As recent European history proves, politically motivated, orchestrated nationalism can be a dangerous and isolating force.
Nevertheless, countries find themselves drawn towards common interests and structures, such as the desire for stability and unity, and the introduction of the single currency.
A parallel trend can also be discerned whereby communities try to express their “difference” – what makes them unique – both to set themselves apart from their neighbours and to strengthen their sense of identity. Increasingly, the skills of the marketing communications industry are called upon to assist in the task of defining and transmitting those characteristics that define such communities.
In the run-up to Belgium assuming its six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union in July, watchers of international TV channels, such as CNN and BBC World, will have noted a series of ads designed to transmit to opinion leaders abroad a contemporary vision of the country, using phrases – derived from a word play involving the “.be” suffix employed by Belgian Internet sites – such as “.be involved”, “.be ambitious” and “.be beautiful”. Simultaneously, a campaign was launched on Belgian TV to promote awareness of the opportunity that the presidency represents, aimed at bolstering perceptions of Belgium as a modern country with a rich culture and heritage.
Conscious of the dangers of chauvinism, and no less of the fact that Belgians have often been accused – not least by their previous Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene – of displaying an inferiority complex and suffering from “inverted patriotism”.
The campaign took the unusual step of using an American as its spokesman, whose enthusiasm in describing the country in which he lives viewers would put down to the kind of hyperbole typical of his countrymen, until they discover that he is describing Belgium. The message was driven home with a strapline that read: “Un peu de fierté’a jamais fait de mal” (A little pride never did anyone any harm).
In his book Another One Bites the Grass, which deals with international advertising and branding, Simon Anholt suggests that there exists a top ten of “country brands”.
These countries, which include the US, Scotland, France and Italy, evoke associations which, in terms of the provenance they afford to certain products or services, underpin some of the world’s most successful brands – French perfume labels, for instance, or Italian car marques. As Anholt points out, beyond the qualities they bring to brands, countries themselves must realise that they need to work hard at developing their “positioning” around the world.
Belgian provenance provides strong underpinning for products such as beer and chocolates. However, Belgium does not figure in Anholt’s top ten. It will be interesting to observe whether such a well-intentioned drive will be sufficient to place Belgium up there among the leading country brands, or to convince its inhabitants that that is what they deserve.
John Shannon is president of Grey International