January 6, 2014—The other day I was reading a Forbes article about national reputations, or “brand”, for 2013 as measured by the Reputation Institute, a “global private consulting firm based in New York and Copenhagen.” According to this organization, Canada holds the highest reputation of any country in the world for the third year in a row, with Sweden and Switzerland coming up second and third.
A country’s global reputation is hard to determine with certainty, even harder to establish and maintain. A few years ago I started to work with a few others on a small African country that wanted to change its brand in the global marketplace. The leaders of this country thought that people around the world held negative impressions about their nation. They wanted a change in order to foster more foreign investment and tourism.
After doing our analysis, we had a message for the leaders of this country. There were three things they needed to know before even thinking of a branding exercise. Those three points are equally applicable to companies or organizations striving for a positive brand association:
1. It’s better to have no brand than a negative one. In fact, the country’s leaders weren’t correct in their analysis. Most people we spoke with said they would find it hard to locate the country on a map, let alone did they have any impression of it whatsoever. That’s good news – it’s easier to start small and build a brand for a nation, a company, or an organization, than to try to repair a negative impression in peoples’ minds. Which leads to the next point.
2. Any brand correction, creation, or management takes a long time. We told the leaders of this country they should count on 3-7 years minimum before they could start seeing the impact of a positive branding of their country. It wasn’t one advertorial in the Financial Times or one spot on CNN International that would change the perception of this country. It was a sustained campaign over time, building reputation bit by bit. Studies have shown that when it comes to reputations, national ones in particular, people are very slow to change the way they think. Which leads to the next point.
3. All the branding work in the world won’t create a positive perception if a country (or company or organization) carries out bad policy. As the proverb says, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. To create a positive impression, a country (or firm, or other organization) has to avoid, or stop, doing things that are inherently wrong or perhaps just plain dumb. In this case, the African country wasn’t treating some of its people well (to put it mildly) but it had no plans to change. We told it that there had to be reform before any global perception could be built.
The country’s leaders didn’t take our advice, didn’t change their policies, and decided against any formal branding exercise. As a result, you probably still don’t know very much, if anything, about it.
Some countries may prefer to function that way, as do some firms. Their strategy seems to be that of the ostrich: no perception is a good perception. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the world works. Sooner or later, people will hear about you and form an impression. The goal is to make sure that when that happens, they form the right impression.