Nation / Country Branding as a Public Diplomacy Tool: From Competing for Territory to Competing for Hearts & Minds


Semanur Işıksoy*


I. Introduction


After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, the importance of public diplomacy has increased in international relations. Therefore, in order to make today’s insecure world a safer place, the necessity to leave hard power aside and turn to soft power has emerged. With globalization, communication technologies have become widespread, which has softened the distinction between national and international, and thus governments have had to interact not only with other states but also with foreign peoples in order to influence their citizens (Tecmen, 2018: 11).


Thus, in today’s global world, it is essential to appeal to minds & hearts in order for states to gain a solid place in the international arena. Undoubtedly, in this case, international relations involves a struggle not only for power but also for meaning. So, governments have started to use branding techniques that will differentiate their countries on the global stage in order to gain a competitive advantage against rival countries. The only way to do this is to gain a respectable position in the public opinion of other countries by using public diplomacy effectively. This requires a relationship based on mutual understanding and dialogue. In this sense, ‘nation branding’, which shows the capacity of speech / discourse to lead countries & citizens to peace, war and reconciliation, constitutes an important dimension of public diplomacy; so, they are interlinked and they overlap (Öztürk, 2009: 1-8).


a) The Concept of Country / Nation Branding and Its Connection with Public Diplomacy


The concept of nation / country branding was first used by Simon Anholt in 1996 (a relatively new area), where he emphasized the importance of innovation, coordination and communication in building a country’s competitive identity. Anholt states that it is better to see country brands as value-based platforms that represent a country’s identity, purpose and belief system and guide its decisions & actions. Therefore, country branding is about developing & nurturing this platform and it is a term for image promotion / management of a country both at home and abroad. It shows why a country does things the way it does, how it wants to do it in the future, and what it wants to focus on & present to the world based on this. Thus, it is a basic practice for every nation, which is something ‘beyond just promoting a country’ in the international arena. At this point, he indicates that logos / slogans that have a very limited impact are not brands (Kaefer, 2020: 129-130). He argues that nation branding and public diplomacy form a country’s Competitive Identity (Tecmen, 2018: 15).


Generally, flashy campaigns / slogans do not earn the respect and admiration of the internal (domestic) & external (foreign) public. However, branding differs from campaigns and slogans that unite ideas & interests around a common table, facilitating discussions and helping to clarify ideas (Öztürk, 2009: 8). Country branding is more than logos & marketing and venue identity & development is key here and it is complex as it involves multiple levels, components and disciplines (Fetscherin, 2010: 469). Hence, it is closely related to both economic development and public diplomacy (Kaefer, 2020: 130-132). It is about a country’s overall image, encompassing political, economic, historical and cultural dimensions (Fan, 2006: 7). So, it is actually a shift from the geopolitics of the modern world & the concept of power to the images & influence of the postmodern world (Öztürk, 8).


Basically, country branding is not about promoting functional features such as land, water; but to focus on emotions & relationships, as they can be a door opener for communication and can make a positive contribution to trust in a country (Öztürk, 2009: 2). For instance, countries like New Zealand use the country brand to create a national narrative & identity by turning it into an opportunity. So branding is important, as a country’s reputation once established tends to be fairly stable. As the Nation Brand Index shows, even certain events often do not leave a lasting impression on a country’s reputation (Kaefer, 2020: 130-131). Therefore, public diplomacy & branding initiatives are related to the effort to create a positive image and longer-term perceptions (Öztürk, 2).


Looking at the similarities between country branding and public diplomacy, firstly both require close cooperation with foreign representations & cultural institutes to strengthen a nation’s role in the international arena. Additionally, both of them are based on listening (both within the country and abroad) and both follow a mutual communication in which exchanges between peoples and states influence and shape practices. Moreover, these two concepts are compatible in terms of building / maintaining a positive reputation. So, it should be said that diplomatic networks are very important in nation branding (Kaefer, 2020: 131). Here, the main objective is to create an external image that will increase the attractiveness of a country for foreign audiences and they ‘best work in tandem’ (Tecmen, 2018: 10-15).


A nation has more than one image. For example, China, the largest country with a population of 1.3 billion, can portray an image of the Great Wall, panda, kungfu, Made in China, where time is an important factor in determining people’s perceptions. In 2003, China was associated with the SARS epidemic, while in 2008 this was the Olympic Games. Therefore, which image to take depends on the target audience and context. So, it is not possible for a single image to work under all different conditions, as nation branding is context-dependent (Fan, 2006: 7).


b) Considerations that Drive Countries to Branding: Why Branding?


It can be said that the increase in country branding activities is, partly, a result of external pressure (globalization, in which countries compete with each other for talent, investment and visitors). Also, the loss of belief in the system and its legitimacy is another reason why countries & nations increasingly attach importance to branding and are more willing to achieve it.


Moreover, attracting investors and tourists, creating political influence, etc. is another reason, where nation branding seeks to find the strongest points of a country such as culture, tradition, business, tourism and try to use them both internally to support its development and externally in positioning. Both of these concepts help with this, though often indirectly, as they affect people’s perceptions & reputation of the country. In general, it would not be wrong to say that places with a strong brand sell their products & services more comfortably and attract visitors & investors more easily, called ‘halo effect’ (Kaefer, 2020: 129-131).


Furthermore, brands and representatives of companies belonging to a country are more easily accessible to the public than government representatives. For instance, the worldwide watchability of American TV series has enabled both the spread of American values, lifestyles and ways of thinking, and the formation of a positive & attractive image about America. Similarly, as a result of watching TV series broadcast in Türkiye with admiration in Middle Eastern countries, the people of the region have had a positive image about Türkiye and the number of tourists coming to Türkiye from the region has increased (Öztürk, 2009: 7).


c) Being Successful in Country Branding: What to Do and What to Avoid?


The first phase of a good branding program is to evaluate the current image of the country and decide exactly how & why it should be changed (Anholt, 2006: 98). However, while conducting a public diplomacy activity, the potential to provide credibility & truthfulness is one of the most important factors to be considered. Nation branding is not only about being recognized & loved, but also, and more importantly, about being trusted (Kaefer, 2020: 133).


For example, the torture of Iraqi prisoners detained by the US during the invasion of Iraq has both contradicted ‘American values’ and begun to be perceived as hypocrisy among the peoples of the Middle East. Later, America established a satellite channel called Al-Hurra to appeal to the Middle East public opinion, but this began to be seen as a tool for government propaganda. Therefore, it is almost impossible for public diplomacy to achieve success unless a government ensures its credibility in the eyes of foreign public opinion. In this sense, the impact of public diplomacy is not measured by the money spent, but by the change in perceptions (Öztürk, 2009: 4).


Nation brands should be developed in relation to stakeholder needs and capabilities. Additionally, the strategy should match the values of the target audience. However, to build a strong nation brand, it is necessary to take into account not only external audiences, but also citizens’ concerns. Before starting any campaign, the target audience must be determined and the message needs to be relevant and highly focused; not generic (Dinnie & Sevin, 2020: 140-141). An image that is appealing in one culture / situation may not do the same in another culture / situation, so the target audience must be taken into account for the message to be meaningful (Fan, 2006: 10). Thus, messaging strategy is likely to fail if it is not based on a solid analysis of the audience. For example, recently, the Czech Republic pushed for a new name for the country as ‘Czechia’, but this rebranding campaign was unsuccessful as audiences decided to stick with the name they knew and resisted the change (Dinnie & Sevin, 140-141).


It is also worth mentioning the ‘new’ dimension in nation branding, which emphasizes the importance of innovation (both intangible and tangible). It therefore expresses the need for countries to develop innovative products, services and experiences, as well as the need to create new national narratives. When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the Young Europeans campaign was used to construct a narrative that supported the country’s new status. However, the ‘new’ dimension of nation branding is not only about countries requiring a fresh start, but also provides the rhetorical new component of new achievements & developments achieved by countries. An example of this is the UK’s GREAT campaign, which aims to showcase the latest developments in the British economy, culture and tourism (Dinnie & Sevin, 2020: 141).  However, a nation should not abandon its old but unique image for the new image. Here, for example, Blair government’s Cool Britannia failed as it replaced all traditional images about the country with hippy / trendy ones. Therefore, while it’s important to be creative & memorable, a nation should not lose its distinctiveness in its search of difference (Fan, 2006: 10).


Also, cooperation is very effective in successful nation branding, in bringing the peoples of foreign countries together and in eliminating prejudices by getting to know each other (Öztürk, 2009: 9-10). How the brand is represented is also important because trying to summarize a country in a slogan, logo, etc. or approaching a country brand as a product brand will lead to failure (Kaefer, 2020: 133). However, while in theory nation branding can help a nation improve its image, there are actually many other factors that affect the image and perception of the country, such as political instability and natural disasters (Fan, 2006: 14-16). And here, what a country does is more important than what it says. Shortly, ‘deeds are louder than words’ (Kaefer, 132).


c) Examples from Some Countries


Firstly, it should be said that nation brand identities are case-specific, as each country has unique assets that it uses to formulate its brand identity, and countries have different foreign policy strategies (Tecmen, 2018: 25).


i) France


After the defeat of France in the Prussian war, the French government established the Alliance Française (1883) to correct its image, which was shaken by this war, and thus aimed to promote its language and literature (Öztürk, 2009: 4).




Another example is Iceland Naturally, Iceland’s nation-branding campaign, which can be described as a large public-private partnership involving the government, tourism boards, airlines, major brands and companies in the North American market.


iii) South Korea


South Korea, which has experienced a growing interest in its popular culture products (called Hallyu / Korean Wave) since the mid-1990s. The Korean government saw this new interest as a way to boost tourism figures & accumulate soft power resources. So, the Ministry of Culture established a K-pop department and worked with the music industry to train & promote the new generation of pop music singers in the country (Dinnie & Sevin, 2020: 140).


iv) Spain


Once a world power, Spain fell into long decline as a result of the Civil War in the 1930s and was no longer almost a part of modern Europe. However, it has evolved into a modern European democracy since Franco’s death. The Joan Miró sun symbol denoted a major promotional program closely linked to national change and modernization, and activities such as corporate and touristic advertising at the national and regional level, the creation of successful international business schools, the Barcelona Olympics and the 1992 Seville International Exhibition helped to shift perceptions (Olins, 2007: 176).


v) Türkiye


In the case of Türkiye, the ‘story’ is constructed as having both a Western and an Eastern dimension. Thus, the Eastern dimension of Türkiye’s ‘story’ is based on its Islamic, cultural and historical experiences rooted in Ottoman heritage, and its geographical proximity to the East, while the Western dimension stems from modernization efforts, the institution of democracy, etc. There was a shift in Turkish foreign policy orientation from the West to the Middle East. Later on, branding of Türkiye came to be seen as a way to increase Türkiye’s economic and political visibility and attractiveness. For this purpose, the Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD) was established in 2010 to conduct communication with external audiences. Additionally, various government institutions such as TIKA and many ministries carry out nation branding activities. It can be said that Türkiye’s desire to increase its political & economic credibility in the West and to become an EU member is the driving force behind the overall nation branding efforts.  Also, exporting culture to the Middle East is at the center of its public diplomacy efforts. The TURQUALITY project, which is export-oriented and aims to create commercial brand names that will serve as ambassadors for Brand Türkiye, is an example of Türkiye’s nation branding projects (Tecmen, 2018: 25-29). Giving government scholarships to foreign students and opening various cultural and educational centers (like Yunus Emre Institute) can also be given as examples to encourage education in Türkiye (Öztürk, 2009: 14).


Social media facilitated the establishment of brand communities based on shared interest in a brand and countries used various tactics to build brand communities in their own environment. For example, Türkiye launched a hashtag-based campaign on Twitter between 13-17 July 2017, one year after the failed coup attempt in the country on July 15, 2016 to tell its story (Dinnie & Sevin, 2020: 138).


vi) USA


In America, Barack Obama, who emphasizes soft power, makes his first speeches from the region where his country has problems (the Middle East) as soon as he is elected president, emphasizing the message that America is not hostile to Islam and thus addressing the people of the country is an important effort in public diplomacy. Similarly, the Fulbright program, which offers education opportunities in America, can be given as an example (Öztürk, 2009: 5-6).


II. Conclusion


Consequently, with globalization and the spread of digital technologies, the importance given to nation branding by both developed & developing countries has increased, and it is now on the agenda of all countries. Each state have begun to become more aware of itself, its image, reputation and attitude (shortly, its brand). Having a harmonious and strong brand identity provides a competitive advantage to countries, as nation brands enable states to emphasize & reinforce their differences as a competitive advantage against the homogenizing effects of globalization (Tecmen, 15). 


Generally, elements such as gaining recognition and attracting people, money and ideas are common in all nation branding, but the credibility & authenticity of brand initiatives are vital here. Also, it is of utmost importance to identify the target audience, as some aspects of the country may seem positive to a portion of the target audience, while a much larger majority can be isolated.


While some campaigns can be very effective in the short term, it takes time to build / maintain a positive country brand & reputation that benefits all business sectors and places within the country. Therefore, the important thing here is to be ethically & morally conscious, and countries that achieve this will be able to create a stronger image of being a ‘good’ country.


Image is everything because it shapes reality. Therefore, the country’s image & policies, the choice of keywords used in their analysis and the framework in which the country is placed are more important than the objective reality of that country. Nation branding tries to narrow the gap between image and reality and it is very much image-driven and allows each country to (re)present itself. This representative power (non-physical) is much more effective than hard power. Because in international relations, there is a connection between attractiveness and the ability to influence others. So, this is crucial in defending & protecting the country’s reputation and trying to correct or at least neutralize bad images and stereotypes.




Anholt, S. (2006). Why brand? Some practical considerations for nation branding. Place branding2(2), 97-107.

Dinnie, K. & Sevin, E. (2020). The Changing Nature of Nation Branding: Implications for Public Diplomacy, Chapter 14, in Nancy Snow and Nicholas J. Cull, Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, Routledge.

Ersoy Öztürk, T. (2009). Dış Politikadaki Etkin Unsur: Kamu Diplomasisi ve Türkiye’nin Kamu Diplomasisi Etkinliği. Kamu Diplomasisi Enstitüsü. 1-21.

Fan, Y. (2006). Branding the nation: What is being branded?. Journal of vacation marketing12(1), 5-14.

Fetscherin, M. (2010). The determinants and measurement of a country brand: the country brand strength index. International Marketing Review, Vol. 27 Iss: 4, pp. 466-479.

Kaefer, F. (2020). Country Branding: A Practitioner Perspective, Chapter 13, in Nancy Snow and Nicholas J. Cull, Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, Routledge.

Olins, W. (2007). Making a National Brand, Chapter 9, in J. Melissen (ed.), The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations, Palgrave Macmillan: New York.

Tecmen, A. (2018). “The Relations between Public Diplomacy and Nation Brands: An Investigation of Nation Branding in Turkey” Working Paper No. 10, İstanbul Bilgi University Jean Monnet Center of Excellence, 7-38.

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