Once upon a time there was a country that was part of the former Soviet Union and felt a need to re-brand itself. This country’s population in 2019 was 43 million, and it is at least as large as France. Yet, even today this country does not have the international presence it might wish to have, and many of the things it has been known for are not wholly positive. While it has been considered as the “breadbasket of Europe”, it has also been known to many for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union.
This country is Ukraine, and after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 it shifted from communism to capitalism. Today, the need to reinforce a Ukrainian national identity has meant that close to seven decades of Soviet hegemony have been slowly replaced, giving a long-term horizon for Ukrainian national branding campaigns that have involved various interested parties.
A strong brand is often narrow in focus, but one of the difficulties for Ukraine, in putting itself on the international map, has been that it does not necessarily have a strong image in consumers’ minds. Some people may be tempted to lump it in with other former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe, and so the challenge has been to construct narratives that can present its own specificity and image.
It must do so because, unlike countries like Ireland, which has Guinness, or Finland, which has Nokia, there is no leading Ukrainian consumer brand that can become a leading ambassador for the country. As a result, the challenge is to find an alternative national branding strategy.
Cairo Opera House
Over the past few years, country branding has been studied by political and media researchers looking at the social and political aspects of so-called “soft power”. According to US academic Keith Dinnie in his book Nation Branding, “many governments have invested in nation branding to strengthen their country’s influence, improve their reputation, or boost tourism, trade and investment.” And according to Lee Hudson Teslik, a consultant at US consultants McKinsey, “applying corporate branding techniques to countries” is a logical extension of consumer branding.
There is also “place branding” and “city branding”, and more and more countries are becoming aware of their national and local brands and trying to increase their value. A main reason that countries are trying to brand themselves more positively is that they know the importance of a brand to attract investors, tourists, and the international media. The expansion of international activity by politicians since the early 1990s has led to an upsurge in such studies, with the result that country branding and public diplomacy are both connected with the increasing influence of soft power.
Research on soft power and country prestige has focused on real-world examples of countries that have re-branded themselves, among them Ukraine, South Korea, China and the United States. According to one writer, the majority of “policymakers and international relations scholars concur today that prestige is critical to world politics because states having prestige enjoy greater authority.”
“At its simplest, [country branding] is a synonym of a product-country image.”
Egypt has long been known for its soft power in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. With its great scholars, artists, and intellectuals who played an essential role in shaping the image of the country in the 19th century, Egypt became a leading country, perhaps the leading country, in the region. For Dalia Youssef, chair of parliament’s Committee on Foreign Relations, Egypt led the Arab world to more exposure to the Western world in the last century. However, writers such as the late Naguib Mahfouz also immeasurably enhanced its prestige by being the first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Egyptian music is also very influential, perhaps especially that of the immortal singer Um Kolthoum. Um Kolthoum’s songs are still heard across the Arab world today, and Egypt’s prestige is still high as a result of its arts and culture, even if recent political instability and economic uncertainty have to an extent blurred its image.
WHAT DOES EGYPT MEAN TO YOU? According to Iman, a UAE citizen interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly, “Egypt is a country rich in culture and represents ancient civilisations. It is Um Al-Donia [Mother of the World].”
Iman said she listened to the songs of Um Kolthoum. “She is the best thing about Egyptian culture, along with old films, TV shows, and a media industry that is ahead of the rest of the Arab world.”
However, when asked to describe what Egypt meant to her, Iman, 28 years old, also said “the area of Al-Hussein, the old souqs, koshary, fuul and taamiya, and oriental bread,” referring to traditional Egyptian food. “There are also the singers Abdel-Halim Hafez, [Ahmed] Adaweya and Shaaban Abdel-Rehim.”
Iman said her parent’s generation had been more influenced by Egyptian culture, however. Her mother had said that all her generation had been influenced by Egypt and Egyptian names. Traffic and people using car horns all the time reminded Iman of Egypt.
Gabriella from China told the Weekly that “for me, the first thing that occurs to me is Cleopatra. The second thing is the Suez Canal and its fundamental geographical position.” She mentioned the importance of the River Nile to the development of Egyptian civilisation. “I got this from my junior high school geography textbook,” she said.
Gabriella said she knew a little bit about the Pyramids and how they were built, along with some information about the ancient Egyptian gods. Mar from Spain agreed with Gabriella that the most famous thing from Egypt was “Cleopatra and Julius Caesar”, which she had seen in films.
But more than this Egypt is still the central pillar of the arts in the Arab world and home to institutions such as the Cairo Opera House and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Egypt’s soft power is historical, and it is not only crucial to the country’s prestige but also to other countries in the region. Egyptian soft power has assisted the country a lot in times of peace and war, something that was evident in the 6 October War, for example, when all the Arab countries supported Egypt because they felt a sense of unity and belonging.
In the words of US scholar Joseph Nye, “hard power and soft power are inextricably linked.” Therefore, Egypt’s political leaders, scholars, entertainers, and cultural influencers are all responsible for the country’s power, whether this be considered hard or soft.
WESTERNISING MOHAMED SALAH: To strengthen a country’s trademark, it is crucial to ensure that it continues to attract foreign investment through building a talented and productive workforce.
Skills Future run by the Singapore Ministry of Manpower encourages Singaporeans to develop their skills and lifelong learning to ensure that the talents and abilities of individuals in the workplace remain up to date, for example. “This is particularly true for countries with scarce natural resources, such as Singapore, where human talent will be the key to success,” commented one researcher.
But what happens when a country’s soft power is taken away by others? In the so-called Mohamed Salah crisis, for example, there have been clear attempts to “Westernise” the Egyptian football player Mohamed Salah, eroding his Egyptian identity. This campaign began by giving him the nickname “Mo Salah” and then linked his name to the UK football club Liverpool, ignoring his real nationality. This raised questions about Salah’s future with the Egyptian national team.
Yet, Salah is himself a critical tool of Egyptian soft power, since he is a model for Egyptian sports. Research conducted by Stanford University in the US revealed that anti-Muslim hate crimes decreased by 19.9 per cent in the UK as a result of Salah’s prestige, along with Islamophobic tweets.
Finally, soft power is about persuasion, desire, and attractive role-models. Salah is an important soft power tool for Egypt, and this has encouraged sports investment in Egypt’s wider 2030 Strategy. Another example of possible soft power, in a very different field, was when the World Astronomical Union in association with NASA gave the name “El-Baz” to an asteroid in space, though this piece of news was only widely circulated on social media.
The experiences of other countries that have been working on re-branding themselves have shown that countries must be ready to exploit their comparative advantages for branding purposes, whether in history, culture, or sports. Egypt therefore must work on building up successful figures, rather than leaving things to chance.
RE-BRANDING EGYPT: Egypt’s soft power has retreated in recent years due to political and economic challenges, meaning that the country should now re-rank itself among other countries.
The Egypt 2030 website underlines this by saying that as part of the 2030 Strategy, “Egypt will possess a competitive, balanced and diversified economy. It will depend on innovation and knowledge, based on justice, social integrity and participation, in order to improve the Egyptian quality of life.”
Since the early 2000s, many countries worldwide have exerted tremendous efforts to align their developmental agenda with first the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and then the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals, which replaced them in 2015. The Egyptian government’s strategy is based on youth participation, women and equality, social justice, knowledge and innovation, economic development, and the environment and how these things can be put forward as part of a re-branding strategy through the media and international diplomacy.
As US scholar Maria De Moya puts it in her Communicating Nation Brands through Mass and Social Media, “a country’s image is significantly shaped by the way it is portrayed in the media.” It is often the case that how the media portrays a country affects the way people feel about it, affecting the country’s reputation.
Many states attempt to influence how foreigners view them. However, “in the media landscape, which now includes not only traditional, but also traditional one-way media as a social tool, countries undertaking these efforts are presented with a series of new challenges,” scholars say. This environment makes it more difficult to manage issues related to the national brand, challenges countries to communicate their benefits better, and allows the public to create their own messages, which may be competitive, around a country.
In a study of the threat of fake news in destroying trust in the traditional media, US scholar Diana Bradley said that “if brands want to compete in a fake-news environment, they must communicate and build trust with consumers, leveraging traditional, digital and social-media platforms to tell their stories in a way that is authentic and true to their brand.”
The breakdown of trust in traditional media has seen an increase in alternative sources of information, creating many new challenges for organisations, she says. This fragmentation creates a new set of relationships that can be developed, and it also means that brands will need to evaluate the quality and accuracy of information provided by new outlets and new media channels and determine whether they need to be linked to them or not.
For advertising scholar Richard Carufel, “building confidence where it matters is how brands can fight ‘fake news’ and provide ‘real results’.” By developing innovative ways to deliver messages directly to audiences that interest them, they can help their clients to gain their audience’s trust and keep a strong channel that is not just about sales but also promotes an in-depth conversation about the brand and its story. Increased user interaction can also enhance the appearance of brand messages on users’ social networks.
Such research can apply to countries too. According to Craig W Thomas, a policy processes and research design professor writing in his book Maintaining and Restoring Public Trust in Government Agencies and their Employees, the decline of public confidence in governments has been documented. But we still know relatively little about how to restore it.
Trust is a keyword that can play an effective role either in a business context or in a political one, though the way of building trust can be entirely different. “Government systems differ from commercial information systems as they frequently encompass strategic goals that go beyond efficiency,” one scholar writes.
The phenomenon of the decline in political trust, and whether this can be set right by re-branding, has been widely discussed, with interpretations often focused on specific historical events or the unique problems of political institutions. The most significant declines have been found among the better educated and those of higher social status. These findings suggest that changing citizens’ expectations, rather than government failures, drive the erosion of political support in advanced democracies.
According to scholars Geert Bouckaert and Steven Van de Walle in “Trust in the Public Sector: Is there any Evidence for a Long-Term Decline?” the correlation between performance and trust can be achieved within particular conditions. It is clear that the performance of public administration has a specific effect on trust in government, but current levels of confidence in government may also have an impact on the perception of government performance.
Such work on citizens’ perceptions of government and ways of changing these has everything to do with soft power and national branding. Today, the Egyptian government is investing in re-branding itself and rebuilding the country’s prestige, even if it should probably also pay more attention to the country’s real advantages and human resources as it does so.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.