What's in a brand? A whole lot, if a nation's at stake

How strategic PR can help nations tell their stories.

At a textbook level, nation branding seems relatively straightforward – manage a country's reputation, communicate its unique characteristics, build a positive overall image, and ensure that branding drives growth in key performance areas.

From a public relations standpoint, however, nation branding is a fairly complex task. For corporate brands, our field of vision is clearly defined – product or service quality, unique selling propositions, target consumers, industry landscape, and corporate culture. Yet in branding a nation, there are several layered – and often intangible – aspects at play: people, culture, language, government, policies, economy, trade, arts, sciences, social idiom, history, religion, political sensitivities, and diplomatic considerations. PR agencies must manage multiple stakeholders on manifold levels, ensuring message alignment across the board.

Currently, there is very little perspective on nation branding best practices. Herein exists the opportunity for PR – developing a robust repertoire of skills geared toward a field still in its infancy, but gaining currency daily. Globally, the need for solid nation-branding programs has never been so pressing – economic crises, social unrest, political standoffs, and environmental challenges mean that a wide spectrum of countries requires a unified PR strategy that effectively communicates their distinctiveness, corrects inaccuracies, and mitigates misconceptions.

In the past, a nation's brand was primarily determined by circumstance. Public perception was singularly shaped by a country's performance and communications around it. Today, targeted PR can help nations proactively leverage their wins and address public concerns. At Ogilvy Public Relations, we put these tools to practice, successfully resetting global media dialogue for the Mexico Tourism Board. In 2010, Mexico saw a substantial growth in tourism numbers and investment. In spite of these gains, global media continued to view the country within a negative paradigm – associating its brand with violence, drugs, and the H1N1 virus. Employing a core global team and local market hubs, we shared Mexico's “good news” stories and addressed security issues head-on, correcting inaccuracies and placing concerns in context. As a result, the tone of global media coverage shifted drastically, notably in the tourism and business spaces.

As with any PR program, nation-branding campaigns must stand the measurement test. And as with any PR campaign, it makes little sense to make media impressions the overarching measure of nation-branding success. Change in media sentiment is a vital gauge, but ultimately nation-branding results must make tangible changes to the country's state of affairs – increased tourism, greater FDI, a better economy, or policy changes around key issues. Public perceptions of a nation's image are notoriously rigid. Hence, any nation-branding strategy must offer consumers a concrete product or service to experience. In Mexico's case, we let influencers explore the country's exclusive travel offerings firsthand, resulting in a fundamental, measurable change in status quo; with over 23 million foreign visitors, 2011 became a benchmark year for Mexico's tourism industry.

Good PR is all about storytelling, and every country has a unique story to tell. That is the central premise of nation branding, and it is also the reason why PR can extensively impact how nations are perceived. Countries are now majorly involved in brand development, and with the right mix of tools, PR can help them tell their stories, one campaign at a time.

Jennifer Risi is EVP for Ogilvy Media Influence and director of content creation at Ogilvy Public Relations.

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