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What Modern Nation Brands Can Learn from Ancient Socrates

Posted by: Ariën Breunis on Wednesday, July 10 2013 01:48 PM

SocratesJust recently, our national government asked us to assess the competitive strength of the Holland Brand and to identify opportunities to increase the brands’ influence in stimulating both external trade and inward investment. For me personally this wasn’t only a very interesting nation branding project, but also a perfect way to serve my country.

The most visible form of nation branding is probably when countries promote themselves as a tourist destination, a discipline often referred to as destination branding. On the Internet hidden gems such as "It’s more fun in the Philippines," "Cameroon is back" and "Definitely Dubai" are just a couple of mouse clicks away. Many national governments are transferring a vast amount of their national currency to big advertising companies in order to come up with the aforementioned slogans and even total marketing campaigns.

The truth is: nation branding is a big thing. This goes for both destination branding and for economic branding (trade and investment focused branding). Obviously, showing a strong national profile in order to compete successfully in the many international contests of today’s global marketplace is very important. Countries all have their reputations and they are critical to their success. However, strong country brands are not created by means of campaigns and slogans. As Simon Anholt - a well-known nation branding guru - puts it: “you can’t just do branding to a country.”

Anyone occupied with building a strong nation brand has to recognize indeed that the way to increased competitive strength isn’t paved with just communication. In fact, a strong national brand should be based on three essential building blocks.

  • First, you need a clearly defined national narrative, an agreement on a differentiating and relevant "story" of what the nation truly stands for. 
  • Second, this narrative has to guide and direct brand execution. What you’re looking for here is focused, strategy-led communication rather than stand-alone, short-term campaigns and taglines. 
  • And the third necessary element a strong nation brand requires, is a consistent stream of actions and behaviour that constantly prove the truth of the defined national narrative.

Sounds like modern branding theory? Socrates - here he is - is believed to have said: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” While Brand Greece may be struggling right now, actually, in a nutshell Greece's famous philosopher has spelled out how to create and manage strong national brands. Only those countries that incorporate Socrates’ thinking into their national brand strategy, will find themselves on pole position to make a critical difference to the success of its business, trade and tourism efforts.

Ariën Breunis is Associate Director in Interbrand’s Amsterdam office.

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