‘Branding a nation requires more than global media campaign’

Branding is about image perception; it is about how others perceive that image. This is critical to the wellbeing either of a product, an individual, a service or a nation. In this illuminating interview, ANOTE AJELUOROU engages a brand specialist and Fellow of Institute of Brand Management of Nigeria, Mr. KEN EBBI, who makes it clear that Nigerian has got it all wrong in the most critical areas of nation branding. He asserts that Nigeria has failed to act decisively in most areas of national life that matter in projecting a positive image

How critical is the need to brand a country like Nigeria?
Branding is the sum total of the perception of people about a product, person, destination or nation. When we consider the fact that most decisions are based on perception, managing those perceptions become pivotal to the nation’s overall wellbeing. However, it is important to note here that nation branding, if at all there is anything like that, is not running a communication campaign on global media. In fact, nothing is more deluding than to believe that a country’s overall perception index can be influenced by a communication campaign.

There are several touch points presented by multiplicity stakeholders, all having far-reaching effect on the image of a nation. Every event that occurs in a nation impacts on the perception index of that nation. Therefore, it is a herculean task to manage the perception index of a nation. However, nothing can be more rewarding for a nation as a healthy perception index; it affects every aspect of the society.

What are the indices of nation branding?
There are several indices of “nation branding” but we will consider some of the key ones.

Governance: One of the key indicators of nation brand index is the quality of governance and political stability. Though democracy is highly rated globally, it is not the only system of governance acceptable in nation branding. What is key to most people will be the level of transparency exhibited and the management of subjects like human rights protection, the rule of law, equity, justice, corruption and national social responsibility, etc. These subjects are all important in determining the reputation of a nation as far as governance is concerned in the global purview. Countries that are serious about global issues such as the environment, preservation of the eco-system, fight against terrorism, gender parity, labour rights and so on are usually highly rated.

Culture: Culture’s evolutionary trends suggest that there should be adjustments in the belief systems upheld by a nation in order to line them up with global best practices. Flexibility is the key word. Dubai could not have assumed its ratings without flexibility in religious practices, which fundamentally constitutes the core culture of the Emirates. In fact Britain plays a prominent role in the development of real estate in Dubai.

Tourism: The aim of branding is to move target further away from rational decisions and more towards emotional decisions. Therefore, soft themes are a fantastic way of selling a nation brand. That is why tourism is usually the first point of attraction as far as nation branding is concerned. The vibrancy of a nation’s tourism sector can almost accurately measure its perception index.

Exports: The country of origin brands is another key indicator of nation brand reputation. The quality of goods and services exported by a country can influence the perception index a great deal. There is no doubt that the quality of medical and IT services exported by India in recent times have greatly impacted on their reputation. Countries like U.S., Germany, U.K. and other European countries have all used country of origin products and services to boost their perception index.

This is why I think Innoson Motors should be encouraged in everyway possible to grow its automobile brand. We all witnessed the emergence of Kia and Hyundai cars. These brands received massive patronage from their country and over the years they have cut a place for themselves in the international market. Today, these automobile brands have boosted the country of origin profile of South Korea.

Other service brands like Zenith Bank, UBA, Ecobank, GTB, Glo, Pan African University, etc are all emerging global brands and it is in the best interest of Nigeria to support and protect these brands.

Immigration: Naturally, immigrants gravitate towards destinations with good Liveability index.  One of the key objectives of governments around the world is enhancement of living standards within their territories.  The quantity and quality of people seeking to migrate into a country and the price they are willing to pay say a lot about the nation’s perception index.

Investment: Economic viability, transparency and the ease of doing business are key image indicators for any nation. A situation where global brands shut down their production line in Nigeria and re-invest in other climes within Africa is a dangerous trend for our image. When I hear government officials boast of investments flooding the country, I am bewildered at their claims. Most of these investments are “Hot Money” and we know that such investments are not quality investments; they take flight at the slightest downturn. We should aim at attracting and keeping big industries.

People: One of the greatest assets of any nation is its people. Even when all else fails, people can change the narrative. This is why it is crucial for nations to invest heavily on its citizenry, education being the most important sector.
How much of nation branding is Nigeria currently doing?

Every nation is doing some sort of branding. When we as a nation attempt to attain the millennial goals or engage in environment preservation projects, it is because we want to improve our brand index. However, we are not coherent in our efforts. To achieve any positive result in the enhancement of perception index, we have to adopt a holistic approach. This will involve setting out clear objectives and ensuring that all the indices are managed in concert to achieve those objectives. In order words, a potentially vibrant tourism sector can be marred by insecurity occasioned by poor governance, while investments could be hampered by political instability.

Due to the enormity of the stakeholders affecting Nation Brand Index, the task of reputation management requires a deliberate, cohesive and coordinated approach and must necessarily be handled by a government agency.

If we consider the key indicators that are outlined above, we would realize that Nigeria has been making some efforts in positioning these subjects to align with global standards. However, there is that lack of coordination and cohesiveness in the manner of approach. Lately there has been so much fuss made on improvement on our goal for the ease of doing business. This is no doubt commendable but its effect on our economy cannot be felt if the necessary edits to protect investors are non-existent. We cannot build one area and neglect the others; you are only as strong as the weakest link.

What challenges of nation branding does Nigeria face?
Nigeria has not come to grips with the importance of “Nation Branding” and how key it is in everything we do. We are still wallowing in total darkness as far as that is concerned. We are not yet a nation in the true sense of that word. A good number of Nigerians are not patriotic enough and consequently aren’t good ambassadors of the brand Nigeria. The love for motherland always seems to take the back-burner when weighed with individual gratification. We have our challenges in Nigeria but at the same time many good deeds are emanating from this country. Why is it then that Nigerians hardly have any good thing to say about Nigeria? We don’t have enough sense of belonging and so we ourselves voluntarily offer image-tarnishing information about our country. It is very important here to establish the fact that nationality supersedes tribal identity. If the entity Nigeria means nothing to the federating units, how then can we speak of the brand Nigeria? It is called Nation brand not “tribal brand”; therefore, the nation Nigeria must find a formula that is acceptable to all the federating units. When Malaysia literally chased away Singapore from their union, it was in realization of the fact that they were not in sync with the overall objective of the country and their continual membership was doing more harm than good. This is not a call for disintegration because that might not be in the best interest of the units themselves, but at the same time, the federating units must be properly integrated into the contraption.

In your informed view, are the nation’s managers deploying the right tools to brand or rebrand Nigeria?
The nation’s managers are doing very little to enhance our brand index. In the first place, what are our objectives? What is our unique selling proposition? These are notions that must be documented in a manner that portends clarity of purpose and the citizens themselves must be carried along. It is this document that will guide our line of action.

Managing the image of the country isn’t trying to cover up government’s inadequacies, telling blatant lies, or issuing the usual PR statements. It is a deliberate attempt to direct the attention and emotion of the target audience to a particular phenomenon that is unique in a people, either that which is intrinsic or adopted. For instance, we all recognize that America is positioned as the land of opportunity where everyone can strive and attain whatever goals they have set for themselves. This phenomenon is not intrinsic; it was adopted and it still drives the countries laws, policies and overall positioning. It fuels the passion of the people and any attempt to deviate is usually met with very stiff opposition. This unique proposition is the reason democracy and the rule of law evolved in America. Therefore, whatever the indices of Nation Brands, whether it is people, tourism, investment, exports or governance and culture, they must conform to that unique proposition. It is for this reason that President Donald Trump is being criticized on his immigration policies even when he seems to be acting in favour of Americans. This is how nations deliver clear sense of direction as far as their perception is concerned; we are not doing this in Nigeria, therefore whatever effort we are making doesn’t deliver on any particular objective or ideology and that is technically wasteful as far as perception index is concerned.

Are the right personnel in the places of nation branding in Nigeria?
The organ of government whose terms of reference should include “Nation branding” is the information ministry as well as the media handlers of the government. To be modest, appointments in these areas lack the necessary pedigree and professional profundity. Managing Nation Brands is more strategic in nature; it transcends the mere issuance of statements or countering releases by opposition parties. It will be nice to see a core branding and communication professional managing the information ministry rather than media professionals who in most cases are inadequate as far as brand and communication strategy is concerned. Nigeria needs a communication minister that will spearhead a revolution in our nation’s reputation index and offer a clear sense of direction for our brand.

Have Managers like you also impressed it on government the need to effectively brand?
The Institute of Brand Management of Nigeria, which I belong to, has in the past made presentations to the government. However, the interest level in nation branding is abysmal. Usually the overriding notion is that the country is going through so much turmoil; therefore any effort made in the area of branding will yield very little. So let’s deal with greater issues like security, corruption, rule of law, etc. Well, there will never be a day when we can totally bring these “demons” under total control; therefore, we must engage in the process of proper reputation management at the same time and, to the frank, branding targets the emotions of the populace and if well handled can become the basis for motivating people to fall in line. What the world is looking for most times is something to draw them closer to you. People recognize that nations are work in progress; so, the expectation is not perfection. Rather, something that you do well to place you in the map.

Brazil hosted the Olympics and the World Cup even with its myriad of security challenges and corruption. How can this be? People do not make rational decisions as far as branding is concerned; they make emotional decisions. Even in poorest reputation state, projecting our strengths, especially in softer themes like sports and entertainment, can go a long way in attracting the interest of the world.

Take, for instance, Nollywood. There are so many potential that we as a nation aren’t taking advantage of in building a lofty national reputation. Nollywood has uniquely found a place for Nigeria in the map. These various individuals have taken it as far as they can. Government needs to step in at this point and provide the necessary funding to take it to the next level. With the level of awareness already created, a film village of international standards capable of attracting producers from all over the world is now overdue. When Brazil achieved the feat of winning the world cup thrice, they went ahead to build the largest stadium in the world – Maracana Stadium – to deepen their hold on football. The attention of the world shifted to Brazil as far as football was concerned and that was a major image booster for the nation. Today, the world still has a soft spot for Pele and Brazil. It is about the emotions. The world is practically searching for a reason other than our natural resources to pour their love on us, something unique to us that have been properly developed to meet up with international standards. The Nigerian film industry certainly has something that can provide that spark; besides, it provides the opportunity to tell our stories from our own perspective while inviting the world to share of the splendour.

What are the obvious benefits of nation branding?
Let’s consider country of origin products and services. The U.K.’s reputation, especially in services like education, is very high. This helps the institutions to place premium pricing on their services. By brand association, these institutions are able to reap from the national investment on their reputation. Same thing goes for the products manufactured in those countries. This is an obvious boost on the GDP.

Your nationality should never be a burden. The psychological setback experienced as Nigerians travel around the world is quite debilitating, to say the least. An enhancement on the perception index would go a long way.

Boost the tourism industry. Dubai, South Africa and lately, Ruanda, have enjoyed a lot of economic growth in recent times due to their heightening perception index. Why not Nigeria?

There are several advantages in attracting the prime workforce from around the world. This is a key deliverable of good nation brand.

The pride of place is so imperative in all we do as human beings. No one wants to be from a pariah nation. We have lost a lot of reverence internationally and that is quite a thing of shame.

What is the nexus between branding and politics and how do the two interweave to produce a great nation?
Firstly, politics is a major part of the process that produces leadership. As we have seen in the past, poor leadership cannot deliver on nation building objectives and reputation management is one of them.

Secondly, politicians themselves are prominent personalities and representatives of the people; their actions and inactions impact positively or negatively on the nation brand index. One thing politicians have not realized is that individual outlook affects the businesses of the petty trader on the streets, everyone feels the impact. Investment decisions are intuitive; politicians can affect those decisions.

The recent siege on the national assembly complex dealt a huge blow on our reputation invariably. Most decisions are hinged around government policies and bad politics will eventually produce bad policies.

The level of decorum exhibited in our politics is a reflection of the kind of people we are and that is important in reputation management. Simply put, the impact of one politician on our brand index is equal to that of a thousand ordinary citizens.

What are the implications of nation branding for direct investments that Nigeria needs?
It is not so much as the volume of investment but the quality of investment. Some premium brands will find it very difficult, no matter the potential revenue, to associate with destination with poor reputation.

Moreover, if the indices earlier outlined aren’t favourable, investors would rather invest in the short term. If our perception index continues in its abysmal state, serious foreign investment inflow will continue to elude us. When Richard Branson pulled out of the Virgin Nigeria deal, its effect on our reputation reverberated in the business world.  That singular dent on our image will still play a significant role in the quality of investors Nigeria Air will attract.

The brand Nigeria attracts a lot of conditions from investors and at the slightest quake; they pull out their funds. Our reputation at the moment cannot attract solid investments; there are certain international fast food and beverage brands that find it very hard to associate with the brand Nigeria not withstanding potential revenue. In other words, they believe that locating these brands in Nigeria will lower the reputation of their brands.

How can Nigeria’s brand deficit be bridged?
The government has a huge role to play in repositioning our brand.

In this article:
Ken EbbiNation Brand Index
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