"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Travel
May 19, 2010

Passports And Nation-Branding

There is probably no trend that speaks more clearly to the pervasiveness of consumerist thinking than the penchant for countries and cities to try and brand themselves. Take, for example, sites like FutureBrand and NationBranding, which describe countries in the language of marketing and highlight the ways that countries are trying to “brand” and “position” […]

There is probably no trend that speaks more clearly to the pervasiveness of consumerist thinking than the penchant for countries and cities to try and brand themselves. Take, for example, sites like FutureBrand and NationBranding, which describe countries in the language of marketing and highlight the ways that countries are trying to “brand” and “position” themselves.

Of course, there is some potential merit to this kind of thinking, when a country is trying to “sell” itself. National tourism campaigns can benefit from developing a strong brand identity. Moreover, it is tempting to think that all government departments should align themselves with the national “brand.”

Except that governments are reflections of society, of people, not just of business interests. Moreover, a society is, in any meaningful way, far more complex and far less malleable than any brand could or should hope to be. It is one thing to sell a version of the country’s identity to tourists and potential investors. It’s quite another to pretend that everyone in a society fits a neatly packaged social and cultural stereotype (or that they even should).

I was wondering about this while filling out a Passport renewal form in the Australian Consulate office here in Hong Kong. Comparing my experience this morning, with pervious experiences in London and Delhi made me wonder: Do Australian Consulates and High Commissions have a brand?

The Australian High Commission in London, at the turn of the last decade, exuded a kind of swaggering cultural confidence. The offices were comfortable, almost plush (more like an airport business lounge than a stuffy government department). It was easy to feel an expansive sense of the country’s culture; from newspapers, to magazines, to art. For me, that connection was even more vivid, having experienced events at the intersection of that Commission’s and the Robert Menzies Centre for Australian studies at King’s College London. From presentations of ballet, to film, music, or poetry there was a sense that Australia saw itself as self-assured and “world class.”

Delhi was an altogether different adventure – the high Commission felt more like a bunker, with a siege-like defensive approach that reminded me of bank branches in the 70s and 80s (“young man, why are you making this withdrawal”). After a two hour wait for completion of a simple process, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Again my experience of cultural events connected to that High Commission bled into my “brand” experience. Speaking to an officer of that commission at an exhibition of Indigenous Australian Art was representative of a number of encounters in those years and a moment I’ll never forget – one that reminded my of my trouble associating with the Australian “brand.”

“I’ve always felt like an outsider. You would think that having lived nearly 28 or my first 30 years in the same city (and close to 20 of those years in the same house) would have given me a strong sense of local identity. However, having been reckless enough to spend the first two years of my life outside Australia, it didn’t matter what I did from that point, I would always be an outsider. This point was driven home to me within a few weeks of arriving in Delhi. I met an Australian at a Gallery opening and by way of introductory conversation, we shared part of our life stories. After finishing my account, the Australian said to me “so, you’re not a real aussie then?”

Here in Hong Kong was a different experience again. The Consulate was clean, efficient and almost friendly. It definitely felt like an “Australian” space, but one that was neither expansive, nor defensive. Again, the experience seems to connect with the kind of cultural events I’ve seen in the city – solid, but with neither the swagger of London or the antagonism of Delhi.

Of course, it’s easy to think these three radically different experiences point to some kind of branding failure. Certainly none of those vignettes would give a full, true and accurate picture of the country. However, taken as a whole, without trying to force a reconciliation of the contradictions they represent would, for me, give a pretty compelling picture of of what Australia is like.

That’s the problem with nation-branding. Brands are partial (and often fictional) narratives. Like photos, brand identities are compelling as much because of what gets left out of the frame as for what gets put into it. Countries are infinitely harder than products to shape, describe and frame with any real honesty.

If, perhaps there is a deep value in the whole notion of nation-branding it is connected to G.K. Chesteron’s thoughts about travel,

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

In this sense, some branding/re-branding efforts can appear very shrill, like Hong Kong’s claim to be “Asia’s World City.” Take, for example, the claim that,

“Research also showed that the top five core values associated with Hong Kong were progressive, free, stable, opportunity and high quality, while the most commonly perceived attributes were cosmopolitan, connected, enterprising, innovative and leader.”

Some of that may be true But, in the past few months I’ve had conversations with a number of people running quite successful businesses in Hong Kong who would question most of those “values and attributes.” The problem is you can spin those words into any number of stories that may, at best represent the viable aspirations of this city and, at worst, be pure fiction.

Perhaps that’s why the great global cities, the ones that fire our imagination really don’t need branding at all – New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Rome. Sure, some of these cities may have problems that need addressing, but their qualities speak for themselves. Experience them and you need no explanations.

Toni 14 years ago

I’ve a suspicion that a country’s ‘brand’ is rather more like perfume than running shoes in this context. It reacts with the host nation’s chemistry to create a unique smell that, while recognisable, may or may not be nice. It may also be driven by the way it feels about that host nation, to try harder where it feels inferior, or not bother where there’s nothing to prove.

As for me, a city’s appeal is unlikely to be related to how successful it now is on the world stage, but that’s another issue entirely.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Toni, when I look back on the cities I’ve lived in, their cultural influence seems to match my enjoyment of living there more than their commercial success.

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