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Nation Branding: An Introduction with RWU’s Hume Johnson

Nations have for centuries undertaken efforts to improve their images beyond their own borders, but only recently has the idea of the ‘nation brand’ taken hold more forcefully.

The Fall 2012 issue of RWU Magazine included a Page 15 story titled “For Some Nations, a Brand-Aid is the Best Fix,” which featured Hume Johnson, a Jamaican native, journalist, political analyst and associate professor at Roger Williams University. A more complete interview is included here.

RWU Magazine:

In an opinion piece you wrote last January for The Gleaner in Jamaica, you argued that your homeland needs to lift its “brand quality.” Do governments think of themselves as brands? Is this a new concept?

Hume Johnson:

The leading proponent of this concept is Simon Anholt. Each nation has its own distinctiveness that makes them stand out in the global community. A nation brand is essentially a country’s image and reputation – its core values. You can think about nations in terms of their belief systems, ideas and languages, the skin color of its people, their music, art and lifestyle. They have different histories and there are different cultural and economic products that are associated with and tied to the nation. And so in recent times, academics led by Simon Anholt have begun to look at the image of nations.

If you look at Jamaica, we have reggae. We have Red Stripe beer and a popular Jamaica rum. There’s the Swiss watch from Switzerland. The Japanese have technology. If you think of Italy, you think of their clothes, their cars, their cuisine. Every place has a particular image or reputation. Some of it may be positive, some it may be negative – some of it may be shifting.

RWU Magazine:

How long have nations been concerned about their perceptions in other countries? Is this a long-standing tradition or a phenomenon of an increasingly global world?

Johnson:

It’s always been a global world, but only recently have we begun to look at the global community as one. Nations have always cared about their image in the community of nations. If you look back to France under Napoleon, they wanted to position France as a powerful nation. Or look back to the rise of Germany and Adolf Hitler. He wanted to position not only the Aryan race as a master race but also Germany as the dominant force in the world. Now, it didn’t go off so well, as we know. So when America entered WW-II, America itself positioned itself as something radically opposite from what Hitler and Germany wanted to do.

America became a dominant nation militaristically, economically, politically and in terms of scientific and industrial development. Yet over time, you see policy shifts and behavioral shifts throughout Germany, which has allowed it to improve its nation brand. Meaning we now have a different vision of Germany than we did decades before earlier. Germany has worked very hard and to their credit, we now have a Germany that people can respect. They are really a leader not only in Europe, but in the world.

RWU Magazine:

Jamaica has positive brand elements and negative ones. How would you describe the state of the Jamaican brand?

Johnson:

Anholt says that a place has a strong brand if it means much the same thing to those people who are aware of it. If it’s known by a lot of people, then it’s a famous brand. Jamaica clearly has a famous brand.

Reggae music in particular has allowed Jamaica to excel internationally. Bob Marley is one of the strongest examples of a single individual who has been able to push a country into the global spotlight. Also, the stellar performance of our athletes, particularly in track and field, has allowed Jamaica to position itself in the world. If you look at our bobsled team in 1988, in a society like Jamaica that has never seen snow, yet we qualified for the Winter Olympics. Then Disney created a movie about that, “Cool Runnings,” and it became an international example of ambition and power and influence and the capacity of human beings to strive for excellence and to overcome adversity.

The fact that we wear locks – I myself wear locks – and that is one of the clearest physical examples of the Jamaican brand identity.

Of course, people are also aware of Jamaican marijuana. And unfortunately, given our homicide rate, there is a perception that Jamaica is unsafe for visitors. I don’t share that view, but that’s a perception out there. Because of the fact that Jamaican music has penetrated different parts of the world and our emissaries are not averse to expressing their disagreement about homosexuality, there is also a perception that Jamaica is a homophobic society.

The result of that is that we have what I term an ambivalent brand quality. I believe personally that we have a lot of work to do in managing the brand.

RWU Magazine:

What are the implications for a country that has an undesirable brand quality?

Johnson:

We live in a global community where we all compete for capital, for tourists, for students, for investors and for the attention and respect of the media and the global community. A nation’s brand is a crucial aspect of its competitive advantage in this busy, global marketplace. Each nation has begun to see its national brand as an asset, so there is a greater focus on managing that brand. There is a bit of dispute as to whether one can simply manage the brand in the same way you manage a product. Personally, I believe that you can’t just tack on a new logo!

RWU Magazine:

So what can nations do to change brand perception?

Johnson:

Branding is not to be confused with mere advertising, graphic design and promotion, public relations or even propaganda. I find that Jamaica in particular has a tourism-centric model for managing its brand. I have said this in the Jamaican press – we can advertise our beautiful sand and sea and beaches (recently we are advertising Usain Bolt running across the beaches, sand and sea), but I don’t believe that can change any negative perception about Jamaica. The brand image of a nation really exists in the minds of the people, in people’s perceptions about the place. And so the Jamaican tourist board will not change that.

What an ad can do – what graphic design and a logo and a slogan can do – is to help to market our products. Jamaican ackee, Red Stripe beer, Jamaican rum – the products we are exporting. Blue Mountain Coffee, which has done really well, we can advertise and use public relations and marketing to help promote those products associated with the national brand.

Also, nations require a vision. They have to come up with a clear vision of how people need to see that country for them to start to respect it, admire it and participate and invest in it. Government policy has to be part of moving from the current brand to the future brand. What are people thinking in terms of our crime rate? In terms of our good relations? In terms of our business? You find that nowadays, other countries are looking at how we are dealing with human rights.

Nations need to look at how they are viewed in terms of these other elements, and I don’t think mere advertising will help to accomplish that.

RWU Magazine:

What are some examples of nations that have transformed their brands?

Johnson:

South Africa has done very well in shifting its brand over time. If you think of South Africa, it is coming from an appalling history of apartheid and racial violence and had a disastrous international reputation for a long time – a loss of rights for the black majority, who had no place in their own society. This is not an image that people can respect or admire.

Yet, now, thanks to Nelson Mandela – another great example of a single individual who has been able to shift the perception of a country – South Africa is looked upon as a progressive society with a progressive people. They have a vibrant youth culture, great music and arts – the Asian economies are rushing to invest there. I think it has to do with strategic government policy and an international marketing council that got all the stakeholders in that society to agree on a theme called Alive with Possibility. They managed to host the World Cup in 2010 and did a really good job in showing that South Africa is a beacon in Africa and really showing a different face.

Italy, another example, was long seen as the seat of the Mafia. And then there is Silvio Berlusconi, who the Italians complained tried to destroy the Italian image with scandals disrupting the politics there. Despite all of that, Italy has managed to promote its cuisine, its culture, its fashion, its education and its travel. More than 80 institutions across the world are working now to promote Italian culture, with the root of that culture in the Renaissance. I think that’s one of the prime examples.

RWU Magazine:

What role can individuals play in advancing a nation’s brand?

Johnson:

I was a student in New Zealand for five years and I have been fortunate to have lived in Australia as well. I’ve been to China, I do work in England and I am now teaching in the United States. I often say I should be paid by Jamaica. I wear locks and Jamaican clothing and get many opportunities to promote Jamaica – I am a walking billboard for my country!

Jamaica precedes me in most places – our reputation is already there. Reggae is very strong in New Zealand and as I opened my mouth, I was embraced in that society. So I get a lot of opportunities to not only promote Jamaica but to answer questions like “Is Jamaica really safe?” There are always questions about the brand – not only about the positive things!