Nearshore Americas

The Latin America Image Issue: Going Beyond the Superficial to Create a ‘Nation Brand’

If you’re a Latin American country marketing yourself to US sourcing customers,  your chances have already been either helped or hurt by your national image, even before you begin. It’s called a ‘nation

brand’, and Nearshore players have always been painfully aware of its impact on securing foreign investment.

We caught up with Simon Anholt, who first coined the term in the late ‘90s. During the last 12 years, Anholt has advised the governments of more than 40 countries on questions of national identity and reputation, and foreign investment promotion.

Anholt talks here specifically about some of the myths associated with the topic, the Nearshore countries that rank highest on his Nation Brands Index, how the world sees Latin America, and how to improve that image.

Could you explain the concept of Nation Branding as it relates to countries marketing themselves to attract foreign investment?

First of all I have to stress that “nation branding” is a term I dislike, because it suggests that it’s possible to change the image of a country using marketing communications techniques. There is absolutely no evidence that this is possible; no country has ever succeeded in doing it; and I have never advocated it. The phrase I coined in 1998 was “nation brand”, which is an observation about the importance of national image in the modern world. If a country doesn’t like its image – and most countries don’t – then the only way to change, update, enhance or otherwise influence that image is through the things the country does, not by the things it says.

Influencing a country’s reputation is primarily a matter of policy, strategy, innovation and investment over a very long period – it has nothing to do with logos, slogans, advertising or PR campaigns. So the term “branding” is misleading and I prefer to avoid it.

How does this all relate to marketing for foreign direct investment? Only indirectly. Foreign direct investment can, in some cases, be stimulated by carefully targeted marketing, although in most cases it is more about sales than marketing – targeting appropriate investors in a direct, personal approach and offering the correct incentives. Consumer-style mass marketing techniques tend to be pretty ineffective when you’re dealing with a relatively small, highly informed, highly discerning and skeptical target audience. To call an FDI campaign ‘nation branding’ is simply wrong: it is sectoral promotion, and cannot contribute directly to the country’s overall image – partly because such marketing is directed at that small, niche audience and not at international public opinion (which is what people usually mean when they talk about “nation branding”).

Obviously if FDI promotion is so successful over many years that it measurably improves the country’s economic performance, this may, in time, improve the country’s image. But that’s a different matter.

Latin America needs to get to grips with this important topic of national standing, stop focusing on superficial marketing tricks, and become a center of expertise for understanding and managing national and regional reputation.

In your experience, to what extent does the ‘brand’ of a country dictate the amount of investment by international companies, and why?

 ‘Dictate’ is too strong a word. There is no question that a country’s overall image has an influence on the amount and type of investment a country attracts, but since we are talking about significant business decisions made by professionals, the influence of the country’s background reputation is bound to be less than in the case of “consumer” transactions such as tourism, exports, cultural relations and so forth.


Simon Anholt: “Almost all Latin American countries need to emerge from the generic “brand” of their continent, which is an outdated and unhelpful one, by proving their specific relevance to consumers, tourists, investors and commentators in other parts of the world”

How would a Latin American country go about improving its national brand? Are there specific steps that you would recommend for a country looking to market itself to US companies?


 Almost all Latin American countries need to emerge from the generic “brand” of their continent, which is an outdated and unhelpful one, by proving their specific relevance to consumers, tourists, investors and commentators in other parts of the world. The way to achieve this is no different for Latin American countries than for any other country: they simply need to develop the structures and strategies that will enable them to project a constant, unbroken stream of dramatic evidence that each country deserves the reputation it desires. There are no short cuts to this, and it must be sustained for generations before it results in a real, measurable, permanent change in the country’s international standing.

Simply bragging about their achievements or attractions cannot improve their country’s reputation, although for the purposes of stimulating FDI it’s obviously essential to let target audiences know what the country has to offer.

Which Latin American countries occupy the highest places on the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index 2009, and what accounts for each of their success respectively?

 Brazil ranks 20th overall, followed by Argentina in 23rd place and Mexico in 28th place. Then there’s a big gap until Chile at 38th, and Cuba, Ecuador and Colombia all near the bottom of the list of 50 countries (there are presently no other Latin American countries included in the study, but this could change in the future). In one sense, these overall rankings don’t tell us a great deal, since they represent the average scores given to countries by all the 20,000 people in 20 countries who are polled in the survey, across all the 40 different questions we ask them, in topic areas which include governance, people, culture, products, tourism, sport, the environment, investment, business, education, and so on.

The governments which use the Nation Brands Index to track their countries’ international reputation tend to look in much more detail at how certain segments of audiences in certain parts of the world rate certain aspects of their country or its population.

Brazil’s reputation has been rising steadily since I launched the Nation Brands Index in 2005, while the other Latin American countries (like most countries in the Index) don’t move much from one year to the next – one important finding of the survey over the last five years is how rarely most people ever change their minds about other countries. Argentina and Mexico tend to stand out from the generic “Lat-Am” image, mainly for cultural reasons: people around the world have some familiarity at least with the traditional music, dance, cuisine and lifestyle clichés associated with these two countries; the rest of Latin America suffers from a weak profile, very little knowledge, and a great weight of negative associations such as violent crime and lawlessness, political and financial instability, oppressive regimes, poverty, disease, drugs and corruption.  Brazil is in a class of its own – many of people’s spontaneous associations with the country are quite negative, but overall, the country simply stands for ‘joy’ in the public imagination.

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 Are there any Latin American countries actively incorporating Nation Branding strategies in their marketing efforts, and are they seeing positive results? Are you working with them specifically?

 A number of them have experimented with logos and slogans and advertising and PR campaigns, but since no attempt has been made to set specific goals or targets for these initiatives, nor any means of measuring their performance, we cannot know how successful these efforts are. I have been working with Chile during the last year, and a good deal of progress has been made in setting up the systems, structures, strategies and policies that will enable Chile to exert more control over its international reputation than in the past.

What would you say is the current global perception of the Latin American region in terms of offshore services investment? Is that image improving or worsening compared to other outsourcing destinations like Asia or Central and Eastern Europe?

 Definitely improving, and this movement is led by Brazil. Generally, there needs to be more partnership, more collaboration and cooperation and best practice sharing between the IPAs, tourist boards, ministries of foreign affairs and institutes of culture if Latin America is going to continue to exert more influence in the world. Latin America needs to get to grips with this important topic of national standing, stop focusing on superficial marketing tricks, and become a center of expertise for understanding and managing national and regional reputation.

Kirk Laughlin

Kirk Laughlin is an award-winning editor and subject expert in information technology and offshore BPO/ contact center strategies.

1 comment

  • Simon Anholt is correct in saying that image change is only real when it changes “the things the country does, not the things it says.” But in our marketing driven world, it’s not enough to simply make those changes and expect the world to notice. In the 90’s we ran national image development campaigns in the U.S. for both Norway and Chile and saw ample evidence that perceptions were changed through use of many of the same marketing tools that Mr. Anholt says are of no use. (We've run many sector campaigns too and seen the same.)

    Marketing tools play a key role as long as they represent changes that are real. Years ago, Michael Porter wrote that strategy is only valid if it represents real operations. In other words, you can’t sell the store without knowing the tools are on the shelves.

    Countries can change policy, strategy, innovation and investment over a very long period but if no one knows about it, export development and FDI will come at a much slower pace than if there is a coordinated marketing campaign that represents the real situation.

    Over the years, we’ve done a considerable amount of country positioning work (our preferred term) and continue to do so today. We’ve found governments often make three major mistakes when considering their image or brand abroad:

    1. Too many internal assumptions about what foreign markets think and want: For example, New Yorkers will often talk about garbage in the streets while foreigners exalt the skyline, energy of the city and multiple entertainment options. When Americans return from Chile, they can’t stop talking about the beauty of the Andes and the perfect manners of the people who live there. Chileans on the other hand will talk about smoggy days and can be quite self-critical. It’s human nature. We see things in the mirror everyday that others around us see differently. Countries have to adjust their marketing by what others think. Effective strategy is found at the intersection of internal capabilities and external needs.

    2. Failure to conduct sufficient open-ended research to determine what’s really on people’s minds in other countries: It’s not difficult to give thousands of people closed-ended questions with multiple choice responses or agreement scales and then make our own interpretations based on internal assumptions. The problem is that closed-ended questions create bias because they predefine the range of answers. As to agreement scales, what’s the difference between one person’s 3 and another’s 4 and why? Nobody knows but everybody has an opinion. Real perceptions come by asking open-ended questions that begin with “What”, “Why” and “How”. Effective positioning campaigns cannot be conducted without knowing what people really think on an unaided basis.

    3. Perfect the model before showing it to the public: Too many countries invest too much money into defining what they are before going out to the market. What they often find is that the market has changed and their perfected “image” model is no longer relevant. It’s better to move earlier into the market and get feed back on what you’re doing and saying so that you can adjust as you go. (If you look at my blog, you’ll see the reference to a Stanford study on the same.) Today’s online marketing tools enable incredible capabilities to gather communities of interest and shared needs that will provide feedback and become brand advocates. Nation marketing is now about building relationships through communities, both those that are publicly available and private ones too.

    As Mr. Anholt says, change has to be real and long-term but I don’t know of any entity, that after instituting real change, didn’t benefit from a well-conceived marketing plan. That’s where I find my disagreement with his thesis.