Building a data-centric nation branding strategy

Photo credit: Debora Morkunaite

Creating a nation branding strategy is no small challenge. To be successful, it needs to be grounded in the everyday reality of that country, and to achieve that, you need data. Eglė Kudzmanienė, Chief Advisor at Brand Lithuania Unit, detailed how the nation created a data-centric approach to country branding that allowed them to react rapidly to changing perceptions of Lithuania.

Congratulations on winning our very first Best Use of Data Award! I’d like to begin with your journey over the past few years. Historically,  I think that Lithuania has struggled with developing their nation brand strategy, which is why the Lithuania’s DNA project was created to uncover existing domestic perceptions of Lithuania. How have you continued to maintain momentum and citizen engagement around the project over the past few years?

Country image development is such a difficult task. There is not a single model which could be copied and would lead to guaranteed success. All countries choose their own unique path by promoting themselves in their source markets. Our experience shows that the main components of a successful presentation of the country abroad are the political will, continuity and patience.

There had been some attempts to establish Lithuania’s brand through country’s promotion in the past, but the efforts usually lacked one of the above components. The fragmented work on country promotion resulted in a quite low general awareness of the country in Lithuania’s source markets. This time we ensured a good planning of the project and tried to make it as inclusive as possible.

In 2019, we organised a campaign Lithuania’s DNA with the aim of involving Lithuania’s society, as well as key strategic stakeholders in the discussion about the strengths of the country. At the same time, we conducted the Awareness and Reputation Research in foreign countries and  LithuaniaIn 2020 we concentrated on the Image Promotion Strategy  Abroad and again in its preparation we tried to engage as many experts as possible. It was a quite long but nevertheless a smooth and a very interesting process.

Your approach has been rooted in data from the outset. What did you find to be the biggest challenge in developing a system to monitor your nation brand?

We started our project from the Awareness and Reputation Research which was conducted in eight foreign countries as well as Lithuania. The external research helped us to better understand the level of awareness of Lithuania in our source markets. The research inside of Lithuania helped us understand which strategic direction of Lithuania’s positioning abroad would ensure the strongest support from our citizens.

The research was the main basis on which the strategy was later built. Additionally, these studies are also valuable from the aspect of giving us the possibility to monitor the change in general awareness of Lithuania abroad in the long term. Parallel to the strategy, we worked on another ambitious project – establishment of the Foreign Media Monitoring System. The system functions already, and it gives us the possibility to track the change of Lithuania’s Image abroad and measure the efficiency of our awareness-raising activities. By conducting the Awareness and Reputation Research abroad and in Lithuania as well as the Foreign Media Monitoring System we applied Simon Anholt’s methodology, which allows us to see the country branding process as a complex and multi-layered phenomenon.

The biggest challenge in developing the system to monitor our brand was the creation of an inter-institutional and sustainable system, which would allow us to proactively monitor the development of the country's brand in foreign media from various angles. Such a system did not exist in Lithuania before. Hence, we had to come up with a unique model, which would be appropriate to our needs and specificities. Among the key elements of the system was not only the identification of the platform to monitor media activity but also cooperation with Lithuania’s institutions and experts to identify precisely which media should be monitored.

Essentially, our chosen approach focuses on monitoring from the institutional perspective, dedicating resources to raising civil servants’ competencies rather than purchasing monitoring services. This allows to ensure that the foreign media sources we monitor actually meets the needs of institutions.

How have you engaged your stakeholders in the nation branding process?

We created several formats for stakeholder engagement. First, we brought together representatives of the media, businesses associations as well as various institutions in a newly established Strategic Image Council. Secondly, we signed a cooperation agreement with four Communications Associations of Lithuania, which helped to ensure their support. Thirdly, we created a Board of Institutions which actively took part in preparation of the Strategy. We initiated eleven discussions aiming at identifying Lithuania’s strength and several in depth interviews with decision makers. It was a truly inclusive as well as engaging process, which led to a smooth introduction of the strategy later.

You mentioned in your Award entry that you selected a favourability index to measure brand performance. How have you integrated these KPIs into your strategy?

The strategy contains an action plan, which also includes the KPIs. While preparing the strategy, together with cooperating institutions, we agreed on key source markets of Lithuania abroad where general awareness should be increased. Depending on the goals identified in each country, specific KPIs were formulated for each goal. Besides that, the Foreign Media Monitoring System allows us not only to track the number of Lithuania’s mentions in the foreign media but to also measure favourability. This helps us to evaluate the change of perceptions of Lithuania in our source markets and is helpful  in planning the country's promotional activities.

We measure the favourability index every quarter, which allows us to identify short-term goals for the next month, quarter or half a year. This is a big advantage as it allows us greater control of Lithuania‘s brand. On average, research studies take longer, making it difficult to establish such immediate goals. We believe that by combining media monitoring, favourability index and in depth studies we can set relevant  KPI's and monitor them.

Has the pandemic influenced which KPIs are of most importance to your current strategy?

The pandemic has influenced all areas of our life. The primary focus today lies on managing the pandemic crisis. It should be highlighted that some sectors have experienced a real shock. But on the other hand, this period was also an opportunity for a country to showcase its character and creativity by featuring new initiatives born in the pandemic time. I think the pandemic showed us quite clearly which sectors were most resilient and could even showcase growth during the pandemic and which were more vulnerable and exposed to such external shocks.

The crisis gave us a chance to clearly identify sectors with a greater potential to grow in the future. Economy, talent attraction, and smart governance solutions are the main pillars of our strategy that are tied into a broader narrative of co-creation and readiness of the country to solve global challenges.

One of your goals was to be able to identify international sentiments towards Lithuania and respond real-time to misinformation or negative press. How have you been able to use this to track changes to your nation brand during the pandemic?

Our daily media monitoring allows us to spot and react to fake stories in a timely manner. It was helpful during the pandemic as there was a surge in fake news. Of course, there is a parallel, more long-term goal of changing out-dated stereotypes about Lithuania, which are based on lack of knowledge about the country.  Such observations of old or emerging stereotypes in the foreign media help us establish long-term strategic goals of generating more positive content, which is grounded in reality. It is only by observing the real situation on the ground, monitoring both the positive and negative media mentions of Lithuania, and better understanding the needs and interests of the international audience in the foreign media that we can develop evidence-based communication activities, which would resonate with our target audiences.

And last, but certainly not least, what would you suggest is the holy grail of data-led nation branding? One top tip for another nation which  was looking to centre its own strategy in data-led insights?

I think the fact that the long-term strategy is based on data makes it functional and will help to ensure its longevity through changing political tides. The strategy has a high validity as it is based not on emotional but rather rational pillars and benefits the country as it helps achieve its primary goals.

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COVID-19, leadership, and the impact on nation branding

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The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.