Between National Brands and Leaders’ Brands

Last week British consultancy firm Portland Communications published its yearly Soft Power Index. The Index soon garnered global media attention as France ranked first trouncing America which had to settle for third place. According to Jonathan McClory, author of the Soft Power 30 report, France advanced to the first place thanks, in part, to the election of Emanuel Macron. Similarly, America lost its Soft Power rank due to the election of Donald Trump and his America First foreign policy.

The Soft Power Index further illuminates the relationship between national brands and leaders’ brands. Indeed, it is fair to assume that Macron’s election contributed to the French national brand in three ways. First, Macron is seen as halting the resurgence of nationalism and right wing politics in France and in Europe. Second, his defeat of Marine Le Penn demonstrated that France remains committed to the values of Liberté, égalité, fraternité and continues to serve as a beacon of democracy. Finally, Macron’s support among French youngsters signified that millennials were not as aloof or careless as some pundits had suggested.

Nation branding scholars have also examined the interaction between national brands and leaders’ brands. According to such scholarship, national brands and leaders’ brands can begin to merge as the qualities of a leader become associated with the qualities of the nation. At its extreme, the leader’s brand can eclipse the national brand causing a “Halo Effect”.

However, there are also important differences between national brands and leaders’ brands. National brands are influenced by numerous factors ranging from a nation’s culture to its industrial and military strength, foreign policies, technological innovations, corporate brands and even the attributes associated with its citizens. Moreover, a country’s past may be as important to its national brand as its present. Germany, for instance, is commonly associated with auto mechanics, beer gardens and the atrocities of World Wars 2. Notably, national brands take a long time to be formed and a long time to change. This is due to the fact that they are similar to stereotypes- they are mental frameworks that help people make sense of the world around them.

Leaders’ brands may be more fickle. A leader can go from being extremely popular to extremely controversial in a short time span.  Such was the case with Barak Obama who became increasingly less popular after his historic election in 2008. Similarly, Brazilian President Lola has recently gone from being associated with Brazil’s economic growth to being associated with Latin American corruption.

The question that follows is under what conditions are national brands impacted by leaders’ brands, and can leaders use digital diplomacy to impact their nation’s brand?

Between National and Leaders’ Brands

As argued earlier, national brands are influenced by an array of factors and go from being very positive to very negative. Leaders’ brands, on the other hand, may rely heavily on one important factor- the extent to which a leader conforms to values and norms that are deemed as desirable by the international community and international audiences. When a leader expresses his commitment to such values he is seen, at the international level, as a positive figure. If a leader refuses to conform to such values he is framed as a negative figure.

An interesting example is the relationship between Brand Iran and Brand Hassan Rouhani. Under the leadership of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Iran was seen as a “rouge nation”. Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric, repeated verbal attacks to Western counties, denial of the Holocaust and refusal to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program soon influenced Brand Iran. Brand Ahmadinejad became synonymous with Brand Iran and a negative Halo Effect took place.

The election of Hassan Rouhani led to a substantial change in Brand Iran as Rouhani was quick to express a commitment to engaging with the world and ending Iran’s isolation. Soon after he was elected the new President launched a charm offensive that included softer rhetoric towards the West, a willingness to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program and an extended arm towards other countries in the region. Brand Iran went from being associated with religious and political zeal to being associated with pragmatism. The more Rouhani seemed to conform to accepted values and norms the more he was able to influence brand Iran until another, positive, Halo Effect took place.

The images below depict the changes to brand Iran under Presidents Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.

Image 1: Ahmadinejad’s Negative Halo Effect on Brand Iran

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Image 2: Rouhani’s Election and the Split between National and Leader’s Brand

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Image 3: Brand Rouhani and Brand Iran Begin to Merge

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Image 4: Rouhani’s Positive Halo Effect on Brad Iran

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Image 5: Overall Change to Brand Iran following Rouhani’s Election

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A similar process occurred in Brand America between 2000 and 2012. In the year 2000 Brand America was considered the strongest brand in the world while people knew little about the new American President George W. Bush. However, by 2004 Bush was seen as negating accepted values norms. America’s exploits in the Middle East, alongside its refusal to act on climate change, caused people to view America as a greedy, polluting and militaristic empire. By 2005 scholars noted a “Crisis in Brand America” as Bush had a negative Halo Effect on Brand America. These changes are seen in the images below.

Image 6: Election of George W. Bush

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Image 7:  Bush Begins to Impact Brand America

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Image 8: Crisis in Brand America- Bush has Negative Halo Effect

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The election of Barack Obama had an immediate effect on Brand America. The young, charismatic and black President was seen as the antithesis to George W. Bush as he promised to withdraw from Iraq, close down Guantanamo Bay, re-engage the Muslim world and lead by diplomacy rather than military might. But by 2011 Brand Obama’s impact on Brand America began to falter. The President failed to close down Guantanamo Bay, his withdrawal from Iraq was partial while his support of Arab dictators attracted scrutiny as did America’s growing reliance on drone attacks. Eventually, Brand America and Brand Obama detached as the President failed to meet global expectations. This process is seen in the images below.

Image 9: 2008- Brand Obama has Positive Halo Effect on Brand America

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Image 10: 2011- Brand Obama and Brand America Separate

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The image below offers a few more examples of relationships between national brands and leaders’ brands. Brand Merkel, for instance, is contributing to the strength of Brand Germany which is increasingly seen as the next leader of the West following Brexit and Trump’s election (note the dotted line which symbolizes Merkel’s contribution to Brand Germany). By contrast, Brand Erdogan is having a negative impact on Brand Turkey especially in the new Post Coup reality which has seen purges, restrictions on media outlets and the removal of evolution theory from the school curriculum. While Brand Macron and Brand France may be moving closer together, Brand Putin is having a Halo Effect on Brand Russia which is increasingly seen as a challenger to the West and a destabilizing force given its support of oppressive regimes such as Bashar Assad.

Image 11: Relationships between World Leaders and National Brands

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How Digital Diplomacy can help Leaders Influence National Brands

An important question is how can leaders use digital diplomacy to have an impact on their nation’s brand? By migrating to social media leaders can create a positive or negative online persona which, in turn, can influence the national brand. Such is the case with India’s Narendra Modi who is one of the most followed world leaders on Twitter. Modi’s online persona is extremely positive as he is perceived to be using social media to connect with Indians and people all over the world. The PM often interacts with followers, answers questions and even tweets ahead of state visits. Modi also has a smartphone application where he lists his national tasks or policy priorities. Even more importantly, Modi uses social media to brand India as an emerging technological hub. Thus, Modi’s positive online persona may be having a positive effect on Brand India which was once associated with democracy, on the one hand, and poverty or colonialism on the other. Modi’s possible influence is shown in the image below.

Image 12: Brand India before and after Brand Modi

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Another positive example is Justin Trudeau. While Brand Canada has been relatively strong in the past, it is increasingly being associated with the values of acceptance, compassion and multi-culturalism. These changes are, in part, due to the positive social media persona of Prime Minister Trudeau. Whether it’s a video in which he explains quantum computing, or his marching in the gay pride parade and greeting Syrian migrants, Trudeau’s persona is quickly benefiting Brand Canada. This process is shown in the image below.

Image 13: Brand Canada before and after Brand Trudeau

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Importantly, there is a connection between a leader’s online persona and his perceived adherence with desired norms and values. As part of his charm offensive, Iranian President Rouhani joined Twitter as did his foreign minister Javad Zarif. This move, which attracted global attention, further depicted Rouhani as a pragmatic leader willing to engage with the world and with criticism. It sparked hopes that Iran would replace its zeal with moderation and would even be willing to ease domestic restrictions on freedom of speech. One should also remember that at the time, social media was seen as a tool for democratization given its role in the Arab Spring. Thus, Rouhani and Zarif were able to associate themselves with the democratic spirit sweeping through the region.

In other words, a leader can use social media to depict his adherence to accepted norms and values thus developing a positive social media persona which can then influence a national brand. Modi’s online engagement is an example of such a positive persona. Through his social media use, PM Modi is seen as more open, transparent, engaging and connected. This positive persona suggests that he is adhering with the desire for more open, transparent and engaging diplomacy. Similarly, Trudeau’s online persona personifies the values of compassion, liberty and multi-culturalism thus demonstrating his adherence with desired values and norms. 

It is fitting to end this post with two examples of Halo Effects caused by social media personas.  A positive example is Pope Francis whose online persona has had a positive Halo Effect over Brand Vatican. By addressing issues such as LGBT rights, climate change, the Syrian civil war and the need to aid refugees Pontifex has been able to strengthen Brand Vatican. The, obvious, negative example is Donald Trump. Trump’s use of social media for verbal attacks, lies, explosive rhetoric and America First fantasies is having a demonstrative negative impact on Brand America.  These two examples are shown in the image below.

Image 14: Positive and Negative Halo Effects of Social Media Personas

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