"Nation Branding" in the Global Political Economy

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 8/31/2010 12:09:00 AM

Nation branding: The strategic self-presentation of a country with the aim of creating reputational capital through economic, political and social interest promotion at home and abroad (Gyorgy Szondi)

It is perhaps inescapable in this day and age that countries keen on promoting tourism embark on "nation branding." As a marketing major from my undergraduate years, I tend to see this world through such a perspective. For instance, the Chinese brand is certainly beating the American one in the global political economy sweepstakes as the former's more easygoing and less hypocritical approach to making friends and influencing people is certainly upending the Yankee flunkies on virtually every continent.

Today, however, I will relate the example of a "nation branding" exercise gone awry that belies the imagination. Apparently, the Danish tourist authorities thought up a campaign involving someone portraying an unwed mother parading her son on YouTube (see clip above). While tending to the little 'un, she narrates a story in which she got drunk, had fun in bed, and woke up to discover that the father to-be had fled Denmark. So, she appeals for the (foreign) father to come forward. As it turns out, the storyline was entirely concocted for tourist promotion. Worse, the confusion that it caused has been immense while offending many Danes. Instead of portraying an uplifting image, some thought it depicted Denmark as a land of dumb, easy blondes. Many thought it was a condom ad and not any sort of tourist promotion ad:
In September 2009, VisitDenmark, the tourism arm of the Danish government, launched a marketing campaign on YouTube. The video introduced to the world a beautiful 20-something blonde protagonist, Karen, and her adorable baby, August. Nothing quite extraordinary there, except that Karen had a small Mama Mia problem – she had no idea who August's father is.

Speaking candidly into a webcam and computer microphone, Karen related a story of how she had met the August's father some 1.5 years ago. He was visiting Denmark, presumably as a tourist. They went to a bar, got drunk and went back to her place. He was gone by the time she awoke in the morning.

Karen explained that she could not recall the name of the man that she had slept with or his country of origin, but that she would like to get in touch with him again. She is certain that he is August's father as she had not been with any other man ever since. She was hoping, through the powers of the internet, that her message would somehow reach this man. To add a final catalytic touch on this viral video to be, Karen recruited her audience, towards the end of her video plea, to help in her search. There was no indication anywhere within the video or on the webpage to suggest that VisitDenmark was, in any shape or form, involved. Also, the story was fabricated – entirely.

The video spread quickly; more than 200,000 views in 24 hours. Many people were engaged and responded empathetically. They also did as 'Karen' had asked and shared the link with friends. The national media quickly took the bait as well, appealing for information that could possibly shed light on this overnight internet sensation.

In just four days, the YouTube counter showed more than 770,000 views. But by that time, the Danish media had exposed the hoax. People wrote emails and letters to newspapers, claiming that 'Karen' is an actress, and, as far as they were aware, not a mother. What followed was a massive public outcry. Those who were kind enough to share the video felt duped. Some opposed the portrayal of Danish women as irresponsible and 'easy'. Many felt it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money as the video misrepresented their country and culture.

VisitDenmark's rationalisation, that it reflected the country's liberal ideals, did little to calm the furore. Following a storm of criticism, the tourism organisation's director issued an official apology and stepped down. The video stayed online for a mere two weeks.

It might not be necessary for tourism campaigns to be understood or liked by the locals, said Rhonda S. Zaharna, an associate professor at American University's School of Communications. "But the one thing that I found was that great campaigns usually enjoy strong, positive, internal resonance. That's when you know you've hit the nail on the head and you've got that defining campaign."

Speaking at Global Strategic Thinking: Managing Public Relations in a 21st Century Global Society – a conference organised by SMU's Lee Kong Chian School of Business and the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore – Zaharna explained that nation branding campaigns walk the tightrope between managing 'image' (how others perceive the nation) and 'identity' (how the nation and its people see themselves).
And me? I'm kind of excited to visit Denmark again. I've always wanted to er, see Legoland ;-) This stuff is very interesting indeed. Certainly, tourist promotion is not an activity to be taken lightly. In fact, I have come up with my own viral campaign for the United States. Really. Given America's fearsome weight management issues, I've decided to turn them into something positive. See for yourselves:

I kill myself, but not via burgers and shakes, baby.