Gulfnews gives his view on the most important country branding iniatives for the year 2016.
The eyes of much of the world will be on the US presidential and legislative elections this year with Democrats and Republicans fighting for control of the White House and the Congress. However, there is a much wider range of eye-catching ballots taking place in the next 12 months, across every continent including the Middle East, which will have important ramifications for domestic politics, economics, and international relations for years to come.
In the first half of this year, for instance, important elections in January include the Taiwanese presidential and legislative ballots, and presidential polls in Portugal and the Central African Republic. In February, there is a potentially crucial legislative ballot in Iran, and in April legislative polls in Ireland and South Korea and a presidential election in Peru. May will also prove a big month too with the Vietnamese legislative ballot and the Philippines presidential and legislative polls, plus a legislative ballot in Scotland.
In the second half of 2016, there will be a Japanese legislative election in July, while in September there are legislative elections in Russia and Hong Kong. There will also be legislative polls in 2016 in Afghanistan and Thailand too, and the strong possibility of one in Australia and Qatar too.
Outside of national elections, there are also key local ballots too. In the Middle East, for instance, Lebanon and Egypt are amongst the countries hosting important municipal polls.
While the precise outcome of these elections is uncertain, what is far surer is that foreign political consultants will be working behind the scenes in many of these countries trying to steer candidates to success. It is estimated that US consultants, alone, have already worked in more than half of the countries in the world.
In 2016, that tally will only grow as firms reach out to more uncharted international territory. Indeed, originating in the United States, political campaigning has become a mini-industry driven by the potentially significant rewards on offer.
For instance, it is estimated by the US Center for Responsive Politics that the overall cost of the 2012 US presidential and congressional elections was some 6 billion dollars. Of that massive sum, consultants earned a significant slice for their services, including polling, campaign strategy, telemarketing, digital advice, and producing advertisements.
While the success, internationally, of this army of consultants is mixed, the phenomenon has had a lasting impact, prompting what some have called the globalisation of politics. However, in the eyes of critics it is an international triumph of spin over substance that has tended to promote more homogenous campaigns with a repetitive, common political language. […]
A key underlying premise is that those technologies and tactics can achieve success just about anywhere. Thus, many foreign countries are sometimes deemed as mere international counterparts of US election battleground states such as Ohio and Florida.
What started as international elections and campaigning work soon branched out into providing more foreign governments, leaders and bodies such as tourism and investment authorities with international communications advice and ultimately what is now known as ‘country branding’. Country branding is founded on the realisation that, in an overcrowded global information market place, countries and political leaders are, in effect, competing for the attention of investors, tourists, supranational organisations, non-government organisations, regulators, media and consumers.
In this ultra-competitive environment, reputation can be a prized asset (or potentially big liability) with a direct effect on future political, economic, social and cultural fortunes. In some cases, a single highly damaging episode can fundamentally damage a country’s standing, as China found after Tiananmen Square. In such situations, an approach involving a long recovery to rebuild that which is lost is often required.
Some countries may simply wish to promote an opportunity based on a specific single goal, such as wanting to attract more foreign direct investment or increasing tourism — as the ‘Incredible India’ campaign illustrates. Other states, for example Georgia, Rwanda and the Maldives, may want to establish a presence in the public mind because of fears about a specific issue — such as Russian preponderance, building sympathy among donors and investors and tourism in the short term, and/or climate change in the long term, respectively.
In general, the most effective country strategies align all key stakeholders (across the public, private and third sectors) around a single powerful vision. A good example here is New Zealand which, since the 1980s, has transformed itself from earlier perceptions of being a relatively remote economic backwater which, despite its scenic beauty, was not a major global tourist destination.
Especially in the midst of a difficult economic climate in the early 1980s, the ‘New Zealand Way’ initiative recognised that a strong country reputation for quality would be hugely beneficial if the nation was to compete in global export markets. Here, the massive untapped potential of the country’s natural environment was recognised, not just in terms of natural produce exports, but also for building a destination brand for tourism and outdoor sports.
The New Zealand example underlines how a simple, unified vision can be enormously powerful. To be sure, the country is not unique in having an unspoiled natural environment and quality produce. But it has managed to capture the world’s imagination with its consistent branding that has put natural values firmly at its core.
Today, of course, it is not just US political consultants who are blazing a trail in this communications and branding industry. London, for instance, has become a major country branding centre fuelled by its favourable European time zone between Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas.
Looking to the future, demand for communications and branding advice is only likely to grow given the increasing complexity and overcrowded nature of the global information market place. Indeed, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, much of which remains uncharted territory for the industry, globe-trotting firms may be on the very threshold right now of some of the most challenging work they have yet encountered.