In today's globalised and highly competitive world, individual countries invariably operate as part of the “global value chain.” Thus, it is imperative that nations compete with one another not just for attention, but more so to ensure that they earn respect and trust. This entails that all value chain players, be it competitors, customers, or even observers, evaluate the nation as a prospective partner to strengthen their own brand equity. Furthermore, the distinct value addition by the country is considered a competitive advantage of the value chain, not just the country, which must be ensured, for it to earn respect and trust. Therefore, a powerful and positive “nation brand” provides a decisive competitive advantage.
In recent times, governments have dedicated resources to nation branding to improve their country's standing since the image and reputation of a nation can dramatically influence its success in strengthening its political, social, and economic influence in the world. The father of the concept of “nation branding,” Simon Anholt, defined country branding as, “...the systematic process of aligning the actions, behaviours, investments, innovations and communications of a country around a clear strategy for achieving a strengthened competitive identity.” It is therefore important to note three distinct strategic aspects to build a nation brand.
First, it is a systematic process; second, it is an integrated approach to align certain specific traits of the nation to provide a competitive identity; and third, it must be communicated properly to ensure that the right image is created in the minds of the people within the value chain. Anholt, further in his Nation Brands Index, suggests six different components through which nations could brand themselves. The conceptual framework constituting the components is as follows: (i) Tourism (value for money, lodging, food, recreation, etc), (ii) Heritage and culture (arts, history, etc), (iii) Investment (technological, legal, market, and other environmental factors), (iv) Quality of life (education, healthcare, standards of living, employment, etc), (v) Value systems (political and cultural freedom, governance, etc), and (vi) International relations (exports, partnerships, diplomatic relations, etc).
The above theoretical framework clearly implies that building a brand out of a nation is NOT merely certain claims that are communicated and are believed to change the perception of individuals across the globe. Thus, propaganda, which works only when one has total control over the minds of the audience, is not likely to work in the global, digitally connected village of today, where information travels faster than advertisements. It is neither certain symbols nor slogans that are likely to only be successful once the imagery is permanent.
Rather, what is needed is comprehensive strategic planning and implementation for changing perception towards a desired image while building and supporting the whole process through incorporating relevant attributes that are real, unique, and can add value for others which can be done by focusing on any mix of the six components. In attaining the above, it is recommended that we first of all set a “brand purpose” for the nation. The purpose must outline as to how the nation or our people are contributing towards the welfare of the global value chain we belong to. Lest we forget, nations which do not contribute have no brand value and thus are ignored. Second, we must work on the existing “brand image” which means we should not only capitalise on our competencies, but must also focus on combating negative image as well as diluting imagery. Third, once the above is comprehensible, create the “brand identity.” This is attained through people, goods, culture, cuisine, events, innovations, etc.
Though brand-building involves a mix of various partners and strategic actions, the foremost task however is to initially foster brand belief internally, within the population of the country and let them be the spokesperson and advocates for the country. Only when the internal brand-building is complete can we expect to achieve positive results from external partners. This is where the element of creation of a common thread to craft a consensus must be discovered. This common thread is the “core brand value” of the nation. The sub-brand values are the by-product of the core value. Thus, anything that is not linked to the core value is unlikely to succeed.
Brand propagation is the next step for successful brand-building. Brand propagation is an inclusive strategy that ensures that the core value is not distorted. Since the core is the purpose on which the nation stands, it is evident that the core represents the nation. A nation brand is created on the foundation of this core value. Thus, once the core is ascertained, the strategy should be to build on the core. The major players in this process are the following.
The first task of any nation-branding exercise is to promote nationalism among citizens. In essence, a nation's people are created based on their beliefs and history which give rise to a nation's brand identity (the core value), which in return gives rise to brand effect, which in turn sustains and reinforces both. A literal full cycle of brand-building. Thus, if there is more heterogeneity within the population, one needs to focus on sub-brands for the elements that are governed by the “point of differences” including options of creating cultural or geographical segments. However, the core brand value is developed along the “point of parity.”
In this day and age, one needs to be very careful while communicating information. To communicate our core brand and sub-brand propositions we have to use channels wisely and effectively to reach the target audience. Both formal and informal media are important. In Bangladesh, though there is relative freedom of the press, unfortunately media coverage tends to be more negative, in both formal and informal media.
This has caused negative news in particular to go viral through social media. One tends to forget that international media picks up information from local media first and filters it selectively based on the interest of their own target market. Lest we forget, Rana Plaza went viral since it had a direct link to global brands, whereas media coverage of Bangladesh's handling of the Rohingya refugee crisis has penetrated the international media much more slowly since it has very limited impact on the global population at present. More importantly, the internal population gets information from the media since they do not have the capacity to gather information as individuals. Thus, one must be very careful in publicising information and ensure that the core is not hurt.
All the agencies of the government, civil or military, must have an integrated approach. It is essential to ensure that both within and outside of the country not only is communication happening at the same wavelength but also in the same language. It is important to understand that while building a nation brand, the core for each department cannot be different. However, the sub-brands may vary, based on the focus of each of the government machinery. At the same time, the country may also build sub-brands based on bilateral relationships between countries while keeping the core brand value same across nations.
The responsibility of the government bodies should be to focus on strategic interventions and helping to develop core brand value. National development must focus on both economic and social development. It should be emphasised that economic development alone will not ensure creation of core brand value until and unless it is backed by social development. Moreover, social development is the ultimate tool to achieve a sustainable nation brand.
Academia is accountable for shaping the mind of the society and to ensure that both the private and the public sector are in tune with the changing global environment. The academia is capable of identifying the areas where Bangladesh can make an impact by enhancing the worth of the value chain. Thus, it is important to associate the academia to both ensure that the future generation of the country is in tune with the core brand value of the nation and try to identify the unique value criterion that the country can claim as the positioning strategy.
Social organisations (including political organisations) are considered as the monitoring body of the moral values of the country. In the global context of today, when nations are moving towards the concept of “zero mistakes,” the importance of moral values is gaining importance. In fact, one of the core multipliers of brand equity is “moral values of the people.” The importance of corruption index for example is highly significant in portraying the brand value of a nation. Thus, their task will be to ensure that the core value of the brand correctly reflects and protects moral principles that portray human values.
One of the major objectives of nation-brand-building is to ensure the financial wellbeing of the nation. The business entity, through trade and commerce, helps build the financial backbone of the nation. However, it has been observed that businesses proliferate to maximise their profits and at times may not be diligent enough to focus on the core value of the nation. For example, if we start portraying and relying on cheap labour rather than productivity of the labour force, we may destroy the image of the nation by employing cheap unskilled labour who may not be able to ensure quality. This is due to myopia caused by the concept of cost minimisation. The same cost minimisation may be ensured through enhanced productivity of labour, which may require focus on skills, rather than the opposite, unskilled labour force. This automatically changes the brand image of a nation.
GLOBAL AND INTERNATIONAL PARTNERS
Last but not the least, on the one hand global and international partners (including development partners) are directly involved with the challenges of Bangladesh and on the other hand are beneficiaries as well. Their experience is likely to result in the perception they hold about the country. Thus, we must monitor the pulse of the partners and also control their share of the voice to ensure positive results.
Also, we must understand that the entire world is not the target market for specific goods/services. Thus, national companies must choose their partners with care. The partners again must be made to build a long-term relationship. This ensures that all partners have something to gain from the relationship. At the same time, an equitable relationship ensures sustenance.
The above conceptual structure raises the question: Is Bangladesh properly undertaking the task of building a brand out of the country?
It should be very clear that the nation-branding exercise is not the mere creation of logos and slogan. Rather it is a strategic, comprehensive and inclusive undertaking by major stakeholders of a nation following a mix of rational and emotional interventions. It is a means to build and maintain a country's strategic advantage with a purpose of social and economic growth for the nation as well as for the partners. This is a comprehensive exercise that must be led by the leaders of the community, spearheaded by the state or the government, and designed and supported by brand-building experts.
Thus, we should create a nation-branding cell represented by the major stakeholders (may be virtual) along with brand-building specialists who will be responsible for building of the brand plan and at the same time monitoring of the lifetime value of the brand. The planning process (cyclic) is as follows.
The first step is to understand the status of Brand Bangladesh. This requires comprehensive research. For example, it may show that Bangladesh has strengths in the apparel sector (second largest in the world), development initiatives (largest NGO in the world), pharmaceuticals (fastest growing in the region), prospective human capital (interesting demographic dividend), poor infrastructure (physical infrastructure), density of population (one of the most dense), weak governance (both public and private), fascinating culture (cuisine, language movement), underutilised tourism (beaches, rivers, villages), and so on.
The second step would involve a detailed comparative SWOT analysis of Bangladesh along with all possible global players. This will look at both regional and bilateral levels. It will also try to assess the global value chain drivers for each of the sector of interest and develop a comparative statement by regional trade and political blocs. This part is perhaps the most intensive as well as extensive exercise that the planners need to undertake. The purpose is to identify major competition and also challenges each nation or bloc is facing. This gap analysis will help identify the areas where Bangladesh is able to add value through partnering within the value chain. This is one area where Bangladesh has not taken serious initiative. People have been talking about nation-branding initiatives without taking into cognisance the meticulous exercise it entails.
The third step is another important one since it looks at the economic, technological, and social capability of the country. A country may perform well in economic indicators but poorly in case of social interventions and technological and academic pursuit. Bangladesh perhaps is one such case. This may show good results in the beginning but later hurdles to sustainable growth are found. However, Bangladesh does have a great track record in terms of poverty alleviation, gender parity, and some primary health indicators, etc. This implies that if properly integrated, there is every reason for Bangladesh to perform even better. However, a realistic assessment of each of the parameters is important. For example, are we considering the contribution of the informal economy while assessing our strength or weakness? Again, is our tax structure relevant in terms of global shifts? Such basic questions must be answered without being defensive. We must understand that identification of weaknesses will help us work on those issues and will only strengthen our cause.
The fourth step is where a comparative analysis of the strengths and weaknesses along with competitive analysis based on our capabilities are undertaken to identify the unique points of differences with competition to identify the “purpose” of the nation followed by the vision and goals. For example, ask: Can Bangladesh be the hub to provide affordable clothing for the world? Or can Bangladesh be the development solution for the world through its experience under the banner of BRAC and also peacekeeping force? Or is Bangladesh a major destination for skilled human capital? Thus, this is the preliminary step towards creation of the core brand value of the nation.
The abovementioned first four are perhaps the most difficult steps. The identification of the corebenefit is the outcome of the above and results in positioning strategy where the major creative part plays a more important role. For example, does “Beautiful Bangladesh” really depict the country as her core value? If we were to utilise the underdeveloped tourism sector, as was the focus of the positioning, what should have been more creative? Or should we focus on resilience since Bangladesh has been considered by many as a paradox? Or how is our export strategy linked to the positioning? It is evident that we are yet to identify our core brand value since the value should focus on what we can give to our value chain partners rather than what we feel about ourselves. Once we have been able to answer this basic question, we should develop a creative positioning strategy that depicts our core value.
The next step mainly involves assessing the portfolio of offerings by the nation and at the same time assessing how they can be offered to the value chain partners in the best possible combination. Let us remind ourselves that a nation has limited resources and the sectors compete for the various endowments available. Thus a proper portfolio analysis indicates what will be more beneficial for the country. Also, it should focus towards building partners and thus involves both bilateral and multilateral strategies. It will show how each relationship may be unique but may still result in a win-win relationship. This is where negotiations, political relationship, cultural integration, etc., play a vital role. As an example, Bangladesh did a tremendous job while negotiating the expansion of the Blue Economy. However, thereafter, we have not been able to fully utilise our prospects due to our inability to either collaborate with the right value chain partners or due to weak infrastructure.
In the following step, one starts working on translating the information into communication (including digital media). This requires selection of the media, spokesperson, and also the language. Here again, it is required to bring both rational and emotional dimensions in action. At the same time, we must remember that both local and international media services will be required to help attain a substantive outcome. For example, Bangladesh did a fairly good job while handling the apparel sector crises post-Rana Plaza. However, it had to face greater challenges while handling the US compared to the EU.
Once the above steps are complete, one needs to measure the financial and strategic return in immediate terms as well as the long-term. Not all aspects of nation-branding efforts are directed towards financial returns.
A large number of agendas are focused on long-term strategic relationship-building. For example, Bangladesh has been successful in building a fairly strong relationship with Japan which has an element of both financial and long-term social partnership. On the
other hand, although India has been a great friend during our liberation war and there are strong cultural linkages with India, they are in many situations considered our competition rather than value chain partners.
The operational component involves actual implementation by all the brand propagation players. Every single player (seven players identified earlier) will have a role to play using an integrated approach. One must remember that it is an orchestra. Thus, every player has a unique role to play which if not properly identified or handled will destroy the creation of the music and thus Brand Bangladesh.
In conclusion nation-brand-building is an extensive exercise that must be undertaken by a team who is not only capable of performing its tasks in terms of expertise, but, more importantly, must also have a nationalistic sense and strong understanding of the country. They must be able to interact with the stakeholders and communicate with the leadership of the country.
Syed Ferhat Anwar is a professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka, and the Chief Adviser of Bangladesh Brand Forum.