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Nations as Symbols

Battle of Symbols

Nations As Symbols

American consumer symbol techniques have spread throughout the world. Americans showed that symbols could be used to give magic power to otherwise mundane things called brands. Now much of the world has learned techniques of using symbols to sell their own products and brands in the global economy. Perhaps no where is this most evident than the growing trend to ally brand symbols with nations of the world.

In the important lead article from the September/October 2001 Foreign Affairs, "The Rise of the Brand State", Peter van Ham writes that "Image and reputation have become essential parts of a state’s strategic capital. Like branded products, branded states depend on trust and customer satisfaction. And they are the harbingers of a postmodern politics based on style as much as substance."

These new "brand states," notes van Ham, "have geographical and political settings that seem trivial compared to their emotional resonance among an increasingly global audience of consumers." As advertisers know, a brand comprises a customer’s idea about a product. By extension, notes van Ham, a "brand state" comprises the "outside world’s ideas about a particular country."

As Senior Research Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations "Clingendael" in The Hague and author of European Integration and the Postmodern Condition, van Ham has a unique perspective. Interestingly, he feels the emerging alliance of symbols and nations goes beyond the economics of consumer culture:

"Creating a brand is not only economically desirable, it has considerable political and strategic implications, affecting even the dynamics of NATO and EU enlargement. Hard-nosed security analysts will argue that a state’s image is irrelevant: objective economic, political, and strategic calculations determine, for example, whether a former communist state receives foreign direct investment and is offered NATO or EU membership … Why should we assume that the public readily buys into the seductive meanings of consumer capitalism but remains rational and objective when making political decisions?"

The emergence of nations as brand symbols, may very well engender a new form of emotionalism into international relations. States and nations of the world take on more symbolic personalities, their images more defined in the world market. As van Ham notes, "We talk about a state’s personality in the same way we discuss the products we consume, describing it as ‘friendly’ (i.e., Western-oriented) and ‘credible’(ally), or ‘aggressive’ (expansionist) and ‘unreliable’ (rogue)."

In the end, van Dam sees the disappearance of traditional diplomacy as the world’s nations become a number of symbolic brands. Politicians will have to train themselves in brand asset management and van Dam sees their new tasks as finding brand niches for their states, engaging in competitive marketing, assuring customer satisfaction and creating brand loyalty. The world will see a new group of mega-symbols in this brand world:

"Brand states will compete not only among themselves but also with superbrands such as the EU, CNN, Microsoft, and the Roman Catholic Church (boasting the oldest and most recognized logo in the world, the crucifix). In this crowded arena, states that lack relevant brand equity will not survive."

Whether van Dam’s brand analogy for international relations is too simplistic for a complex world remains to be seen. What does seem clear though is that the American symbol-making system has been exported to the rest of the world and perceptions of nations will be changed by this in significant ways.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim