The Rise of the Brand State

Courtesy Reuters

Look at the covers of the brochures in any travel agency and you will see the various ways in which countries present themselves on the world's mental map. Singapore has a smiling, beautiful face offering us tasty appetizers on an airplane, whereas Ireland is a windy, green island full of freckled, red-haired children. But do these images depict real places, existing geographical sites one can visit? Or do the advertisements simply use cultural stereotypes to sell a product?

Over the last two decades, straightforward advertising has given way to branding -- giving products and services an emotional dimension with which people can identify. In this way, Singapore and Ireland are no longer merely countries one finds in an atlas. They have become "brand states," with geographical and political settings that seem trivial compared to their emotional resonance among an increasingly global audience of consumers. A brand is best described as a customer's idea about a product; the "brand state" comprises the outside world's ideas about a particular country.

We all know that "America" and "Made in the U.S.A." stand for individual freedom and prosperity; Herms scarves and Beaujolais Nouveau evoke the French art de vivre; bmws and Mercedes-Benzes drive with German efficiency and reliability. In fact, brands and states often merge in the minds of the global consumer. For example, in many ways, Microsoft and McDonald's are among the most visible U.S. diplomats, just as Nokia is Finland's envoy to the world. In today's world of information overload, strong brands are important in attracting foreign direct investment, recruiting the best and the brightest, and wielding political influence.

These days, individuals, firms, cities, regions, countries, and continents all market themselves professionally, often through aggressive sales techniques. Indeed, having a bad reputation or none at all is a serious handicap for a state seeking to remain competitive in the international arena. The unbranded state has a difficult time attracting economic and political attention. Image and reputation are thus becoming

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