Al Ries first rose to fame in 1972 when he wrote a series of three articles on a new concept called “Positioning” along with Jack Trout. In 1981, the Positioning book was published and has since sold well over 1 million copies. The book has sold over 400,000 copies in China alone. The two authors also wrote Marketing Warfare, Bottom-Up Marketing, Horse Sense and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.
Al is also the co-founder and chairman of the Atlanta-based consulting firm Ries & Ries with his partner and daughter, Laura Ries. Along with Laura he has written bestsellers like War in the Boardroom and The Origin of Branding. In this interview he speaks to FirstBiz on how countries can go about branding themselves.
Can countries be branded like products?
It depends on the size of the country. The bigger the country, the harder it is to brand. The smaller the country, the easier. Brand USA, a partnership between the travel industry and the U.S. government, is planning a $200-million campaign to attract tourists to America. The theme: “United States of Awesome Possibilities.” That’s a ridiculous idea.
On the other hand, take a small country like Kenya. What is Kenya’s major tourist attraction? Wild animals from lions to elephants to giraffes. So how would I brand Kenya? “The world’s largest zoo.” How is branding a country different from branding a product?
It’s essentially the same as branding a product. So how to you brand a product?
Narrow the focus. BMW narrowed its focus to “driving” and became the world’s largest-selling luxury-vehicle brand, ahead of Mercedes, Audi, Lexus, Cadillac and Lincoln.
What makes Singapore different from every other country in the world? Housing. 80 percent of the residents of the country live in apartments, not houses. As the world’s population continues to increase, more and more people are going to have to live in high-rise apartment buildings. Here’s how I would brand Singapore: “City of the Future.”
Can you give us examples of countries which have branded themselves well?
I know of only two, both small countries. Guatemala, a country in Central America, is branding itself as “The heart of Maya country.” An ancient civilization, the Maya have left hundreds of imposing temples scattered throughout Central America. But the country that has the most temples and other historic sites is Guatemala. (I once suggested the country change its name to Guatemaya). The other is Grenada, a country in the Caribbean sea, which is branding itself as “The Caribbean the way it used to be.” In other words, without all the fancy high-rise hotels for tourists.
How can a country go about branding itself?
The basic principle is to narrow the focus. But that’s extremely difficult for a large country. That’s why a large country should forget about branding the country. It should brand its major city instead. Instead of branding America, we should brand New York City, the one city most tourists to America want to visit.
Turkey is a large country that is trying to brand itself with a silly slogan, “Turkey is ready.” A better direction is to brand Istanbul as the best place in the business world for a global headquarters.
Could you elaborate on that?
Consider a company with representatives in the major cities on six continents: Johannesburg, London, Mumbai, New York, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Sydney. Now where should a company like this one hold it corporate meetings? Istanbul.
Here are combined mileage statistics for a single representative from each city attending a potential global meeting held in these major cities.
Sydney . . . . . . . . 58,784 miles
Johannesburg . . . 58,676 miles
Sao Paulo . . . . . . 50,846 miles
Mumbai . . . . . . . 49,450 miles
New York . . . . . 46,342 miles
Shanghai . . . . . . 44,925 miles
London . . . . . . . 42,472 miles
Istanbul . . . . . . . 40,411 miles
And it’s not just location that gives Istanbul an advantage. Companies like to hold meeting in “neutral” locations, so that local representatives don’t dominate the meetings. Istanbul is not a European city. Istanbul is not an Asian city. Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city with roots in both continents.
And how would you brand Istanbul?
“Crossroads of the world.” Sometimes it’s a good idea to compare yourself with another country or another location. Jamaica is a small country in the Caribbean, but it has mountains and waterfalls similar to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean which is a major tourist attraction for Americans. Here is how we would brand Jamaica: “The Hawaii of the Caribbean.”
Most people think New Zealand is a country. But it’s also an island. Actually, it’s two islands. The North island and the South island. Here is the slogan we developed to brand New Zealand: “The two most-beautiful islands in the world.”
Any other examples?
Colombia is a country in South America that has had a lot of civil wars. But Bogota, the capital, sits on the natural trade route from North America to South America and would make an ideal location for foreign companies to establish their South American headquarters. Furthermore, Bogota sits on top of the equator, but at 8,000 feet above sea level. As a result, warehouses need no air conditioning and no heating all year long. Our proposed branding slogan: “Air conditioned by God.”
Would you suggest that when the reputation of a country is clear and positive, products that are made in that country carry an extra credibility?
Every country has a “natural” position established by decades or centuries of publicity.
Germany is “engineering.”
France is “wine.”
Italy is “fashion.”
Switzerland is “watches.”
Japan is “automobiles.”
America is “computers.”
India is “tea.”
So when you brand a product, it can be helpful to relate your product brand to the country’s position. For example, I met once with the CEO of a Swiss company developing a new automobile brand. Does an automobile from Switzerland make any sense, he asked me? Sure, I said and I have a headline for your first ad: “Runs like a watch.”
What does India need to do to brand itself well? What sort of Indian products will it help sell? The first decision to make is, Do we want to build a brand to attract tourists or to attract business? You can’t do both. Potentially, India can have a great tourist business, but the current visa situation is seriously undermining that possibility. So I would suggest India focus on business, rather than tourists.
What type of business should India focus on?
Darjeeling tea is one possibility. But it would take forever to broaden the territory covered by the Darjeeling “tea gardens.” A better possibility is “computer software.”
India has three advantages in software. First of all, India turns out more college graduates than any other country in the world. Second, computer software today is primarily developed in the English language which put countries like China at a serious disadvantage. Third, wage levels in India are lower than in most developed countries.
Then, too, opportunities are opening up in software because the market is fragmenting. Microsoft is not nearly as dominant as it once was. Also, the raft of new electronic products (smartphones, tablet computers and many more to come) will continue to generate strong demand for software.
How can a strong country brand help companies and brands originating from that country ? Many brands take advantage of this idea by including the name of their country or city in their logotypes. Paris is known for cosmetics and L’Oréal is a leading French cosmetics company. The company’s logotype says: L’Oréal Paris. And the Lancȏme logo also includes the name “Paris.”
In one of the columns that I read on country branding it was suggested “ Brands across the board from particular countries can command higher prices than those from other countries, simply by virtue of the strength of the country’s brand.” Do you believe in that? Could you give us examples on the same?
The best example is Switzerland which has a monopoly on expensive watches. A quartz watch made in Japan and sold in America for $500 or so will keep better time than a mechanical watch like Rolex that sells for $5,000 or $10,000.
So why do people pay thousands of dollars for a mechanical watch? Because it’s a Rolex from Switzerland. The same is true for wine from France. Fashion from Italy. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil. But Spain doesn’t have the same reputation for olive oil as Italy. So much of Spain’s olive oil is shipped to Italy and then sold on the world market as “Olive oil from Italy.”
The interview originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on March 7, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)