01 March 2006

The Brand State: If you have to tell them...

In this news release from the provincial government on a future Council of the Federation meeting, notice two things.

First, notice that the province will "shine". This is the sort of verbal flatulence that doesn't really mean anything to anyone, especially anyone passingly familiar with a meeting of Canada's premiers.

Second, and more importantly, notice the quote from Premier Danny Williams:
"I have every confidence that we will shine and demonstrate why we are indeed Canada‚’s youngest and coolest province, as we welcome hundreds of delegates from across the country." [Emphasis added]
You'll be hearing much more of that phrase - youngest and cooolest province - as Danny moves ahead with his plans to "rebrand" the province. There's a considerable amount of cash tied up in this and, as near as can be determined, the work is being done by the same advertising guys who now have the tourism account.

But here's the thing.

There's a general rule about these sorts of claims when they are so blatantly worked into every written and spoken phrase uttered by anyone connected to the contract:

They aren't persuasive.

You see, things that most people would recognize as "world-class", for example, never have to be described as "world-class". Those that do lay claim to such a crapola title, are really saying "We are posers."

Who would describe the Mona Lisa as a "world-class" artwork or The Louvre as a "world-class" museum?

Not the French, that's for sure.

Or anyone else with half a clue.

The thing about being truly cool is never having to say you are.

Danny and his advertisers are following a trend begun almost a decade ago with Tony Blair's Cool Britannia campaign. The hip New Labour prime minister of Britain wanted to extend his work in changing the perception of the Labour Party with changing perceptions of the whole country he was elected to lead. The campaign collapsed in short order, with howls of derision from those who found the approach a bit too pretentious and smarmy.

Countries like Jamaica, though, have successfully branded the country and overcome negative attitudes toward developing countries based on perceptions of economic and social backwardness.

Jamaica could count on a solid foundation of positive images - of creativity and "coolness" - built not only by Bob Marley but also by the international business community. As the Jamaica Gleaner reports, since 1988, investment by American companies in the Caribbean country have risen by 200% largely "because the country is politically stable, and because of its physical beauty, the warmth and friendliness of its people, its strategic geographical location, and its preferential trade agreements with the US."

The ultimate goal of state branding is to boost economic activity - tourism, trade, and investment - in a highly competitive international environment.

That's where the real challenge lies for anyone want to rebrand Newfoundland and Labrador.

On the tourism front, things are possible and the similarities between New Zealand and Newfoundland and Labrador are striking. New Zealand successfully turned its geographic isolation from a negative to a positive, emphasizing that the country was at the edge of the world.

Sound familiar?

The New Zealanders have managed to create a positive brand for their country, without slagging a corporate brand in the process.

The "edge" concept is one New Zealanders have used successfully beyond tourism alone. There's even a website linking to all things Kiwi, including linking New Zealanders who have left their home seeking success in other parts of the world.

In business though, the potential for success is mixed and that's largely due to local attitudes.

Political statements on development projects from Voisey's Bay and Brian Tobin's "not one teaspoon" comment to Danny Williams' more recent dealings with Abitibi and the Hebron partners could create a reputation for this province as being decidedly unfriendly to investment. The rhetoric plays well at home - both Tobin and Williams enjoyed local popularity - but holding out foreign investors as potential skinflints or carpetbaggers doesn't do much to encourage them to bring their capital to a place that needs sizeable capital injections to develop its resources like offshore oil and gas.

In the fishery, the potential to develop a locally-based industry using local expertise and either local - or more likely - outside capital investment is hamstrung by political and social attitudes that look on the fishery as a social program or a local birthright rather than a business that is truly global and must be competitive.

Those attitudes, manifest in much of recent public dialogue under both Roger Grimes' and Danny Williams' administrations could go a long way to undermining whatever brand Williams and his advertising agency try to create. As Peter van Hamm writes, "[l]ike branded products, branded states depend on trust and customer satisfaction."

Whether we are talking about the United Kingdom, Jamaica, New Zealand, South Africa or Ireland - all "brand states" - the advertising and other claims built around the brand are based in something substantive. While advertising can open new opportunities by reshaping the image, making the new brand a success depends more than anything else on reputation and experience. The claims made in the advertising or the branding campaign must be matched by performance or the whole thing falls apart.

So, if Newfoundland and Labrador is truly the coolest and youngest province in Canada, we won't have to tell people. They'll see it in what occurs.  They'll know it from first hand experience or from people who've had the positive experience themselves.

If you have to tell someone you are "cool" or "hip" or "new" or "world-class", then odds are good you aren't any of those things.

And the experienced global brand consumer knows that already.