Simon Anholt

Brand America

I write extensively on national identity and reputation, and am the author of Brand America. I am the British Government’s advisor on Public Diplomacy, and I have advised the governments of many nations around the world.

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Crossing Borders

Bono and Brand Africa

May 26, 2006

The USC Public Diplomacy site reports that Bono is getting interested in branding

In Dallas for a talk presented by the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth, rock star Bono advocated more U.S. aid to Africa as a means of diplomacy and preventing terrorism. "Public diplomacy at its core is really about branding," the U2 singer said. "But the American brand isn't at its shiniest. The neon is crackling."

It's interesting that Bono is using this language, because I don't think he quite realises the enormous branding power that he wields over Africa and it's far from positive.

Africa suffers from what I call "continent brand effect:" because there is so little public awareness and knowledge of the individual countries, every country on the continent apart from South Africa ends up sharing the same reputation. Even a relatively prosperous and well-governed nation like Botswana ends up sharing perceptions of violence with Rwanda, of corruption with Nigeria, of poverty with Ethiopia and of famine from Sudan.

And Brand Africa, with its simple message of ongoing catastrophe, is promoted with skill, dedication, creativity and vast financial and media resources by aid agencies, international organisations, donor governments and, most prominently, by aid celebrities like Bob Geldof and Bono. Every time such a celebrity appears before tens of millions of TV viewers around the world to make another impassioned plea on behalf of the continent (usually represented by a black logo in the shape of Africa), he is building the brand image of Africa, not as 53 countries in various stages of development and struggle for independent existence and identity, but as a uniform, hopeless basket-case.

This image is absolutely ideal for generating charity, of course, but with each additional promotion, it becomes harder for places like Botswana, their companies and entrepreneurs, to break free of these negative associations and start to build a competitive identity of their own, or to inspire anything more useful than pity.

This kind of negative branding is the hardest of all to criticise, because it is so plainly done with the noblest intentions, and because it does as much good in the short term as it does harm in the long term.

Take Nigeria, for example. Lagos ranks at or near the bottom of most of the categories in the City Brands Index, but this is hardly surprising, since it is the least well known and least visited of the 30 cities in the Index, and has no world-famous landmarks, personalities, events or achievements. This creates a kind of perceptual vacuum, into which a wide range of generalised African imagery tends to flow. By far the leading association with Lagos is war, mentioned by 11% of our respondents, an unusually high percentage by any standards: the same percentage, in fact, that associate the United Nations with Geneva. The Biafran War ended in 1970.

I'm giving a speech at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town next week on this subject, entitled "Why it is time to abolish 'Africa'" - and by "Africa" of course I mean "Brand Africa", that big, bad, hopeless continent brand that ruins the chances of so many well-run African businesses and African countries. Africa urgently needs to be perceived as 53 individual countries, each one better known for its real, individual characteristics, competences, talents and assets. I don't think it's going too far to say that until this issue is widely recognised, and until the governments of each African nation start to take their brand management and public diplomacy responsibility seriously, human and economic development in Africa will remain elusive.

It would be a wonderful thing if Bono could turn his considerable branding firepower onto that task instead. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how the WEF crowd responds!

Older: Nation Branding

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princewill omorogiuwa wrote on May 30, 2006 1:53 PM:

Just to support your point, you realise that Europeans are described by their countries of origin whilst africans are described by their continent. People will say he is British but not that he is Kenyan or Liberian. they just say they are African. I am delivering a workshop in Berlin this friday on the subject of Branding Africa. The delegates are going to be engaged with the concept of branding and suggest what they believe can be done. It will be interesting to cross reference their perception with the brand index that you have developed. Many thanks Prince

Kyra Gaunt wrote on June 7, 2006 7:38 PM:

I really admire your points as someone involved with thinking about creative economy discourse in the planinng of a conference sponsored by the UNDP-South South Corporation and the World Culture Open here in NYC. We are co-sponsoring FESPAD, a pan-African dance (and music) festival, being held in Kigali, Rwanda this August 2006. There's a country in need of a branding revolution! Would love to see about bringing you to this conference! Interested?

Kyra D Gaunt, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology

Ronnie Brown wrote on June 19, 2006 11:35 PM:

For me, this notion of "continent brand effect" is nothing more than white supremacist doubletalk. Africa isn't suffering because of a lack of "postive brand recognition"'s suffering because the shackles of neo- colonialism, corporate exploitation, political mismanagement have yet to be COMPLETELY broken. In the global arena, nation-states relate to one another on the ground of POWER and LEVERAGE...A destablized Africa is one less competitor for the rest. America and the rest of its European allies would be working against their own self-interest if Africa was allowed to reach its potential. Whether it's the raw material of the land or the cultural innovations of its diaspora, Africa has been the breadbasket of the world...and that world has been reaping the benefits on the cheap for generations...why should it stop now?

Catherine Mukua wrote on November 17, 2006 12:59 AM:

It is true mainstream media has done a good job of painting a general picture of darkness about all the countries in Africa collectively named "Africa" and purposely turning away their cameras from episodes of economic and democratic progress of some of these countries whose post-colonial decades in self governance can be counted on a single hand.

I guess it is up to the african countries to clean up that image by standing up to the opportunists.

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"Why does Anholt say that nation branding is especially of "critical importance to developing nations?" It seems to imply that developing nations need to "appeal" or "sell" themselves to multi-national corporations in order to have economic development. As we've seen with recent events in South America (Chavez in Venezuela, the nationalizing of gas in Bolivia), not all "developing" nations want to hop onto the corporate bandwagon."

— Brett

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Nation Branding  »

Expand Your Borders
 Is Brand America in Trouble?
Forbes magazine comments on the decline of Brand America.
 Re-branding America
The Boston Globe investigates the concept of nation-branding.

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