This is the fourth installment in a series on Mistakes Countries Make and How They Can Get It Right.
There are consultants out there who advise foreign governments to make everything they do perfect for their target markets. They go internal to focus on changing policy, strategy, innovation and investment over a very long period of time. The result is that governments invest their time on getting their house in order and the problem with that is that the people walking by the house have no idea what’s going on inside. It’s simply not a case of building the perfect country so that all the investors come running.
There’s no question that real change only takes place when countries change what they do, not just what they say. But in our marketing driven world, it’s not enough to simply make those changes and expect the world to notice. In the 90’s we ran national image development campaigns in the U.S. for both Norway and Chile and saw ample evidence that perceptions were changed through use of marketing tools that often are used for common everyday products.
Marketing tools play a key role as long as they represent changes that are real. Years ago, Michael Porter wrote that strategy is only valid if it represents real operations. In other words, you can’t sell the store without knowing the goods are on the shelves.
Countries can change policy, strategy, innovation and investment over a very long period but if no one knows about it, export development and FDI will come at a much slower pace than if there is a coordinated marketing campaign that represents the real situation.
Over the years, we’ve done a considerable amount of country positioning work (our preferred term) and continue to do so today. We’ve found governments often make three major mistakes when considering their image or brand abroad:
- Too many internal assumptions about what foreign markets think and want. For example, New Yorkers will often talk about garbage in the streets while foreigners exalt the skyline, energy of the city and multiple entertainment options. When Americans return from Chile, they can’t stop talking about the beauty of the Andes and the perfect manners of the people who live there. Chileans on the other hand will talk about smoggy days and can be quite self-critical. It’s human nature. We see things in the mirror everyday that others around us see differently. Countries have to adjust their marketing by what others think. Effective strategy is found at the intersection of internal capabilities and external needs.
- Failure to conduct sufficient open-ended research to determine what’s really on people’s minds in other countries. It’s not difficult to give thousands of people closed-ended questions with multiple choice responses or agreement scales and then make our own interpretations based on internal assumptions. The problem is that closed-ended questions create bias because they predefine the range of answers. As to agreement scales, what’s the difference between one person’s 3 and another’s 4 and why? Nobody knows but everybody has an opinion. Real perceptions come by asking open-ended questions that begin with “What”, “Why” and “How”. Effective positioning campaigns cannot be conducted without knowing what people really think on an unaided basis.
- Perfect the model before showing it to the public. There is a lot in this blog about this for good reason. Too many countries invest too much money into defining what they are before going out to the market. What they often find is that the market has changed and their perfected “image” model is no longer relevant. It’s better to move earlier into the market and get feed back on what you’re doing and saying so that you can adjust as you go. Today’s online marketing tools enable incredible capabilities to gather communities of interest and shared needs that will provide feedback and become brand advocates. Nation marketing is now about building relationships through communities, both those that are publicly available and private ones too.
Change has to be real and long-term but I don’t know of any entity, that after instituting real change, didn’t benefit from a well-conceived marketing plan.