During a talk about the idea of ‘transformation’ with an editor of Kontrast magazine, a vision of a branding campaign we first some years ago came immediately to mind. The branding subject was Estonia, and the campaign ran with the slogan “Positively Transforming”. The transformation of Estonia from ex-Soviet republic into one of the hottest new EU nations was the communication at work. Many branding tools were employed, including a series of rather curious TV spots. Even today the Estonians are still using many of the branding tools employed at the time. But the TV spots weren’t the only thing that got my attention; it was the Estonian brand book with instructions on how Estonia was to be rebranded. It opens with a (compelling) assumption: “The world does not understand Estonians and Estonians do not understand the world. The world can easily live with this. But can Estonians? That is the question.” “Estonian People, Estonian Institute” ( What a great and simple truth.
I was impressed with the Estonian determination to stand side-by-side with other, well-established modern nations and rebrand themselves the way modern brands do. And this contrary to some other countries who agree with the French Academic Michael Girard: “A corporation can be rebranded, not a state. One can take a product, a washing powder for instance…Regular rebranding is normal, but can this actually be the case for countries?…A country carries specific dignity unlike a marketed product….”.

But from the branding point of view, is there really such a big difference between a brand of washing powder and a country brand? Of course the products are entirely different. Washing powder is a standard FMCG commodity, whose banal advertising everybody has long been fed up with, and which no one really enjoys buying. In the case of a country, even the process of booking and purchasing a holiday destination can be an exciting experience, while the consuming of it is something one remembers for many years.

If we look at what’s happening in the human brain, the process of choice in both cases is pretty similar. People tend to choose from among brands they know. The more appealing the brand is to us, the more likely it is we’ll choose it. Finally, we choose the product or service we think delivers the best performance for the money. The brand encapsulates the trust we build through the usage experience and/or through brand communication, both controlled and spontaneous and uncontrolled. Upon further, closer comparison we find a big multinational brand serving as an umbrella for their immense variety of product brands, while the country brand endorses its destinations, products and services. We might also remember that the biggest multinationals are today economically more powerful than many of the world’s independent states, or that some brands have a longer history than many of the new nation states that sprang up in the latter-half of the previous century.

The inevitable truth is that a bad product spoils the brand, and in the case of country brands this is demonstrated time and again in the most obvious way. A case in point is the USA, one of the strongest country brands in the world. Back in 2002, the US administration hired top Madison Avenue professionals to improve the country’s image. But it didn’t help, and in fact the situation is even worse today than it was then. Now prospective Bush successors from both major parties have started rebranding the USA well ahead of the election process. Fortunately for them, one big strength powerful brands yield is their ability to recover far faster and easier.

Country brands too can be winners, rising stars or big losers; innovators, followers and copycats. Take Croatia as a case in point. According to the newly established CBI Country Branding Index by Futurebrand, Croatia is second on the list of rising star brands – not entirely surprising as Croatia was selected top adventure destination last year by National Geographic magazine. Certainly Croatia has plenty of brand equity pumped up with natural beauty, diverse nature and a long and inviting Mediterranean coast. So even its rather conservative approach with “The Mediterranean as it once was” might work well – for the time being. But can such an approach sustain a strong brand position? Probably not, if one takes a but a quick glance at the current Montenegro communication; we can well see how Montenegro looks to profit from Croatia’s brand popularity as a kind of copycat – and Montenegro, lagging some two decades behind in tourism development, is even more an authentic Mediterranean as it once was.
And the twin brands? Slovenia Slovakia? Keith Bellows, Editor in Chief of National Geographic Traveler, who in a recent interview displayed a good working knowledge of Slovenia, ended up mixing up Slovenia and Slovakia at a press conference. When a journalist later asked him who was to blame for the terrible recognizability surrounding Slovenia, he replied “You (Slovenians) are”. And he was right.

Borut Sočan

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