Prof. Dr. Salah S. Hassan (Professor of Marketing, George Washington University; USA)

31.07.2009 - Interview conducted by Gráinne Toomey

Dr. Salah S. Hassan is a Senior Partner with SPECTRUM Brand Strategy Group. He is also the Professor of Strategic Brand Management and Chairman of the Department of Marketing in the School of Business at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is internationally recognised as a leader in global marketing, strategic brand management, and international market segmentation. An experienced consultant, Dr. Hassan has completed over fifty national and international consulting assignments and executive development programs for organisations including the World Bank, Smithsonian Institute, and the Dubai School of Government. His publications include two books: ‘Globalization of Consumer Markets’ and ‘Global Marketing Perspectives and Cases’, as well as over forty articles and papers in leading academic journals and trade publications.

Dr. Hassan recently gave a presentation at the ICD's International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy entitled “Breaking the Cycle of Bad News: How to build your Nation Brand”. As Dr. Hassan explained in his lecture, nation-branding is about “building a sustainable differential advantage that defies existing or pre-existing national or regional stereotypes.” He advocates that, with the support of political leadership and a sound nation-branding strategy, nations burdened by negative media attention can revitalise foreign investment, tourism, and public diplomacy to the benefit of all parties concerned. After his lecture, Dr. Hassan spoke to the ICD News team, expounding on the topics of nation-branding in zones of conflict, Corporate Social Responsibility, and how minority groups are integrated into a nation-brand.

During the question and answer session of your lecture, I was interested in your explanation of how nation-branding can help war-torn areas. But how do you reach out to foreign organisations to get involved, since your strategies for doing so must be substantially different, for instance, from those you apply in conflict-free zones?

There are different ways in which branding can help in war-torn areas; it just depends on what is unique about the campaign, as well as what message and what communication platform you would like to set. In terms of reaching out, you can reach out through traditional media, non-traditional media as well as through word of mouth with the support of celebrity endorsements. In this context, nation-branding is based on the idea of building awareness, identity, and repairing image in a sustainable way, which speaks for the unique elements of that nation in order to defy any misconceptions about it. That's the idea behind nation-branding and it's very simple, yet powerful.

The International Red Cross is a major international brand offering humanitarian relief to war-torn areas. For example, in offering relief to Islamic areas of conflict, they entered in co-branded efforts with the local Red Crescent Society in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Palestine. These co-branded alliances were developed under the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in order to offer humanitarian relief in a neutral and impartial way.
As a matter of fact, some of the most powerful brand-builders are not-for-profit organisations like the Goethe-Institut, which recently launched a campaign entitled ‘From the Iconic Product to the Designer Brand— Design from Germany’ with a focus on showcasing the element of design in German brands. In this case, the Goethe-Institut is directing public attention to sophisticated designs as cultural traits of Germany in order to defy an earlier negative image of insensitive Germans. Also, several of the Goethe-Institut outreach programs are carefully co-branded with host cities; examples of these are the Goethe-Institut Rome or the Goethe-Institut Toronto. These are all cases of branding the cultural “gift”. Branding has been used by not-for-profit organisations and by NGOs, as well as for-profit organisations. Consequently, nations are latecomers to the branding arena. 

Do you think cultural advertisement is easily distinguishable form cultural diplomacy?

Well, there is a misconception about advertising. Traditionally, we think of advertising as just pushing the message on the audience. But recently advertising is becoming more about building a dialogue with the audience, and in that respect, dialogue is a common element, whether we are talking about advertising or cultural diplomacy. One cannot convey cultural goodwill without dialogue. One cannot convey a message about a brand without dialogue.

Can you expand a bit more on the paradox you talked about in your lecture with regards to the perspectives of visitors to the branded nation compared to those of stakeholders and natives of that nation?

The paradox is not only related to travellers/visitors but also to the very brands of the nation that we are building. The nation-brand also has that paradoxical characteristic because a nation-brand to the natives has a different meaning than a nation-brand to the visitors. The nation-brand associations to the natives include pride, security, and other homeland emotions. But, the nation-brand to the visitors is excitement, it is engaging, it is an experience. A nation-brand, therefore, needs to have a degree of neutrality in that respect, as well as a degree of harmony, and that's part of the paradox as it relates to the nation-brand. So yes, we are dealing with a paradox trend in the marketplace as reflected in proliferations of visitors’ needs (e.g. convenience as well as environmental) but also we are dealing with a paradox trend as it relates to the very nature of nation-brands.

Yesterday at the symposium we had a panel discussion on Corporate Social Responsibility. How does CSR affect and influence nation branding strategies?

I think that when speaking of Corporate Social Responsibility, we ought to also be talking about “Country” Social Responsibility. By that I mean, in building a nation-brand we are investing in relationships with other countries that must have a socially responsible dimension, whether through aid missions, or educational missions, or investment missions. It’s important to look into nation-brand building as a relationship, more specifically to see not only what's in it for me as the country-of-origin of the program initiatives, but also what's in it for the host country. A lot of the programs occurring in developing countries have often been criticised by host countries as only having the perspective and point of view of the donor country, and this is particularly true when a Western nation is the donor. So it’s about how we can bring a donor country/host country neutrality, informed by CSR, to the program. We have to think about what CSR means, not only from the perspective of the donor nation—because CSR can also be a politically elusive concept. For example, what one donor nation may perceive as CSR the host nation could view as cultural intrusion. So it’s about how we can develop mutual dialogue in the brand-building relationship with the host nation’s key stakeholders, in order to define common terms of what will be considered as politically correct and mutually acceptable CSR.

If a country’s culture is made up of many diverse groups, how can these be integrated into nation-branding?

I think Switzerland, as an example, has struggled with this. Switzerland is a nation of four languages and four cultural groups. So when Switzerland was building the Swiss brand and projecting it both domestically and internationally, they had to keep in mind not only the external stakeholders but also the internal stakeholders—like any nation-branding initiative. They basically presented the tagline that related to the nation-brand for Switzerland in four languages, in order to make all of the cultures that are represented proud of the Swiss brand. Representation and transparency ought to be very important elements, as well as the truthfulness of the brand, so that not just one dominant culture is speaking, projecting, and telling their story on behalf of others. This is more reflective of the true brand promise.

Another example that is well known is that of Qantas Airways in Australia, who a few years ago decided to repaint their aircrafts to represent Aboriginal culture as an indigenous culture of Australia. It’s very interesting, because they are saying that we are proud of our roots and that the Aboriginal culture has been part of this great nation. Also, I'm aware of Air Greenland doing a similar thing but inside the aircraft. They're showcasing local cuisines and the local culture. Once you step inside you know you are on board Air Greenland, because they have integrated the indigenous culture into the brand as well.

An interesting example. Thank you very much for your time.