In 2010, I returned to London to meet again with the nation-branding consultants I had interviewed three years earlier. I expected to encounter a very different portrait of the field from the one that had been painted for me a few years earlier. Aftershocks from the global financial crisis of 2008 – 2009 continued to make themselves felt, upending the foundations of market value. Global advertising industry revenue, after growth of nearly 8 percent in 2007, shrank by 7.3 percent in 2009. The crisis also revealed serious fault lines in the structures of national investment programs. News headlines trumpeted downgrades of sovereign credit ratings in countries across the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. I expected that my interviews on the future of branding the nation would reflect the somber tone.
In some respects, my expectations were met. One meeting proved especially revealing. My initial encounter with this consultant in 2007 had taken place at the Institute of Directors (IoD) on Pall Mall, a Crown Estate building in the city’s West End. This time we met at his new office, a more modest address in central London. The soft leather armchairs, low lights, and whispered service of the IoD had been replaced by a cramped arrangement of identical desks separated by low partitions. We sat in a small boardroom, its glass walls insulating us from the buzz of employees hunched in front of their computer screens.
We began by discussing his career shift. He was no longer in the business of branding nations. He had moved to a company that employed brand strategy as a corollary to real estate developments. His new job entailed working alongside developers to “differentiate” large mixed-use developments or new resorts from their competitors. The move was motivated, he explained, by the absence of work. There simply were not any new national clients looking for branding projects. Requests for proposals, typically found in United Nations journals and the tenders pages of the Economist, had dried up. His ongoing work on a large-scale branding project for an African country had been put on indefinite hold—its effects undone, he surmised, by a change in local government. His enthusiasm for the practice had disappeared along with the work. “Ten years ago I was really enthusiastic about it,” he told me. “I thought, this is easy peasy. This won’t be hard at all. It’s so obvious—transfer principles of fast-moving consumer goods to nations.” It had proven much harder than he thought.
I anticipated that his narrative would follow the script used by the industry in 1993, another period when financial recession took its toll on the corporate sector. At that time, the effects of the crisis were symptomatized by “Marlboro Friday,” the infamous day in April when the Marlboro cigarette company drastically cut the price of its cigarettes to compete with cut-rate brands. The act was believed to signal a crisis of value across American industry and beyond, as consumers entered a phase of brand “blindness,” questioning the value of intangible assets.
Prognoses of the death of branding at that time were, of course, greatly exaggerated. Corporate investment in intangibles did not abate, and brands quickly “bounced back,” occupying a renewed pride of place in consumer habits and on corporate balance sheets. But for a moment, it seemed as if the magical center had shifted. Given the world-historical context of my 2010 trip to London, I thought it might shift again.
The consultant’s account of the difficulties was not quite the one I had expected. His was not a story of the financial crisis cutting off the oxygen supply to branding consultants’ steady flow of willing national clients. It was a tale of deep and lingering misunderstanding by these clients of the potential of brands to powerfully shift the identities of national spaces. In his telling, the long-term benefits of brand strategies were confused with tourism advertising or inward investment marketing efforts, subverted by the vagaries of political campaigns and election cycles, or misrecognized as a mere image makeover. “[Brand strategy is] an intellectually challenging issue for people,” he explained. “If your clients are finding it hard to get their heads round what you’re offering them then you’re going to find it hard to sell consultancy to them.”
In one sense, we can understand this defense as part of an ongoing constitution of expertise by brand managers, consultants, and other professionals whose role consists largely of competing for legitimacy in the realm of intangible asset recognition. Their focus on making tangible essentially intangible benefits requires regular repetition of the value of this work to various interlocutors. Indeed, the critical feature of this consultant’s view is that the underlying epistemology of brands and brand managers—the organizing principles, institutional structures, and bases of value—remains unquestioned. This becomes especially apparent when brands are seen not to work. When a nation’s brand fails—whether due to budget shortfalls; lack of education; or uneven, partial, or even dysfunctional effects—this is deemed a fault of applicationrather than a fault of logic.
In this view, nothing is wrong with the principles or practice of nation branding. The problem lies rather with the national clients, who have misrecognized the visionary and potent ability of brands to achieve prosperity; misapplied the universally applicable rules of brand strategy; or, most problematically, misidentified their jurisdiction’s most compelling, essential, and unifying national narrative.