By Guido van Garderen
Revised for the Harvard Africa Journal. September, 2013.
Liberia is still tainted by images of war and poverty, even though the country has been at peace for over a decade under the leadership of President Johnson-Sirleaf. The current brand image deters tourists, business executives and potential investors from visiting the country. This paper introduces the concept of Nation Branding and exemplifies how a country’s brand associations either support or undermine economic development. Additionally, research backed by the University of Amsterdam has led to the development of a new brand identity for Liberia which appeals to the tourism ‘niche’ market of sport fishing. Brand awareness amongst the sixty million anglers in the US alone is generated by prominent public and private initiatives that underline the unique positioning strategy.
Liberia has made remarkable progress over the last decade. The West-African country transitioned from a restless state immersed in civil war to a stable developing country. Nevertheless, the poster child of economic development is haunted by images of its past. The country is still commonly known for poverty and war, despite stable economic growth and a President that was awarded the Nobel peace prize. The current negative brand image deters tourists, business executives and investors. Hence, Liberia needs to fix not only its broken infrastructure but also its broken brand.
Brand image is defined by Kevin Lane Keller as “the perceptions about a brand, as reflected by the brand associations held in consumer memory” (Keller 1993: 3). Similarly, the brand image of a country reflects the connotations that come to mind instantly, when one thinks about a country.
Quantitative research comprised of an online survey with open-ended questions conducted in association with the University of Amsterdam has shown that the brand image of France, for example, is comprised at an average of 6.1 brand associations. At a minimum, the country will evoke images of the Eiffel Tower, wine, baguette, Paris, cheese, romance, and fashion. This solid brand association drives tourists to visit ‘the city of love’, motivates consumers to pay premium prices for Bordeaux or Brie de Meaux and establishes Paris as the fashion capital of Europe. Without the need for any major promotional campaigns, France takes full advantage of its brand image.
Liberia in comparison evokes on average only 2.7 brand associations and 22 per cent of respondents had no association at all, leaving the space to answer blank or writing “no idea”. One respondent wrote “Sorry, [I’ve] got to admit absolute ignorance here, shocking”. The main brand association, with a striking 50 per cent of responses was war, followed by Africa, poverty and blood diamonds. A distant fifth was President Johnson-Sirleaf or references to her, such as “First female President”, “Harvard PhD President” or “Nobel Peach prize winner”. Other notable brand associations were slaves, Charles Taylor, child soldiers, dictators and corruption. This negative brand image deters tourism, trade and investment, even though the West-African country has been at peace for over a decade under the leadership of Nobel laureate, President Johnson-Sirleaf.
The brand associations could potentially differ per respondent group or geographical location, but the survey does illustrate that Liberia has, in general, a negative brand image that is comprised of a small number of non-productive brand associations. In other words, the brand image of Liberia is not a catalyst for tourism, trade or FDI.
Brand identity is defined as the aspired brand image or the brand associations that are desired by the citizens, the private sector and the government. In Liberia there is a strong discrepancy between the brand image the country upholds and the brand identity the people want to convey. How can Liberia lose its negative brand associations and what should the country be known for instead?
Liberia is not a blank canvas. The images of war, poverty and blood diamonds cannot simply be erased from people’s minds and should be acknowledged, before they are put to rest. Colombia is in a similar position and is perceived as unsafe, due to the brand associations with the FARC rebel group and drug lords. Efforts to explain that in a country as large as Colombia, any rebel activity is further away from tourist areas than Amsterdam is from Istanbul have not been effective. Colombia had to move from a “Yes, but..” strategy, that was trying to counter negative perceptions, to a “Yes, and..” strategy that would acknowledge current perceptions and would complement that image. The tourism authority recognized the current perception of danger and launched a destination branding campaign with the slogan “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay” supported by pictures of for example the carnival of Barranquilla, white water rafting on the Suarez river and the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver church in Cartagena. It was a daring but successful “Yes, and..” strategy. Similarly, Liberia should acknowledge its current brand associations of war and poverty, if it wants to build a new brand identity.
Nation Branding analyzes how a country can strategically steer its image in order to attract tourism, trade or foreign direct investment. The goal isn’t to sketch a comprehensive and all-inclusive picture of the country, but rather to reflect a conscious and strategic choice of what the nation wants to be known for in order to gain a competitive advantage. Preferably, a campaign should enforce only one or two brand associations. Less is more, since in an era of over-communication it is hard to reach the consumer, let alone become memorable. This is particularly the case since the Nation Branding budget of a developing country will be significantly smaller than the budget of developed countries or that of the private sector.
In most cases, nation branding is used to support economic growth. For example, the Netherlands builds on its brand association with tulips to strengthen its position as the number one exporter of flowers in the world. Liberia could similarly emphasize its extensive rubber plantations, but in this case all of the rubber is sold exclusively to the Firestone Natural Rubber Company. Hence, there is no significant economic benefit to becoming known for natural rubber, since it wouldn’t lead to a high volume of customers. Moreover, raw materials in general are exposed to volatile market prices and merely exporting unprocessed goods is not considered a viable long-term economic development strategy.
In Liberia, semi-structured interviews were conducted with citizens ranging from the President, journalists and entrepreneurs to cleaners, bureaucrats and taxi drivers to identify a possible basis for a new brand identity. President Johnson-Sirleaf wanted Liberia to be known as “a country on its way up”. Unfortunately, that is a conclusion, rather than a brand association and not a basis for a distinct brand identity, since it should be true for any growing economy. Almost all respondents wanted to convey that Liberians are friendly and out-going people, but a positive attitude is again expected of any destination. Only the French get away with a snobbish attitude. When clear economic drivers of a country are absent, tourism is often chosen as a strategy for economic development, since every tourist is a possible business executive or investor as well.
A new brand identity should be authentic and recognized as such by its citizens. Otherwise the nation branding campaign turns into a propaganda exercise, which results in a loss of credibility. When the brand identity is supported at the grassroots level, the citizens and the diaspora become proud ambassadors of their country. Social media, like Facebook and Instagram, helps spread these new images around the world. This inside-out strategy harnesses the power of word-of-mouth advertisement and generates a genuine and personal endorsement for a country. Taxi drivers, waiters and overseas business executives will all participate in spreading the new brand identity. In effect, nation branding helps weak states to create a National identity, which allows citizens to come together under a shared set of values and work as one.
In summary, Liberia should put forward only one brand association that will stimulate the economy and is aligned with economic development policy. The aspired brand identity should not contradict the current brand image, since people are not prone to changing their minds, but will accept additional information. The aspired brand identity has to be authentic, truthful and supported at grassroots level for it to become successful.
All brands have points-of-parity and points-of-difference associations. The first establishes a comparison and feeds into what you expect. For example, every tourist destination should at least be safe, clean, have taxis, hotels, banks etc. Most developing countries only advertise their readiness to receive tourists, but do not stipulate what kind of tourism they want to attract. Points-of-difference associations therefore look at how one holiday destination differs from the next. They emphasize what is unique about a location. At the moment, Liberia fails to deliver on both expected and unique associations.
President Johnson-Sirleaf recognizes the potential for tourism in Liberia, but argues that the country has not been able to deliver on its promise yet due to the under-development of its infrastructure, such as roads, streetlights, power, water and telecommunications. That is only true to some degree. If Liberia can assure visitors that basic needs like safety and cleanliness are met, the country can then attract pioneering tourists like surfers and backpackers. Still, it is more difficult to attract tourist that have an average higher spend per day to a country with few and mediocre hotels, high food prices and energy costs, and without any striking landmarks, distinctive culture or significant wildlife.
When a possible brand strategy of a country is not immediately clear, one might need to look beyond what is and imagine what could be. The practice of Nation Branding is after all one part economic development, one part branding and one part Imagineering. In semi-structured interviews with Liberian citizens the 320 miles of ‘golden’ beaches were mentioned by all as one of the main tourist attractions, yet nearby destinations like Ghana, The Gambia and Senegal have similar and more developed assets. Additionally, Lake Piso and the Blue Lake were cited as main attractions. If one takes in account that the capital Monrovia lies at the end of the Mesurado River, an overall sport fishing theme emerges.
Sport fishers like to navigate virgin fishing territories, while they are also used to paying 200 dollars per day for boat rental and accustomed to spend the night in fishing camps. In other words, a sophisticated tourist with a high average spend per day, that enjoys being the first to fish in Liberia. In the USA alone there are 60 million anglers, so the niche is large enough to sustain high-end, low-volume tourism to Liberia. Moreover, there is no African country that has positioned itself specifically as a sport fishing destination. The brand identity is based on the natural assets of the country, the perception of its citizens and builds on the presence of a local fishing fleet that is based on small boats and can easily make the transition to sport fishing tourism.
A brand is in essence a promise. If a country sells a tourist, a business executive or an investor on a promise, it has to deliver on that promise. For example, Dubai promises luxurious hotels. It started delivering on that promise with the opening of the Burj Al-Arab, the only seven-star hotel in the world. The sail shaped hotel became an instant symbol of excessive luxury, sending the implicit message that the standard for all hotels in Dubai is luxury. The emirate reinforced its positioning strategy with the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world that houses the only hotel designed by Giorgio Armani. Even the police force has embraced the luxury brand and recently acquired a Lamborghini Aventador worth 450.000 US dollars to complement its fleet. These actions speak louder than words.
Dubai didn’t inherit an Eiffel Tower, but created a brand identity based on luxury. It was rooted in the prevailing brand image of overindulgent Sheiks in the Middle East. It uses symbols, such as the Burj Al-Arab, to signal its luxury positioning, instead of an advertisement in Newsweek or a commercial on CNN. The new brand identity was consistently managed even during the financial crisis, when the temptation to diversify was omnipresent. Dubai realized that brand strategy is as much about saying no, as it is about saying yes. As a result, their Nation Brand is undiluted and Dubai consistently attracts tourists with high disposable incomes. Liberia has the potential to achieve similar results.
The value proposition is that anglers can pioneer fishing grounds. The promise acknowledges that Liberia is not a typical holiday destination, but brings the opportunity to be the first to explore the rivers, lakes and coastline. Moreover, a country where one is the first tourist to visit, comes with an implied lower expectation of roads, boats, hotels and restaurants. Therefore, the value proposition can be launched the moment Liberia is ready to receive fishing tourists, while the brand experience will change over time as tourism infrastructure improves and more luxurious accommodation becomes available.
The brand awareness or the likelihood and ease at which the sport fishing brand of Liberia will come to mind will increase with the use of a mnemonic. South Africa and the famous Kruger Park are known for African wildlife safaris, where tourists can spot the ‘Big Five’, referring to the lion, the leopard, the rhinoceros, the elephant and the Cape buffalo. Similarly, Liberia can become known for African sport fishing safaris where tourists can catch the ‘Big Fishing Five’, referring to the marlin, the yellow-fin tuna, the bullshark, the sailfish and the tarpon.
Liberia doesn’t have the budget of Dubai, but can achieve similar brand awareness, when the country consistently communicates their competitive edge with striking symbols to those abroad. Therefore, the sport fishing strategy should be launched with a larger-than-life symbolic action. For example, President Johnson-Sirleaf could declare a ban on all commercial fishing and turn the coastline, rivers and lakes into the largest sport fishing sanctuary in the world. The local fishermen would benefit from accommodating sport fishing trips, while the ban on commercial fishing will create an abundance of fish and reinforce Liberia as the fishing destination in Africa.
Nation Branding should be led by the government or a public-private partnership, since the brand promise should be aligned with public policy. In Liberia the tourism strategy is controlled by the Ministry for Information, Culture and Tourism, which has not led to much action, to date. A tourism authority that is comprised of both the government and the private sector might produce a more comprehensive strategy with defined expectations and eventually, significant results. Since building a brand takes time and persistence, commitment to brand consistency is key. This is especially the case given that politicians tend to be on a short-term calendar which may predispose them to change such visible symbols as a nation brand.
Nation Branding strategically steers the image of the country in order to attract tourism, trade and foreign direct investment. The goal is to find a unique differentiating strategy in an industry of choice and gain a competitive advantage over other countries. Tourism is often chosen as a strategy for economic development, since every tourist is a possible business executive or investor as well. It kills two birds with one stone. Meanwhile, as a country focuses on the future, it distances itself from its past, leaving unwanted brand associations behind.
A possible competitive edge for Liberia can be based on the tourism niche market sport fishing, since it makes great use of the country’s waterways, while the underdevelopment of tourism infrastructure can be translated into ‘unspoiled’ or ‘unchartered’ fishing grounds. Anglers in Liberia are likely to be willing to paying top dollar for a fishing boat to catch the ‘big fishing five’ (the marlin, yellow-fin tuna, bull shark, sailfish and tarpon), while spending the night in basic fishing camps. Hence, the tourism proposition can be launched almost instantly, the moment basic sport fishing infrastructure is in place.
This new brand identity is both authentic and supported at the grassroots level, as local Liberians recognize the ‘golden’ beaches, Lake Piso and the Blue Lake as the main tourist attractions, which turns all citizens into potential brand ambassadors. Furthermore, the local fishing industry is based on small boats and familiar with nearby fishing grounds, which makes the transition to sport fishing relatively easy.
Brand awareness should be created with striking symbols, such as the creation of the largest sport fishing sanctuary in the world. Such actions speak louder than words. Over time Liberia needs to deliver on the expected brand associations of a tourism destination, while strengthening its unique brand association. Prominent public and private sport fishing initiatives will bring the country closer to delivering on true differentiation.
Additional research is recommended to further analyze the strategic fit of Liberia with sport fishing tourism, including but not limited to an analysis of the deep consumer needs of sport fishers, a breakdown of competing sport fishing destinations and an overview of steps Liberia needs to take to deliver on all of the expected brand associations and true brand differentiation. If done properly, perhaps in a decade, brand research will intrinsically link Liberia with sport fishing and the ‘Big Fishing Five’. ●
A thought leader in Nation Branding, Guido van Garderen advises countries, cities and regions how to create unique brands that will attract tourism, trade & foreign direct investment. As a founder of the marketing and communication agency Network6, he holds over fourteen years of branding experience working with clients such as Unilever, Disney and UNICEF. Van Garderen sold his company in 2012 to combine his branding expertise with the latest academic insights in economic development at Harvard. From this he developed a powerful framework that demonstrates how nation branding can accelerate economic development.
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