Say the name of any country in the world and immediately people have a sense of that country. The US still comes top of most nation branding surveys. Britain, Canada, Australia and Brazil tend to do well, not least thanks to sport, entertainment and culture. Germany is on the up as a brand. China is seen very differently to how it was seen even a few years ago.
People like to portray communications, branding and marketing negatively – as spin, a codeword for lies and deceit – but image matters: for brands, for people and for countries.
When a country has been negatively defined for a long time it can be hard to turn it around, and that can have direct negative consequences – economic, social, political and cultural – making it even harder to make the changes required both to improve its image and, more importantly, the lives and living standards of people.
So if I say "Albania…"
Exactly. I know what you’re thinking. So do the Albanians. They know they have a problem internationally, with a lot of the focus on the hangover from communist dictatorship, or now on corruption, organised crime and other negatives. The film Taken didn't help much either.
But the new Government, which won a landslide victory last June and has been in power since September, has decided that to address an international image problem it needs to reach out to international PR, marketing and strategy companies.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama launched a global Branding Albania contest via Twitter, saying that #nextgenerationalbania would bring a "beautiful spring" to Albania’s somewhat hard and wintry image.
The contest opened on 8 April and the closing date for applications is 30 April. Firms must put forward ideas to promote Albania in a way that relates rebranding to development and change. Rama knows the change has to be real for the branding to have any chance of success. He wants the outcome to be that Albania is seen eventually as a great destination for tourists and an extremely advantageous place for investment.
The appointment of young and well-educated Albanian women and men in key agencies related to investment and business in the country was one of the first moves he made. More recently, an impressive step has been taken with the Government financing of a first wave of urban transformation projects aimed at rebranding localities through infrastructure development designed to encourage tourism. Rama has been busy promoting these projects via Twitter at @ediramaal.
By reaching out like this the country is signalling change. In the first four days after launching the contest, the Government received 54 applications from home and abroad, including the UK, Italy, Spain, Hong Kong, and the US, including one from CNN international. I am hoping this article will lead to a fresh burst of applications to nextgenerationalbania.info
The Branding Albania spec lists originality of proposal; consistency between graphic and content objectives; effectiveness in communicating various elements; flexibility of use; and, inevitably, costs as considerations to be taken into account by the international jury that will select one overall winner and three prizewinning branding projects.
I worked with Rama and his Socialist Party team in the Renaissance campaign that secured his victory. And just as New Labour had to be as real in government as in opposition, so Rama's renaissance campaign has to be matched by real change now.
The change is happening. Angela Merkel, no less, acknowledged it when she met Rama recently, and promised to visit Tirana within the next year and support the push for EU candidate status. This was a big moment. Of course, Germany is perhaps the best example in the world of how a country can improve its global reputation over time.
Albania is a much smaller, less powerful country and the stereotypes may be harder to erase. But they are starting to do just that, and getting help in the form of this contest will continue that process.
I got involved with Rama’s campaign in opposition, and have stayed involved now he is Prime Minister because I got to know the region during the war in Kosovo, liked it, found it politically and historically fascinating, as well as strategically important.
Countries that try to change for the better deserve support in trying to change. This is part of that. In the modern media age it also signals their understanding that countries have to fight to be heard, to get the truth told about them, to be creative and imaginative and to engage. Moreover, in an interconnected world no country can deliver lasting and meaningful change without reforms being understood and supported inside and outside the country.
Thus, international branding is not only a means of changing the image of a country, but a means of achieving real change for its people, and the #nextgenarationalbania contest could stand as a great example of this. As an artist before he went into politics, Rama understands this more than many other leaders.
Over time, the aim is for the mention of Albania to elicit a very different response to the one it gets now – the jokes about Norman Wisdom and the jibes about a country known only for crime and corruption. There is a lot more to Albania than that.
Plenty other countries have used branding and PR to change their image in a way that benefits their people. Albania aims to be next, and I am pleased to be advising it, and to be on the jury that will decide which of the many ideas coming in will be put into practice.
Alastair Campbell, formerly Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy, is a freelance strategic advisor to the Albanian PM and a member of the #nextgenerationalbania international jury. He is on the advisory board of Portland.