The FIFA World Cup offers fans the opportunity to watch football non-stop for a solid month over the summer. But for South Africa, the biggest sports tournament on the planet in 2010 offers a much larger opportunity. The country is hoping that football will not only boost its economy in the short term but also have a long-lasting positive effect on the country’s business, tourism and overall brand.
Anitha Soni, chairwoman of the International Marketing Council (IMO), which is responsible for Brand South Africa, says there is a real opportunity to leverage the exposure the country will get from being put in the spotlight.
This year is being billed as South Africa’s “milestone year” by the IMO. The organisation has created a unified country brand in time for the World Cup that aims to help it realise what the IMO calls its “international relations objectives”. Soni explains: “We want people to think of South Africa whether they’re doing business or tourism.”
Using sport to “push a certain image” is nothing new, claims Melanie McShane, a strategist at Wolff Olins (see Viewpoint), the branding agency responsible for the London 2012 logo. Historically, countries have used events like the Olympics to push certain political beliefs, she says, but sporting events are increasingly being using to promote a social agenda.
“London 2012 is about leaving a legacy and driving participation. South Africa is doing something similar with the World Cup,” she says.
A large part of South Africa’s branding efforts begin with the country’s people themselves. A television advert bearing the slogan “It Starts With You” has been running since February last year. It promotes the idea that small changes made by individuals can improve the overall standing of the nation.
“It is talking to its people about changing the face of the country. It’s really about language branding from the inside out,” says McShane.
Other countries are also using sport to promote what a destination has to offer. Turespaña, the Spanish tourism board in Spain, is Liverpool Football Club’s “Official Destination Partner”. It signed a three-year deal in 2009 with the Premier League club with the aim of promoting Spain to a UK and Asian audience. Like many private label brands, it is using football to start a conversation with potential tourists because the organisation believes “the best branding tool for a country is sport”.
While the World Cup is a branding opportunity for South Africa, it could also expose the country to criticism. Just like corporate identities, any publicity can highlight weaknesses as well as strengths in a brand’s behaviour.
“For South Africans, it represents tenacity in terms of making things happen because the flag was established in a period of suffering and prejudice.”
Anitha Soni, International Marketing Council
Soni says the World Cup will set the tone for the country. “It’s absolutely vital to ‘super deliver’ because the reputational risk attached to things going wrong is too high a price to pay.”
McShane says that hosting such a large event is a bit like inviting someone into your home. “People get to see your best rooms, but they also see the untidy corners.”
The country has already had a taste of this pressure, with stories in the global media about slow ticket sales for World Cup fixtures and general concerns that South Africa won’t be able to cope with an event of such great scale. “We had countries bidding to take our place until late last year,” says Soni. “But we’re ready.”
“The sceptics”, as Soni calls them, have been asking questions about crime levels in the country’s largest city Johannesburg. After all, the nation’s official apartheid policy ended less than 20 years ago and there are still inequalities evident at every level of society.
These safety concerns have had an impact on the build-up to the event, and Soni believes the country is going to have to be more than perfect if it is to avoid criticism. She says that publicising a strong, united brand for South Africa will help create positive exposure over the coming months. This should help offset some of the concerns of outsiders.
It has taken several years of consultation to create a united South Africa brand identity that fits with the nation’s image of itself and it will be seen on a global stage during the World Cup.
During the initial consultation, IMO did not look to replicate other country branding exercises. Instead, it turned to private companies like Unilever to consult with its board about creating a unified identity.
“Its professional team sat with our professional team. Unilever was among other private sector businesses that really understood how to implement a brand,” says Soni.
Draw on what is special and true about your country. We live in a very transparent and connected world but it’s surprising how often that places and nations lay claim to things that can’t quite be substantiated.
Don’t think about country or destination branding as a fixed badge or campaign. No place can be one shiny thing. You need to think about it in terms of a flexible platform of participation. The identity needs to be incredibly attractive for a large number of stakeholders.
In recent years, country branding has become more about drawing on collaborations. China has been doing some interesting work with the Victoria & Albert museum in the UK. The country is increasingly involved in activities that showcase its creativity and innovation capacity to try and shift the perception of being a low cost or imitator economy.
Destination brands should drive innovation too. Japan has been taking what is special about the country, such as its industrial development, its culture and its attention to detail – it has been joining these together with the message of the designability of the Japanese car manufacturer and pushing this “brand Japan” out into Europe.
This is a very sophisticated way of thinking about your culture and place, along with the reputation of your industries and taking that to other continents to further your country’s reputation.