Mission impossible: Branding Romania

A lot of money is being invested into the development of a brand for Romania but this can only lead to embarrassment and financial loss. Branding a country requires a level of coordination and trust that is unattainable in Romania. According to Charles Brymer, chairman of Interbrand, “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.”

The word “branding” has a somewhat violent origin in the English language. A “brand” is a metal symbol, or number, that marks ownership over cattle. The brand would be heated until red 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. Corporations then started “branding” themselves and most recently countries have been trying.

But how many countries have succeeded in developing a brand? Very few. Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand are credited with success in this field but all of these countries are, according to Charles Brymer, “clever and small”. They also had a positive image to start with and were able to involve the people in the process. Getting the population involved in the brand development process is an essential requirement for success and this is the one guarantee that it will never happen in Romania – where political allies 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 and was a complete failure. However, all these countries are good at promoting themselves, they are good at projecting their image and dealing with the media and have come to the rather obvious conclusion that they don’t need a brand.

What Romania needs to do is improve its image abroad. This is an essential requirement in order to increase foreign investment and tourism – both of which are essential to modern economic development. There are three essential steps involved in improving Romania’s image: addressing the negatives; improve the points of access and city centres; and trying to understand the mentality of the foreign visitor. Not one of these rules are taken seriously in Romania, with disastrous results for Romania’s international image. But these issues can be addressed relatively easily and would cost a lot less than trying to develop a national brand.

Most Romanians blame the Roma minority for their negative image abroad, but this can be addressed by simply admitting there is a problem (denial is the worst approach) and by presenting the progress made by the Ministry of Education in getting Roma kids into schools. Apparently Romania has the highest number of Roma teachers in Europe, each one of whom is charged with getting Roma kids educated.

Many foreign visitors to Romania don’t see the Roma problem. They are much more offended by what they see at Otopeni: outrageous banner advertising, gridlock and new buildings which are an offence to the eye. Even before they leave the airport, visitors have to push their way through a mob of overweight, aggressive ex-Securitate taxi drivers. If they get to the railway station the impression gets worse.

Charles Brymer says that the best impressions of foreign visitors are formed at the points of access and the city centres – and Romania fails badly on both counts. I have entered Romania by road from Serbia, Bulgaria and Hungary and the impression at all these points is of oriental chaos, litter scattered by the wind, and buildings which are either grey, huge and derelict or brand new with blue roofs and silver windows.

Other than exceptions like Sibiu and Timisoara, Romania’s city centres are a disgrace. The visual damage caused by uncontrolled building and banner advertising is one thing, but what bothers many visitors is that it is not possible to walk on the pavements of Bucharest as they are full of parked cars – something that is illegal in most EU cities.

If these factors could be taken seriously Romania would become a nicer place to visit and the most powerful PR exercise of all would come into play – word of mouth promotion. Imagine the impact of one foreigner telling the other that Romania is a good place to visit, and that the old image of it as a hellhole is no longer valid.

This article was also published in Romanian in Cotidianul.

6 Responses to Mission impossible: Branding Romania

  1. Julian Ross says:

    As I see it, a major issue is that “Romania” and “Romanian” can mean different things. “Romania” is the country drawn on the map. However, to many Wallachians and Moldavians, a “Romanian” is a person of Daco-Roman descent who speaks Romanian as a first language. Whilst this narrow view persists, Romania has no hope of projecting a “brand image”. Indeed, how can a diverse nation whose culture varies from the Habsburg to the Levantine possibly be defined by a single unified image?

    This issue is demonstrated by the nation’s tourist attractions, almost all of which were built by people whose native tongues were German, Hungarian or Latin. The Painted Monastaries and the Maramures churches are practically the only ethnic “Romanian” attractions.

    I suggest that modern Romania needs VALUES. Worthwhile values such as respecting diversity, protecting the nation’s rich heritage and natural environment, honesty and hospitality.

    A key starting point will be recognising rural communities as reservoirs of positive values. It is in villages where one finds hospitality, honesty, respect for tradition, common sense. Romania must return to its rural heritage in order to discover itself. In pursuing an urban capitalist mirage, all Romanians will discover is the worst values of the western world.

  2. TM says:

    Just some observations – I’m a US citizen who spent three months in Bucharest three years ago. I lived in the center of town near the Hilton Hotel while waiting for the US Embassy to approve a visa (another story completely…) I arrived without any expectations or negative feelings about Romania. My first impression was that there was no concept of customer service here. Buying groceries was a flat, impersonal transaction. In the US, the grocery clerk will greet you, smile, ask if you were able to find everything to your satisfaction, take your money and return your change to your hand. In Bucharest, there is no eye contact or greeting, the customer looks at the amount due on the register and offers money to the cashier who then slaps the change down on the counter without a word of “Thanks, come again!!” Do they want me to return in the future? Do they care about my business? It doesn’t appear so. Not exactly a pleasant experience.

    The second observation was that although the people on the street seemed to ignore each other, they were very open to interaction with many of the stray dogs wandering about. Maybe this was because the dogs expected nothing of them? In three months, I encountered ony one Romanian who engaged me in conversation. It seemed to me that everyone around me was living in extreme isolation, not wanting to interact with anyone else unless they were forced into it. I’ve never visited a country with such low self esteem. Why is this? Are Romanians shy, withdrawn, fearfull, afraid of talking with strangers? Is this a Roma issue? I don’t think so. I encountered very few Roma in my visit and don’t consider the Roma presence to be a negative. Maybe this is an internal Romanian bias/issue/problem that isn’t a big deal to non-Romanians.

    There are more and more better Romania movies being made and these are making an impression to outsiders of Romanian life. Romania is not on anyone’s short list of vacation spots – but it could be.

    The cars parked on the sidewalks was annoying but no more so than the beggars at every step. The city has a lot of charm once you get a block off the main streets and see some of the original buildings and parks. In the US we have a device called a “power washer”. It’s a high powered water sprayer that is used to wash vehicles and buildings. Giving Bucharest a good wash would be a great start, and then everyone should try to treat each other a little better. The tourists will want to visit to see the country where all of these great movies are coming from…!!

  3. This comment from the American is really interesting, fresh, genuine and without any guile. Although I am a foreigner commenting on Romania I have been here too long to have a complete outside perspective and I miss a lot of things a new visitor might notice. And I really like his tone and friendly attitude to Romanians, which is surprising considering how unfriendly they were towards him. It is a really interesting issue about why the Romanians can be so unfriendly and compartmentalised, and one I have been pondering for years, and I will hopefully find time to present my ideas on this issue in a proper blog article — the purpose of which are, by the way, to help foreigners try and understand this mysterious European country.

  4. Suzanne says:

    Rubert I’m waiting for your blog on that topic. Please find the time.
    I have one thing to tell you. Happened to have lived in US and Romania…somehow living in France atm, and from my perspective, although we are looking at apparent concepts about a country such as bad choices of architecture and garbage on the side of the road, they add to the eastern european charm. Not exactly a positive outcome, but indeed brings out a mystery. It makes you feel more free of limitations and strict way of thinking. If people wanted and accepted things that way, let them live like it. if they want to change, they will…and it will be their choice.

    At the same time if #2 is looking for comfort and customer service, then Europe as a whole is not the place to be. I believe that eating diner in a french restaurant is worse than shopping without seeing a smile on the clerks face in romania. But in the end it all depends on our frames and values. 🙂

  5. Ana-Maria Theis says:

    Good point there in the end Rupert. I’m a romanian, living at the moment in Germany (faith brought me here, not some monetary idea). Anyways, Romania is a country that still has MAGIC. I don’t say that because I’m romanian, but because I’ve visited many places in the world, and very few places have this quality. People didn’t have time to regroup after the change, we went directly into transition and now into this booming development towards a west that actually doesn’t really care about this country. In their view it’s just an economical enlargement, a strategic postion to recreate the buffer between west and Russia at the expense of the regular folks. I know the history of this land, and I cherish it deeply, without beeing nationalist. Our politicians are the way the are, they are not worse than anyone else’s. Corruption is not something that was invented in Romania, it’s practiced every where whether you see it or not. Most people that do not want to talk with respect about this country they have a purpose. There is money to be made. It’s a very strategic move. Create problem , cause we’got already the solution.
    Don’t want to go to deep there. My point was, that people must open their eyes, and to stop see the world through the mainstream media.
    This branding thing reminds of a matter between me and my mom. she is a psychologist, and as a kid she tried to put labels on me throught test, and they din’t make anysense later. When something is really complex is kind of hard to put tags. Romania is a country of the heart and should be understood through that.

  6. I really like the viewpoint of Ana Maria Theis…”Romania is a country of the heart”…now that would be a good national slogan.

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