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Interpreting Nation Branding

April 3, 2014

Back from the International Studies Association Convention in Toronto and faced with too many things to blog about I’m going to start easily by posting something that I’d meant to post before I left.

I’ve been reading Melissa Aronczyk’s Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity and it has stimulated a few thoughts about how we should make sense of the phenomenon of nation-branding.

Aronczyk, like other Cultural Studies scholars (eg Jansen 2008, Kaneva 2012) sees the emergence of nation-branding as an expression of the transformation of capitalism through globalization and the embrace of theories of value rooted in immaterial concepts – ie the reputation of our business is worth something. The difficulty I have with this is that it makes out the phenomenon of nation-branding to be much more significant than it actually is.

Rather than seeing nation-branding as marking a structural change I would read it as something much more conjunctural. It’s another incarnation of the push for the projection of a national image that has been around in its modern version since the middle of the 19th century when committees were established to oversee exhibits at international expositions. Ideas of ‘national projection’ recur across the 20th century. Indeed, I would argue that ‘projection’ is the default mode for any public diplomacy/cultural relations organization; telling the world about your country is much easier than exporting democracy/communism etc.   You also see the emergence of arguments over just what the content of that projection should be- unless there’s a particularly hegemonic version of that culture – being a totalitarian country helps.

Nation-branding is a new version of national projection that benefited from the conjunction of brand approaches in business (with the consequence emergence of branding consultancies) and the end of the Cold War which meant new states looking for a quick fix and a the reorientation of the external communications programmes of existing states towards economics. It’s noticeable that some scholars (eg Ociepka 2013) point to a declining interest in branding as an approach to external communications, and my own observation is that the number of abandoned branding projects is much bigger than those that have really been seriously implemented. This doesn’t suggest structural change more a fashion in external communications. Putting nation-branding in the context of debates over national projection really does make it look a lot less novel.

Aronczyk M (2013) Branding the nation: the global business of national identity. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Jansen SC (2008) Designer nations: Neo-liberal nation branding – Brand Estonia, Social Identities, 14: 121–142.

Kaneva N (ed) Branding Post-Communist Nations: Marketizing National Identities in the New Europe, New York: Routledge, pp. 79–98.

Ociepka B (2013) New Members’ Public Diplomacy, in Davis Cross MK and Melissen J (eds) European Public Diplomacy: Soft Power at Work, New York: Palgrave, pp. 39–56.

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