by Baxter Jolly
July 16th, 2012

Country PR and branding is a growing business and its influence profound. Get it right and countries can see a startling upturn in business, tourism and inward investment.

Country branding is a macrocosm of what corporate brands do every day. The fundamentals remain the same – forging a reputation that is better, stronger and deeper such that it shapes external (neighbors, investors, visitors) and internal (citizens) opinion. And, of course, having a clear course of action to protect its brand when things don’t go according to plan.

IPG sister agency FutureBrand’s Country Brand Index shows governments are paying as much attention to the brand reputation of their country as they are to national infrastructure systems. In an environment of limited global financing, country brands matter. Malaysia exemplifies how careful country brand management can result in a highly competitive national reputation. Malaysia became an independent nation just 54 years ago. But its visionary set a course to become a destination of choice, and a place that seems to represent the epitome of Asia today – a thriving center for trade with a rich, diverse, vibrant culture and history.

Following the 1997 Asia Financial Crisis, Malaysia launched its ‘Malaysia: Truly Asia’ tourism strategy, tapping into the unique positioning of the country while also diversifying Malaysia’s industries. The country’s tourism success is grounded in the core principles of brand reputation. Primarily, it has absolute clarity on what and who it is. It knows its DNA and has a clear personality. Secondly, it has been built from this central brand position, projecting itself to specific audience groups with equally specific messages that connect with those audiences. And thirdly, it has built a well-developed communications strategy against which future initiatives are mapped.

Combined, these factors make Brand Malaysia a success. There is clarity in its positioning and it’s easy to track crossover between the country and both public and private commercial growth. A historical hub for international travel and trade, a destination that brings the best of what Asia has to offer are clear brand attributes that pave way to future opportunities for growth – both to Malaysia and to those who invest in the country.

Certainly, countries and companies need to go beyond their comfort zones to adjust the gaps that inevitably exist between perception and reality. That means staying well ahead of the communications curve in which they garner insight from, and communicate with, their audiences. More often than not, that demands dialogue – not statements. But it’s a stark reality that some countries (and companies) are better than others at implementing this in the real world. They are the ones that shine brightest.

But of all the common factors between country and corporate brand management, it is advocacy creation and word of mouth that stands out as the pivotal marketing and communications need. In a world that has become commoditised and communitised, people base their decisions on sources they trust most. It’s a fact that even the most “closed” countries and companies see the need to create a level of dialogue with their audiences. Without it, brand value will slowly perish, along with the prospect of heightened inward investment that the majority so cherish.

Baxter Jolly is vice-chairman of Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific

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