Branding No-Brand Land
by Heine Esperon, Babel Linguistics Inc.
La marca comercial de una nación innombrable
por Heine Esperon, Babel Linguistics Inc.
Would you buy a techno toy for your child from China? Would you drink Bacardi rum if you could buy Havana Club? When you buy olive oil, do you choose the Italian brand or an alternative from Portugal?
In international trade, individual brands are not independent. Their success depends on the reputation of their country of origin. Citgo stations sell high-quality petroleum products at competitive prices, but many Americans refuse to buy them because the company is controlled by Venezuela. Even now, after 17 years of stability, many Americans are afraid to vacation in Nicaragua's peaceful, beautiful beach resorts because they associate this country with war.
A nation's brand affects tourism, investment, development assistance, and how the country's products and services are received throughout the world. If the nation's reputation is negative and inconsistent, its exports perform poorly in the international market.
Over the last few years, there has been an international explosion of "nation branding". Look at Spain, a brand of passion and awesome hipness that, after long years of political and economic isolation, repositioned the country from the edge of modern Europe to the most recognized national brand in the area. Or Oman, which has signed a contract with a marketing firm to develop and sell their country brand outside the Persian Gulf.
For a long time, European countries have developed language-training programs in the early school years so their next generations will perform well in the continent's very profitable tourist industry. Malaysia, now "Malaysia, Truly Asia", is a brand that offers the world an intriguing multicultural experience, which translates into profits of around $10 billion annually from tourism alone.
Soon after 9/11/2001, anti-Americanism became a bigger concern in this country. Secretary of State Colin Powell hired a PR specialist to flood the Middle East with pro-America advertising campaigns. The mission, according to Powell, was to "rebrand American foreign policy", and it featured everything from a monthly Arabic-language news magazine called Hi, distributed throughout the Middle East, to a series of TV spots about happy Arab Americans. But the mission failed, because it tried to change people's minds without changing the "product". It was a sad example of the disastrous branding strategies most often used by dictatorial and totalitarian regimes.
Increasingly, the American brand is inconsistent with our finest traditions. We think of ourselves as a nation of individual freedom, democracy, diversity, and cultural tolerance. But the rest of the world often perceives a much different brand when it considers No Child Left Behind, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Halliburton, the Patriot Act, Blackwater, the oil war, and the obsolete 46-year-old economic embargo imposed on Cuba and our completely unreasonable travel restrictions to that country - also branded as ''terrorist" by the US due to Cuba's ''communist" foundation.
At least Cuba has done something right. Its message has been coordinated and consistent.
British marketing expert Simon Anholt says: ''You only have a certain number of chances to register in people's minds, and unless each time you register, it appears to be making the same point, you don't have much of a chance.'' No wonder Fidel Castro is a brand himself.
Cuba is No-Brand Land. Local products are not sold with intriguing names and sophisticated graphics. The island, which was branded profitably as the "Switzerland of the Caribbean" in the 1940s and 1950s, has endured decades of all kinds of isolation and deprivation, including the "Special Period" of the early 1990s, which featured an "Option Zero" subchapter: Zero food, zero transportation, zero medicines, zero clothing, zero supplies. Zero everything. That still includes no advertisements, billboards, or marketing campaigns other than to promote the social pillars of education, health care, and sports.
But over the past 50 years, Cuba has managed to create an incredibly solid country brand by simply living its identity. Names such as Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagas, Corona, Romeo y Julieta, Havana Club, Alicia Alonso, among others, are luxurious world-class brands based on touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, and imagination - what Cubans do best. And a current international advertising campaign by the Cuban Tourist Board is promoting Cuba as a luxurious world-class destination. When I leave for Havana via Toronto, I am amazed at the Viva Cuba messages displayed all over the city in elaborate rotating and lighted billboards. The semantics of this campaign is totally what Cuba represents, a summation of its national unity and culture. The phrase, backed by the simple picture of a turquoise ocean with unique talcum-powder sands and a magnetic woman, literally means Long Live Cuba.
The truth is that Cuba is a powerful brand. A brand that has been established and reinforced with consistency and an integrated image of creativity and quality over a long period of time. It lives in the hearts and minds of every Cuban on the planet.
The US could learn many things from our Cuban neighbors, if we open our hearts and minds to them. For example, they have demonstrated that a national brand must be real. It must be organic. It must be lived. The American brand will not equal the worldwide credibility of the Cuban brand until we stop marketing ourselves and start living up to the principles we want to promote.
Heine Esperon is the founder and owner of Babel Linguistics, a translation, interpreting, editorial, and language-training firm in Ann Arbor. She earned two graduate degrees from international universities. Heine is also an avid traveler, an accomplished cook, and a formidable presence on tennis courts worldwide.