After the disruption of 2020, how can countries begin to re-attract investment and tourism in the years and months ahead?

Jon Tipple, FutureBrand’s Global Chief Strategy Officer recently appeared on an episode of Euronews Debates to discuss this pertinent question. Below are some of the key takeaways that emerged from the debate, in conversation with other leading consultants, academics and branding experts.

What is country branding?

Before understanding how to re-brand a country post-pandemic, it’s worth first exploring what country branding actually is.

Jon Tipple explained that there are few similarities between country branding and other types of branding – whether consumer or corporate. This is simply because we think about a country in a different way than how we might think about a product, for example.

Unlike other brands, country brands have a myriad of associations which we, as the public, find hard to articulate. Moreover, these associations are built up over a much longer period of time and through a variety of complex lenses. It’s for this reason that the FutureBrand Country Index assesses country brands through the prism of six key metrics, including Business Potential, Heritage and Culture, Quality of Life and Tourism.

Understanding a country’s brand isn’t just about assessing external perceptions either. Dr Natasha Grand, Director at the Institute of Identity made the point that places can’t be wholly disentangled from the people that inhabit them. It is the people that contribute to a distinct national character, values, or way of living. External branding efforts simply won’t be successful if people internally don’t buy into it.

The pandemic effect

Interestingly, the pandemic has had little impact on the perceptions of country brands. Jon noted that, whilst FutureBrand had expected to see more notable shifts in the 2020 Country Index Ranking, the report actually revealed unexpected resilience in a year of crisis.

Japan retained its #1 spot in the rankings - a position it has held since the inaugural index was launched - and it was joined once again in the top five by Switzerland and Norway. The U.S. and U.K. also retained their spots in the top twenty, despite a year marked by political tensions and, of course, the continuing fall-out from the pandemic.

Instead of having a significant impact in altering country perceptions, Jon suggested that the pandemic has played another role - bringing the associations we already have more sharply into focus and confirming our existing perceptions. China, for instance, lived up to its reputation of being orderly and disciplined, America loud and dramatic, and the U.K. as the oxymoronic “world-class amateur”.

This is likely because, as independent policy advisor Simon Anholt pointed out, the majority of people are not overly concerned with understanding or investigating the internal affairs of other countries – particularly when they have their own domestic issues to contend with.

The FutureBrand Country Index circumvents this issue by exclusively surveying influential and well-travelled individuals – whether chief executives, civil servants or other high-ranking professionals – to really get under the skin in what decision makers believe to be true about countries around the world.

Is it possible to change perceptions?

Although the 2020 FutureBrand Country Index rankings showed little movement year-on-year for the majority of nations, notable risers such as Angola indicate that it is possible to change perceptions. For Angola, it was growing political stability and investment in technology which really helped shift the needle in this regard.

The caveat Jon offered is that it will always be easier for smaller, younger or less well-known countries to change perceptions – much in the way that challenger brands are able to pivot a business model to respond quickly to changing consumer needs. These countries also often have fewer stakeholders, a more unified vision and clear aspirations.

In contrast, nations with a more entrenched image will find it takes longer to change and evolve their country brand. For these countries, in-roads will be made more easily within specific target groups – investors, students or tourists - as opposed to in the round.

To do this well, Jon noted that is critical to understand not only who you want to attract, but also the story you are telling to get them there – it’s much more than just applying an aesthetically pleasing image.

Role of trust, in a global community

As we look ahead, into the future of country branding, Jon pointed out that we must take heed of changing perceptions in the younger generation. There is a fundamental shift taking place in how this generation view nations as a whole, tending much more towards a borderless worldview.

In this worldview, it is impact not words that elicits the most positive response. Indeed, this is one of the few ways in which country brands are similar to other brands; you must practice what you preach. This is certainly true for Costa Rica, which is gaining recognition internationally for its commitment for sustainability.

Daniel Valverde Bagnarello, Director of Essential Costa Rica, added that the reason its approach has gained traction amongst the international community is because sustainability is not just a marketing tool – it has been baked into Costa Rican policy for decades.

Jon ended by observing that today’s consumer is much less tolerant of inconsistencies than yesterday’s and, as a result, there is an onus on countries to ensure there is a watertight connection between what they are saying and what they do on the ground.

About the FutureBrand Country Index

The FutureBrand Country Index measures the strength of perception of countries around the world in the same way we study consumer or corporate brands. Now in its second decade, the Index re-orders the World Bank Top 75 countries by GDP according to strength of perception.

Read the full FutureBrand Country Index here.

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