Can nations be treated as brands? Countless countries have attempted to fashion the strongest attributes of their culture and economy into nation brands in recent years for the purpose of attracting inward investment, highly qualified foreign workers and major global events. But whether such costly exercises offer a tangible return has divided branding experts. Some even say the ad industry should never be involved in steering national brands.
Examples of how such attempts can go horribly wrong include the German Government's "du bist Deutschland" ("you are Germany") campaign. Launched in January, it received a drubbing in the press when a blogger posted a photograph of Adolf Hitler standing under a remarkably similar slogan, "denn du bist Deutschland" ("because you are Germany"), at a Nazi rally in 1935. The point the blogger was making was that the recent campaign, like Hitler's forerunner, smacked of propaganda.
Other failures include Hong Kong, which, after the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, faced speculation about political interference in its governance from China, the disastrous handling of an outbreak of bird flu, and the financial malaise caused by a regional economic slump. The administration spent millions of pounds on an international integrated campaign that seemed to produce little more than a new logo, with little to show in terms of improved economic or social wellbeing in the city.
Simon Anholt, an independent policy adviser to the British Foreign Office on this subject who has also acted as a brand consultant to companies such as Microsoft, Unilever and Coca-Cola, believes nations can be treated as brands. However, he argues that advertising can offer little or no help in building them.
"All the evidence shows that whenever a country tries to market itself, it achieves nothing at all. I suspect this is because the campaigns are not selling something and so people don't know how to respond. But on top of that, whenever a government says 'we are the best country in the world', it simply becomes propaganda. People instinctively distrust it."
Anholt says building a nation brand has "nothing to do with marketing communications". He says: "I warn all governments against it. Ad agencies can't do it. It's about stakeholder communications."
Nonetheless, there are many countries currently using advertising to encourage foreign direct investment by asserting particular national strengths, such as the "New France" campaign run by the Invest In France Agency.
Examples of national branding programmes which may have succeeded in increasing inward investment include Scotland's campaign to retain its association with kilts while ditching other stereotypes to focus on its modern technology and financial-services sectors. Others attempting similar success include Invest Northern Ireland, Dubai International Airport, Contact Singapore and Invest Australia.
The Economist's director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Olly Comyn, says such campaigns are certainly worth it. But he, too, points out that advertising alone will never make the cut.
"Having a positive country image can be incredibly rewarding financially," he says. "You have to have a good product, or one that's going to be good - you can't lie - and then you've got to try to tell the world."
The Interbrand chairman, Rita Clifton, meanwhile, believes there are several ways of using marketing communications in the branding of a nation. She argues that one of them, as in Interbrand's work re-branding Estonia three years ago, is to highlight the strengths of a country that have been hidden from the investment community, or to simply "turn up the volume".
However, Clifton warns that marcoms is often used inappropriately by governments. "Marcoms appears to be the easy route and the most tempting for politicians who want flashy policy ideas. But it depends upon good substance. It also needs detailed stakeholder research," she says.
Comyn also sees an important role for thought-leadership programmes to establish the credibility of the message with board-level executives, and this can be in the way of sponsoring lectures and major events that provide valuable information to the powerful investment-community leadership. This issue of credibility is crucial for some, and forms the foundation of the argument against advertising.
Anholt believes that nations communicate their brands most successfully through six channels: government and its policy decisions and actions; investment promotion in the form of foreign direct investment; cultural diplomacy and the export of cultural assets (such as Hollywood for the US); citizens of the country - from figureheads such as Nelson Mandela down to the taxi driver at the airport; the products of a country (electronic products from Japan, for example); and tourism, which is essentially when the "consumer" conducts a personal product trial.
"What a country needs in order to manage its image is a centralised, co-ordinated central strategy involving all of those stakeholders," Anholt says. "If there is a serious consensus around a vision there's a chance they can steer the brand."
All parties agree the problem in any country promoting its own brand is that a mere slogan can trivialise the culture of a nation. What is needed is innovation, economic growth, and a sense of national wellbeing. Then an ad campaign will have something to convey. If you believe in advertising, that is.