SIMON ANHOLT: CITY REPUTATION DOESN’T COME BY CREATIVE IDEAS OR COMMUNICATIONS

19.12.2012, 11:55
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Simon Anholt is an independent policy advisor from UK, author of the best-selling book “Brand America”, speaker of the Moscow Urban Forum opening plenary session “The Individual’s Place in the City and Global Economy”. “Strelka” asked him about national branding and the image of Moscow him prior to his arrival in Moscow. Below is the full version of the interview, which was posted in short to the Forum’s social networks.

— What is a nation branding as an instrument? How a nation brand can be established when a nation can’t control it’s image and reputation the way corporations can?

— I have to start by saying that I am very uncomfortable with that term ‘nation branding’, even though it is true that I was the person who first coined it in 1998 – actually the term I coined was ‘nation brand’ not ‘nation branding’, but both terms are frequently misunderstood. ‘Branding’ seems to contain a promise that if a country or city thinks its reputation is too weak or too negative, all it has to do is spend lots of money on marketing, and everything will be miraculously fixed. Of course this is not the case: I’ve been researching and working in this field for nearly twenty years and I have still not seen one single case study of a country or city that has actually succeeded in influencing its international reputation through marketing communications. The term I prefer to use is ‘Competitive Identity’, and it’s all about what cities and countries do, not about what they say. Cities and countries are judged by what they can do for humanity, for the planet, for their neighbors, for ordinary people in other countries: that’s how a place can earn itself a stronger reputation, and there are no short cuts.

It’s certainly true that nations can’t control their images or reputations (actually corporations can’t either). Governments can only do their very best, try to make a difference in the world, and hope that people will recognize this.

— If you had to come with an idea of brand for Moscow right now — what would it be? What would it take to implement it?

— It’s not about coming up with an idea for the brand of a city or country: it’s about deciding what Moscow’s contribution is — both to Russia and to the world in general. Giving Moscow a more powerful reputation is about making people feel glad that it exists, and this doesn’t come just by having creative ideas or doing communications. It comes through acting in a principled and active way to make a real difference to people’s lives both at home and abroad. It also comes from a modern, harmonised suite of engagement tools: promotion for tourism and foreign investment, attraction of talented people and major events, cultural and political relations, public diplomacy and much more besides. In other words, the city needs to be properly configured to engage with populations around the world in a productive and memorable way.

— It seems that developing countries have to balance their search for Competitive Identity between Western—oriented economical development (at rising of standards of life) and their sometimes exotic physical, historical, social, cultural scenery — things that sometimes make them interesting for other countries in first place. Is there any way to combine these things?

— One of the best things that’s happening in the current phase of globalization is that alternative visions of prosperity are beginning to emerge, and are increasingly regarded as viable and acceptable: the Anglo-Saxon model of aggressive capitalism is, mercifully, no longer seen as the only route to prosperity. We are in a phase where alternative models are actually welcomed, and far from presenting a conflict as you suggest, they combine in endless and fascinating ways with the different cultures that produce them.

— Generally speaking, what is modernity now? Can we have one model to measure what is modern and what is not, but applicable to different civilizations, and not discriminative?

— That’s a question which would need many pages to answer! However, I think it’s inescapable that ‘modernity’ must imply some level of compatibility with other cultures and nations, because globalisation is an unavoidable fact and is unlikely to reverse, at least in our lifetimes. I certainly don’t think that differing levels and types of religious belief are necessarily incompatible with each other, or with modernity, as long as all models preach tolerance of others. Tolerance is probably the most universal value there is, and it is closely related to education, because intolerance is always a product of ignorance. This simple fact provides us with the strongest possible clue about where progress is most urgently needed, and how it can be made.