The Nation Branding Playbook

Our team of place and destination branding consultants recently prepared a strategic advice note for a seminar in Dublin for the Irish government and key stakeholders to explore refreshing the country’s national brand of Eire, the Republic of Ireland.

This post shares their views of key considerations for country and nation branding initiatives, informed by  recent work on developing a national brand for Paraguay, assessing the impact of the national brand of Costa Rica in target international markets and, developing the concept of a Place Branding Playbook for the City of St Petersburg in Florida.

1. Be Absolutely Clear on the Overall Objective

Before commencing work on the development of a nation brand strategy, countries need to be very clear on their objectives. Examples include:

  • To clarify and raise awareness of what they offer to the rest of the world, e.g. the US as a country of innovation and entrepreneurship;
  • To promote the goods and services they offer for sale to the rest of the world, e.g. Paraguay;
  • To attract inward investment, e.g. IDA Ireland;
  • To attract tourism investment and spend, e.g. the “Essential Costa Rica”brand-led tourism campaign;
  • To unite the nation behind a country development strategy, e.g. South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation” campaign to bring the country together after the end of apartheid;
  • Or, a limited mix of the above,e.g. the “Great Britain” campaign.

Remember the old saw – “If you do not know what you want you won’t know what you will get.”

2. Be Realistic About the Expected Benefits

In a similar vein, countries need to be clear on the expected benefits, beyond increased general awareness, of spending time and money on refreshing/developing a national brand. Typically, these include:

  • Increased international awareness of the achievements of their people, businesses and organisations.
  • Enhancing or changing international perceptions of the benefits of investing in the country and hiring its people, e.g. The “Hire them before they Hire You” campaign promoting the skills of the young Irish Workforce.
  • Increased awareness of a nation’s culture and heritage and its contribution to life around the world.
  • Increased national pride among their people in the role of the nation in the wider world – pride in the achievements of its people, businesses and institutions.
  • Increased local and international awareness of the commitment that the country has to other parts of the world, e.g. participation in refugee relief, supporting famine relief, supporting education and skills development, e.g. the support from Morocco for other countries in Africa.
  • Leadership positioning in sectors where the country excels, e.g. Agri-business; Technology; Lifesciences/Biopharma; Financial &Business services; Creative Economy and Tourism.

Tangible benefits can include a combination of increased investment, growth in exports of goods and services, attraction and retention of talented people, increased tourism and more.

3. Be clear who will be responsible for creating or refreshing the national brand

Typically, the push for a national/country brand strategy comes from politicians at the national level or, less commonly, from commentators in the media or personalities in the arts and literary sector.

Traditionally, work on funding the creation of a national brand is supported and stimulated by the public sector – by national governments, often by Ministers of culture, trade and foreign relations, sometimes by Presidents and Prime Ministers.

However, savvy governments – Germany, France, New Zealand, Paraguay and the UK are recent examples – have recognised that the construction and promotion of a national brand needs to involve the private sector and organisations representing civic society. Why? Because the private sector can bring to the table insights and know-how beyond those of politicians and civil servants including: international connections, understanding of other countries, and marketing resources from their own budgets. Additionally, the civic sector can help to mobilise the home community to support and develop the brand and ensure that it is truthful and accurate.

What does this mean for countries new to nation branding?

Countries considering developing a nation brand strategy should give serious consideration to the creation of a diverse “brand partnership” to develop their national brand strategy. It may be funded initially by central government and,progressively, move to being co-funded by the private sector as the benefits of a successful strategy become more concrete.

The “kiss of death” for a national brand initiative is to have it developed by government alone. To be successful, government must bring on board the private and civic sectors. This is best done by creating, at arms-length from the government, a public/private/civic partnership. It’s also helpful to ensure the country’s media are engaged in supporting delivery of the brand.

Typically, the process would be kicked-off by a President, supported by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, complemented by a small number of private sector CEO’s with international sales and marketing experience, and from companies whose products are recognised as typifying the country, e.g. food and beverage products(in the case of Ireland), complemented by leading lights from the country’s cultural sectors (also in the case of Ireland).

Together this group of people play the role of Brand Ambassadors and Brand Advocates, representing the brand in the country and abroad and advocating on its behalf, led by the presidentor [prime minister] as Brand Champion.

The more effective national brand partnerships are typically structured into non-executive, executive and special purpose groupings:

  • The National Brand Partnership chaired by the President– a decision-taking group responsible for providing direction on brand development, raising resources for its development, implementation, management, marketing and promotion.
  • An executive National Brand Team led by a person of influence, a “Brand Enabler and Advocate”– a “doing” group tasked with developing the strategy and managing its implementation (its brand architecture) when agreed; composed of senior civil servants, secondees from private companies (with expertise in marketing, communications and PR), and consultants with expertise in country branding.
  • Special Purpose Teams – set up for specific initiatives, e.g. The “Great Britain” campaign team in the UK Cabinet Office, the “Expo” teams representing countries at international Expo Exhibitions, the Brand Impact Assessment Team of Costa Rica.

This structure should be kept small and tight and not allowed to grow into its own bureaucracy.

4. Agree a Process for creating the brand strategy

Before embarking on the journey to create, deliver and manage a national brand strategy, the government and its partners need to understand and agree a process for doing so. It cannot afford to discover how to do so after a start has been made!

An effective national brand process would include:

  1. Government having a very clear understanding of why it wants to create a national brand, its objectives and the benefits it wants to realise.
  2. Government appointing a National Brand Champion to lead the process of brand development.
  3. Government forming the initial National Brand Partnership and agreeing its terms of reference and scope of responsibilities (focussed and tight).
  4. The Brand Partnership setting up its executive arm, the National Brand Team, agreeing its terms of reference and responsibilities, recruiting its membership and allocating funding for its activities.
  5. Government pump-priming the process of brand development and using its connections to raise contributions from the private sector of cash or in-kind resources, e.g. undertaking research, seconding skilled and experienced staff to the Brand Team.
  6. The National Brand Team drafting the brand development process and timetable for approval by the Brand Partnership and creating the process for managing this work (outputs, deadlines, meeting schedules, KPI’s, etc). And compiling the work programmes for years 1 and 2, to be reviewed quarterly and annually.

Remember – “If you do not know where you intend to go you may never get there.”

The authors of this article have also recently written a blog post for the City Nation Place organisation on the challenges facing places that want to create brands, including countries, which can be found at

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