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Country billboard in the city

The Branding of America

Just Do It. Think Different. On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers. Slogans like these help reinforce a brand — the reputation and consistency — of a commercial name, in a subconscious but completely manipulated free association. We associate Nike with heroics and drive; Apple with simplicity, originality, and innovation; Volkswagen with joie de vivre and hip style.

But did you know that Sweden — yes, the country — is "sexy but reassuring"?

1992 Olympics Insignia

This Olympic insignia, with echoes of Joan Miro's Red Sun abstract, was used convincingly by Spain for the 1992 games.

Welcome to the world of nation branding, a relatively new trend in marketing and public relations that aims to make "consumers" — that would be global citizens — think nice, neat, shiny thoughts about an entire country. With nation branding, flags become logos and national anthems become advertising jingles, luring tourists, investors, and even allies. Take Spain, a poster child for successful nation branding since it leveraged the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona to transform itself from a perceived European backwater to a trendy destination, conveyed neatly in the Joan Miro sun symbol.

In marketing lingo, countries that have emerged from the former Soviet bloc are particularly ripe for rebranding. Estonia, for example, is known as a "Nordic country with a twist," and is a good example of a country that managed to recover a positive national identity after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Then there's its less resilient cousin Belarus, which in terms of branding is still hobbled, 20 years later, by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Estonia is a "Nordic country with a twist." Then there's its less resilient cousin Belarus, which in terms of branding is still hobbled, 20 years later, by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

According to Simon Anholt, a British nation-branding guru, countries that score well as brands tend to be wealthy, westernized countries with liberal democratic traditions and a high level of social-welfare provision. Countries like sexy, reassuring Sweden, which scored number one in Anholt's recent Nation Brands Index, followed by the United Kingdom and Italy.

The U.S. tied with Germany for fourth in Anholt's index. The study showed that the American brand has been hit hard by recent foreign policy: Over ten percent of those questioned in a recent survey described the U.S. government as "unpredictable," another ten percent used the word "dangerous," and seven percent called it "sinister."

Part of the trick with branding, of course, is to make sure that the experience with the brand is consistent — people can be sure, for example, that when they buy an Apple product it will be cute and smart and boost their own hip and cool factor. But in Anholt's study, the U.S. ranked as the most inconsistent in its brand message. As an article in the Boston Globe put it, "Brand America under Clinton was all about multilateral humanitarian intervention abroad and Third Way liberalism at home; Brand America under Bush is the opposite."

But that's brand inconsistency over the course of several years, and two administrations — kind of like if Levis were all about rugged American heritage one year and Bohemian chic the next. According to branding theory, a single administration that insists it promotes freedom, yet simultaneously supports torture and illegal wiretapping is likely not to spark "consumer" loyalty.

And so, here at POV, we've turned to Almond Joy and Mound's 80s candy ads for inspiration for an American slogan that says it all: Sometimes you feel like a democracy, sometimes you don't.

Meghan Laslocky is a freelance writer from California, the Land of Golden Opportunities.

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Consistency is Key
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Tag America Test your free association marketing skills. Coin the next slogan for today's America.
Recent Slogans View All Submit Your Own

"What Happens in the U.S., Stays in the U.S."

— Thomas Grad, New Brunswick, NJ (5/4/2006)

"Libertys' beckoning torch is fueled with the dreams and prayers of all mankind, illuminating an America of hope, diversity, and service to others."

— Dusty Bogard, Alexandria, Louisiana, USA (5/9/2006)

"America, where reflecting and reinventing shaped its past and determines its future"

— Coleen Mackin, Brisbane, California USA (5/8/2006)

View all the slogans | Submit your own »

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in Border Talk:
Robin Koerner

Watching America co-founder Robin Koerner »


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