Planet Parade

Power of association can build 'soft power' expert

By Urso Chappell (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-15 07:45
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San Francisco - International expositions, even in their earliest days, were about marketing - from Corliss's steam engine in Philadelphia in 1876 to General Motors' automobiles in New York (1939) to Hitachi's robots at Aichi 2005. As marketing strategies have become more refined over the years, they've also found new applications.

Diplomacy has also been an historical element of World Expos. Nations have long used diplomatic means to develop and maintain reputations, even to the general public. These reputations can affect such things as exports, foreign investment, tourism and even political relationships.

One of the ways marketing methods are applied in contemporary times is through nation branding. Much of what we'll see when the Shanghai Expo opens is a product of nation-branding efforts. As a consumer, as a visual branding specialist and as an Expo watcher, I've seen nation branding at World Expos evolve in the past few decades to become an important tool for nations to present themselves on the world stage.

Even before marketers were tasked with "branding" nations, nations had brands. When people think of France, for example, they might think of wine, romantic travel or perfume. When people think of Canada, thoughts might turn to snow, Mounties or wildlife. This kind of branding can also be negative - such as when a nation becomes associated with qualities like corruption, bleak landscapes or rudeness.

Contemporary nation branding is marketing, but it is also diplomacy. When a country amasses goodwill, it also develops soft power.

Power of association can build 'soft power' expert

After the Balkan conflict in the early 1990s, Croatia started marketing itself as a modern nation with quaint towns and beautiful beaches. I remember being charmed by Croatia's pavilion at Lisbon's 1998 Expo. Until then, I'd only known the region by its grim associations as part of Yugoslavia, a land of relative poverty, political isolation and less-than-reliable automobiles. Today, through its nation-branding efforts, Croatia is not just known as a tourist destination, but it is also seen as an attractive place for investment.

I still haven't had the chance to visit Croatia, but when I saw "Made in Croatia" on my furniture packaging recently, I had positive associations with the country and hoped the worker who built my shelving unit is enjoying those beaches on his day off. I suppose you could also add that those branding efforts humanized the country.

Critics could claim that nation branding is nothing but crass manipulation, but the tactic ultimately works only when it reflects reality. When Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, it had the opportunity to showcase Greece on the world stage. We saw the ancient culture, the architecture (both old and new), and the spirit of a people embracing their country as an important member of the European Union. Those aspects survive today, but any efforts to show Greece as economically powerful in 2010 would fall flat, to say the least. Let's hope, for Greece's sake, the rest of the European Union absorbed the message of Greece's value to non-Greeks.

Expos are a feast to the senses and a nation's brand can be conveyed through all of them. A pavilion's visuals might be the most obvious, but a successful pavilion also addresses the other senses. The Indian pavilion is notable for the wonderful smells drifting from the restaurant. The Belgian pavilion has been known to hand out free cookies at past Expos. Some pavilions will use unique flooring such as sand to transport you to a new environment and most pavilions offer a sampling of native music. All of these help build a visitor's impression of the country the pavilion represents.

Since the 1967 Expo in Montreal, it has become traditional for visitors to have special Expo passports stamped when they visit a pavilion. Even here, there's an opportunity for a nation to leave (quite literally) an impression. To be sure, impressions of many types will be made this year along the banks of the Huangpu River.

Urso Chappell is an American who has attended seven World Expos. He is the founder of and host of The World's Fair Podcast.

(China Daily 03/15/2010 page11)