Nation branding is such a strategic issue that is central to global competitiveness and visibility. It cannot be relegated to be a peripheral issue as it is core to enhanced economic performance through tourism competitiveness, foreign direct investment and talent attraction.
Nation branding is such a massive business activity which requires huge capital investment, stakeholder involvement, visionary leadership and strategic thinking if it is to yield good results and contribute meaningfully to economic development.
A unified national brand strategy
One of the major mistakes that are made by Nation branding strategists and governments is failure to establish and agree on concrete and adequate selection criteria for the brand strategy itself before embarking on a strategic process. Absence of such criteria creates conflict in stakeholders to agree on what is appropriate and workable for the nation. Many branding specialists argue that the commitment of various players is crucial for nation branding. Selection of ideas, more often than not, must not become a matter of personal taste and opinion especially in situations where the process is led by opportunists or their appendages. At times political expediency takes the centre stage instead of professional branding. If there are so many different stakeholders as is the case in a nation and different points of view, there is no convergence of ideas, common vision and shared values. This situation slows down or blocks the strategic process. Scholars agree to the avoidance of dominance of political opportunists in nation branding because they scare away stakeholders and are led more by political ambitious than on driving the project.
Scholars also agree that key stakeholders within a nation must collaborate in order to create a strong, unified image. The critical challenge for nation marketing is to pull together all individual partners to cooperate rather than compete and to pool resources towards developing an integrated marketing mix and delivery system. In support of this argument, nation branding specialists emphasize that it is important to pull together all stakeholders and synergise their efforts to manage the complexities and challenges that are connected to branding a nation. This will bring into being an effective overall strategy of nation branding.
Commitment of various players is important to deliver a solid brand. Cooper (2012) and other branding champions underscore the point that nations comprise a mosaic of different actors (stakeholders). A truly sustainable destination will recognise that it must satisfy all of its stakeholders in the long term. Strategic planning in nation branding demands that all stakeholders should participate in formulating the core idea, vision and strategic analysis, local development and the provision of leadership in the strategic branding process. It can never be a one person one entity affair. A wide level of participants in the branding process creates ownership in the country and it also promotes a common sense of purpose and consistency of message – a critical element of the brand proposition.
There are numerous benefits of conveying a unified image. It is argued that a unified branding strategy can create a unifying focus for all public, private and non-profit sector organisations that rely on image of the place and its attractiveness”. An all stakeholder driven approach and concerted efforts towards coming up with an effective strategy enables a nation brand to be attractive and sustainable in view of global competition. Cooperation diminishes the chances of sending out conflicting messages that may cause multiple perceptions in the minds of the consumers.
In addition, Anholt (2007), nation branding guru, in support of the above position, argues that conflicting messages can compromise the impression of the consistent image which can damage the image of the destination. He argues “far more can be achieved if the work of these stakeholders is coordinated, of consistently high quality, and harmonised to an overall national strategy that sets clear goals for the country’s economy, its society and its political and cultural relations with other countries.
Branding specialists stress the importance of consistency in nation branding. They also underscore the importance of consistency in nation branding by arguing that any change of a strategy should take place within the consistency of a destination brand. The core values of a destination should remain consistent in order to send a strong and non-contradicting image. A unified voice, coordinated communication messages and consistency can represent Zimbabwe as a strong destination brand in Sub-Saharan Africa. A sense of common purpose and strategic brand management, consistently represented, will influence a positive consumer mindset which will result in high visitation and high tourist expenditure. Cluttered efforts and messages, competing interests and lack of a clear strategic direction are likely to create a multiplicity of images in consumers thereby affecting the overall perception of the destination and performance of the tourism sector.
Brand vision must be extremely compelling and motivating to drive both people of destination itself and its existing and future target markets to seeing the place in an entirely new and productive way., lure them away from the “comfort zone’ of their current perceptions towards new, unfamiliar and ambitious ideas. Any good brand should be able to achieve this by doing six things. Firstly, the brand strategy should be creative that is, memorable, surprising and arresting. It should not be boring and this is the factor that more than any other, that ensures the nation, region, or city brand stands a chance of being noticed in an increasingly crowded global marketplace. This refers to the quality and creativity of the messages used for communications about a place, for example, “Uniquely Singapore” or tone of voice with which they are delivered. A robust element of creative thinking can be built into a core brand statement itself. Branding strategists should try to make the creativity conceptual and strategic rather than executional and tactical. In some cases governments create a creative think tank with a responsibility of coming up with refreshing, challenging and mind-breaking strategies.
Secondly, own ability or ownership is a combination of truthfulness, credibility and distinctiveness. Communication should be true and something people are prepared to accept as true and it should affectively characterise one or more of the factors that objectively distinguish the place from its competitors. Thirdly, the messages should be sharp, that is, highly focused, not generic, telling a very specific and definite story about the nation, rather than a generalised and frivolous message. For this to happen there is need for consensus among a wide group of stakeholders with diversified interests. The strategy must be daring or striking enough to make an indifferent customer or tourist “sit up” and pay attention. It might just start to change people’s minds about the place if enough weight is put behind it.
Fourthly, the strategy should be motivating by clearly pointing people towards new and different behaviours within government, the private sector and civil society that will lead to a changed image. This is important for Zimbabwe which is putting spirited efforts to reposition itself as a new, changed and progressive nation. A brand strategy can be good, true, own able, sharp, … and creative but still have no impact whatsoever. This is usually because it is trying so hard to be good branding that it forgets to be good policy.
Anholt argues that, in this case, it is a possessive descriptor of the brand rather than an active force for sustaining or changing it. A brand statement is not an advertising slogan. It is critical for making people see themselves in a new way and so eventually be seen in a new way.
Dr Musekiwa Clinton Tapera is writing in his personal capacity. He holds a PhD in Management speciaised in Destination Branding of Zimbabwe for tourism performance. He is the director of Marketing and Public Relations at the Chinhoyi University of Technology. He can be contacted on the following emails: [email protected] or [email protected]