What Do Brands and Countries Have in Common?

Back in the day, when the Viking longships with their fearsome prows were seen on a coastline, local residents ran and hid. They knew what was coming. Typically, carnage and pillage.

When a delegation arrived in your country sporting a standard with S.P.Q.R., boldly displayed, you knew you were about to be conquered and subsumed.

In the last century, the Swastika heralded death and destruction…and in this millennium, the flag of the Islamic State inspires pure terror.

These complex relationships are simpler than you might think. You see, all of that symbology took the complex and made it simple–almost visceral–because they were symbols of powerful brands. Although the brands themselves might have been complex, the shorthand was clear and to the point. In fact, those brands are so enduring that while they no longer exist, they still live in popular culture and thought… good or bad.

Countries, like goods and services, (and yes, even people) are brands. No more no less. Their names, their leaders and representatives, their flags, their airlines, their food, their sports teams, their entertainers and their policies, all evoke perceptions around the world…good, bad and indifferent. Their brand power is the sum total of the lot.

Still, even today, a shorthand of sorts gives us an immediate feeling and understanding of what to expect from said country. Or, more to the point, it creates an expectation of experience. After all, it’s all perception.

For the past 25 years, my company Young and Rubicam has been studying Brands through the lens of the world’s most prestigious brand study: BAV, Brand Asset Valuator. And for the last three, we have developed a specially focused practice on countries and politicians.

Best Countries is a partnership between U.S. News & World Report, Y&R’s BAV Consulting and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. As described in U.S. News, these rankings now evaluate 80 countries across a range of criteria. Over the next few weeks, I will have a lot to say about the study: the various rankings and the key learnings that will impact global issues over the next few years.

And with that, a few key points:

From time immemorial, a country measured its power in Banks and Tanks. Raw Power. The bigger you swung, the more power you seemed to have. And you stayed on top until the next guy swung harder.

Soft Power, on the other hand, is a measure for a good place to do business; entrepreneurial spirit and openness, a good democratic environment, etc. Nice to have, but not important to how you were really viewed… and thus, not critical when it came to making an impact as you wanted.

Three years ago, we revealed that the measures had, in fact, flipped. What was once seen as Soft Power is now perceived as Authentic Power and the combination of Entrepreneurship, Quality of Life, Citizenship, and Open for Business actually makes up 70% while Banks and Tanks has been relegated to 8% of total Brand Power. And you can see this important perceptual swing in the overall rankings.

Why is this important to all marketers, and why do I think it’s critical?

We all hear about the need for purposeful brands…the notion that if your brand doesn’t have something behind the curtains beyond some product benefit or shallow contrived experience you will fail…and the ground is littered with failure.

Purpose must be based on authenticity–Authentic Power, if you will. Ask yourself:

Does the whole picture add up to the consumer?
Are you associated with doing good that is relevant, or have you hitched your wagon to the latest fad?
Are you consumed with providing the best products and service, or are you consumed with going viral?
Are you marketing…that is, listening to consumers? Or are you digitaling…listening to the Digibabblers?

We are all perceived by the total summation of what we do and who we are. And again, the short hand is called “brand.”


“Countries and places have a history, a story and a culture”

  • Moshe Safdie

In fact, we all do.

So while those longships once scared the hell out of us, where are they now?

Don’t get lost in Banks and Tanks and other one-dimensional measures.

What do you think?

And go to https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries and learn more.

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