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Rules of Attraction

Researcher and government adviser Simon Anholt is famous for developing the 'Anholt Index' of National Brands. In recent years he has spent a large part of his time working with the Baltic states to help them understand how they are perceived abroad, and his results make fascinating – if sometimes uncomfortable - reading…

How would you summarise your experience of Baltic branding?

The problem with this subject is that it's the most interesting subject in the world, and it seems to be turned into a three-day residential seminar.

The most important point is to try to eliminate this idea of 'branding' from the process right at the beginning. I don't think I ever used the word branding. If I have, it was a mistake.

When I started working in this area, the word I used was 'brand' and I coined this phrase 'nation brand' back in 1996 and what I was talking about was the thing that is more commonly called brand image. The point I was making was a simple one: that in exactly the same way that products and corporations have got brand images and are perceived in a certain way by their audiences, so countries, cities and regions in the age of globalisation have got their brand images which are equally important to their progress and prosperity.

The evidence of that is all around. The Baltic states are a good example. Countries can be making rapid progress and be excellent places to visit, to invest in and to do business and politics with, but their reputation lags behind the reality by decades and effectively blocks their progress.

Bear in mind that I'm talking about a very broad, mass audience. Governments tend to deal with highly informed, elite professional audiences who have a much clearer picture of the reality. Governments the world over seldom find out what the population of other countries think about them, they only really find out what these elite audiences think.

When I go to a country like Latvia and show them research from the Nation Brands Index, which reveals that they are at the bottom of the list as one of the least highly-regarded countries in the world, they are astonished. They say "But… but everybody says, everybody knows that we are heading for greatness!" and so on.

But the remaining 99.9 percent of the world's population is not so well informed. All they know is scraps of history, third-hand reports and the rest is largely fantasy. And in the case of the Baltic countries, it's very negative indeed because their identity was simply deleted under decades of Soviet rule and there's nothing left.

So it comes as a shock to governments when you tell them this?

Yes, and they are often in denial for weeks. People always misunderstand research and a lot of people seem to think it's your own personal opinion. In Latvia there was a brief period after I revealed the results of the Nation Brands Index when I was under quite a lot of personal attacks with people saying "You're just another bloody ignorant Brit who comes here, gets pissed and urinates in the street – why do you hate us?"

I had to gently explain that this is not my opinion – I'm part of the informed audience and I love the place – but unfortunately I am very far from being representative.

Nations have brands, but I don't believe they can be branded. That's nonsense. The image of a country is quite a large and solid thing. It doesn't move much at all. To imagine that the beliefs of millions of people in other countries can really be influenced by some sort of marketing campaign is just absurd.

An important point that people often don't understand is that perceptions of other countries are actually part of the culture. British people's views of France are part of the British culture. Japanese people's views of China are part of Japanese culture. It's deeply rooted.

But that doesn't mean that this is all pointless. What it is fundamentally down to is good governance. Once a government has got its head around these issues, then they can start thinking about how they can slightly alter their style of policymaking, slightly improve their process of selecting investment and innovation – because new stuff is the most important thing – in order to earn a better reputation. Then things can change quite rapidly, in a matter of years.

That suggests they need to be in it for the long haul – that there needs to be continuity between different government administrations for example…

Indeed. Quite a lot of my work is involved with trying to institutionalise this process so that it will outlast changes of government. This is particularly important when the government changes quite regularly. In order for a country like Latvia to go from 42nd place in the Nation Brands Index to somewhere respectable like 20th is probably a 30 year job. It's generational. But it's important that reputation isn't seen as an end in itself. It's a tool for achieving more serious objectives like a happier, wealthier society.

I do sometimes get countries who become obsessed by reputation, which is extremely dangerous. It has to be a by-product, not an end in itself.

Could this obsession be described as a kind of national neurosis?

That's a good description. It's certainly a recognisable feature of our globalised world that populations are quite aware of how they are regarded abroad and it causes them a great deal of unhappiness if they feel that they are not understood. Populations are starting to bully their governments as say, "We think it's your job to improve our reputation." As people become more mobile and go abroad to work and study and they find to their horror that people hate them before they've even met them because of where they come from they start to think "This isn't right."

That seems particularly relevant to the Baltics given the number of people working abroad.

Absolutely, and there are some interesting results. For example Poles in Britain are quite warmly appreciated – by British standards – but it is typecasting. It's absolutely fine if all you want to do is manual labour, but if you're a Polish operatic baritone or a brain surgeon, then it's a huge problem because you don't fit the brand!

It seems to me that the three Baltic states are moving in different directions: Estonia becoming more Nordic, Lithuania realigning itself with Poland and Latvia left somewhere in the middle. Yet there is also this idea of a 'Baltic identity'. What are your thoughts on that?

I've been working on the notion of Baltic unity and a Baltic brand for some years with the Baltic development forum. It is problematic. As far as the elite audience is concerned, the Baltic brand is quite positive because it is associated with a very interesting, rapidly developing part of the higher-income world. Speak to any reasonably informed internationalist and they'll be able to trot out figures about the fast-growing economies. In that respect it represents positive brand equity for the individual countries.

The trouble is that Baltic identity is a minus when you're talking to general audiences. The word 'Baltic' is strongly negative as far as general publics are concerned. It is associated not with fast-growing economies and IT but with a vague image of a miserable, grey, post-Soviet wasteland, probably contaminated, with no culture, no self-respect and nothing of any interest to anybody.

Then should the Baltic identity be left to wither away?

I really cannot imagine what's going to happen. I think the most likely thing is that it will become less important for a very, very long time, but at some point in the future, in 20 or 30 years, it may come back. The best hope for the Baltic countries at the moment is to follow their own paths and forge their own identities.

Both Estonia and Lithuania have floated the idea of changing their names for an English-language audience. Is there any point in this?

I think it's daft. When these ideas are batted around, people don't even begin to realise what a gigantic challenge that is. It's easy to dream up a new name for your country, but to teach that to the rest of the world and get them to adopt it would be a serious drain on the country's economy. Frankly, I don't think those countries could afford it.

There are circumstances in which a name change is legitimate, say, if your name has been given to you by a loathed oppressor. This is what happened with Taiwan, with Sri Lanka and it's what Burma appeared to be on the point of doing with Myanmar, but actually it has reversed because public opinion has now realised that Burma is one of the 'baddies'!

Many years ago the Slovenian government came to me and announced that they wanted to change the name of their country because they were fed up of being confused with Slovakia. I explained how expensive and difficult and probably futile it would be, but added that in the end the remedy for being confused with another country is not changing your name but simply becoming better-known.

Ultimately what people are interested in is "What's in it for me?" What the Baltic states should be enormously careful of is wallowing in their past suffering. It's obviously a very important part of their identity but they mustn't fall into the trap of thinking that it is an attractive thing to others. It didn't work for Israel and it's not going to work for them. Some objectivity is needed. They are muddling up one of the key factors of their own identity with the projection of an identity that's necessary for them in order to prosper. They mustn't be fixated with the idea of being 'understood'. What they should be fixated with is the idea of being attractive.

Anholt on:

ESTONIA: Last year's riots probably improved Estonia's national brand a little bit. Not in a commercially useful way perhaps, but in a politically useful way. Estonia was cast as being a brave little underdog which is something people like. A problem for the Baltic states is that as far as public opinion is concerned, their independence might never have happened. The association with the Soviet Union is still extraordinarily strong and so the most effective way of showing that these are no longer satellite states of Russia is to show them in conflict with Russia. It's a dangerous game to play deliberately, but if it happens and you come out of it well, it's probably not a bad piece of geopolitical positioning.

LATVIA: Latvia's great strength is Riga, which has a rather better image than Latvia does. I'm not sure what the purpose would be of making Latvia more 'famous' as a country. A great regional metropolis like Riga, which has always been part of northern European trade and business just needs to be reintroduced along the same lines, really. That's a much easier and more productive task than attempting to shift the image of the entire country which ultimately is always going to be loved much more by the Latvians than by any foreigner.

LITHUANIA: For Lithuania, making a Hollywood film is a very good idea indeed. The power of cinema to project an image of a country is almost beyond parallel. I'm constantly astonished by the power of Australia in all of my research. It has such a fantastic brand which has been created from nothing as a result of three things: the Sydney Olympics, the Opera House and a movie called Crocodile Dundee which basically created and rendered adorable a fantasy about the personality of Australia, which the world fell in love with. The power of art is the only thing that breaks all my rules.

Interview by Mike Collier