Taking a bite out of nation branding

An award-winning Romanian campaign cheekily subverted the rules of nation branding - with the help of a chocolate bar.

Nation branding for countries that are transitioning to democracy after decades behind the Iron Curtain carries unique challenges because the identity of many smaller countries was erased under communism.

National identity exists as a self-perception, but it is difficult to create a credible and cohesive nation brand in the absence of a cohesive sense of national identity.

Simon Anholt contends that the only thing that can permanently change a country’s image is a change in the way a country sees itself, because a nation brand is national identity made tangible. 

In his book Places: Identity, Image, and Reputation, he writes “no place on earth can hope to make others respect and admire it unless it first admires and respects itself.” As an example, in his nation brand index, the top 10 countries in terms of positive national brand rate themselves first, and the bottom 30 countries rank other countries above their own.

Nation brands and national reputation are multi-faceted and emanate from many entities -  including corporations. Corporations spend more money on communication than do many governments and play a role in defining the reputation and image of their home country, whether or not that role is intentional. 

"Corporations spend more money on communication than do many governments and play a role in defining the reputation and image of their home country, whether or not that role is intentional."

One example that shows just how corporate communication can affect national branding in a transitional country can be found in Romania. In the course of rebranding ROM candy bars, the company engaged in the promotion of a new national identity. Corporate communication used in the campaigns not only contributed to enhancing national identity inside Romania, but became intentionally focused on creating a positive image of Romanians outside the country. 

The ROM chocolate brand first appeared in Romania in 1964 during the communist regime. The package, depicting the Romanian flag, changed very little over the years. By 2005 the brand was almost forgotten and sales were flat. ROM candy was associated with life under communism and had lost most of its market share to global brands.

Consumer research showed that younger Romanians found national symbols and products unattractive, but associated global brands with higher quality and a more modern, western lifestyle. In 2010 Kandia, the parent company of the ROM candy, approached the advertising agency McCann Erickson to revitalise the brand to appeal to a younger demographic in order to increase sales.

The company launched The American Take-over campaign, which introduced the new American ROM chocolate bar packaged in a wrapper depicting the flag of the United States instead of the Romanian flag.

Of course, since a nation’s flag is its most potent visual expression of identity, the reaction to the American takeover campaign triggered a negative response throughout Romania – just as the company assumed it would.  However, at the same time it stimulated a very positive reaction toward the country of Romania and its national identity.

The campaign, which included banner ads, television commercials and advertorials, relied heavily on social media and directed attention to a website created for the campaign (no longer available online). Within a week, more than 20,000 Romanians protested the candy’s package change on the website, blogs and social media including user-generator videos on YouTube. In a single store more than 200 chocolate bars were sold in the first hour after the campaign launch, which was the intended consequence of the marketing campaign.

An unintended consequence was that the ROM campaign set a media agenda that led to discourse about Romanian national identity and helped evoke conversations about national pride. It helped persuade Romanians to be proud of their heritage and the local brands that carry their history and tradition, thus promoting a more cohesive national identity, which is often necessary in transitional nations as a precursor to effective nation branding.

The second campaign, Romanians are Smart, parlayed the unintended but positive consequence of the first campaign and illustrates the role a private-sector company can play in influencing national reputation. A year after its first successful campaign, Kandia (ROM) decided to go outside the country’s borders to help Romanians have a better image in Europe (and of course to keep attention focused on ROM candy). The second campaign, carried out solely online, presented then-current Google search results that showed a search for “Romanians are…” yielded negative results.

The search results went viral in social media and also became news on television and in newspapers. Reaching the desired awareness, ROM presented the solution: a campaign to generate searches for “Romanians are smart” in most European languages, knowing that a high number of searches would change Google’s predictions.

The top 10 bloggers in Romania were recruited to generate positive content, which was quickly adopted by hundreds of other bloggers. The company also provided the technology on its website to make it easy for individuals to create their own search buttons and share them on social media. The campaign succeeded in generating enough positive content that it affected Google’s search results about Romania, changing them from negative to positive.

A third campaign, Bucharest not Budapest, focused on nation branding. It was launched with outdoor banners in the arrival section of the airports in Bucharest and Budapest, and immediately triggered media interest. A dedicated website was created by the candy company for people to download a widget that would add “not Budapest” to every “Bucharest” mentioned on the internet.

The company also created tourist memorabilia with the campaign slogan. Hotels and tourism operators adopted the campaign and provided visitors branded merchandise (and ROM chocolate bars). Reports in international media several years after the campaign ended attributed the slogan Bucharest not Budapest to Romania, rather than to the candy company.

There is no doubt that ROM’s involvement in nation branding started with the company’s intent to gain market share and increase sales. Corporations must first make a profit; nonetheless, it is also in the interest of corporations for the country with which they are associated to have a favorable national reputation. 

These cases shows not only the role that private-sector companies can play in nation branding and in building national identity, but also the link between the two. In the book Branding Post-Communist Nations edited by Nadia Kaneva, the contention is made that in transitional countries, nation branding can serve an internal function that assists in the formation of new, post-communist national identities.

Building a new brand and reconstructing an image for the outside world can at the same time create new narratives for national identity and unity.

Nation branding efforts, usually aimed at external, international audiences, can affect domestic audiences as well by forcing the question, how do we want to be seen by others?  Nation branding can be an expression of pride that helps unite a country.  Perhaps nation branding needs to begin at home. 

Image: Thinkstock

Candace L. White

Candace L. White is a professor of public relations in the School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee, USA. Her research interests are corporate social responsibility and international public relations, particularly the role of private-sector corporations in public diplomacy and country image.

Iulia Kolesnicov

Iulia Kolesnicov, a native of Romania, is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Business and Social Sciences at Aarhus University, Denmark. Her research areas include employer branding, corporate identity, CSR and integrated marketing communication.