Two countries that prove nation branding works

Estonia and Costa Rica have learned how to turn nation and place branding theory into practice: the evolution of their strategies, and of their reputation on the world stage, provide positive proof of the opportunities for nations to change and build brand perceptions in a proactive way.

These countries are different for obvious reasons, from location to language, from history to culture, and with different social and economic conditions. And each has a different story to tell and its own path to follow, through a unique identity that will allow them to reach a specific audience and achieve the goals set for the needs identified.

But the cases of Estonia and Costa Rica have more things in common with each other than the things that divide them: they both have the foundations for a successful nation brand.


1. A brand strategy based on a central idea

Firstly, these two countries wanted to manage their reputation and establish a specific perception: Estonia wanted to be perceived as a digital society and Costa Rica as a global role model.

This central idea provides the foundation for a coherent, consistent and realistic strategy capable of structuring the entire brand.  All actions, activities, measures and policies are aligned with this concept, making it possible to change perceptions and manage their reputation.

2. The right organisational structure

Estonia has Enterprise Estonia and Costa Rica has Essential Costa Rica. Both are organisational structures created from scratch with the sole purpose of managing the nation brand. These are comprised of official, resilient, non-partisan and independent teams capable of surviving political and governmental changes and keeping the strategy working, always in collaboration with key stakeholders and all entities involved.

3. Clear KPIs and measurement processes

The two nations have been monitoring the country brand’s actions and policies and measuring the results, a process that has direct influence on the success of their strategies. We cannot know if it works, if we don’t measure it:  Estonia and Costa Rica both have specific nation brand tools to ensure key indicators and measure how relevant the strategy has been in terms of meeting specified goals.

4. Management of digital identity

Finally, these two nations were able to identify a factor of extreme importance, given the influence and impact it can have on the remaining components of a country brand: its digital identity. They have demonstrated their understanding that the offline and online world are intrinsically linked, and that what happens in one influences the other. I have looked in more depth at the importance of the digital identity of nation and place brands in my recent book “Nation Brand Builders”, where I address Nation Branding 2.0.

Let’s take a closer look at these two case study examples that prove that nation and place branding strategies work.

ESTONIA: the most digital country in the world

© Enterprise Estonia

After the restored independence in 1991, Estonia has come a long way to find its place on Europe’s and the world’s map. This northern European Country, with half of its territory “occupied” by forests and wilderness, has worked hard to build its economy and position itself as an innovative and technological country.

With a clear vision of the future as a digital society, Estonia invested heavily in digital infrastructure, becoming the first e-State by creating digital solutions to make life easier for its citizens with the e-Estonia programme. This means that 99% of public services are digitally managed and accessible online, cutting red tape in state processes. And this is when the brand strategy began.

Creating Enterprise Estonia

The government’s continued commitment to digital initiatives ensured that Estonia began to be perceived as the most advanced digital society in the world. Established in 2000, Enterprise Estonia was created as the institution briefed with fulfilling the strategic objectives of the Estonian nation brand in terms of providing financing and training to encourage entrepreneurship.  

Capitalising on the country’s growing reputation for digital expertise, Enterprise Estonia introduced the e-Residency programme in 2014 to grow Estonia's community and economy by inviting foreign citizens to open businesses in Estonia. The transnational digital identity they pioneered is available to anyone in the world interested in running an online business. This enables Estonia to stand out clearly in the international arena, generating more domestic revenue through exclusively digital companies. This is extremely important for a country of only 1.3 million inhabitants.

In fact, the Republic of Estonia has become the ideal place for remote digital nomads and international entrepreneurs planning to host a company in the European Union; by ensuring that these digital services convey security, credibility and trust, Estonia has succeeded in creating new opportunities across borders.

Real world impacts

All these policies are examples of how measures driven by a central idea can become extremely visible and tangible. Estonia is also the benchmark for a country that promotes its digital identity, having invested in their digital presence early on. Try searching "Estonia" in a search engine. Everything that appears reflects its central idea. The digital perception of the country reflects its intended one, and this perception  corresponds to what is relevant in the real world.

This consistent implementation of the central idea of Estonia’s nation brand has resulted in changing and building the right reputation among internal and external audiences. And this is seen in Estonia’s performance in various international rankings.

According to the 2019 edition of the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) - which monitors progress made by EU countries in terms of digitalisation - Estonia ranks 8th among the 28 Member States and is one of the European leaders when it comes to digital public services. In addition, it is the best rated country in the 2018 Digital Life Abroad, given the availability of online administrative and government services. It also ranks high on the 2018 Internet Freedom House Index.

Often ranked as one of the most competitive, open and transparent economies in the world (ranked 7th in the 2018 Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom), the simple and agile business environment is one of its main drivers.

Proofs that it works

A further indicator that Estonia’s nation brand strategy is working - and that all the policies that were adopted along with it are having a real impact on public perception - is the result in digital searches.

As a performance metric for nation and place brands, online searches show how a country, region or city is doing in terms of appeal and how much proactive interest is being generated in the desired international audiences. The more searched a country, region or city is for the right reasons, the more interesting it is for its audience. Online searches are a true indicator of how a place is perceived by international stakeholders. What people search about a place is what they associate with it. In other words, if a country, region or city is searched digitally for positive keywords, it has a strong and relevant brand.

In order to assess and analyse the digital performance of Estonia, we used the Digital Demand – D2© software, an intelligence tool that allows understanding the appeal of nation and place brands while providing us with an overview of the most searched topics (or brandtags, as we call it) in five different dimensions, such as talent, tourism, exports, investment, and prominence.

Entrepreneurship and talent attraction in Estonia

When it comes to Estonia, it is the fastest growing country in Europe in the last three years, for searches related with “entrepreneurship”, a brandtag clearly linked to Estonia’s central idea. With an average growth of 83% in Digital Demand – D2©, Estonia’s growth is ten times higher than the world's average growth (8.7%).

Graph 1. Global Searches for Estonia - Digital Demand - D2©

Evolution of brandtag “Entrepreneurship”, December 2015 - October 2018

Estonia is also one of the fastest growing European countries in terms of attracting talent, another topic that is directly associated with the central idea. Following the implementation of programmes like e-Residency and other policies aligned with the country’s central idea (2016-2018), Estonia is the country brand with the third largest growth rate in terms of “work” brandtag searches in Europe, in Digital Demand – D2©. The strategy has succeeded in aligning the central idea and reality of the country brand with international perceptions.

Estonia is not only the number one in Europe for average growth in entrepreneurship searches, but also managed to be number seven in the world, ahead of countries like Hong Kong, Chile and United Kingdom.

Table 1. World Ranking for “Entrepreneurship” - Digital Demand - D2©

Global searches (2018)

* an average growth December 2015 - November 2018

COSTA RICA: Much more than nature


World renowned for its fauna and flora, Costa Rica is an oasis in the heart of the American continent. Bathed by the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, it has 25% of its territory covered by parks and natural reserves and wildlife refuges and contains 5% of global biodiversity, with around 750,000 different species of insects and plants.

The intrinsic link with nature is, in fact, one of the strongest aspects in Costa Rica's image, but with the development of the country brand strategy this Central American territory showed that it is much more than that.

Initially, every effort was made to make Costa Rica a tourist destination. However, with the structuring of a nation brand strategy, it was possible to create a broader approach that included talent attraction, promotion of exports and improvement of general reputation in order to establish the country's differentiation and competitive advantages at a global level.

Managing a complete and independent country brand

An independent committee of state governments has been set up, responsible for the management of the Essential Costa Rica Country Brand, whose tasks include collaboration and involvement of public and private stakeholders, as well as the citizens themselves. This organisation is autonomous from the executive governments who succeed each other in the governance of the country, which guarantees it a non-partisan position and is exempt from political results, although it operates in natural articulation with the administrations in office.

The commitment of tourism policies to the environment contributed positively to the perception of Costa Rica, together with other key policies: the promotion of education (the literacy rate is 96%), culture (all children are encouraged to learn how to play an instrument, for example), peace (it is the headquarters of the United Nations University for Peace), access to the health system (free national service) and the development of industries (export of technology and food products to 157 countries).

Sustainability at the heart of the Costa Rican place brand

In addition to being one of the most stable democracies in Latin America, Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world without an army, having abolished the armed forces over 70 years ago to allocate its budget to education and culture. This is one of the reasons why it is a key member of the Wellbeing Alliance, in addition to its concern for the well-being and quality of life of the population, which is globally considered to be the happiest (2019 Happy Planet Index,).

Thanks to the reinterpretation of the pre-existing values of sustainability, excellence, innovation, social progress and pride in Costa Rican origins, our team at Bloom Consulting reaffirmed the strategy and established a model for the management of the nation brand that allowed the alignment of all actions, measures and policies with the central idea.

Its role in protecting nature and its commitment to combat climate change are reflected in the government's commitment to ambitious policies aimed at green energy. Currently 99% of electricity is generated by renewable energies and Costa Rica wants to become the first country free of plastic and carbon in 2021, whilst aiming to achieve zero emissions by 2050. These ambitions sustain Costa Rica’s country brand as a global “role model”.

Proofs that it works

The performance of Costa Rica’s country brand has been growing, providing proof of how nation branding works effectively when it is well structured and implemented.

In November 2019, the Essential Costa Rica Country Brand received the Place Brand of the Year award at the City Nation Place Global event in London, "for its commitment to a sustainable and multifaceted strategy and its belief in the potential for the place brand to unite an entire nation”. This extremely important recognition of the values of preservation, sustainability, and inclusion of citizens, serves as an example for other country brands.

Added to that, the evolution of Costa Rica through the annual editions of the Bloom Consulting Country Brand Ranking©, is remarkable! In tourism, it has risen significantly from 11th to 5th regional position since 2013. This meteoric rise is thanks to increased tourism revenues, online performance and strategy efficiency, and it has also secured its place in the World Top 30 – an extraordinary achievement for a country of its size.

In the trade dimension of the same ranking, it provides living proof that sustainability can be the engine of the economy and provide a financial return. It currently ranks 10th in the American ranking. The latest Digital Country Index© also puts Costa Rica on the verge of the top 50 most sought-after countries by export and the top 30 by talent (living, working, studying).

But the most important metric of how Costa Rica’s country brand strategy is having a legacy effect is how searches skyrocketed after the implementation of renewable energy policies. The average growth in the last two years jumped 858%! As you can see in the graph below, after November 2014 - the period of the implementation - the number of searches for “renewable energy” reached an unprecedented peak. A strong indicator that Costa Rica’s nation brand strategy put the country on the “green” map.

Graph 2. Global Searches for Costa Rica - Digital Demand - D2©

Evolution of brandtag “Renewable Energy”, October 2012-June 2019

With this type of improvement, it is not surprising that Costa Rica belongs to the top 10 most searched online countries worldwide for “renewable energy”. Environmental sustainability is at the core of Costa Rica’s country brand. It’s clear that the strategy’s implementation is building positive reputation and aligning perceptions with the central idea.

Table 2. World Ranking for “Renewable Energy” - Digital Demand - D2©

Global searches (2018)

Demonstrating nation branding

There are many country marketing campaigns that can demonstrate ROI for attracting tourism, or attracting investment, but this is different, this is nation branding. What connects these two nation branding case studies is the breadth and impact in shifting perceptions that results from having a central idea, the right organisational structure to provide consistent support to the brand strategy, clear KPIs and measurement processes, and an understanding of the power of digital reputation.

Further reading / tips:

14 steps for nation branding: a practical guide

Open source place branding - the ESTonia case

Has the pandemic killed soft power?

The politics of space, culture, and placemaking on post-COVID place branding

The roadmap for sustainable recovery

Hall of fame: Best place branding and marketing campaigns

The place branding bookshelf

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