What makes a nation brand - and is it really worth billions?

In this Covid-19 era, it is much more than a slogan or logo - and a country's handling of the pandemic means a great deal

The UAE's place in the world is now clearer and more prominent than ever. Antonie Robertson / The National
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More than 10 million people last year helped to choose the logo that will represent the UAE to the world.

But a nation brand is much more than the now widely used “seven stripes” logo — voted for only weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

It is about reputation, a sense of place in the world, a thriving society and a burgeoning economy. And a country's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic can be make or break, too.

Most of the top-ranked countries in this year's Brand Finance Global Brands ranking — in which the UAE came 11th — were recognised for their sound handling of the disruption and the vaccine roll-out, with Australia and New Zealand new additions to the top 10. The UK and US fell in the rankings, with authors saying their faltering response during the pandemic was a factor.

A logo is not a brand – a brand is what you think about a country. It is the emotions and feelings that pop into your heart and mind when you say its name
Jose Filipe Torres, Bloom Consulting

In fact, the UK, US, Japan and France have all fallen out of the top 10 strongest nation brands ranking due to the perception of how they handled Covid-19.

The Emirates and Singapore, in fourth position, “broke the western monopoly” and disrupted the status quo, authors said.

The ranking uses a complex set of metrics and factors to measure how a country is perceived at home and abroad, based on polling of more than 75,000 people in more than 100 countries.

Andrew Campbell, managing director at Brand Finance Middle East, said the UAE, which rose three places in the past 12 months, “punches well above its weight in terms of nation brand strength and challenges the western status quo in the ranking".

'A brand can't be bought'

Brand Finance estimates the country's “brand value” is worth $749 billion. That is based on everything from GDP forecasts from the World Economic Outlook of the IMF to potential sources of finance, to the effect of “soft power".

A successful brand has significant implications for foreign investment, economic growth and attracting the brightest minds.

“A logo is not a brand — a brand is what you think about a country. It is the emotions and feelings that pop into your heart and mind when you say its name,” Jose Filipe Torres, chief executive of Bloom Consulting, told The National last year. Bloom helped to develop branding strategies for Australia, Paraguay, Poland, Miami and Madrid and is based in the Spanish capital.

“The Emirates already has a good brand; it is generally associated with progress and positivity.”

A nation brand — rather than the brand of an individual company — comes from “a positive national reputation … and, of course, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Simon Anholt, one of the world's leading experts on national image, told The National.

He recommends countries do not achieve reputational progress by “shouting about it".

“It’s innovating more strategically, more consistently, more thoroughly and with a clear long-term global purpose behind it, producing tangible benefits not just for the UAE and its citizens, but for the whole region and the whole of humanity,” he said.

Even the strongest brand nations can fall

The UK and US were poor performers in this year's rankings.

The UK, falling from second to 14th with a BSI score of 77.4, and France, falling from ninth to 16th with a score of 75.4, recorded average Global Soft Power Index scores for overseas perceptions of their handling of the pandemic, but perceptions domestically were particularly low.

Japan, falling from seventh to 15th with a score of 76.7, had a similar experience, with the perception at home that the pandemic was mishandled. However, this was different when compared with the perception abroad, where it achieved some of the highest scores in the Global Soft Power Index research.

The US, dropping from fourth to 17th with a score of 75.1, received poor scores at home and abroad, and was also one of the lowest-ranked nations by the specialists.

Despite their brand strength taking a hit, these nations all still feature in an unchanged top 10 when ranked just by nation brand value.

David Haigh, chairman and chief executive of Brand Finance, said: “It will be important for the world’s largest economies to focus on making up the ground they have lost in brand strength, to protect their brand value.

“The UK, US, Japan, and France have all scored poorly domestically for their handling of Covid and they need to rebuild this trust with their respective populations.”

Most famous examples of nation and city branding

Although the term nation or city branding was coined in the late 1990s, examples of it go back much further.

When the “I 'heart' NY” campaign and logo was launched in 1977, New York was on the brink of bankruptcy with a reputation for crime, dirt and rude residents.

Its success was seen as helping the city turn its image around.

That drive inspired Glasgow's Miles Better campaign, which emerged in the late 1980s to promote Scotland's largest city.

When Edinburgh, the historic capital of the country, banned the campaign's adverts from its city buses, the story attracted worldwide coverage, promoting Glasgow to millions and helping to transform its image from that of a violent, alcohol-fuelled, rainy metropolis ruled by gangs.

Building on the success with the “Scotland with Style,” and “People make Glasgow” campaigns, it now has a reputation as a friendlier and livelier alternative to its picturesque rival Edinburgh, a 50-minute train journey away.

Elsewhere, a “Come Back to Jamaica” advertising drive in the 1980s was credited with delivering double-digit annual growth to tourist numbers for the Caribbean island.

The “What happens here, stays here” slogan, created for Las Vegas in 2003, has also entered common parlance, with its nod to the hedonism and freedom that can be found in America’s Sin City.

But success is far from guaranteed; some studies suggest nearly 90 per cent of campaigns are unsuccessful.

Updated: October 20, 2021, 4:50 PM