Simon Anholt is the leading authority on managing and measuring national identity and reputation, and the creator of the field of nation and place branding.
He is a member of the UK Foreign Office’s Public Diplomacy Board, and has advised the governments of some 30 other countries from Chile to Botswana, Korea to Jamaica, and Bhutan to the Faroe Islands.
He publishes two major annual surveys, the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index and City Brands Index. Anholt was awarded the 2009 Nobels Colloquia Prize for Leadership in Economics and Management.
Brand Africa Forum
This was held in Johannesburg on September 16, 21010. There were many fascinating speakers covering the role of the media, economics & business, and nation branding. But it was the scale of Africa's that really came through:
Anver Versi, editor of African Business & African Banker –
Dr Dambisa Moyo, author: Dead Aid –
Simon Anholt is one of the richest people I’ve met. That’s not in a financial sense but rather in terms of his enquiring and astute mind, engaging manner, and the wealth of experiences that opened for him.
Although I spent a pleasurable two hours in one-on-one discussion with him, nothing brought that home more than question time at the Brand Africa Forum, where he was the keynote speaker, the day before.
It was the second question of the day from the same conference-goer, but the first to Simon. It had some validity but seemed – to me – more of an attempt to show off the questioner’s insight with a carefully-prepared and read statement. I got lost with all the big words.
But Simon’s answer shook me. “You’re absolutely right!” he said. “What Africa needs is an African Council like the British Council, to promote understanding of African culture.” Now I’m sure that was never part of the question, but Simon latched onto an opportunity – a big opportunity – from what (to me) was a garbled statement from the floor.
If nothing else comes of the Brand Africa Forum, that is the one big idea that can – correctly implemented – make a big difference. And Simon introducing the British Council as the model was a good start.
"Reputation is everything; reality means nothing"
Simon started his address at the Brand Africa Forum by talking about the negative connotation of the "deceitful, dangerous word: Brand.
But then he went on to to say, "Wouldn't it be great if countries safeguarded their brand/reputation as well as companies do."
Having a positive image can make a world of difference to a country, city or region, just as it does for companies and their products. That’s why the expressions which Simon first coined more than ten years ago – ‘nation brand’, ‘city brand’ and ‘place brand’ – are heard so often. But the similarities end there. Places can’t construct or manipulate their images with advertising or PR, slogans or logos – and although some governments spend large amounts of money trying to do just that, there is absolutely no proof that it works.
"Places can only change their images by changing the way they behave."
The only sure way places can change their images is by changing the way they behave: they need to focus on the things they make and do, not the things they say. Simon’s approach of Competitive Identity, (also the title of one his books), is about helping countries, cities and regions to earn a better and stronger reputation through:
- courageous, enlightened social, economic, environmental & foreign policies;
- the dynamic development of tourism, foreign investment & exports;
- carefully chosen international cultural, sporting & political events;
- improved cultural & academic relations with other countries;
- a strategic commitment to international development & poverty reduction;
- productive engagement with multilateral institutions, regional organisations & with NGOs at home & abroad;
- effective coordination between government, industry & civil society;
- enhanced public & private diplomacy abroad;
- a visionary long-term approach to innovation, investment & education.
He makes the point that you need to think about the 'products' rather than the reputation to be successful.
He doesn’t consult in a conventional manner and dislikes techniques, holding rather a series of conversazione – a purposeful and more collegial differentiation to a ‘meeting’. (Simon’s wife is Italian.)
“We meet in shirtsleeves and no ties – no suits – with no assistants, note-takers or bodyguards,” he explains. “We don’t meet at their offices or conventional meeting places, and avoid those with fluorescent lights (which do have an effect on consciousness and brainwave activity) or that lack plenty of fresh air. I try to find somewhere inspirational or meaningful – in Iceland, it was the 1,000-year old wooden cottage of the original parliament, which only the prime minister has the key to. In Latvia it was a German castle. We sit in armchairs not at conference tables.
“It usually attended by the head of government, ministers of culture, education and tourism, CEO’s of the country’s two largest corporations, a few representatives of civil society (religion & media for example) and a wildcard. In Mexico, that was a celebrated comic actor.
“Being serious never means that one should be boring; and it’s the wildcard’s role to keep things moving. I take it as a mark of success when they look at me in surprise when I do speak (something I normally do a lot of) as though they had forgotten I was there.
What is your country’s purpose in the world?
“There are usually five or six conversazione and we never talk about image, branding or communications. I do ask when we start for their view of their country’s purpose in the world.”
Discussions are frank and open, and one might expect that some unpleasant truths might be resented. But no, says Simon, “they are happy to hear them. They rarely get the opportunity of stepping back from everyday issues for a clear and logical view.
Geir Haarde, former prime minister of Ireland, commented how useful he found it, "Almost for the first time since I left college, I've been able to think about our country and its role in the world. As a working politician, if you're not careful, all you think about is fighting fires and winning elections”
While acknowledging that he is a born optimist, Simon says that his experiences of people who run countries are that they are genuinely good people.
(My own experience is that those leaders with reputations as ogres do respond warmly and positively if you treat them as an equal rather than the subservience they are accustomed to. Of course, you do have to be an equal to start off but then I’ve yet to meet a leader who is a genius or infallible!)
Countries’ own perceptions about what makes them special is universal – “the warmth of our people.” But it’s only the Muslim countries, and Simon refers to his experience in Afghanistan, where this really stands out, marked by exceptional customer service. “It’s part of Muslim Law; it’s tangible; it’s deeply ingrained into their culture. It is a sacred duty,” he says.
Generally he sees the ‘Groucho Marx syndrome’ – “we don’t rate ourselves highly enough.” People are modest and those who do succeed get knocked down. And most countries have names or sayings for people who resent success – from Mexico's 'crabs' to Japan's 'tall nails get hammered'.
Politicians can skew the reputation of a country, and Mandela is an example of someone who has done that to SA’s benefit. And what about Bush’s administration in the USA?
The US is the exception to every rule. It is the only deliberately branded nation on earth (apart from Israel perhaps). It has a set of values and criteria to attract people from outside. On the other hand, the UK is a bit of a con trick. The size of its reputation goes far beyond its size.
Discussions at Brand Africa Forum raised comparisons to India. It’s the same size as Africa in terms of population, but why is it admired so much?
1. Maybe it’s because Africa is a continent and India a country; Africa has a muddled image.
2. Maybe it’s the cultural heritage. Is India’s stronger than Africa’s?
(This prompted a whole side-conversazione: Admittedly India’s legacy of Rajahs and countless inhabited palaces far outnumber anything Africa has to offer (mud huts and kraals mainly with Zimbabwe ruins thrown in). Is Egypt regarded sufficiently as part of Africa sufficiently for the Pyramids to count, or are Pyramids discounted because they belong to ancient civilisations and are uninhabited? Maybe the truth lies in the fact that India has held on to its living heritage while Africa has lost hers. India’s tourism offering invites you to share the grandeur of their palaces.)
3. Maybe it’s the visible global ambassadors from India versus Africa. Everybody is interested in people! Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan are Africa’s most respected ambassadors; India has the legacy of Ghandi but it also has Bollywood…
4. Maybe it’s the image of Africans. Nobody fears Indians but, with the mythology of Western civilisation and in today’s Western aeon, blacks are to be feared. The rest of the world has to learn that the race that inhabits SA (and indeed Africa) must not be feared and looked down upon.
(This made me recall South Africa’s bid in 1997 for the 2004 Olympic Games. At the final presentations in Lausanne, a group of black dancers provided light relief from the speeches. As they toyi-toyed to the front of the stage, their ululating growing louder, one could see IOC delegates pressing themselves back into their chairs, squirming. This was an African ‘war dance’ that didn’t serve the country’s best interests!)
What we didn’t touch on were economic comparisons and maybe it should be the fifth point. India is admired for its industry and entrepreneurship, and as a tourist destination. (Just think what the movie ‘eat, pray love,’ which draws so powerfully on India’s culture, will do for India!) Looking at SA alone, we do compete as a tourist destination but are we as industrious or entrepreneurial? Are we a stable and reliable trading partner? Why the ANCYL’s focus on the nationalisation of mines – a finite resource diminishing in terms of percentage contribution to GDP – rather than getting SA working entrepreneurially? Or is nationalisation the quick-fix, gimme-gimme bailout, which so often typifies Africa.
Maybe part of the answer lies in a recent article by The Economist – India's surprising economic miracle. See how Simon’s conversazione gets one's mind flowing?
But Simon’s point in all of this is that this country, this continent, does not do cultural relations – “Look at China, look at Russia. Cultural exchange is the best nation-branding you can do.
“This is the opportunity for Africa. There is a gap in the market and cultural relations are the 21st century way of nation-branding.
“Look at the British Council – if you do culture together, people cannot hate you. The British Council was active in Iraq and a survey there found that 99% of Iraqi males wanted the USA– but not the Brits – out of the country.”
The biggest mistake the USA made was the closure of the USIS and other cultural agencies at the end of the Cold War, thinking that the job of winning minds and hearts was over.
But Simon already sees the pitfalls for any cultural exchange programme. The first is real estate – renting the most expensive premises in the world’s most expensive cities. “Stop the obsession with people you think are above you! Make sure that you have earned the admiration and respect of those ‘below’ you. Create a slipstream, don’t break wind.”
Cultural branding must address the image of an African, the promotion of good ambassadors, recognise the value of ‘misfits’ (like Richard Branson in the UK), and modify education to cater for cultural values, and so on.
Asked about current negative perceptions of SA in the UK media, Simon says the media does not portray public opinion. “The Anholt Nations Index has a deeply-rooted cultural context; it’s not a ‘pew survey’ as the media might present.
“The truth is, people in the UK don’t think about South Africa that often.“ (At Brand Africa Forum, he said that people generally only think about three countries - the USA and the two countries they have an association with.)
On the subject of foreign aid – so pertinent in the African context – he says this is a double-edged sword that takes the reputation hostage.
"I have often commented in the past about the unintended damage done to the international standing and, consequently, the long term prospects of poorer countries by well-intentioned charity promotion, and in particular the negative ‘branding’ of Africa by aid celebrities like Geldof and Bono.
"Over the decades, with the best intentions in the world, their relentless depiction of Africa as one single, hopeless basket-case has harmed the long-term development prospects of the whole continent even as it has
boosted donations. After all, while many people would happily donate money to a basket-case, few will think it prudent to invest in a basket-case, buy products or services produced in a basket-case, go on holiday to a basket-case, or hire somebody born and raised in a basket-case."
Simon has created a whole new industry which marketing consultants, not his favourite people, have benefited from greatly. So what next?
“I turn 50 next year and my daughter pointed out than I only have 10,000 days left on this planet. And I don’t want to meet my maker and all I can say I did was help a few countries improve their reputations.”
So he is going to be moving onto something new. During his travels, he’s noticed that global institutions operate at 83% inefficiency. Put another way, they’re only 17% efficient. So he wants to address global governance.
"Facebook has a greater population than most countries"
“The levers of power are no longer held by elected governments but by a range of stakeholders. We live in a world of networks and there is no longer any guarantee that institutions will continue in their current form. You don’t need buildings to house them – Facebook has a greater ‘population’ than most countries – USA included. “
"The only remaining superpower is public opinion"
If South Africa doesn't bring him back soon for longer, only short-sightedness can be blamed.