Two Decades Since the “Rise” of Nation Branding
The notion that nations can or should be thought of as brands came into public awareness at the end of the 20th century and generated controversy from the start (Olins Reference Olins2002). Although economists and marketing researchers in the capitalist West had been writing about promoting national economies for some time (Porter Reference Porter1990; Rein, Kotler, and Haider Reference Rein, Kotler and Haider1993), the relevance of their ideas had been confined to the commercial realm. By contrast, when nation branding entered public discourse, its proponents described it as having a much grander scope–it was going to transform and improve the very basis of statecraft (Van Ham Reference Van Ham2001).
The political potential of nation branding dovetailed with ruling elites’ penchant for propaganda as a way to secure power and legitimacy. At the same time, there was something new about the eagerness of national governments to adopt the language, practices, and logics of branding—an idea derived from market economics, which suddenly boasted political aspirations. The “rise” of nation branding in the early 2000s coincided with the neoliberal sweep of the times and the largely uncontested feeling in the West that capitalism—understood as the pairing of market economics and liberal democracy—had triumphed over Soviet communism with the end of the Cold War and was the only viable path of national development. Even in communist China, which was still standing, it appeared that the Party’s ability to stay in power depended on embracing consumerism and adopting a unique variant of state capitalism (Li Reference Li2016).
Against this backdrop, the first decade of the literature on nation branding was dominated by the self-interested writings of brand consultants eager to add more governments to their client rosters. Functionalist and instrumentalist research from marketing and strategic communication academics also proliferated, lending legitimacy to the practitioners’ claims.Footnote 1 However, in the second decade of the 21st century, the practices, discourses, and implications of nation branding attracted growing interest from scholars in the humanities and social sciences who sought to understand and theorize the complex linkages between national identities, reputations, governance, and the phenomenon of nation branding. This latter strand of research is the focus of this review.
In keeping with the scope of this journal, the review looks more closely at research on nation branding that relates to the countries of the former communist bloc. This focus recognizes that there are historical and socio-political dynamics that are unique and shared across that region, despite the particularities of national histories and experiences. In many ways, the post-communist world can be seen as a testing ground for the ideas and techniques of nation branding which were gaining traction at the start of the millennium. Poland, Estonia, and Latvia were among the first nations to invite Western brand consultants (Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk, Calhoun and Sennett2007; Dzenovska Reference Dzenovska2005; Jansen Reference Jansen2008). A home-grown cadre of branding experts quickly cropped up as well, seizing the economic opportunities in the new market for national identities and ensuring the entrenchment of nation branding in the region (Dolea Reference Dolea2015; Kaneva Reference Kaneva and Kaneva2011a; Surowiec Reference Surowiec2017). At the same time, nation branding has become virtually ubiquitous around the world over the past two decades. Countries rich and poor, old and new, democratic and autocratic invest in (re)branding initiatives. A comprehensive analysis of the global advances of nation branding is beyond the scope of this review, but it is important to remember that the post-communist engagement with this phenomenon, distinct as it may be, is far from isolated.Footnote 2
The rest of this essay is organized in three parts. First, I outline some analytical boundaries of the field of nation branding research, as it is construed in this review, in order to provide some context and flag the limitations of this analysis. Second, I survey the field, focusing on epistemological, theoretical, and methodological debates, pointing out gaps and limitations along the way. Finally, I discuss directions for future research and consider some of the challenges the field is facing.
Setting Analytical Boundaries
Because the idea of nations as brands was first advanced by brand consultants, the early, and frequently cited, formulations of what nation branding is and what it purports to do were largely atheoretical.Footnote 3 They often adopted prescriptive forms, proffering step-by-step formulas or models that countries were advised to follow in order to (re)create their national brands (Moilanen and Rainisto Reference Moilanen and Rainisto2008; Olins Reference Olins1999). Generic advice on how to practice nation branding continues to circulate in public discourse two decades later (Mzezewa Reference Mzezewa2019), reproducing the notion that branding is a technocratic process that any country can employ successfully (cf. Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk2013, Chapter 3).
In contrast to this view, this review highlights scholarly work that adopts a critical perspective and is not concerned with instrumentalist goals.Footnote 4 My intent is to disentangle nation branding as a field of practice from nation branding as a field of critical inquiry. This is not to suggest that the two are unrelated. In fact, studies of nation branding qua practice are an important area within this field of inquiry, as I will discuss later. However, as Merkelsen and Rasmussen (Reference Merkelsen and Rasmussen2016) note, marketing research on nation branding “conflates to a higher or lesser degree with the terminology of nation branding practice” (101), while the theoretical frameworks in critical studies focus on ideology, identity, and power as they relate to nation branding.
Within nationalism studies, nation branding is understood as related to the nexus of nationalism and the economy. It is frequently seen as limited to state-run, top-down initiatives aimed at shoring up national economies and, in the process, reinforcing a sense of national belonging (Costelló and Mihelj Reference Costelló and Mihelj2018; Fetzer Reference Fetzer2020). While it is undeniable that nation branding is rooted in the economic realm, its uses have been much more polyvalent. This is particularly evident in the post-communist world where it has served an important ideological role for nations suffering from collective post-communist trauma. Public debates about re-inventing the nation through branding offered a new platform for national self-discovery and identity-making in that context. This process was circumscribed by the economistic logics of branding and lead to sanitized, commercially palatable narratives of “national identity lite” (Kaneva and Popescu Reference Kaneva and Popescu2011), but it served more complex purposes than the need to attract investors and tourists.
Because of their ability to conjure up new collective utopias, nation branding projects have been used by post-communist governing elites to shore up their political fortunes (Fauve Reference Fauve2015; Graan Reference Graan2016; Marat Reference Marat2009). Some initiatives were launched with explicitly political goals, although they continued to cite the proverbial foreign investors and tourists. This was the case in post-war Kosovo, which needed a quick national identity narrative, free of ethnicized references, and commissioned one from an Israeli advertising agency (Wählisch and Xharra Reference Wählisch and Xharra2010). Macedonia sought to bolster its statehood claims through a massive redevelopment of its capital, Skopje, and an advertising campaign to re-educate its citizens on how to perform being Macedonian (Graan Reference Graan2016). Oil-rich, autocratic Kazakhstan deployed multiple branding efforts to present itself as modern and Westernized (Eggeling Reference Eggeling2020). Finally, numerous campaigns attempted to earn the elusive approval of the European Union in the hopes of joining it (Volcic and Andrejevic Reference Volcic and Andrejevic2011).
This review hones in more closely on the political and ideological dimensions of nation branding and rests on the premise that the economic cannot be disentangled from the political. Looking at nation branding as limited to the economy renders a narrow understanding of this phenomenon and overlooks some of its broader implications. Finally, this review does not present a systematic meta-analysis of the critical literature on nation branding. Rather, it is informed by my broad, but inevitably idiosyncratic, reading of nation branding research, with a specific focus on the post-communist world. The overarching goal, then, is not to provide a comprehensive map of the field, but to trace some of its fault lines with an eye toward identifying themes, gaps, and directions for future exploration.
Surveying the Field
Research on nation branding is dispersed across multiple disciplines, comprising work in anthropology (Graan Reference Graan2016), media and communication (Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk2013), history (Ströhle Reference Ströhle, Suber and Karamanic2012), international relations (Browning Reference Browning2016; Fauve Reference Fauve2015), philosophy (Varga Reference Varga2013), political science (Eggeling Reference Eggeling2020; Persson and Petersson Reference Persson and Petersson2014), geography (Lewis Reference Lewis and Pike2011), and more. However, this multi-disciplinarity has resulted in some challenges for theory building because studies adopt a range of starting assumptions pertaining to disciplinary concerns. In addition, many studies use descriptive approaches to examine specific nation branding projects with minimal theoretical development. In some cases, the assertions of brand consultants that nations compete in a global marketplace are cited as fact without any critical engagement. These factors have impeded integration and synthesis of knowledge across disciplines and across geographical regions. In short, the overall state of the field is quite fragmented.Footnote 5
Nation Branding – Old or New?
Two epistemological perspectives emerge from the literature, which can be framed by the question: is nation branding “old” or “new”? Some scholars view the practices and discourses associated with nation branding as continuing the old tradition of national propaganda in the service of nation building or international influence. Seen in this way, nation branding is addressed in the course of examining nation building and national identity formation more broadly (Ermann and Hermanik Reference Ermann and Hermanik2017; Götz Reference Götz2016; Vujacic Reference Vujacic2013). This view presumes a continuity of nationalist projects over time and suggests that nation branding may be different in form from older methods of national identity construction, but it is not necessarily different in purpose. When taken too far, this approach leads to the retroactive application of the term “nation branding” in analyses of events that precede its coinage (Gienow-Hecht Reference Gienow-Hecht2019; Krenn Reference Krenn, Viktorin, Gienow-Hecht, Estner and Will2018). Critics point out, however, that ascribing the term to past events avant la lettre obscures its genealogy and historicity (Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk, Viktorin, Gienow-Hecht, Estner and Will2018; Hart Reference Hart, Viktorin, Gienow-Hecht, Estner and Will2018).
On the other end of the epistemological spectrum, scholars see nation branding as a distinct “twenty-first century tradition” (Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk, Viktorin, Gienow-Hecht, Estner and Will2018). This view posits that nation branding is a particular outgrowth of neoliberalism and a manifestation of neoliberalism’s influence on the structures and operations of nation-states in the late 20th and early 21st centuries after the end of the Cold War. Nation branding is understood as a symptom of a general commercialization of national governance (Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk2013; Kania-Lundholm Reference Kania-Lundholm2014; Volcic and Andrejevic Reference Volcic and Andrejevic2015).
Some scholars conceive of nation branding as a “communicative practice” (Bolin and Miazhevich Reference Bolin and Miazhevich2018, 534), which informs empirical analyses of brand campaigns. Of interest in such studies are the institutions, actors, audiences, strategies, and messages emanating from campaigns and the ways in which they may be altering national identities (Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk2013; Surowiec Reference Surowiec2017; Volcic and Andrejevic Reference Volcic and Andrejevic2015). Many of these studies find that nation-branding campaigns “tend to produce ahistorical and exclusionary representations of the nation” (Bolin and Miazhevich Reference Bolin and Miazhevich2018, 527). In addition, there is an implicit concern with identifying the ways in which nation branding may be “new” and/or “different” from earlier forms of national identity formation. At the same time, scholars note that nation branding both transforms and reproduces “the national,” in line with market imperatives and media logics (Bolin and Miazhevich Reference Bolin and Miazhevich2018; Volcic and Andrejevic Reference Volcic and Andrejevic2011).
Another epistemological divide in the field emerges in relation to the way different disciplines view the role of media and communication in the construction of the national—both at the level of identity and at the level of governance. This also affects the choice of empirical evidence that scholars examine. Media and communication studies are more likely to concretize nation branding as a contemporary phenomenon that would not be possible without the presence of trans-national media technologies and commercial media industries. Studies focus on media campaigns, media structures, promotional media texts, and rely on interviews with branding and media practitioners as well as with government officials (Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk2013; Bolin and Ståhlberg Reference Bolin and Ståhlberg2015; Budnitsky and Jia Reference Budnitsky and Jia2018). By contrast, discussions of nation branding by historians, anthropologists, and area studies experts are more likely to explore the transformation of urban landscapes, the use of spectacular events, such as the Olympics or Eurovision, and other material practices of “branding” and “consuming” the nation (Baker Reference Baker2008; Dumitrica Reference Dumitrica2019; Eggeling Reference Eggeling2020; Fauve Reference Fauve2015). Some analyses have attempted to bridge the divide between the communicative and experiential dimensions of nation branding, but more work in this direction would be welcome (Graan Reference Graan2016; Kaneva Reference Kaneva, Pamment and Wilkins2018a).
Theorizing the Nation, Theorizing the Brand
A challenge for theory building in the field is the fact that the phenomenon under investigation joins together two expansive, evocative, and contested concepts—“nation” and “brand.” The meaning of the “nation brand” construct and the parameters of “nation branding”—the process which presumably results in the creation of nation brands—are either elided or disputed in the literature. Some studies endeavor to unpack the terms theoretically (Aronczyk Reference Aronczyk, Calhoun and Sennett2007; Bolin and Ståhlberg Reference Bolin, Ståhlberg, Roosvall and Inka2010; Kaneva Reference Kaneva and Popescu2011), while others focus on describing and analyzing nation branding uses, outcomes, and implications (Götz Reference Götz2016, Jordan Reference Jordan2014, Krebs Reference Krebs2012; Pawłusz and Polese Reference Pawłusz and Polese2017).
One of the first attempts to articulate a critical definition of nation branding states that it is “a compendium of discourses and practices aimed at reconstituting nationhood through marketing and branding paradigms” (Kaneva Reference Kaneva2011b, 118). The emphasis here is on the transformations of nationhood which result from encountering the discourses and practices of branding. In other words, there is an implicit assumption that “the nation” is acted upon and the result of that action is more than a “representation” or a “depiction” but it constitutes a substantive change. A decade later, studies have shown that the implicit chronological sequencing in this definition is not always so clear-cut. Sometimes nation building and nation branding may occur simultaneously (Kaneva Reference Kaneva, Pamment and Wilkins2018a). However, even in the case of well-established nations, the reorientation of nation-states toward neoliberal ideologies makes the national much more receptive to the practices and discourses of branding, suggesting a dialectical rather than a one-directional relationship.
More recently, scholars have suggested practice-oriented definitions of nation branding as, “the practice of governments in conjunction with public relations (PR) consultants and corporate business to launch campaigns promoting a certain image of a nation state” (Bolin and Miazhevich Reference Bolin and Miazhevich2018, 528). The focus here is on the “branding” side of the construct and highlights the ways in which governments and consultants articulate and promote a national “image.” This definition sees nation branding more narrowly and focuses on representing, rather than on transforming, the nation.Footnote 6
The tension between “the nation” and “the brand” persists in efforts to theorize nation branding. This is also evident in the different social theories that are used to frame empirical inquiries into nation branding. Studies in the field can be grouped loosely into two categories:
(i) “Identity Studies” focus on nation branding as it relates to representations and/or constructions of national identity;
(ii) “Practice Studies” focus on nation branding as a field of practice, which operates both nationally and trans-nationally and is not limited to identity construction or representation.
The two approaches are not entirely mutually exclusive; neither are these groupings homogeneous in terms of theoretical influences. However, each approach draws on a cluster of theoretical perspectives, as I elaborate below.
“Identity Studies” frequently draw on constructivist theories of nationalism, exemplified by the work of Benedict Anderson (Reference Anderson1983), Eric Hobsbawm (Reference Hobsbawm, Hobsbawm and Ranger1983), and Michael Billig (Reference Billig1995). Anderson’s definition of the nation as an “imagined community” is widely cited and used to describe nation branding as a process of (re)imagining the nation within the generic conventions of commercial discourse (Kaneva Reference Kaneva2017). The narratives of nation branding are also discussed in terms of Hobsbawm’s notion of “invented traditions” (Pawłusz and Polese, Reference Pawłusz and Polese2017), while Billig’s idea of “banal nationalism” is used to analyze everyday encounters with the “branded” nation – from wearing the colors of the national flag, to offering national dishes in restaurants that serve tourists (Dumitrica Reference Dumitrica2019; Götz Reference Götz2016). In addition, some studies in this group draw on cultural semiotics and on Foucault’s theory of discourse, providing sophisticated analyses of the symbolic and ideological dimensions of branding texts (Cheregi Reference Cheregi2017; Graan Reference Graan2016).
“Practice Studies” focus on actors, institutions, and procedures associated with the implementation and institutionalization of nation branding programs at national and transnational levels. Some of this scholarship is informed by Marxist political economy and highlights the commodification and marketization of nationhood (Jansen Reference Jansen2008 and Reference Jansen and Kaneva2011). Other studies highlight the political economy of the media whereby nation brands can be understood as “commodity signs” circulating through commercial media networks (Kaneva Reference Kaneva2017 and Reference Kaneva2018b). Bourdieu’s field theory provides another conceptual strand used in analyses of the processes and institutions that lead to the entrenchment of nation branding within national governance (Kaneva Reference Kaneva and Kaneva2011a; Surowiec Reference Surowiec2017). Finally, Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power” (Reference Nye2004) is invoked in relation to nation branding, which is viewed as a communicative “resource” for nation-states (Bolin and Miazhevich Reference Bolin and Miazhevich2018; Budnitsky and Jia Reference Budnitsky and Jia2018). Nye’s neoliberal orientation is at odds with the critical social theories in this group, but his concept is often used merely to label nation branding practices, rather than to theorize them.
This schematic comparison suggests that the field needs theoretical frameworks that connect symbolic, discursive, and identity-focused concerns with material, institutional, and structural ones. The idea of “commercial nationalism” offers one way to accomplish this task. Volcic and Andrejevic (Reference Volcic and Andrejevic2011) first discussed this idea as relevant to nation branding while building on the work of scholars who had studied the “deliberate use of nationalist appeals by commercial entities” (614). They pointed out that commercial nationalism follows a dual logic: “On the one hand, commercial entities sell nationalism as a means of winning ratings and profits, while on the other, the state markets itself as a brand” (ibid.). In later work, they elaborated the utility of “commercial nationalism” as an analytical concept, noting that it “continues in the tradition of bringing together political economic approaches with the theorization of nationalism and national identity” (Volcic and Andrejevic Reference Volcic and Andrejevic2015, 2–3). In other words, a theory of commercial nationalism aims to bring together the structural and ideational dimensions of nation branding. At the same time, the concept has been criticized for emphasizing “‘top-down’ practices of nationalism, associated with state or commercial actors, rather than the ‘bottom-up’ dynamics linked to individual consumers and everyday life” (Costelló and Mihelj Reference Costelló and Mihelj2018, 559).
The Shadow of Methodological Nationalism
Qualitative and interpretive methodologies remain the norm in the field, which stands in sharp contrast to the survey-driven research by practitioners, typically published as proprietary nation-brand rankings (Volos Reference Volos2019). Qualitative and interpretive approaches allow authors to raise questions about social power and the contestation of identities, but most analyses remain confined to single national settings. As a result, the field is troubled by a curious paradox: numerous case studies document that nation branding is ubiquitous across the post-communist world, yet the similarities and differences across countries and regions are underexplored and comparative work is rare (but see Eggeling Reference Eggeling2020; Kaneva and Popescu Reference Kaneva and Popescu2011; Saunders Reference Saunders2018). This suggests that the field may be suffering from methodological nationalism as it reproduces “the nation” as the primary site upon which the practices of nation branding unfold.
The shadow of methodological nationalism limits researchers’ ability to engage with the trans-national dimensions of nation branding. By design, nation branding contains a performative dimension whereby “the nation” is put on display for the benefit of both external and internal audiences. Yet the trans-national consequences of these performances have remained hidden in the literature. The emphasis on the nation and the nation-state as primary units of analysis contributes to an implicit reification of nations as “collective individuals” (Brubaker Reference Brubaker1994, 4) engaged in competition with each other. This helps to normalize nation branding, rather than to problematize it.
Whither Nation Branding Research?
This review began with an acknowledgment of the neoliberal provenance of nation branding, but neoliberalism appears to be in crisis today. In addition to the rise of populist and nationalist leaders in many countries, the world is gripped by a global viral pandemic which is shuttering large parts of national economies and limiting the flow of people through national borders. Tourism—a common culprit for nation branding initiatives—is one of the hardest hit economic sectors, with a projected decline in travelers of up to 80% in 2020 (UNWTO 2020). What does this mean for the future of nation branding? Will it survive in a climate of growing national isolation? Or are we at a turning point in its ability to spread and grow?
Before we write the obituary of nation branding, let us remember that the past twenty years witnessed many other crises of trans-national proportions, which threatened global integration and bolstered nationalist sentiments and policies. Among them were the global financial crisis in 2007–8, the Syrian refugee crisis, various viral epidemics, and, of course, Britain’s protracted extrication from the European Union, which came to be known as BREXIT. Nation branding campaigns kept going through all of these crises. In 2018, while British Prime Minister Theresa May was fumbling through BREXIT negotiations, Conrad Bird, Director of Britain’s GREAT campaign, celebrated the program’s seventh anniversary and vowed to continue to “capitalize on the campaign’s success … by improving global perceptions of the UK, helping to increase levels of trade, investment, tourism and high-quality students” (quoted in Owen Reference Owen2018). To mention just one post-communist example, Ukraine launched a new nation branding platform only a month after its deadly Euromaidan protests and a mere three days after Russia had annexed Crimea (Kaneva Reference Kaneva, Volcic and Andrejevic2015). These examples suggest that nation branding is not likely to disappear in the near future, although its activities may shift focus or be curtailed.
What questions, then, should animate future research on nation branding? First, the practices and discourses of nation branding will continue to merit critical investigation in light of the challenges to neoliberalism from various geographic and political quarters. Would nation brands reach for different identity narratives in response? Would governments use branding more frequently to influence domestic populations? Would nation branding become a tool for repelling unwanted outsiders, such as immigrants and refugees, while also courting desired ones, such a tourists and investors? Such “repellent” efforts already exist—consider Australia’s “No Way” campaign to discourage refugees (Laughland Reference Laughland2014)—but they have not been studied in detail. Are they a form of “dark” nation branding or are they something entirely different? A fruitful starting point for theorizing such developments may be to set aside the “imagined communities” metaphor and focus instead on conceptions of the nation as a “sorting device” (Verdery Reference Verdery1993). This highlights the reality that nations are just as much about exclusion as they are about inclusion.
Another direction for research concerns the gap between what nation-states say in their branding versus how they act globally. This type of duplicity is reminiscent of Cold War propaganda and may not seem so odd in the post-communist world. However, public double-speak is now common in different parts of the world—from the BREXIT example above, to China’s investment in “soft power” (Edney, Rosen, and Zhu Reference Edney, Rosen and Zhu2019), to Saudi Arabia’s communication push in support of its “2030 Vision” plan (Hickman Reference Hickman2019). How can critical research account for governments’ commercial propagation of tendentious and false narratives, even when alternative sources of information are widely available? What do such “rebranding” efforts accomplish domestically and internationally? Some clues to theorize such developments may be found in more recent thinking about nations and nation-states. Brubaker’s call to rethink nations as “contingent events” rather than as “real entities” (Reference Brubaker1994) may be particularly productive in this regard. In addition, understanding “nation brands” as simulacra of the nation, rather than as its representations, may begin to explain the contingent yet generative nature of commercial discourses of and about the nation (Kaneva Reference Kaneva2018b).
Finally, there is a pressing need for the field to step out of the shadow of methodological nationalism and engage in multi-site and multi-level analyses of nation branding as a global phenomenon. This is no easy task both theoretically and methodologically. As sociologist C. Wright Mills once observed, “the nation-state is now the dominating form in world history” and this reality has had a significant impact on the way social science formulates its problems (Reference Mills1959, 135). At the same time, critical research on nation branding needs to recognize that the very notion of nations as brands is rooted in a globalist and comparativist understanding of economics and politics, which cannot be explained through single-country case studies alone. The way out of methodological nationalism requires a rethinking of the relationship between the national and the global in non-binary terms. Only then will critical scholars be able to use the study of nation branding as a lens through which to examine some of the more complex and dynamic processes that influence nationhood today.
I owe heartfelt thanks to Paul Goode who encouraged me to write this essay during a challenging period, to the anonymous reviewers for their kind and constructive comments, and to Andrew Frey for his valuable help with locating sources.