Sunday

Nation branding complications for China and Israel

Continuing from my last post, and discussion with American University researcher Efe Sevin, I thought it would be worthwhile to share two news items I read on the relation between soft power and nation branding efforts by countries. 

Bloomberg view columnist William Pesek, in his piece Even $3 Trillion Can’t Buy China Love or Good PR talks about China's difficulty in sustaining a favorable image of itself in the light of the recent controversies, in his words, 
"the Bo Xilai scandal, the diplomatic gymnastics over Chen Guangcheng, propaganda attacks on U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, tossing out Al Jazeera’s lone Beijing correspondent and bullying the Philippines over a cluster of rocks in the ocean"
He talks of China as an insecure power, uncomfortable with the publicity that its massive investments in soft power is garnering for the nation and not very successful at managing the perception of a 'peaceful rise'.

On the other hand, writing for the Foreign Policy magazine, Aaron David Miller in the article, Israel's image revisited, tries to analyse why does Israel get bad PR consistently and the consequent erosion of it's image in the international stage. He states,
"In the eyes of the world, Israel has shed its image of a small state struggling against impossible odds. Israel now has "security needs" and "requirements" rather than existential fears; its power obligates it to be more magnanimous and forthcoming on peace issues; its strength should produce restraint, not excess"
and adds that the asymmetry of power that exists between a nation with GDP per capita of USD 31,000, 100 listed companies in the NYSE and a nuclear power that too, vis-a-vis its neighbors in the Arab world, strapped  for resources and mired in political conflicts, significantly contributes to the erosion of Israel's image. 

Both writers state that irrespective of what the world media has to say, true soft power is only  gained by actions - by what these countries individually do. No amount of branding exercise can help their image if not backed by actions. 

In marketing communications, we believe that you cannot sell a bad product. Once a good product is developed, marketers have to ensure it is 'seen' (hence promote) to generate demand. So nation branding technically can be an exercise in futility in political terms (focused efforts like investor relations or tourism etc can reap some benefits)

Now this is a tricky situation for both China and Israel. One can't help notice that both these countries are very unique politically,

  1. China remains an authoritarian socialist state controlled by one party with limitations on freedom
  2. Israel, on the other hand, is the only other country apart from Pakistan, in this world, that was born on the basis of religious identity (different from a theocratic state). In the history of the nation state, formed on the basis of cultural or linguistic identity, Israel remains 'exclusivist.'

In this context note that they are mostly talked about by an all powerful global media based in, and, controlled by liberal democracies be it in United States, Europe or India; for consumers with starkly different political attitudes when compared to both these countries. So the definition of a "good product" and a "bad product" is contentious. In addition, the standard of evaluation is distinctly different from the "Political Brand DNA," if I may use the term, of both China & Israel. This is a very pertinent example of how media becomes an independent power center in  international politics and how nation branding for countries is a complex task. To shape the narrative, you have to become a part of the story...and get trapped!

Suggestions/Critiques welcome.

-- Madhur

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