A dozen countries with different languages, historical backgrounds, dominant religions, sizes, socio-economical structures, educational systems, GDP and (at least) one thing in common - a place on a geographical map.
Welcome to Southeastern Europe, a region that is simply (although quietly) crying to be branded.
A lot has already been said on the issue of Nation Branding in the past years. It is hardly a new topic to the branding community (no, it's not the future - It's the present!). The literature on the matter became a significant basis of valuable views, approaches and information. However, not until recently many thoughts were shared about Cross-National or Regional Branding.
We are witnessing more and more countries getting involved with Nation Branding in (more or less, or even lesser) serious and professional manner. What have we learned from all these sources, both empirical and theoretical? Among other things, that it is not possible to build a successful brand if it is not a plausible one.
However - is it possible to build a successful brand in a region that has more challenges than it needs (or can handle)?
IMPORTANCE OF NATION BRANDING
Does Southeastern Europe (the most extended sense, not just the Stability Pact territory) deserve the attention? With population larger than most European countries and economies that are speeding up forward they certainly do. However, there seems to be a problem. Let's try something.
Germany - quality
Italy - design, history
Switzerland - banking, cheese, watches
Albania - Hummmm... Well...
No? Let's try an easier one.
Nothing? Why (or maybe someone else needs to ask himself)?. Something needs to be done. But, not just anything (although it does seem like that).
IMPORTANCE OF CROSS-NATIONAL BRANDING
Before we answer if Cross-National Branding is a necessity, let's take a look at one example.
If "the Green really is the new gold", how to make a Brand out of an eco-tourism paradise, if your next door (or next eco-political) neighbor is polluted? Would you buy a product (food, water, beer) from a country whose "pure" rivers are connected to the contaminated water system 100 kilometers to the North?
If you are (your country that is) living in a neighborhood which has a reputation of a polluted area, you can't be perceived as pure and natural. Even if you yourself are "Greener" than the Celtic?
The same goes for "peaceful and stabile" little heaven which shares the geographical (unwillingly?) space with the war ravaged country.
Not to mention your investments if your neighbor is run by a nuclear arsenal mad man (not a TV show).
People who want to be desirable, they live in a nice neighborhood.
If they do not live in a nice neighborhood, people can move.
Countries do not have that option! They have to make one!
The fact is, some countries are islands. But, not all! Most of them have borders to those with whom they would rather not. But they do! So they better start acting properly. Or maybe they don't need "better"? They don't find it appealing enough?
Self-sufficient countries do exist, but then you wake up. Or someone wakes you!
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey - whether some of them like it or (more likely) not, they share the same geographic region.
Most of these countries by themselves have better brand potential than the region they are in - the Southeastern Europe (sometimes referred as the Balkans, although the name is not preferred cause of the troublesome legacy from the past).
So, why brand the region if you yourself have the respectable brand equity; why help brand something else, if you are not experiencing difficulties at this point; and your exports, FDI and annual tourist income have increased in the past years? Why invest time and resources in incoherent region with 12 different Brand Equities, USPs (Unique Selling Proposition) and level of consciousness for need of nation branding?
Without getting into widely familiar (and true) mantra "the today's market is global and connected", let's speak of something else than just tourism. Let's talk about FDI (Foreign Direct Investments).
Do investors appreciate placing their resources within insecure regions? Of course, the answer is a matter of a common knowledge of any high school student.
So, the Region (not just the country) needs stability and the country-of-origin effect becomes less important in comparison with "Region-of-origin" effect.
WHAT KIND A REGION IS IT?
From a nation which takes credit for the invention of neck tie and modern pencils, and which proudly emphasizes that the stone from one of it's island was used to build the white limestone columns of the White House in Washington DC and Vienna's Parliament (Croatia), to the nations which are struggling with shady political background (Albania and Serbia), and the possible next big thing in "value for money" tourism with ambition to attract tourists with higher income (Bulgaria).
Most of them have enormous Brand Awareness (even if it's for the war clashes which is the case with former Yugoslav republics). However, some of them have identity crisis, given that Slovenia is often mistaken for Slovakia by many (no, they are not the same!).
So, how to brand Southeastern Europe as "a place to do your business, exports goods and services from and a perfect place for tourists"?
Some of these countries already are members of the EU, the rest are waiting to join. Region considered a birthplace of democracy (Greece), but also known for totalitarian states (this list is a bit longer).
Most of them have the entrance to the sea, but not all. Few of these countries are seriously working on their Nation Branding project, some are trying to cope with it, while others are still sleeping.
WHAT DO THEY HAVE IN COMMON?
They all have relatively large Diaspora; all of them raise high hopes in tourist potential of their capital cities; but above everything else, they all share one thing which is far more important than any difference among them - they have the same interest. That is more than enough for them to start to think together.
What does the world really know about the Southeastern Europe? New tennis sensations and other sporting triumphs accompanied by (from time to time turbulent) political news? That is hardly enough for a region with a population of over 100 million and with fast-growing economies.
Following lines may shake the image of the Southeastern Europe as a place where the questionable people with heavy accent are coming from. Although it might be hard to believe, there are exciting things happening in the region.
While some of the nations are still trying to reestablish their positions, others are moving forward rapidly. Let's take Croatia for an example. Created after dissolution of Yugoslavia, modern Croatia is described as a "rising star", according to some Brand Index surveys. Today, Croatia is a country with high income from tourism with substantial potential to grow.
Successful stories include Romania as well. While in the past many have connected tourism future of the country with the Dracula inheritance, Romania is trying to develop a concept of tourism that is only in part based on the legend. With the Black sea coast (great name for a sea?), the country is trying to take more active part in tourist market in perspective.
Also, there has been a lot of talk in the region about the efforts and success in auto industry with Dacia project supported by French Renault (similar with Skoda's experience with Volkswagen).
However, in the past years, the nation has presented a large potential in other fields as well. Recent accomplishments in advertising and film are presenting Romania in a totally new light. Wasn't Spain taking the similar path?
Was this something the most had expected to hear from Romania? Or any country from the Southeastern Europe? No? Why not? Maybe because the region itself has a bad image trouble (even if some are in a better position).
So, regardless of how good you really are, it's hard to profit out of it if your region carries a bad prefix. In order for someone to believe that success of any country in Southeastern Europe is "normal", the region in whole needs to develop and advance to a better image.
This way Turkey will more easily convince the EU its accession will not endanger the Union, just as well Macedonia will have more soft power in resolving international relations and others will be one step closer to their goals.
Successful cases of some countries may only inspire others to do more for their brand. If branded carefully, the region may become a place where good news are not an exception - but a rule.
It is clear this requires professional approach, a lot of work on gathering enormous amount of background information and in-depth analysis.
Some countries have experts, others will create them, and the rest will have to hire them. These people will face a challenge of Branding which is a bit more complexed than usual.
After branding strategy, and before communicating, they may have to see if TV spots at CNN and other global networks is the only and best communication channel to spread your message around. No one wants to be lost in the sea of similar information. Montenegro has got more publicity from the recent 007 James Bond movie (Casino Royale) than from all tourist fairs and TV campaigns together. The increase of visitors (5 times more than usual) at their Internet presentation could be more than a proof, it could be a guide.
In all of the steps top priority is - not to make mistakes. Because mistakes cost.
The advantage is the experience of the Central European and other countries that had been through similar stages. Then and only then, Greece will really help you "Explore your senses" and former socialist nations will not become simply places with low-priced and exciting night life, since investors are attracted by things other than loud music and cheap drinks.
Judging by the "Come to slow down" campaign which is drastically different from reputation of a stag night paradise Prague once had (or still has?), Czech Republic obviously realized this. Maybe increased bachelor related crime rate (public indencency can really be a drag) helped them to decide to take this step.
If done correctly and continuously, these efforts may not simply be erased by one movie like Slovakia and Kazakhstan fear "Hostel" and "Borat" had done.
You can't hide the fact in which region you live. You can try to ignore it, but only short-term. Euphemisms will not help. If you are dependant, you may need to connect and act together. Cause your Brand Equity depends to the neighboring one.
If you think narrowly, so will your results turn out to be. The sooner some comprehend this, the better. Local is important, but only in conjunction with global. Neither one can be overlooked.
One may not even have to take action similar to the Baltic Sea Region initiative where 11 countries have started something that might be an exciting journey, but eye-shutting, and neglecting the issue may just cause bigger problems in the future. The least you can do is the following - bare in mind the region of the country when trying to undertake your Nation Branding project.
This issue might be interesting to some other nations and regions as well. If your name is South African Republic, or you want to position yourself as "The Heart of Persian golf" like Qatar does, then your region must be an impeccable one.