As the cases of tourism and export marketing indicate, there is no question that the concept of brand is relevant and useful to places, both at the sectoral level and in their roles as ‘umbrella brands’ providing reassurance, glamour or status to the products and services that are marketed under their aegis. A positive place image, in short, makes it cheaper and easier for producers to export and attract.
Yet, however logical the comparison of place to product might be, and despite the evident benefits that competent and professional management and promotion can bring to the citizens of the place, the comparison never fails to attract its critics and cynics.
One fairly straightforward objection to the characterisation of places as brands is based on the contention that, although products are deliberately branded for the purposes of sale, places are not given their names for this reason – they are simply called what they are called – and therefore to describe a place-name as a brand-name is inappropriate and misleading.
This contention, incidentally, rests on a simple interpretation of ‘branding’ which remains very close to the word's original root: the marking of livestock with the owner's name or sign, in which owners actively brand their possessions with their name in order to establish their ownership and avoid confusion with other people's possessions; such an act, it is argued, cannot (or perhaps should not) apply to a community of people.
But this argument fails on two counts. Firstly, there are plenty of commercial products and corporations, which, like many places, have never been deliberately branded, and have simply inherited their brand names: Heinz, Hewlett-Packard, Black & Decker and Waterstones, for instance, are simply makers’ or founders’ names that became trademarks, and hence brands.
Secondly and conversely, there are plenty of places that have been quite deliberately branded in order to sell themselves more effectively to a specific audience.
Greenland, according to one popular account, was given its name by Erik the Red in order to attract settlers to the territory by giving it an impression of greater fertility than the place actually possessed, and although the region was in fact much greener 1000 years ago than it is today, nonetheless, the deliberate attempt to depict the place in an attractive light is undoubted. Formosa, the previous name for the island of Taiwan (meaning ‘beautiful’ or ‘shapely’), Venezuela (meaning ‘little Venice’) and the many places named Esperanza (‘hope’), quite clearly fall into the same category; likewise Liberia (based on the Latin root signifying ‘freedom’, an appropriate name for the new homeland of freed American slaves), is quite clearly the deliberate application of a constructed term onto a place in order to invest that place with a particular public meaning and attraction. Liberia's capital, Monrovia, could equally be described as a branded place, as it is named in honour of James Monroe, the fifth American president and a staunch supporter of the colony in its early days. Such places are branded – their names packed with symbolic meaning in the hope of influencing the opinions and actions of both external and internal audiences – in much the same way as the products and corporations of Nike, Timberland, EasyJet or Swatch are branded.
Cities are quite commonly branded in this way, usually to immortalise the memory of a founder, conqueror or ruler, and a handful of countries too, such as Bolivia (but note that Simón Bolívar's own name itself derives from the name of a village in Spain where, presumably, his ancestors came from – so there is a great circle of buried meaning in the country's name). The Seychelles were named after the Finance Minister of Louis XV, Alexandria after Alexander, Colombia after Columbus, America (reputedly) after Amerigo Vespucci, the Philippines after Philip II of Spain, Virginia after the (virgin) Queen Elizabeth I, and a host of other cities, regions and countries after their discoverers or colonisers, or their discoverers’ or colonisers’ monarchs or patrons; the practice continues into modern times with names like Saudi Arabia and Ho Chi Minh City. These ‘propaganda names’ are often intended to brand the giver of the name more than the place itself, which, arguably, is a very explicit form of branding in the original sense of the word – it is territorial marking as cattle branding is property marking, and isn’t much more sophisticated than a dog urinating on a tree.
The other common type of colonial name is simply a reminder of home, such as New Zealand, New England, New York and the vast majority of English town, city and state names in North America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand (not to mention Portuguese names in Mozambique, Spanish names in Mexico, Dutch names in Indonesia, French names in England, Arabic names in Spain, and so forth almost ad infinitum). These names also performed a branding role, in that their purpose was often to create an association with another more ‘civilised’ place, and thus give reassurance (or perhaps merely hope), both to cheer up lonely pioneers and to attract further colonists.
Some country names, on the other hand, are more complex constructs or word games, carefully designed to communicate some desired meaning to the attentive observer, Pakistan being the best example of this category (the name was constructed by Choudhary Rahmat Ali in 1933 as an acronym of Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Indus Valley, Sindh, Turkharistan, Afghanistan and BalochistaN).
Other countries have undergone more recent ‘rebranding’ to names that incorporate a special significance, such as Burkina Faso – a word constructed from two of the country′s principal languages, meaning ‘land of upright people’, ‘land of honest men’ or ‘land of the incorruptible’ (Burkina from the More language and Faso from Dioula). Tanzania, more prosaically, simply accreted the names of its two regions – Tanganyika and Zanzibar – when they were united. In a similar way, the city of Mexicali in Northern Mexico, and Calexico, its near neighbour on the US side of the border, combine the names of Mexico and California in inverse order, although in these cases the portmanteau names were intended as gestures of neighbourly goodwill, rather than statements of territorial integrity.
It is natural that when a leader or a people get the chance to rename their country they will select or construct a name that contains some branding power – a vision, a purpose, a political direction, an interpretation of history – whereas a country whose name has remained constant for many generations is more likely to be a non-deliberate one, or at least a deliberate one whose purpose has been forgotten or no longer applies (it has been many years since Rubbermaid made rubber products, or people knew what a maid was, or why Grape-Nuts contain neither grapes nor nuts, but the loss of these original associations does little to weaken the two brands).
Many older country names are given after the people who live there – France (land of the Franks), England (land of the Angles), Tajikistan (land of the Tajiks) – whereas others are merely functional descriptions of the country's location – Australia (southern continent), South Africa, Ecuador (equator) – and although such names certainly acquire brand equity over time, mainly as a result of the behaviours of their inhabitants, they cannot be truly said to be deliberately created brands.
Other country names are descriptive of the physical aspect that the country first presents to the visitor or colonist, such as Albania (the white country – referring to its mountain peaks), the Faroe Islands (the ‘island of sheep’ in Faroese), Anguilla (shaped like an eel), Tuvalu (eight islands), and here it is harder to be sure that their names were not once deliberate acts of (tourism or immigration or investment) marketing.
Another category of place name owes more to superstition, religion and the natural anxieties of explorers and colonists on lonely and dangerous voyages far from home. Many islands, for example, bear ‘good luck’ names, typically the names of gods or saints applied in order to propitiate, thank or honour some supernatural being: the numerous Caribbean and Pacific islands named after Catholic saints by Spanish explorers and colonists are one example, but the habit goes much further back: the Isle of Man, for example, derives its name from Manannán mac Lir, the Brythonic and Gaelic equivalent of the god Poseidon. The branding technique is familiar: good luck names of this sort are common enough in the corporate sphere too, especially in Asia, where brand names such as ‘Lucky Boy Chilli Sauce’ abound, the idea presumably being that the luck of the token will accrue to the user as a kind of added value for money. In the case of religiously inspired names, one might perhaps argue that this is equally a branding exercise, except that the ‘target audience’ is the deity rather than other humans.
Countries, of course, are subject to rebranding attempts, often following independence from a colonial power, just as products are occasionally renamed when their owners change, to ‘reposition’ them in the eyes of the world, or to avoid confusion with a similar-sounding brand. Examples include Myanmar, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and a number of Indian cities including Mumbai and Kolkata; there was even a campaign in Slovenia, some years ago, to rename the country ‘Alpadria’, in an effort to resolve people's perennial confusion between it and Slovakia.
These rebrands are even more difficult and expensive and slow to pull off as their equivalent in the commercial world, no matter how just (and justly supported) the cause might be. The connection between an object – whether place, product or person – and its signifier becomes remarkably strong over time, however illogical or inappropriate it might appear to be from a certain perspective (nobody much thinks of ‘Nike’ as a Greek goddess, of ‘Heinz’ as a German surname, of ‘Amazon’ as a South American jungle, of ‘Starbucks’ as a character in ‘Moby Dick’, or of the ‘Carphone Warehouse’ as a warehouse that sells phones for cars).
And in some cases, it is public opinion that rebrands countries, whether the countries like it or not. The Netherlands is finally giving up the struggle to be known by its proper name, and has started to accept the rule of the market – that you are called what people call you – which in this case is ‘Holland’. Coca-Cola learned the same lesson many years ago – after many years of ignoring, resisting and even attempting to stamp out the popular nickname ‘Coke’, they finally recognised it for what it was – a flattering indicator of the intimacy people felt towards the product – and endorsed it by trademarking (and vigorously protecting it) ever after.