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Ben Bland hosted the show and was joined at FutureBrand’s offices by:
Just like brands the positive or negative perceptions of a country can influence people’s decisions in choosing how they interact with them as places to visit, to live in, do business or invest in. Now in its second decade, FutureBrand’s Country Index ranks countries according to how they are perceived across a whole range of factors from value system and quality of life to business potential, security and tourism. Topping the list is Japan with Norway in second place and Switzerland in third. The US and the UK have fallen out of the top 10 but still make the top 20.
Jon kicked off the discussion by looking at where the power and value is in a country brand but answered it with a further question asking, where’s the power of value in any brand? He used Nespresso as an example, explaining that when you think of that brand, you think of the intangible associations of luxury but you also think of the quality of the coffee. When you think about Bentley you think about luxury, you think about history and heritage, but you also think about modernity and the thrill of driving and he believes it’s the same with countries. He explained that countries are places where people are being invited to spend their time and money and as such, when you think of individual countries what comes to mind – i.e., the ability to have a combination of that intangible exciting perception but also the real world experience that delivers on that is the same. He thinks great countries like Japan and Germany are able to really balance those two just like any other brand.
Rowan said that when you look at the top five counties in the list:
there’s a very consistent approach that these countries have in that they all have a very inherent culture that is very understandable by the everyday person. He added that there’s a unique element to each of those cultures. For example, with Japan, there’s a way of living of minimalism that, whilst it’s quite a cliché, it creates a very clear image in someone’s mind of what that country is. He continued that if you look at Sweden or Denmark, there’s an affinity to Scandinavian designed, so actually people have a very clear understanding or unique understanding of what these countries are.
Ben therefore asked how a country then uses what Jon and Rowan had just described to benefit, drive increases in business, create better perception of government, increase tourism and harness culture.
Jon replied saying that the one difference between country brands and brands is that sometimes they’re more organic, less engineered and have just emerged over time but that doesn’t mean to say they can’t be created and recreated. He said that if you look at the way that some countries are leading these days, they haven’t necessarily planned it but instead a formula has emerged that people are finding attractive right now. For him, the exciting thing about this type of study is that it allows bigger countries to understand how some of the more successful countries are able to create this code and copy it. So Jon suggests that countries like US, Britain and G7 countries that do have the ability to want to change the way they’re perceived through the way they appeal to tourists, students and companies wanting to come and set up in these places, can be created by copying some of the countries rather that are leading in the world whereas he thinks brands classically can be a little bit more engineered.
Conrad said that he has been running the Great Britain campaign for the last seven or eight years and has really seen how joining up a country’s complete offering, its education, its tourism effort, its cultural effort, its business and its FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] efforts under one brand and nation brand could be extraordinary powerful. He said that this is because it means actually that they can trade off each other. He explained that tourists and students come to the UK not just for education but actually for what the UK can offer culturally. He said that they know also that students who come to the UK and have a great experience here become the investors of the future. So, within that category of a nation brand, they can promote the entire UK to its target audiences and the values between those particular audiences really pay off in the long term and that’s how they’ve seen the great brand enjoying such success.
However, Ben explained that in this year’s FutureBrand Country Index, the UK has fallen seven places to No.19.
Jon thinks this is because Britain as a brand has done more or less everything wrong. He said it’s declined across the board. Jon doesn’t think that the country has a clear sense of its role in the world right now and the experience of it, from everything from value for money, perceptions around tolerance, and the polarisation of politics are very likely contributing to an overall perception of Britain of a country that’s less attractive in a world where there’s lots of options.
Ben countered that argument by saying that for a country that runs as a democracy, there are some factors beyond their control such as political change and the reputational fallout from that.
For Jon, however, there are gold standard countries in the survey, for example, Japan, which he said in contrast to Britain has gone up on everything and they’ve attended to everything that people associate with them in terms of why they exist and the purpose of the country, its focus and ambition and the experience of it has lived up to that, so for example, they’ve done incredibly well on things like tourism. He explained that they’ve been able to move away from just being associated with technology, to being associated with culture and with food and that’s created a fresh appraisal of Japan.
But he also pointed to other countries that are all doing well in the Index, such as Norway and Switzerland. Jon thinks that if you’re not going to be good on everything, be good on something. So, Norway is very strong on social democracy; Switzerland is very strong for having a very powerful origin – it’s known for stability. However, they don’t just stand for that. They attend to a broader set of attributes that makes the place strong more broadly.
Jon was surprised by China [positioned at No.29] and whilst Rowan said that initial thoughts you would think China would perform higher in the list, he also thinks people don’t necessarily have an aspiration for Chinese culture. He feels that when looking at this from a creative or design point of view, you’ve got a very clear understanding of what German and Japanese design is and [their] culture but he doesn’t think if you would say to him what is Chinese design, it would particularly have a very high regard or high aspiration or even something that people could quite put their finger on exactly what China is. He also thinks that’s also a little bit of the problem with what Britain is going through at the moment, in that there’s no real clear vision of what Britain is and is going to be.
Jon believes China cares about its public and global image but thinks they’ve let things like the environment, pollution and human rights slightly dominate their agenda at a time when they’ve been creating some of the most exciting new companies in the world in lots of categories. He referred to the FutureBrand Index where Moutai is ranked high in premium spirits, plus Jon said China are strong in banking and insurance, so they have powerful brands that people respect. However, the actual country hasn’t come through, picking out, what Jon referred to as the SHIRTS, i.e., Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Turkey. He said that a place like Romania has endless amounts of heritage sites that are becoming much more appealing to people, and that Slovakia is a place where brands like Volkswagen and KIA are investing as they grow their reputation for producing quality goods.
Ben said that Britain has for a long time been associated with exercising soft power very effectively through culture and media and Conrad said that there are a number of indexes that measure soft power. He added that Portland actually place the UK at number one in the soft power index and so he feels that the UK is actually a soft power superpower and by that, he means that it has enormous power of attraction through its creative industries, content, BBC, film shows, and massive sporting heritage and that all attracts so many people to the country. He said it is the ability to actually exploit those assets in the right way to bring in more people into the UK either as tourists or investors etc. He added that that is going to be one of our most powerful assets as going forward into the future to show that Britain is open, connected and welcoming to the world.
Jon thinks there are undoubtedly some obvious British brands that are strong and project around the world but added that there is an urgency needed for Britain to stop looking back and start looking forward and that the FutureBrand Country Index is a look at future potential. He thinks that Britain as a brand has got a set of challenges that it needs to address top to bottom regardless of what may be happening at a political level. He feels that there is a perception around Britain as a place that lacks or is falling behind on things like tolerance and value for money. He said that if he was a student or a business such as Panasonic looking where to invest and build my headquarters in Europe, for example, or where he can access a wealth of talent, get great value for money and offer people a quality of life, it is no longer a guarantee that Britain will be high on that list because there is increasing competition from other places.
Rowan said that from a creative point of view, Panasonic are in London to celebrate the idea of diversity. He added that when you look at places around the world, there’s really nowhere better than in London for Panasonic to understand and take learnings about Western culture to influence their products and processes back in Japan.
Rowan talked about thinking about countries as brands and brands as countries, when you look at big behemoth brands like Panasonic, it’s a challenge for them to try and have the same rate of change as start-up businesses, which are being crafted. And therefore, if you think of small countries as essentially start-up brands, they have the flexibility to grow and change a lot faster than a lot of these big countries who have a lot of public focus on. So, to some extent there’s a lot of risk-free element to the change these countries can have.
Ben added that they have less to lose and can take greater risks with what they are doing. He therefore wondered it would make sense then for the bigger countries, the behemoths, to perhaps focus their branding around individual cities and really drive its image and its uniqueness and go smaller rather than trying to sell an entire nation to try and be all things to all people.
Rowan thinks that’s something which historically the UK has been through, but Jon thinks that needs to change. He said that if you look at where future employers, employees, students and the new younger generations coming through, they’re inspired by the ability to have a very balanced life where they are going to see their kids once in a while, do a bit of work, exercise and have an offering of choice. Jon therefore thinks one of things that’s driving the big change in the country world order is people wanting to make decisions on their own grounds. He said that in the past we were all conditioned to go to places of commerce because that’s where everyone had to go and we’ve suffered in terms of having to compromise on lifestyle and on paying exorbitant rents. He doesn’t think people are prepared to put up with that anymore and instead of having to follow the money, the money is going to have to follow people and the people are going to want to live wherever they want to live.
Ben added that technology is a big enabler when it comes to quality of life and Conrad said that the UK is leading the wave in AI, technology and the digital economy. However, he added that whilst we’ll have smart cities and smart healthcare and therefore see huge benefits in the likes of health from one side the Internet, you also have a rise in something like fake news which actually breeds a certain amount of cynicism to the kind of technology that’s coming and also a threat and a fear. He therefore thinks that it is something that policymakers around the world will be having to work very hard to get the balance right.
Jon thinks what’s really interesting when you start talking about technology is that it is opening up for country brands to be reappraised. He pointed to Israel and said that people’s views of Israel are changing not just because of tourism but also because of the tech start-ups they have there – a lot of which are linked to environmentalism and creating new environmental businesses.
Rowan thinks it’s about how you end up removing the irrelevant moments in people’s lives to maximize the amount of time that they have to lead a meaningful full life and that’s where he thinks that’s countries and brands have a responsibility – of how they can use technology to essentially take away the activities that people don’t want to be doing, so that they can lead the life that they want to enjoy
Ben said that a lot of the perceptions of a country are very much tied into the big brands that a country exports or is very closely associated with, so if you say to people IKEA they think Sweden, Panasonic they think Japan, Samsung is South Korea, VW for Germany and for China it would be Huawei. But in those last two examples, there are dangers for a country, when it uses its brands as a strong part of its image, citing the VW emissions tests, and the risk that there’s a fallout from that.
Jon agreed, saying it’s a bit like using celebrities in advertising as you never know what’s going to happen to them afterwards!
Conrad hopes that the Great Britain campaign is a kind of masterclass in joining up and that they now have twenty government departments working together on the campaign, which now operates in 144 countries around the world. However, he said that the knew from the very beginning that they couldn’t do it alone and that it’s the ability for business and British brands to join them that actually makes the sum greater than the parts. So very early they spoke to a lot of businesses about the benefit of capitalizing on the nation of origin, including British Airways, Virgin, Mulberry, Burberry, and Jaguar Land Rover etc., which he described as great British icons where part of their very strong sales pitch is actually that they are British. The campaign has about 140 events taking place around the world every single month which are Great branded, with many British businesses contributing content to tell an even greater story about Great Britain than necessarily a government campaign could do alone. He said that the content they contribute absolutely makes the Great brand bigger and in turn he believes the campaign gives them real added value.
In a similar manner, Rowan thinks that the Panasonic brand and Japan both complement each other immensely, but that it has to work hand-in-hand for there to be great value. Both parties have to have equal contribution to make sure they are ensuring that they’re protecting each other. He said that Panasonic are at the moment working very closely with government to craft a very great image of Japan at the Olympics.
Jon used Muji is a great example in that if you walk into a Muji store, it doesn’t have a Japanese flag everywhere, but there’s a kind of ‘Japaneseness’ oozing through in the way it’s laid out, the colours they use, structuring and the designs. It just feels Japanese but Japanese enough to not be susceptible to any precariousness that might affect Japan in the future.
Conrad said that Britain has a very proud past and a very strong future and he thinks that audiences can discern between the two. So, tourists can actually value the UK for Stonehenge and other ancient monuments but actually understand that also a lot of technological innovation happens in the UK as well.
Jon agrees that you can portray an image of having heritage and history and deep values as well as coming across as a country that is forward looking and innovative, so long as heritage doesn’t slip into nostalgia.
He said that FutureBrand have been working with Bentley for a long time and described Bentley cars as the epitome of old world Britain. However, actually the modern expression of Bentley is about luxury engineering, it’s about borrowing from the past but also projecting a much more exciting vision of the future that’s got a little bit of heritage in the past. What they haven’t done is tell ancient stories about the history of the company and stay stuck in a world of nostalgia and he thinks that’s the big difference. He also thinks what’s interesting is if you play it on a country level, brands these days can actually play with their country of origin versus how they might want to express themselves in other parts of the world. He used Budweiser as example, who FutureBrand also works with. He said that you couldn’t get anything more American in America but if you go and see where Budweiser is going in China, it’s got the ability there to completely reimagine itself using AI and tech.
Jon said that he does worry sometimes that the Britain has such a tradition and so many rituals and ceremonies set down that it will always be slightly held back but undoubtedly if it becomes a truly multicultural place inviting all the talents in and willing to be open, then there’s no reason why Britain can’t be hugely competitive.
Conrad’s view is that if nation branding is to succeed it has to be consistent and of high quality and sustained over a long time. In terms of the Great Britain brand, they put the value down as actually generating jobs and growth for the country, so positive perceptions of the UK as being innovative and open and welcoming are very good. But those perceptions have to actually move audiences to consider the UK above other countries in a competitive situation. He pointed to record tourism since 2011, to remaining number one in Europe for foreign direct investment that number two in the world for attracting international students to the UK as the real measures that actually the Great brand, which is a nation brand, actually helps them achieve.
In summarising, Jon said that one of the key things about the FutureBrand study is that they are not saying Slovakia is going to be bigger than America, but that these are great examples of countries who’ve defied their natural position in the world bank ranking by doing other things other than thinking about their GDP and if you take the lessons from that, then big nations can become stronger because as well as alongside their might in the world. they can think about broader things other than beyond politics, for example. Similarly, nations that never competed can suddenly be a player in the world and punch above their weight because they’re thinking about how the world works and in a broader sense as well. So, for Jon, country branding, when you begin to break it down, you begin to see that actually it can have a far more manifest impact on our lives in a much more tangible way that will have a knock on or benefit to the world at large.
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