goes that the “whole world is one place (tutto il mondo e’ un paese).” While Italy needs little help in the tourism department, the sentiment is a helpful one to remember when using communications to build relationships.
Broadening an approach to identify commonalities or even the simple truths that humanity can relate to at the most basic level, such as food, hospitality and family, are sure ways to find those threads that can lead to a tailored approach for a specific country.
Speaking of Italy, who doesn’t like pizza? Well, most cultures have their own version of a flatbread, so raising the profile of lavash or arepas might be a way to increase interest in Armenia or Colombia as destinations of interest, for example. Customs such as Indonesian funeral ceremonies or Ethiopia’s coffee rituals are other examples of cultural norms that are at once beautifully exotic yet entirely relatable.
A marketing or PR professional might consider a campaign around a country’s culinary culture, pitching food travel stories to magazines like Bon Appetit and Conde Nast, and engaging with contributors to morning shows to showcase recipes and the stories behind them.
Lean into Differences
In nation branding, the cultural differences are what make each destination so exciting. Showcasing the flavor of hospitality or business opportunities through imagery, campaign content, branding and spokespeople will set a country apart from competitors and help establish it with target audiences.
Tushetoba, a Georgian highland festival, is a great example of how lesser-known cultures shine in their own unique, authentic ways. This annual festival highlights the colorful textiles, local foods and musical traditions that set Georgia apart. Bringing these distinctive aspects to life with photography and content tailored to those travelers looking for something new can create appetite for adventure, despite the country’s hard-to-reach location. A social media campaign featuring exotic imagery and Western wonderment with new cultures will capture the imagination of travelers looking for a new adventure.
No brand can relate to complexity quite like a nation can. Saudi Arabia is an example of how a difficult political environment taints tourism potential, and it’s not alone. Many countries suffer from diplomatic difficulties, yet offer incredible beauty and cultures. Building a brand that attracts visitors and investors for these nations is one of the most rewarding campaigns for a marketer, because it forces creativity, diplomacy and political awareness in a way traditional branding seldom requires.
Emerging market investing has long grappled with these challenges and, in fact, rewards them. For tourism, the mystery can often be a selling point, but marketers must factor in risk and on-the-ground offerings to ensure the experience matches the advertising. Working with journalists to develop a travel feature that takes the guesswork out of an itinerary is a smart way to tell a country’s story while managing risk.
Established perceptions can be difficult to change, but this is often the reality with which nation branding grapples. Places evoke strong feelings and this is why it is so important to lean into those emotional responses and develop a country’s brand based on authenticity and shared values.
Nation branding is all about driving positive understanding, and no canvas is quite as beautiful to work with as an entire culture.
Marie de Foucaud is a brand-building expert with decades of experience leading efforts to improve the reputation and brand identity of discerning and globally-recognized clients. She has served as vice president, global communications at Richard Attias & Associates and headed up worldwide communications for Boucheron-Kering Group.