The Rise of the
Brand State: The Postmodern Politics of Image
By Peter Van Ham
Look at the covers of the brochures in any travel
agency and you will see the various ways in which
countries present themselves on the world's mental
map. Singapore has a smiling, beautiful face offering
us tasty appetizers on an airplane, whereas Ireland
is a windy, green island full of freckled, red-haired
children. But do these images depict real places,
existing geographical sites one can visit? Or
do the advertisements simply use cultural stereotypes
to sell a product?
Over the last two decades, straightforward advertising
has given way to branding -- giving products and
services an emotional dimension with which people
can identify. In this way, Singapore and Ireland
are no longer merely countries one finds in an
atlas. They have become "brand states,"
with geographical and political settings that
seem trivial compared to their emotional resonance
among an increasingly global audience of consumers.
A brand is best described as a customer's idea
about a product; the "brand state" comprises
the outside world's ideas about a particular country.
We all know that "America" and "Made
in the U.S.A." stand for individual freedom
and prosperity; Hermes scarves and Beaujolais
Nouveau evoke the French art de vivre; bmws and
Mercedes-Benzes drive with German efficiency and
reliability. In fact, brands and states often
merge in the minds of the global consumer. For
example, in many ways, Microsoft and McDonald's
are among the most visible U.S. diplomats, just
as Nokia is Finland's envoy to the world. In today's
world of information overload, strong brands are
important in attracting foreign direct investment,
recruiting the best and the brightest, and wielding
These days, individuals, firms, cities, regions,
countries, and continents all market themselves
professionally, often through aggressive sales
techniques. Indeed, having a bad reputation or
none at all is a serious handicap for a state
seeking to remain competitive in the international
arena. The unbranded state has a difficult time
attracting economic and political attention. Image
and reputation are thus becoming essential parts
of the state's strategic equity. Like branded
products, branded states depend on trust and customer
satisfaction. We talk about a state's personality
in the same way we discuss the products we consume,
describing it as "friendly" (i.e., Western-oriented)
and "credible" (ally), or "aggressive"
(expansionist) and "unreliable" (rogue).
This preference for style over substance is increasingly
shaping Europe's political landscape, affecting
even NATO and the European Union (EU). Although
no doubt unsettling to conservative thinkers,
this is actually a positive development, since
state branding is gradually supplanting nationalism.
The brand state's use of its history, geography,
and ethnic motifs to construct its own distinct
image is a benign campaign that lacks the deep-rooted
and often antagonistic sense of national identity
and uniqueness that can accompany nationalism.
By marginalizing nationalist chauvinism, the brand
state is contributing greatly to the further pacification
Branding acquires its power because the right
brand can surpass the actual product as a company's
central asset. Smart firms pour most of their
money into improving their brands, focusing more
on the values and emotions that customers attach
to them than on the quality of the products themselves.
Since markets are flooded with indistinguishable,
mass-produced items, firms have tried to individualize
their goods by associating them with an "attitude
brand," pushing a particular lifestyle or
a cool image rather than a plain T-shirt, soft
drink, or shoe. In today's secular age, the brand
has become a sort of surrogate religion. The British
management consultant Peter York has even argued
that Nike's "swooshffitick logo means precisely
what the crucifix meant to an earlier generation
in ghettos -- it promises redemption, vindication
and a way out."
These days, the power of the brand is being applied
to all kinds of products and services and is crossing
national and cultural barriers with astonishing
ease. Naomi Klein, whose best-selling book No
Logo has become a sort of bible for the anticorporatist
movement, makes this point in reference to the
famous Absolut vodka advertisements, where the
actual product disappeared "and its brand
was nothing but a blank bottle-shaped space that
could be filled with whatever content a particular
audience most wanted from its brands." Artful
marketers can brand even the most basic products
and services, as Richard Branson's Virgin Group
has done with music, cola, airlines, and even
financial services. The lack of a brand name means
certain death for companies aspiring to play a
With all this emphasis on brands, old-style political
actors worry about being left behind. Globalization
and the media revolution have made each state
more aware of itself, its image, its reputation,
and its attitude -- in short, its brand. In Belgium,
for example, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has
hired a team of image-makers to rebuild the country's
reputation after years of scandals involving government
corruption, child pornography, and dioxin-polluted
chickens. In an attempt to clear the air, Belgium
has decided to introduce a new logo and hip colors
and will sport the cool Internet suffix ".be"
as its international symbol. The overall aim of
the campaign is to emulate Virgin, which, according
to one Belgian advertising expert, "isn't
big, but you see it everywhere you look."
Dig a little deeper, and it becomes apparent that
other European countries are joining the branding
bandwagon. Tiny Estonia now not only takes exception
to the label "post-Soviet state," it
also dislikes being called a "Baltic"
country. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the country's foreign
minister, refers to Estonia as a "pre-EU"
or a "Scandinavian" country. Lacking
blue-chip brands such as Finland's Nokia or Sweden's
Volvo, Estonia may also try to push itself as
a "green country" to attract environmentally
conscious individuals and foreign direct investment.
Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile,
has set up a special promotional program aimed
at improving the country's image, which most EU
citizens still associate with devout Catholicism,
backwardness, and conservatism.
In a way, these countries are following the lead
of the "Cool Britannia" campaign launched
by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, itself
built on the brand of "New Labour."
The phrase, a pun on the patriotic hymn "Rule
Britannia," is meant to emphasize the image
of the United Kingdom as a global hub for the
media, design, music, film, and fashion industries.
The campaign was first developed by a task force
of the country's artistic elite, formed to advise
the government on how to make the country seem
hip, enterprising, and cool. Although this group
no longer has much influence, the shift from "Rule
Britannia" to "Cool Britannia"
should offer a lesson to the conservative (and
not-so-cool) realist scholars of international
politics: the change of slogans is not merely
rhetorical window-dressing. On the contrary, it
implies a shift in political paradigms, a move
from the modern world of geopolitics and power
to the postmodern world of images and influence.
Smart states are building their brands around
reputations and attitudes in the same way smart
companies do. Globalization and the harmonizing
effects of European integration put pressure on
states to develop, manage, and leverage their
brand equity. Europe's emerging brand states know
that most of them offer similar "products":
territory, infrastructure, educated people, and
an almost identical system of governance. To stand
out in the crowd, assertive branding is essential.
Despite the current world economic sluggishness
sparked by the American economic downturn and
the resulting decline in brand-building expenditures,
most states still see branding as a long-term,
cumulative effort that will influence foreign
investment decisions and the state's market capitalization.
EUROPE'S BEAUTY PAGEANT
Creating a brand is not only economically desirable,
it has considerable political and strategic implications,
affecting even the dynamics of NATO and EU enlargement.
Hard-nosed security analysts will argue that a
state's image is irrelevant: objective economic,
political, and strategic calculations determine,
for example, whether a former communist state
receives foreign direct investment and is offered
NATO or EU membership. They claim that reducing
Europe's security game to a "beauty pageant"
oversimplifies a complicated geostrategic process.
But if things were as straightforward as these
analysts claim, political life would be eerily
transparent and predictable. Why should we assume
that the public readily buys into the seductive
meanings of consumer capitalism but remains rational
and objective when making political decisions?
Consider the countries of eastern Europe, many
of which have massive image problems that impede
their economic development and their chances of
joining Europe's main political and security institutions.
In his book Inventing Eastern Europe, the historian
Larry Wolff describes how western Europeans have
historically ascribed barbaric qualities to the
peoples living in the East. For Voltaire and Diderot,
eastern Europe was a space dominated by poverty,
gloom, and backwardness. In 1945, the British
historian Hugh Seton-Watson observed that the
peoples of eastern Europe "have unpronounceable
names and live in plains and forests, on mountains
and by rivers which might be in another world."
The Cold War deepened this European divide. Today,
the conflicts in Chechnya and Kosovo certainly
do not help make the East more reputable. For
example, although Bulgarians and Albanians see
themselves as living in southeastern Europe, most
people in the West refer to that region as simply
"the Balkans," a name that immediately
evokes ethnic conflict, crime, and instability.
Indeed, opinion polls indicate that public support
in the West for both NATO and EU enlargement is
modest. Ordinary Americans and western Europeans
are reluctant to share these luxury brands with
too many others, for such dilution will diminish
the prestige that comes with exclusivity. Membership
in NATO or the EU symbolizes status and place
in the international community.
For eastern Europe, NATO remains the main institution
in the security realm, spreading democracy and
stability through numerous "products":
the Partnership for Peace, the Membership Action
Plan, and the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council,
for instance. In central Europe, the NATO logo
has become a symbol of respectability and the
ultimate marker of "Westernness"; NATO's
image has been enhanced in the last ten years
by its heritage, having won the Cold War and liberated
the "captive nations" of the communist
bloc. Similarly, NATO's military operation in
Kosovo in 1999 strengthened its image as the only
organization willing to go to war to defend human
rights and stop ethnic cleansing. But it is important
to recognize that the Kosovo campaign was no altruistic
affair on the part of the West. Rather, it sought
to illustrate NATO's continued relevance in managing
European security. The only other alternative
-- doing nothing -- would have damaged NATO's
image beyond repair.
Whereas NATO emphasizes security, the EU radiates
self-confidence and affluence. Knowing that "Europe"
will never inspire affection in its citizens similar
to that enjoyed by the nation-state, the EU is
in the midst of a campaign to brand itself as
a beacon of civilization and prosperity in an
otherwise disorderly and disoriented world. The
EU's striking logo -- a blue flag with a circle
of 12 stars -- is already omnipresent. The application
of "euro" to everything from trains
and soccer championships to a unit of currency
will make it one of the most frequently used names
across the continent and one of the world's most
To protect the NATO and EU brands, these organizations
make the cost of membership quite high. It is
so high, in fact, that to realistically vie for
membership, a state must already have acquired
the amenities -- security and affluence -- promised
by NATO and the EU. This is a manifestation of
Europe's so-called "mortgage paradox":
just as commercial banks will not give a mortgage
to financially unsound clients, NATO and the EU
will not offer membership to poor or unstable
applicants. Until these countries adopt the EU's
elaborate catalogue of economic and political
rules (the infamous acquis communautaire) or follow
NATO guidelines on civil-military relations, membership
will remain elusive. Although both organizations
are officially in the business of "spreading
stability," they will open their doors only
to states that no longer need membership to become
stable and prosperous. Indeed, NATO's official
policy precludes accepting new members that are
"consumers" of security; it will accept
only countries able to make a significant contribution
to European stability. In a similar way, the EU
will invite in only countries with functioning
market economies. Although few analysts dare to
highlight this state of affairs, NATO and the
EU can offer only the confirmation of security
But this paradox does not diminish the importance
of NATO or EU membership. In today's branded society,
being able to "afford" NATO or EU membership
gives the state emotional satisfaction and important
public exposure. With the Soviet threat gone,
security and prosperity have turned from survival
tools into luxury items. NATO and the EU wear
their logos proudly, telling their clientele that
buying their "product" implies that
one is safe and sophisticated. These branding
efforts reinforce the "customer's" sense
of self and offer security and a sense of belonging.
It is little surprise, therefore, that the new
NATO members -- Poland, Hungary, and the Czech
Republic -- wear their membership as a badge of
achievement and exclusivity. For these countries,
the rationale of their alliance membership is
simple: "Because I'm worth it!"
The traditional diplomacy of yesteryear is disappearing.
To do their jobs well in the future, politicians
will have to train themselves in brand asset management.
Their tasks will include finding a brand niche
for their state, engaging in competitive marketing,
assuring customer satisfaction, and most of all,
creating brand loyalty. Brand states will compete
not only among themselves but also with superbrands
such as the EU, CNN, Microsoft, and the Roman
Catholic Church (boasting the oldest and most
recognized logo in the world, the crucifix). In
this crowded arena, states that lack relevant
brand equity will not survive. The state, in short,
will have become the State®.
Peter van Ham is Senior Research Fellow at
the Netherlands Institute of International Relations
"Clingendael" in The Hague and the author
of European Integration and the Postmodern Condition.
This article first appeared in Foreign Affairs.