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Benign nationalism

There is nothing unusual about Latvia. You have this ethnic and cultural division at the heart of your country. If it were better managed – the politics of it and the societal aspects of it, it could be one of the things that make people like this country. Diversity is appealing, simplicity is boring.

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Foto:V.Jegorovs

Ieva Raubisko of Radio Free Europe interviews Simon Anholt, Chairman of Earthspeak

What are your personal perceptions of Latvia?

Pretty close to zero. I am still at that stage where I can remember what it was like to know nothing about this place. I knew literally nothing. This is so exciting! To have a completely blank slate is so liberating. It’s not liberating in the sense that you can tell any lies you want but it’s liberating in the sense that you have infinite possibilities. When we talk about creating a brand, it’s a little bit misleading because it suggests that you are inventing something that was not there. Of course, you are not – you are reflecting something that is there. You have the opportunity to tell the true story of Latvia in your brand, which people don’t know yet.

But the phrase “national branding” involves something artificial, doesn’t it? The other question is whom are we creating it for? Some people have been saying at the conference [“Promoting Cities and States in the Global Market”] that our brand is not what we need or like but something we should be able to sell. And “selling” is another word that creates suspicion.

Marketing has so many valuable lessons to teach, and one of the first lessons marketing teaches you is that you can’t lie. You can only lie about the product once … (Laughs.) and then people won’t come back. Marketing is all about sustainable advantage. If you are in the business of marketing, you are trying to create long-term sustainable growth for the business, or a country, or whatever it is.

I don’t think you can create a brand. The art of branding a nation is about enlightened representation, which countries have always done. Let’s face it - somebody in America or Guatemala is not very interested in Latvia. So one of the things that marketing can do very effectively is to take that complex mass of information about the hopes, dreams, achievements of a country, something true, but also original and fascinating, and turn it into a little signpost that you put up and say: Look, we are here, and this is what we stand for. Then you have increased the chances that people will come and want to find out more.

But how do you select things for the signpost? I know it’s too much for me to ask you to identify the unique traits of Latvia after having spent just 2 days in Riga. Still, what attracted your attention during theses couple of days?

I think the image of a country always has to centre around the reality of it. And the reality of this country is connected with where it is geographically and where it is culturally. For example, the fact that your language is practically an isolate, is a fascinating challenge. Countries that have difficult languages are always complaining about it, but it is a wonderful stimulus. Look at Finland, they have an impossible language too, and they have made themselves into a bilingual country, and that has created a very interesting dual identity. The same with Latvia. This is a place that you can visit, you can do business with because everybody speaks English, but on the other hand, you have this deep almost impermeable unique culture represented by your language. That’s uniqueness for you.

Even the weather. I also come from the country where we joke about our awful weather. We think it’s a calamity, and nobody could possibly want to come there because it’s so dreadful. Not true. I’m also a Northern European, and to me there is something incredibly romantic and exciting about a country in the far North, which is windswept and rainy. There is sort of a pioneer spirit. I think that’s cool. I love that, and I think you can turn it into an advantage.

I’m also a great believer in the power and value of the “high culture” in promoting a national brand. It’s one of the most potent tools. I am talking about the current actual cultural output of a country, the way that the country expresses itself. Culture is a means of communication that is equal to the task of communicating national identity, something as rich and complex as that, through music, through art, through film, through drama. For example, I only discovered last night that Latvia has quite a distinguished tradition of film making from when it was within the Soviet Union. Art is great marketing because it makes the message acceptable. The consumer – I’m sorry about these words but you know what I mean – dedicates as much effort into receiving the message as you do into transmitting it. So the burden is shared and it is a hundred times more effective. That’s the power of culture – it is voluntarily received communication, and it’s as rich as the things it is trying to communicate. It’s an adequate pipeline for these difficult tasks. If I were in this government, I would invest massively in culture because it brings so many advantages. As well as being an internal and external communicator and unifier, it creates national pride. It’s an essential component of the “benign nationalism” I was talking about earlier. I can already feel that in the way that people talk about the opera here.

Could you explain what you mean by “benign nationalism”? What are the other components of “benign nationalism”? Why do we need it?

Oh, those are difficult questions. First of all, I don’t know what the other components of “benign nationalism” are. I think culture is definitely one of them. Racial harmony is probably another one. The other question you asked me is a more difficult one. Do we need “benign nationalism”? -- The concept of ‘benign nationalism” just occurred to me because I was thinking about useful parallels between commercial marketing and national branding. One of the strongest messages to come out of the modern science and art of marketing is the understanding that in a corporation, unless every person in the company “lives the brand,” the brand will not happen. All the most successful corporations are ones where every single employee, every single partner, every single stake-holder understands and to some degree believes in the same vision, and then all the soldiers are marching in step, and the company goes somewhere.

One classic example of this is AVIS whose slogan was “We try harder!” The ethic was about trying harder because they were not number one; they were number two. Everybody in the corporation knew that it was about trying harder, and they had to wear a badge that said, “We try harder!”. There was even a very interesting rule in the company that said that if you wake up one morning and you don’t feel like trying harder, that’s fine, but don’t wear the badge. It worked fantastically well, and it made life absolutely miserable for HERTZ, who was number one at that time. In many countries, AVIS became number one.

My belief is that this principle of marketing, the need for the employees “to live the brand” is one that is fully transferable to national branding. It’s just logical. The primary and most effective channel of communication for nation has got to be its citizens. You are the ambassadors for your country. You are the ones who have millions of contacts every day with the outside world. You couldn’t possibly do that with television commercials or poster campaigns. Somehow I know that the countries which have become really successful -- whatever that means -- are the ones where -- I don’t know whether it’s cause or effect -- there is a sense of national unity. Of course, everybody disagrees about everything, but by and large there is some kind of a unifying force. Take Italy, one of the most successful countries you could imagine. They do so well, and everybody loves them. Part of the reason for that or part of the consequence, I do not know which it is, is that every Italian you meet has got some identifiable and completely attractive love of their country. They may not be talking about their country but it still comes out. They are just happy to be who they are. It’s human nature that you can’t love somebody unless they love themselves. Maybe in the end that is really all I am saying – unless every Latvian is basically pretty happy to be Latvian – “Russo-Latvian” or “Latvo-Latvian”, whatever – I can’t see it happening.

So “benign nationalism” could mean a strong feeling of identity?

Yes, you can call it what you want. It’s pretty simple -- it’s feeling OK about coming where you come from. It doesn’t have to be strong. I have benign nationalism about my country. It is utterly not malignant. In some ways, it’s quite passive actually. It’s not this kind of red-blooded patriotism. I don’t think that makes sense in the modern world. I don’t think the nation states are distinct enough from each other for that to make sense. We are not talking about wars anymore I hope. But what we are talking about is a sense of belonging, which is a part of human nature. Everybody needs to feel they belong to a group. People talk about globalisation and the end of the nation state but I don’t think that is realistic. People need to feel they belong to some kind of tribe.

People here don’t seem to belong to the same “tribe.” The society is roughly divided into two big groups. Part of the people don’t even consider Latvia their country. Isn’t there a risk that implementing “benign nationalism” could enlarge, not decrease, the existing divisions?

Yes, it’s risky. This is a task which the government of the country has to tackle anyway. Whether you consider it to be a part of or related to the whole question of national image or not is immaterial, the fact is that it has to be done. You can’t sit on the division like that and hope it will resolve itself. I would assume that it was fairly high up in the list of the priorities of the government to attempt to create over time – because it will take time – a more satisfactory national identity, internally speaking, so that these two groups genuinely feel that they are part of the same. But there is nothing particularly unusual about this situation. Very many countries in the world have similar situations.

The fact of the matter is that you can, of course, do a global branding program without worrying too much what everybody thinks about it at home, but I don’t think it’s very wise because it is not going to work. Then it’s lying – you are giving an impression of a unified whole when it is not a unified whole. If you lie, you are doomed.

Do you think it is possible to create internally and, at the same time, externally acceptable image of a country like Latvia in the near future?

I think this comes down to an almost philosophical question about the simplicity or complexity of messages. Whilst we know that for communication purposes the message has to be simple, that doesn’t meant it has to be fascistically simple. It doesn’t have to be just all white, all black. The reality of nations is that they are complex.

I have always believed that the most powerful brands -- and that might be a product or a country -- are the ones which I call “automotive”. They have some kind of movement inside them. It’s like a clockwork toy – you put it down on the table, and it moves around. There is usually some kind of tension inside it. “Brand Britain” is the other example – there is tension in that brand. Is it the white-male aristocratic British Empire or is it the multiracial modern seething metropolis London? Is it 18th century or is it 21st century? Those are all tensions which, believe me, are powerful, upsetting tensions within modern society, those are what give it its energy.

So there is nothing unusual about Latvia. You have this big – I don’t want to call it a split because that’s being dramatic – but you do have this ethnic and cultural division at the heart of your country.I don’t want to start offering solutions to Latvia because I only met this country yesterday, but it could be that one of the strengths of this country is the fact that there is this tension at the heart of it. Diversity is appealing; simplicity is boring. If it were better managed – the politics of it and the societal aspects of it, it could be one of the things that make people like this country.

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