Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity, by Melissa Aronczyk

The ‘nation brand’ phenomenon is unsustainable, says Rula Al-Abdulrazak

January 23, 2014

Melissa Aronczyk’s book is not the first to explore the wide interest in the “branding” of countries by national governments via marketing strategies. However, as the author’s background is in communications studies rather than in marketing, her book offers a different perspective to much of the literature on this subject, and focuses on the impact of branding on national identity and nationalism.

In exploring the reasons behind the phenomenon of “nation branding” and the consequences of such practices, Aronczyk acknowledges the major contributions that marketing gurus such as Wally Olins and Simon Anholt have played in establishing and expanding the state-level market for branding consultants. Then she reflects on how practitioners seek to sell the concept of branding as if a nation’s very existence might depend on it, with globalisation positioned as a “threat”, as the potential for “unbranded” nations to miss out on potential gains is underscored.

The branding processes for Canada and Poland are considered in some detail, followed by a brief consideration of branding exercises undertaken by nations including Libya, Estonia and Chile. Aronczyk’s examination of these programmes is mostly descriptive, but in her ensuing discussion she argues against the commercialisation of culture; that is, the turning of national identities into points-of-difference and points-of-parity in a bid to create a “competitive” brand.

Although it focuses on examining the role that branding a nation may play in changing national identity and affecting our understanding of nationalism, the book does not offer a detailed study of extant nation and place-branding literature, such as the work of Keith Dinnie, Robert Govers, Frank M. Go and Ying Fan. Moreover, it does not consider the theory of branding itself, or its roots in philosophy, psychology and even history.

With nationalism as her focal point, Aronczyk argues that the “nation brand” phenomenon is unlikely to last long, whereas history provides ample evidence that nationalism is likely to endure as a force for much longer. This position acknowledges the problematic nature of the recognition that nation branding seeks. While the branding of countries such as the United Arab Emirates promotes “wealth and finance-capital-intensive, attention-intensive, and knowledge- or experience-intensive economies…other forms of collective wealth may be lost in the process”. These lost forms, such as mutual respect or modesty, are usually not very helpful in supporting a nation’s points of difference and end up being neglected in a new, post-branding culture.

As a result, Aronczyk predicts that communicating a nation’s competitiveness will likely move away from branding. Anholt, a branding consultant, argued in 2002 that in order to redistribute wealth more fairly around the world, nations needed to learn from marketers how to brand themselves. A decade later, Anholt is presenting himself as a policy adviser. This shift may support Aronczyk’s conclusion, and calls into question the role that marketing skills now play in policymaking.

Aronczyk’s critical study encourages readers to look beyond the commercial benefits of branding and marketing nations and places. Nation branding may have come with the promise of empowering people and wealth redistribution, but in practice, and as most cases show, the exercise has been more about achieving the state’s vision of the country under its power. Mu’ammer Gaddafi had about two years of success in branding Libya, but the branding programme and policy advice offered by British consultants did not prevent the uprising that brought about his regime’s downfall. In the absence of well-rounded national development in commercial, cultural and political terms, this particular rebranding exercise did not stand the test of time.

Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity

By Melissa Aronczyk
Oxford University Press, 2pp, £64.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780199752164 and 2171
Published 3 October 2013

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