What do Tanzania, Germany and Sweden have in common? Yes, they're countries. But they're also brands. And while the field of "nation branding" is new, it's taking off quickly.
Sherif Sabri is a man who knows a thing or two about image and sound. He is probably the most successful producer of music videos in the Arab world. But a few months ago, in Cairo, he was busy with a very different project.
"I am working now on a campaign about Egypt," he said. "I am branding Egypt."
Yes, Egypt. A country of nearly 80 million people. The land of the Pharoahs is being branded — like Coca-Cola or Nike.
Sabri has produced a television spot — the viewer sees a desert oasis — then images of cell phones and mosques flash across the screen while the announcer intones: "Egypt: Keep Your Eye on It." This particular spot is aimed not at tourists or investors but at Egyptians themselves.
"This is showing what they have and making them appreciate what they have," Sabri said. "And when I say keep your eye on it, it's something valuable you have and you should keep your eye on it, and don't spoil it."
So how did nations become brands? For decades, marketing researchers have studied something called "the country of origin" effect. Show a consumer two identical products but label one "Made in Mexico" and the other "Made in Japan" and, consistently, people choose the one "Made in Japan." But then in 1998, a British marketing consultant named Simon Anholt took this concept a step further. He wrote an article in an obscure trade journal, arguing that places and nations themselves are brands.
"And over the course of the next few weeks and months I got a number of calls saying what is this outrageous idea, countries aren't brands, you can't say that," Anholt said. "And I thought, 'Goodness me, I'm on to something.'"
Anholt was inundated with calls from officials around the world seeking his services. In the world of nation branding, flags become logos, national anthems advertising jingles. When we buy a pair of Calvin Klein jeans we're not just buying a few pounds of denim, we're buying the Calvin Klein experience, whatever that is. Simon Anholt says nation branding works the same way.
"What I'm saying is that countries have reputations," Anhold said. "And they always have had and they always will have. And that reputation has a tremendous impact on the destiny of the country. If it's well regarded than everything is easier."
Of course, nations have had reputations — or "brands" — for centuries. But in a global marketplace, those reputations matter more than ever and nations are trying to control them more than ever.
In a commercial for Ireland titled "The Skelligs," a narrator says "...would you believe it, it was in this restaurant in Belfast that Amy Avery of Sonoma, California discovered Guinness. Discover Ireland for yourself."
One way nations brand themselves is through TV ad campaigns like this one for Ireland. But Simon Anholt says advertising is just a tiny part of what nation branding is about.
"You can't change the image of a country by running advertising campaigns," Anholt said. "It's a wicked waste of money. And it's immoral."
Anholt says nation branding means consistent policies — "living the brand," he calls it — and making sure that every government agency is in lockstep. He even urges countries to appoint "branding ministers."
So which country has the best brand? According to a recent survey of people around the world, the answer is Australia. Australia is hardly a world power and it is a long way from... well, from anywhere. But Simon Anholt says none of that matters when it comes to brand recognition.
"People have seen Crocodile Dundee so they think Australians are wonderful people, clever, funny, humorous, masculine, outdoorsy and all the rest of it," he said. "It's a magical combination of a great deal of ignorance and a small amount of very positive and probably skewed belief."
Branding cuts both ways. Positive brands stick for a long time. But once a country is "branded" a rogue nation it is very difficult to undo the damage.
"Look at what branding and the word comes from," says Peter van Ham, a research fellow at a think tank in the Netherlands. "It comes from probably the Midwest where you had to brand cattle in a certain way. That's also what's happening of course. You can brand a region or a country as very evil. And that is the other opposite of country branding perhaps."
North Korea, for instance, is a country with a significant "branding problem," to put it mildly. But in the optimistic world of "nation branding" even that isn't all bad. According to Simon Anholt, "In a funny kind of way kind of way North Korea has a tremendously powerful brand in the sense that everybody everywhere in the world knows exactly what it stands for. There's no confusion about what that brand is. It is a pariah state."
In other words, says Anholt, all the nation branding in the world won't help a country that's selling a shoddy product.