The urgency of country branding

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The Philippines has a serious image problem. Despite the seal of good housekeeping given by Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, the country is still plagued by images formed during our nation’s darkest years.

Images of backwardness, squalor, corruption, and a country besieged by disasters from both Mother Nature and its own politicians. In short, despite the many advances we’ve accomplished as a nation, in the eyes of most, the Philippines is still perceived as a nation of victims. Certainly not a country on the fast track towards industrialization. It’s painful, I know; it hurts me even just to write it. But this is the truth.

The Department of Tourism’s 15-month-old campaign, “It’s more fun in the Philippines,” contributed to improve our image and sell the country abroad. However, the DOT’s campaign should not be mistaken for a country brand. It is only a part of it. A county brand is the sum total of our tourism brand, our investment brand, our way of life, heritage, culture and aspirations for the future—all embodied in one catchy tagline.   

Among the more successful country brands of late is New Zealand’s “Forever Young” brand. It perfectly captures the youthful energy of New Zealand’s young population. Another good example is South Africa’s “Alive with Possibilities.” The brand was designed to set the country apart from the rest of the continent marred with crime and failing economies. South Africa’s branding effort was so successful that the country broke away economically and was even folded in with the rapidly growing economies of the world known as the “BRIC” nations (now referred to as “BRICS”).  

Apart from the DOT’s “It’s more fun in the Philippines” campaign, the Philippines does not have a coherent marketing or public relations campaign going. Neither does it have a program to define our national identity domestically or abroad. To a large extent, this explains why our foreign direct investment is but a tenth of Indonesia’s.

The government agency tasked to spearhead our country branding is the National Competitiveness Council (NCC). Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any progress on the NCC’s side, country branding-wise, since they were given the mandate.

Back in 2011, the Management Association of the Philippines, headed by Felino Palafox Jr., along with Junie Del Mundo’s public relations firm, EON, partnered with the government to form the National Branding Council (NBC). The NBC was created to craft strategies and implement programs toward country branding. The NBC sought a mandate from congress in 2011, but the initiative is dead in the water. I haven’t heard anything from the National Branding Council since.

Meanwhile, foreign direct investments continue to post declines in spite of us gaining investment grade status. Tourism arrivals are growing below expectations at just 11 percent despite a brilliant and aptly funded campaign by the DOT. The term “Made in the Philippines” remains an antonym of high quality or high technology despite us producing 15 percent of all electronic products in the world. The Philippines is still associated with urban decay and squalor despite us having the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the planet, not to mention the most beautiful beaches. And most lamentable of all is that our kababayans (fellow Filipinos) abroad are still seen as kind and hardworking, but all out of luck. 

Clearly, there is a failure to communicate what the nation’s strengths truly are. The writing on the wall is clear: We need to turn our image around as a country and as a people!


It Needs Government Support

The need for national branding must be recognized by Malacañang and the legislature for it to prosper. The private sector, no matter their enthusiasm and good intentions, cannot champion country branding by itself. It needs funding. It needs government to live up to the brand values. It needs government institutions to get our message across globally, especially the Department of Tourism, Trade and Industry, and Foreign Affairs. It needs the active participation of every single Filipino.

For this reason, I deem the bill to legitimize the National Branding Council as a government institution   worthy of being certified by Malacañang as urgent.


The Benefits Of Good Branding

Image matters. Especially among nations, image could mean the difference between being preferred or written off. A good brand gives the country a solid foundation to stand on. It draws attention to its positive attributes.

In the realm of foreign direct investments, having a well-defined country brand has the power to discount the issues that work against us (expensive power, poor infrastructure, etc.) and instead draw focus on our competencies and potentials (a young population who are generally creative, adaptable, and with a high emotional quotient).

In the diplomatic arena, having a strong image gives the nation gravitas. Take Singapore as a case in point. Small as they are, the world listens when they speak as they have established themselves as competent and firmly aligned with the powers that be (ASEAN, APEC, WTO, etc).

In international trade, a strong country brand attests to the quality and integrity of anything made in that country. It even justifies premium pricing. Take Germany’s products as an example. Anything made in Germany is automatically associated with precision. Hence, German products can command premium prices as markets generally accept that they are made with state-of-the-art engineering.

In culture, a strong country brand piques interest, enchants, and endears the country to the world. South Korea is an excellent example of this. Its “Be Sparkling” brand was enormously successful in reversing its rigid society image and replacing it with impressions of its dynamic youth with a vibrant pop culture.

More importantly, a good country brand has the power to make the populace believe in themselves. Just as  “It’s more fun in the Philippines” validated to every Filipino that he is indeed fun and resilient no matter what his circumstances are, a strong country brand can dispel the “woe is me” syndrome that plagues many of us. It replaces it with an affirmative self-image. If it is powerful enough, the country brand can even serve as the nation’s battle cry.

One can’t put a price tag on the benefits a strong country brand. Which is why I wonder, why is Congress   dragging its feet in legitimizing the National Branding Council?


The Ideal Philippine Country Brand

As of this writing, I don’t believe the National Branding Council, or any government agency for that matter, has come up with an actual slogan to serve as our country brand. Which is why I’d like to put my two cents out there for when they do.

To me, a good country brand must satisfy four requisites. Foremost is that it must be sincere and speak of the truth. Second, it must be relatable to everyone and relevant to the times. Third, what the brand promises must be delivered efficiently and consistently. In other words, a promise is only good if it is kept. Fourth, the brand must be forward-looking and not one that dwells on the past. 

And I might add, branding success does not solely depend on budget size but rather, how clearly and consistently it is communicated.

From where I sit, what differentiates the Philippines from the rest of the world is the people themselves. Hence, I believe the theme and context of our country brand should center around the Filipino and his attributes.

Several factors work to our favor. First is that we have one of the largest societies of people under 30 years old. We are family-centered. We are creative and resourceful—a truth no one can deny. We are resilient and long-suffering. We are a people with high emotional quotients (we innately sympathize and empathize). We have the passion of the Spanish mixed in with the flair of the Americans.

I reckon our country brand must encompass all these strengths.

 Get Moving Now

Now is an opportune time to invest in our country brand. After all, the nation’s finances are stable and the economy is growing at its fastest since we became a self-governing republic in 1946. Government is also seen as being sincere in its efforts to curb corruption. No one is certain if the circumstances we enjoy today will hold true after 2016—which is why we should really take advantage of our upper hand today. I hope that both the Palace and Congress recognizes the urgency. 

Let’s not forget that we have 10 million kababayans (in every nook and cranny in the world ready and willing to serve as brand ambassadors. We have 26 million kababayans online who are ready to do the same. We literally have an army of brand ambassadors waiting to be deployed. All we need is a message and our marching orders. (Manila Bulletin)