The Big Picture – Talking Nation Brand with Foreign Policy Group


The Foreign Policy Group talk nation brand, digital diplomacy, and the importance of the big picture

Foreign Policy Magazine has a long pedigree. Since its founding in 1970 the magazine has become well-known for reporting diplomatic and political developments from around the globe. So it seems a natural progression for the FP Group to branch out into nation branding. That’s where the Nation Brand Institute (NBI) comes into the picture. To be launched in the very near future, the Institute aims to provide a high-level research and knowledge sharing forum, bringing together insights from practitioners, academics and diplomats worldwide.

I travelled to Washington D.C. to speak with Amer Yaqub and Emily Simon, who are leading the NBI, in an exclusive interview about the Institute and its goals. The interview was first published on PlacesBrands.

Samantha North: Why did Foreign Policy decide to start a nation brand initiative?

Amer YaqubAmer Yaqub: Our clients told us that they needed it. The traditional partnerships that media companies have had with countries have normally been based on advertising. But countries now see the need for much more sophisticated strategic advice. The Nation Brand Institute (NBI) will focus on best practices around the world, on practitioners, on all of the academic knowledge that’s out there. It will apply all this to solve the challenges of our clients. So the quick answer is: there are a couple of different variations out there, but they have a very narrow mandate. Ours is going to look at the big picture.

Emily SimonEmily Simon: For example, with countries that are focusing on trade and investment, or on policy advocacy, or tourism, or on a particular issue, we can help them transmit their messages to various audiences. There’s a very academic debate going on about the differences between public diplomacy and nation branding, about whether or not it should be a part of diplomacy. We don’t get involved in that, as it’s a very competitive environment and so we think all countries should use the latest marketing tools to tell their stories. But we feel very strongly that use of these tools must be backed up with strong policy overall.

We’re excited about the launch of the NBI because there’s such a need for effective communication, to create a dialogue and a vocabulary that’s going to work for both government and practitioners. There’s also a need to get over the ‘hump’ about advertising and marketing being ‘bad words’ for countries to use. The truth is: these are just tools. Like any toolkit, it includes many other tools as well. We consider these tools essential for reaching the target audiences that matter to countries.

SN: Nation branding is plagued with misunderstanding. Many still believe that ‘branding ’a country is the same as advertising it. This has caused widespread negative reactions and has been a proven recipe for failure. What’s FP’s stance on this debate?

AY: Authenticity is at the heart of everything. The reason why this perennial debate comes up about advertising being viewed as the essence of nation branding is because advertising is the easiest thing for governments to look to as a comparison point. It’s easy because they see it every day. But the hard work, the research of finding a key analytical strategy, of having the right people in place with the right amount of time and expectations, that’s not so easily seen by governments. They just see an ad campaign and say ‘Ah, so that’s what you mean by nation brand’. The challenge is to educate them on the whole process.

ES: I think the intellectual capital on nation branding can be enhanced, and I see a gap in terms of research on this topic. I also think skills training and development is important. Today’s diplomats have to wear so many different hats, they are event planners, researchers, and marketers. On top of that, they’ve also got their more traditional diplomatic functions. There’s a need for them to become more comfortable with some of the more traditional marketing tools and understand what they can take from the private sector in order to do their jobs more effectively. There’s also the need for better understanding of how social media can be used in a more effective way. There’s a hunger for best practices on that and many countries are becoming increasingly sophisticated in this area. But it’s still very hard to know what’s working. These platforms are changing and evolving all the time, and so it’s key to give countries the tools they need to use social media effectively and keep up with the changes.

SN: What topics would you say are currently driving the broader conversation on nation branding?

AY: Social media, for one. There are a lot of diplomats around the world who are doing social media really well. The US ambassador, the previous one this fall, did a great job when he landed in Russia. He was viewed as an enemy at first, because of his background, but he used social media in a very compelling way to create a conversation with different groups of people in Russia.

The State Department has invested a lot of resources in that. We’re working with a government that we can’t name right now, but they have shared their whole strategic plan for social media and we’re very impressed with how sophisticated they are in understanding the realistic expectations of what social media can do. I often worry that people in government underestimate the problem and overestimate the ability of tools to solve the problem. One of the key aims of the NBI is to talk about ‘what’s realistic?’ for social media. It’s very sexy and it seems like everyone is doing it, but what can it realistically accomplish? There’s a host of countries, such as Israel, that have empowered their diplomats to tweet without having every tweet approved. Many layers of getting permissions from the top levels don’t chime well with the immediacy of social media and the news cycle.

ES: Social media is very personality-driven. For example, the French ambassador here in D.C. has a really powerful Twitter presence. He’s sophisticated, engaging, allows his voice to shine through, and doesn’t shy away from debate. I think it works best when you can get leaders in place who are comfortable with the tools, who know how the tools can be used, even if they’re not going to be using them on a daily basis. They should also have a great communications team as well, that is empowered and has support from the top levels.

SN: How will the NBI help countries to achieve better brands?

AY: That’s part of what the NBI is set up to do, which is separate from the FP editorial team. Our goals will be to share best practices and to find out what works. Our own experience with Foreign Policy has taught us a great deal. In terms of social media, we have knowledge that we can leverage from accumulating over one million social media followers. Although the needs of a media company are not necessarily the same as those of a sovereign client, the initial research we’ve seen out there demonstrates just how many models of social media use exist. Good social media use demands urgency, catching the news cycle; everything in short bursts, as opposed to long thought-out strategic plans.

ES: One of the keys in social media is figuring out who the right audience is. When a country adds people on Twitter they sometimes interact in an ad-hoc way. Many countries may lack the ability to map out their target audience, and that’s something that we’re going to help them with.

SN: How does FP plan to take a leading role in shaping this conversation?

AY: Various countries have been told they need a nation-brand plan, but they don’t even know where to start. They need a structured approach and methods are key in this. In the Internet world, Twitter quickly became the hottest thing for everyone to focus on, but really that’s only one way of measuring brand effectiveness. Part of it relies on members’ issues and questions, but we’re going to assume that the NBI will benefit a range of clients at whatever point they’re at in the cycle. If they’re very sophisticated we’ll make sure there are different levels of discussion and engagement for them. What’s important also are the big picture things, i.e. how to get started with a nation branding strategy, what do we need to accomplish, what are the tools we can use that are already available, how do we measure the success of the strategy, what is the time-frame, and so on.

There are a lot of things on the plate, but the basic model is to understand where countries are at in the process, create the structure for them to follow, and leverage the research that we’re doing in order to fill the gap with quantifiable science.

ES: There are two main elements that we think will be valuable for the NBI. Firstly, case studies, which we think bring a lot of value in learning by example. We want to make sure that members have access to examples of places that have been successful previously, and to discuss what made those projects work. The second is networking, so we do a lot of events here at FP, and often they are most useful afterwards when everyone starts talking, and sharing additional ideas beyond what was discussed on the programme. We want to create a dedicated forum where people who are passionate about these issues can come together and share their ideas and network, bounce things off one another and so on. It’s kind of happening ad hoc all the time, and people will come to us, but we want to create a forum where this can happen more vigorously.

AY: I’m struck by how there’s a certain element of ‘is it cool?’ to be on the nation branding side, when you’re working in these governments. I don’t think that in most places, people really dream of being the ‘person in charge of nation branding’. It’s similar to the perceptions of HR in many ways. Some companies ‘get it’, most famously Jack Welch at GE. They elevate HR to a role similar to the CEO, or very close. The countries that ‘get it’ are going to put their top talent on nation branding, and not view it as a detour to a more interesting career in traditional diplomacy. Another goal of the NBI is to help legitimise nation branding as a field worthy of serious investment, time and energy and also to help attract the best people. For the young generation joining the State Department, this is part of their jobs, they get it, and they know that social media can effect change in a way that public diplomacy from ten years ago couldn’t.

SN: How does FP Group, with Foreign Policy being an advertising-driven publication, plan to keep the Nation-Branding Institute unbiased and objective in its approach?

AY: We’re not going to work with clients and use examples from anything we’ve done publicly, because of confidentiality, but absolutely we’re going to be objective. There’s no need to hide from the fact that this is a challenging world and we’re all struggling to figure out the right mix. The goal isn’t to embarrass or humiliate anyone; but instead it should be a positive experience of learning both from mistakes and also from best practices. America makes mistakes all the time, but we need to learn from those. There will be cases made publicly available when you’re going to be able to say that what they’re doing is ‘wrong’, perhaps even ‘morally wrong’ and the NBI will absolutely showcase it.

SN: And finally, which country has the strongest brand these days?

ES: I really admire the nation brand of Britain. In particular, the recent ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign was a remarkable example of using a key milestone, the London Olympics, to gather the necessary political will to create an overarching brand function that can be tapped into by pretty much every agency across the government. The unity of message that exists in that campaign is really rare. One of the challenges that many other countries face is that every single agency uses different logos and different messages. But the GREAT Britain campaign overcame that issue by creating coordinated messaging that was valuable for trade and investment, for tourism, for education, for culture and the arts, you name it. Their creative arts section was beautiful, just really nice to look at. So I often find myself referring to that campaign when people ask me what I admire in terms of nation brand.

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