State of Nation

Nomad Magazine Interviews Ben Knapp

*This article appeared first in the November issue of Nomad Magazine

A nation is a set of complex cultural characteristics, values, traditions, histories, idiosyncrasies, ethnicities, languages–is it possible to brand such a geopolitical entity? Yes, and it’s perhaps ever more necessary in a globalized world.

In Vienna, Nomad spoke to Ben Knapp of Saffron Brand Consultants, about the intricacies of identifying and steering the perception of a place’s identity, and what such perceptions might mean to countries now and into the future.

Photos by Peter Rigaud

Text by Kimberly Bradley

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Ben started early, launching a design business in Vienna before beginning university. After graduating, he grew his Business for several years before starting his postgraduate studies in London. At this time, he met Wally Olins, sold his business and joined Saffron in 2006. At Saffron, he has worked for clients ranging from London’s Royal Opera House to A1 Telekom Austria, which he helped to rebrand. He has worked extensively with technology and communications clients such as Fujitsu,

Belgacom, Turkcell and Mobiltel Bulgaria. Ben has worked on place brands such as London, Durham, Northern Ireland and Poland. Most recently, Ben has led Saffron’s work on Trinidad & Tobago’s national branding programme. In early 2008, Ben launched Saffron’s office in Mumbai. Since 2010, Ben has been leading Saffron’s expansion into central Europe from Berlin and Vienna. Here, Ben has advised Voith Group, social network Xing, Raiffeisen Bank International and Bwin.

Kimberly:
How do you define “nation branding”? It’s a rather odd term. A nation isn’t a commercial entity–or is it?

Ben:
It’s helpful to substitute “reputation” or “image” or “perception” for the word “brand.” “Brand” could be seen by some as a commercial, mercantile, perhaps even crass term for a nation or city. It helps to think about the subject in terms of perception. Concerning most places, that perception is either “I don’t know it,” “I’ve never heard of it,” or “I don’t care about it.” Or it’s the wrong perception, meaning you think poorly of a place, or in terms that are not in line with its facts. Or, sometimes, your perception is good, in which what you think is better than what the facts and assets of that place deserve. The goal of nation branding is to close the gap between a place’s facts and assets, and people’s perception of it. Obviously if the perception of a place is positive, we aren’t going to gear it down! The goal is to have perceptions that will be proven by a visit or a conversation with someone who knows that place well; you want expectations to be met or exceeded, rather than disappointed. We want to avoid visitors or investors being surprised by a place that is completely different from what they thought it would be–like expecting a modern, urban place but when you get there and the internet isn’t good and shops close on Sundays.

Kimberly:
Like here in Vienna.

Ben:
People come to Vienna expecting a big city, and then they can’t go shopping on Sundays. But if people know these things ahead of time, they think it’s charming.

The same is true for nations: You want to reach a state where people know what to expect because they feel prepared for the experiences they’re going to have. And then obviously the best thing you want is to have their expectations exceeded.

Kimberly:
Who is nation branding for? Is it meant to attract visitors, tourists, businesses?

Ben:
It’s everything. You want people from all walks of life to have information available to them, to remember that information, and to have a positive takeaway from having seen, heard, experienced something.

Wally (note: the late Saffron cofounder Wally Olins, a Pioneer in nation-branding) used to talk about the four vectors of nation branding. One is foreign direct investment.

Then all kinds of tourism, from business or leisure. Then soft power–everything having to do with public diplomacy. Then it’s what you experience when you get there–the environment. You want to manage those four vectors as carefully and intentionally as you can.

Kimberly:
So it’s not just about ad campaigns.

Ben:
No. Where I think nation branding becomes “branding” in the worst sense is when you start running adverts on CNN at 2am. You arrive in your hotel room late, and the TV turns on by itself. And sure enough it’s CNN and some sad ad for a country you’ve never thought twice about. It’s always the same: rural dances, shots of landscapes. And it’s pleading: please come visit us and spend some time with us. This actually does a nation a disservice. You want to create a place and things in it that are so interesting and intrinsically positive that people pay attention because they want to. People share what they’ve seen on social networks and tell their friends about it. At Saffron, we think less about what we can do in terms of communications, and more of what we can do in terms of creating assets, to help this nation, this city, this region earn media rather than pay for it.

Kimberly:
How?

Ben:
Take money that would be invested in a launch party or an ad in The Economist and give it to ten really interesting start-ups or young restaurateurs, sports stars, artists, scholars, and so forth. Let’s say it’s a million dollars. Find ten people throughout the country in different disciplines, give each $100,000, and stipulate that they spend it on their own craft, trade, training, whatever their plans are. Or use the money to support them with consultants or give them an office, shine the light on them, get them PR, advisors, whatever they need to succeed. That will help to insure now and in the future that you have stuff to talk about: a great restaurant, a famous athlete from your country, someone that made a fantastic movie from this country, business that’s going places.

These are things that normal people, but especially journalists, are quite reasonably interested in. Support what’s going on anyway. That’s level 1. Level 2 is starting things like festivals, culture weeks dedicated to your country, in other countries.

Kimberly:
You worked for years with Poland.

Ben:
We worked with the Polish Cultural Institute to start a Polish film festival in London. I think it helped toward changing the perception of some people in Britain from “Poles are great plumbers and builders” to “hang on a second; Poland also produces fantastic art, great cinema, great musicians, great food.” Suddenly the Institute became more of a fixture on the cultural scene and in so doing raised Poland’s profile as not only as exporter of incredible tradesmen, but as a country worth following in every regard.

Kimberly:
So Level 2. What did the groundwork–Level 1– look like?

Ben:
Saffron started working with Poland when it had just joined the European Union; 15 years ago now. It was a normal country; with H+M and Zara and political troubles and an army and a civil population and athletes. But the perception of Poland was: “There are polar bears walking in the streets.” A real quote from real people.

Kimberly:
Are you serious? Whom did you interview?

Ben:
People across the United States, Japan, Russia, Italy, Spain, Norway, the UK, and of course Germany. Some of their most negative perceptions ranged from “the

Poles are out to steal my car” to “my cleaning lady is Polish” to the polar bear issue. As mundane as it sounds, the brief was “let’s have people understand that Poland is a member of the EU; a European country with churches and art and filmmakers and the problems that a twenty-first century country has. It’s not a dystopian post-Soviet place where it’s always winter, always grey, and Father Christmas rides through the sky. It’s a normal place we should be aware of when we think of Europe.”

Kimberly:
How long does it take to shift perceptions?

Ben:
Nation branding projects never move as fast as the politicians and media want them to. Politicians tend to want change to happen within months. The media want it even quicker. They need stuff to write about. It almost never moves that quickly. If there’s an incredibly big gap between the perception and reality and usually it’s a negative one, you can do things quite quickly to change that negative perception. But in most nations, and it’s a little here and a little there, it takes time. We think in terms of years, not in months.

Kimberly:
What happens when decision-makers in a country change during that time?

Ben:
You get hired by a political group–it’s usually governments that hire us, rarely interest groups or businesses. Most countries have a four- or five-year election cycle. Nation branding is usually not the first thing on a new government’s mind, so it’s rare that we get hired after an election. Usually it’s midterm to late term and they realize they’ve done good stuff, people aren’t seeing it enough, and think “Let’s hire a branding agency to talk about what a wonderful country we are.” By the time we come in there’s often very little time left. Then come elections. Sometimes the government wins and we can carry on. Sometimes they lose and the other guys get into power. They don’t want to work on a project instigated by their opposition, so out the window it goes. Another consultancy comes in and starts over.

This is detrimental to that nation’s brand as well as the overall concept of nation branding. Civil servants get tired of it. They’re part of development groups and workshops and they say “I’ve done this three times now, it never goes anywhere.” Back to your original question: How long does it take to change the perception of a European country within Europe? About five years. To change the perception of a European country outside of Europe? Probably more like ten. Now, though, I think the perception of Poland is no longer car thieves and builders. People in Germany accept that their neighbors are good people– and there’s plenty of economic and cultural exchange between the two countries. I think Poland is a success story.

Kimberly:
But at the moment the tides are shifting due to political decisions there.

Ben:
Politics is hugely influential on nation branding work. Poland is a good example of a progressive, successful national perception being diminished by conservative/ nationalist politicians. Obviously all this is in the eye of the beholder: to people that support the politics of the current government, Poland may even be a (nation branding) model to be admired. The reputation of a country, just like that of a person, can be undone much more quickly and easily than a positive one can be built up. It usually only takes a few media cycles to tarnish the perceptions people have of a country, but it takes years to re-establish a positive image.

Kimberly:
How long has nation branding been around?

Ben:
A long time. Look at the French Revolution. They had a philosophy or motto or slogan, liberté, fraternité, egalité. They had a new flag that stood for the nation. They had a spirit that was carried throughout the movement. The French Revolution turned out badly but was a quite early example of purposeful management of the outward and inward perception of what a country should stand for and what its people should adhere to. If you look at Italy and Germany–countries that agglomerated provinces into one country–you could call this nation-building as well. America is another example: having a constitution, a flag, a common language, laying down things that everyone that lives in that country should expect. The land of the free. A lot of people in the nineteenth century went to America because they perceived it was a free-er place than where they came from. That’s quite impressive in nation-branding terms–when you have a brand that’s strong enough for people to change themselves. In America it certainly worked for quite a long time. Nation branding is about building something where people want to be. Instead of telling people why you’re great, be great, and then people will take notice.

Kimberly:
How do you do this? How did it work in Poland?

Ben:
Six to eight months were spent steeping ourselves in Poland. Over the course of the ten years, we interviewed and met with more than 500 people. We travelled to tourist destinations, universities, historical sites; we met with tourists–there weren’t as many then as now. What about the Polish diaspora in London, New York, Melbourne? Why did they leave? We spoke to a diagonal slice of society–CEOs and kindergarten kids. You do have to define what you can highlight. What you don’t want to do is document where the country stands now.

What we found: Poland is, like most other places in world, a place of contrasts. But more than other places, the strength of Poland is the tension that exists between these extremes. It’s about generating energy and creativity between old and new, east and west, Catholic and non-religious. We used the idea of creative tension and said–let’s engage key multipliers in the country, and they can help us change the perception of Poland and have them run with it. We had filmmakers, chefs, visual artists interpret creative tension. If you can get them on board, they’ll talk about it quite naturally. The idea spread; it was given time to spread.

Kimberly:
Again, things there are shifting at the moment. Which leads me to ask: does Saffron do damage control? I’m thinking about the fall in public opinion about the UK after Brexit. It’s as if the illusion of Cool Britannia was shattered in one day.

Ben:
Well, there’s a country whose prime minister has recently been in the news because he or she had a coup attempted against them.

Kimberly:
Um, what country could that be?

Ben:
I can’t mention it.

Kimberly:
What might you do?

Ben:
If we were speaking to them, we might say get your house in order first, solve your basic problems. No crime on the street. Reasonable social cohesion. Be boring first, and then we can think about how to work beyond boring. If you have a problem with crime or coups or terrorism or all of the above, any efforts will be superseded by more fundamental worries.When a country is relatively unknown, we can work well. What’s the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia? They’re roughly in the same region, no one’s running around with machine guns, they’ve done well economically for the past 15-20 years since they joined the EU. They have similar names; their flags are similar. That’s a situation in which we can put them on the map–whoever calls us first.

Kimberly:
Are there times you simply say no?

Ben:
We got a call from Syria eight or nine years ago, and on the grounds of ethics we said no thank you. And one of our consultants had a meeting with a client who initially didn’t say who they were. It turned out it was Muammar Gaddafi’s son from Libya; he showed up and said he wanted to change the country. We also declined. I’m sure there are crisis PR consultancies that make handsome budgets by advising how to spin things one way or another. We don’t work with spin, because we think it doesn’t work very well.

Kimberly:
Apropos Slovenia/Slovakia, do you think that countries will homogenize and at some point require nation branding to differentiate themselves?

Actually, when everything becomes more and more the same, it’s easier to stand out. Especially when you’re a small and boring country like Austria. Look at Switzerland–boring, banking. But every once in a while they come up with a splash of color and you think “Switzerland! Wow?!” I do think it’s going to get harder to catch people’s attention. Even commercial brands find it hard to catch attention, let alone a place you’ve never thought about. How may times a week do you wake up and think–I wonder what’s going on in Burkina Faso? Of course not! Why would you? But if Burkina Faso does something amazing and earns your attention and does it again and again, it will be on your mental map.

Kimberly:
So nation building/branding is especially important now.

Ben:
Today, there’s a very real competition for the brightest scientists, craftiest bankers, ablest workers, most creative designers. To present themselves as favourably as possible in that competition, nations–and regions, cities, even neighborhoods–need to enjoy high levels of awareness, and for the right reasons.

This competition will likely intensify moving forward, since there are so many cities and regions competing for the best students, tourism dollars, and foreign direct investment.

Kimberly:
What country would you most like to work with?

Ben:
As an Austrian I’d love to work for Austria. I’m married to a Chinese woman so I’d love to work with China as well; we were close to working with them a few years ago.

Kimberly:
What would you do with Austria? Currently the main message here and throughout Europe, is the rise of the right wing.

Ben:
The reason this is so dangerous for Austria is that no one has heard of Austria–the things that you hear about are long in the past. The only things mentioned are Mr. Hofer, Mr. Strache, or unappetizing guys like Fritzl.

If the Hofer or Fritzl story were one of ten stories about Austria that week, it wouldn’t be as big a deal.

Austria has done well in being a safe, comfortable, green nation; every year its capital is number one on quality-of-life lists. But the major perception is that it’s stuck in the past.

Kimberly:
And China?

Ben:
China is tough, as it’s an authoritarian regime, but they’ve managed to wield an unwieldy nation and lift so many people out of poverty. A lot of people around the world don’t know what to make of China. Is it the authoritarian dystopia in which people have no free speech, or a nation of a billion people making its own way with lots of interesting stories to tell?

Kimberly:
Speaking of other larger entities, what do you think about the European Union?

Ben:
The EU has to define and communicate its purpose. It has to make people more aware of the advantages they have thanks to it. Wally was upset that EU representatives didn’t purposefully act–long before now and Brexit, we met twice with EU representatives to see how we could help them. It never went anywhere.

Kimberly:
Could the EU craft a cohesive identity, or given its multicultural history, is that impossible?

Ben:
It’s difficult, but not impossible. And difficult not because there isn’t anything European nations share and that differentiates Europe from other continents –there’s a lot, of course. It’s difficult because the process of agreeing on a brand or identity is difficult.

It’s hard enough work in a company, where there’s a clear decision-making hierarchy. Harder still in a single nation, let alone 28 of them together. However that’s not to say it isn’t a worthwhile pursuit, now more than ever.

Kimberly:
Considering one of the EU’s major issues at the moment, how do you feel migration, forced or voluntary, might affect the idea of the nation-state– and thus nation-branding, in the future?

Ben:
You know what I believe? One day we will pay these people to come to Europe. There will be intense competition for young, bright, able minds and bodies to come and live in Europe.

Those nations invested in being attractive–not just a CNN ad at 2am, but investing in being a great place to be, will reap the benefits of this migration.

Therefore nation branding is to be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter whether you choose to do it by nation building or by putting attractive policies in place–like Ireland deciding not to tax artists and authors in the 1990s, and sure enough, they now have a vibrant scene of poets and authors and artists.

Things like this earn attention. Countries with declining birthrates–and here they’ve been declining forever–should be extremely grateful that people want to come here. They contribute taxes, they contribute their minds.

*This article appeared first in the November issue of Nomad Magazine