When discussions about promoting Serbia take place the following comment often comes up: “shouldn’t we develop a country brand?” The short answer is “NO”. I am from Scotland, I now live in Romania, and I would like to share my opinion of branding countries. I hope that Serbia can learn from the mistakes of others.
A lot of money has been wasted by successive Romanian Governments in developing absurd country brands and it certainly hasn’t resulted in more tourists or investors. Their most recent slogan was “Romania – Land of Choices” and I am still trying to work out what it means.
Branding a country requires a level of organisation and trust that is unattainable in former Communist countries. Charles Brymer of Interbrand once wrote “Creating a brand program for a country demands an integration policy that most countries do not possess – the ability to act and speak in a coordinated and repetitive way.” And he was referring to developed, western, capitalist countries, not former Communist ones.
The word “branding” has a somewhat violent origin in the English language. A “brand” is a metal symbol, or number, attached to a stick. Traditionally it was used to mark ownership over cattle. The brand would be put in a fire until red hot and then stamped onto the hapless cow. Somehow the term got transferred to products where it came to mean a heavily promoted mix of image, logo, slogan and advertising. But corporations are disciplined structures that can afford to hire the best marketing brains out there and have the resources and bloody minded determination to make a brand work. I think governments, and public sector organisations generally, should forget all about brands and concentrate on things they can do.
How many countries have succeeded in developing a brand? Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand are credited with success in this field but all of these countries are small enough to have no major enemies, they have good educations systems and each has a certain mystique (my country, Scotland, for example is seen as a heroic victim of England as well as a beautiful place). Getting the population involved in the brand development process is an essential requirement and this is almost impossible in former Communist countries where people learned to distrust one another, the level of cynicism is high, and political parties can barely agree on anything.
Countries like France, Italy and the USA are too big and diverse to need a brand. When the UK tried to develop its “Cool Britannia” brand it was treated as a joke by the media. The John Major Government tried to brand public services with the slogan “back to basics” but this too was mocked by the media when the connection was made with government sex scandals (“Minister of Trade goes back to basics with his secretary!”). However, all these countries are good at PR, defending their national image and dealing with the media and most have come to the rather obvious conclusion that they don’t need a brand.
What Romania and Serbia need to do is improve their image abroad. This is an essential requirement in order to increase foreign investment and tourism. There are three essential steps involved in improving a country’s image:
• Address the negatives
• Improve the points of access and city centres
• Try to understand the mentality of the foreign visitor
Not one of these rules are taken seriously in Romania, with disastrous results for their international image. But they can be addressed relatively easily and doing so is a lot cheaper than trying to develop a national brand. Fortunately for the Serbs they have less negatives to deal with (the war is over), their city centres are decent and they are closer to western mentalities than Romanians are (Romania was a closed country when Yugoslav’s had the run of Europe).
Most Romanians blame the Roma minority for their negative image abroad, but most foreign visitors to Romania don’t see the Roma problem (but they do notice that Romanians are racist). And as any student of psychology knows, blaming others for your problems acts as a barrier in finding your own solution.
Visitors to Romania are much more offended by what they see at Bucharest airport: massive banner ads, gridlock and new buildings which are so kitsch that they assault the eye. To leave the airport you have to push your way through a scrum of overweight, pushy taxi drivers who charge way more than the normal price. If the visitor gets to the railway station the impression gets worse as the station is where the glue sniffers, the homeless and the madmen hang out and the pavement outside looks like it has been bombed by NATO. Belgrade’s main station is an oasis of calm by comparison and I have positive memories of its airport. These places give visitors their first impressions so keeping them clean should be a national priority.
I have driven into Romania by road from Serbia, Bulgaria and Hungary and the impression is of oriental chaos, litter scattered by the wind, and buildings which are either sinking into the mud or kitsch with blue roofs and silver windows. It looks like you’re entering some kind of architectural nightmare (but Romanians are really cool people and of course this makes up for the shocking first impressions).
So my advice to Serbia is – Screw the branding and also the mass market tourists. Serbia and Romania will never be able to compete with Greece, Turkey, Hungary of Croatia when it comes to tourism, so why not just withdraw from that particular race? Serbia should work at understanding the mentality of those visitors you could attract right now, people like me, people who are interested in old buildings and unspoilt nature, those to hike and bike and camp and take the train, meet interesting people, go to unusual restaurants and appreciate that things are different. Serbia should target backpackers, hikers, intellectuals, bikers and students. Why not learn from the Spanish, who perfected the mass-tourism-manufacturing form of tourism and eventually realised it is damaging in so many ways. There may not be as backpackers and mountain bikers as there are mass tourists, but there are more than enough to give Serbia a healthy tourist industry.
Rupert Wolfe Murray on Twitter @wolfemurray