horasis

Rebranding of nations: Cyprus

On April 14-15, I was a panel speaker at the Global Russia Business Meeting in Limassol, Cyprus, organized by Horasis and hosted by the government of Cyprus. In my talk, I planned to address the necessity for Cyprus to stay positive, and use the collapsed economy as a rare chance to improve the country’s brand in the long term. Perhaps a rather surprising and unusual approach to branding in the midst of the emotional aftermath of the banking system collapse. But for better or worse, my unusual message stood out from the crowd -- which happens to be the very purpose of any good brand.

A COLLAPSED BANKING SYSTEM

In a way, the timing of the meeting, aimed at fostering bilateral economic relations between Cyprus and Russia, could not have been more difficult. With a freshly collapsed banking system, and sovereign long-term foreign currency credit rating sinking into junk status, Cyprus was about to host a high-level gathering of prominent Russian business leaders - many of whom had just lost millions of Euros as a result of the ‘haircut’ procedure imposed in agreement with the EU and International Monetary Fund. The chance of this bilateral meeting, organized in the midst of a huge economic crisis, running smoothly, seemed rather small at the onset. In fact, I wondered if it would go ahead at all.

GOVERNMENT OF CYPRUS DECIDES TO GO AHEAD WITH THE CONFERENCE

However, the government of Cyprus decided to go ahead with the conference. Brilliantly chaired by charismatic founder of Horasis, Frank-Juergen Richter, the conference gave a chance to the Cypriot government to express itself to the community of Russian business people in a transparent and open way. It was clear that the message the Cypriot government wanted to pass to the Russians, was one of regret for not having been able to safeguard the wealth and trust of those who had invested into the country, and also one of commitment. The commitment of the government to take a very broad look at the underlying causes of the economic collapse, and seek realistic measures in order to fix it.

TOP-DOWN COMMITMENT  - A SECRET INGREDIENT OF ANY RE-BRANDING PROJECT

In the business context, the top-down commitment of senior management is a crucial element which can make or break any major re-branding project. As far as nations go, re-branding, or reshaping an image of the country vis-a-vis the minds and hearts of its target audience, also requires full commitment of its government to start thinking differently. As soon as there is commitment to start fixing one’s own problems, chances for a successful outcome of a re-branding project increase tremendously.

Although rarely on the radar screen of governments dealing with the urgency of major economic crisis, branding can actually help any government keep a broad perspective of what needs to be attained in the long term. Whereas its main preoccupations in the present situation may be of a remedial nature in the short term, and mostly directed at reforms of the banking system and tax regime, the government of Cyprus would benefit from embracing some of the following principles of branding a nation:

1) Stay positive about the future

The world loves success stories about countries emerging from economic crisis. Whereas it’s crucial to address the most urgent things first, positive morale of a good outcome is of great importance in any rebranding project, or crisis communications.

2) Identify your Unique Value Proposition

Just like any product or company, any country has something that makes it unique in the eyes of its target audience -- be it tourists, or potential investors. The Cypriot government would need to go through a major brand audit exercise, whereby it would collect all of the elements that could be considered unique for its brand, and decide on a shortlst of most powerful ones to be communicated to the world.

3) Identify your target audience

Whereas the main audience in the context of the conference consisted of Russian investors into Cyprus, the government of Cyprus should identify different categories of its target audience, which may include investors from other countries, EU, international credit rating agencies, tourists, and others.

4) Create a unique brand personality and brand positioning

Based on an in-depth brand audit, and having identified its unique DNA, Cyprus should then translate this into a credible and inspirational brand personality.

5) Roll out the new brand positioning through a high-impact communications campaign across offline and online channels

Depending on the previously identified target audience, select channels for rolling out a brand communications campaign

Whereas many governments still tend to view re-branding campaigns simply as advertising initiatives aimed at fostering growth of the tourist sector, it’s worth looking at country re-branding from a different, more strategic, angle. In the case of Cyprus, a re-branding project would be highly beneficial as it would help the government to identify the main areas requiring immediate fixes, allowing at the same time to keep a broad perspective of exciting opportunities that the future holds for this beautiful sunny island.

Building Russian brands

Last week I participated -- as a panel speaker and attendee - in the Global Russia Meeting hosted by the government of Luxembourg. Organized by Horasis, an independent think tank based in Zurich, and dubbed as a “world economic forum for emerging markets” , the event brought together many prominent business and political leaders from Russia, Europe and the United States.  

Addressed through different panels, discussions about Russia focused on such topics as entrepreneurship, business growth overseas, innovating the Silicon-valley way, and of course, branding. Selected as one of the panelists for the discussion entitled Building Russian Brands, I shared my views on what would make Russian companies successful internationally.

 

RUSSIAN BRANDS GLOBALLY

According to one of the panel speakers, Tony Cowling from TNS, several agencies, including his own, frequently publish lists of brands which can be considered global. Most of the times, Russian brands are present there in a tiny minority.

Whereas a few Russian brand names, such as Lukoil , Standard Vodka and the girls pop group Tatu, (( which gained mainstream recognition with their release of “All the Things She Said” several years ago)) who may be known internationally, many others rarely make it to the brandscape of international consumers, unless they target a specific niche.  In order to get an idea of what of Russian brands my own non-Russian friends were familiar with, I posted a quick informal survey on my Facebook profile prior to the event.

What often comes to the mind of the Western European consumer in terms of Russian brands, within the limits of my very informal survey, is not always names of commercialized brands. Instead, it’s often a series of symbols and associations, related to the image of Russia. Think matryoshkas and even the Bear, with the latter playing the role of the unofficial “brand mascot” of Russia (Read more about brand mascots here).

But as soon as you begin to explore more niche brands, you might discover that more Russian brands get on the international brand horizon. Among them are, for example, Digital October, a startup incubator in Moscow, known by the international web and tech startup community. Or Garage, a contemporary art center in Moscow that many art lovers around the world have surely heard about.

BRAND STRATEGY IS THE ANSWER

But do Russian brands need to strive for international recognition? And if yes, what benefits can it give them? First of all, the more quality Russian products appear on international markets, the better it will benefit the overall image of Russia long term. Secondly, there’s a strong link between having a successful brand and a sizable market share, as mentioned by another panel speaker, Givi Topchishvili, CEO of New York based Global Advertising Strategies.  Third, the scarcity of Russian brands on the international brandscape presents a rare opportunity for them. By learning to think strategically in terms of their brand development, Russian brands would make the first important step towards market success.  Placed in the framework of a coherent strategy, which begins from a clear definition of value proposition, and ends with knowing how to capture the hearts and minds of the target consumer, Russian brands will begin to position themselves as competitive players on international markets.

And what about the necessary ingredients Russian brands would need to use in order to make their brand strategies successful? In this respect, two important elements come to mind: design (both product design and visual identity as a whole, including web design) as well as better use of the web. With Russian being my mother tongue, I often visit sites of Russian companies, only to find old-fashioned design and complex user interfaces. Better looking and better functioning products and web sites are the required ingredients of successful brands.

Some Russian brands have understood this, and involved international brand and marketing experts early on in their brand strategy development. Such was the case of Standard Vodka, which relied on international brand, marketing and advertising agencies to shape its identity, launch the product, and set a long-term brand strategy framework. Outstanding design was not an after-thought, but an important element of Standard’s brand strategy.

IMPORTANCE OF SUCCESS LOCALLY

Although very few Russian brands are enjoying international fame, there are a few success stories if we look at the local market. In fact, the measure of brand success of Russian companies may be related to how fast, and for how much money, they are acquired by large international corporations. And such cases abide. Think of Unilever acquiring Concern Kalina, a Russian producer of cosmetics. Or PepsiCo buying Wim-Bill-Dann, a Russian juice and dairy group. PepsiCo is now launching its Quaker cereals under the name Chudo (“Miracle”)- one of the existing successful brand names in Wim-Bill-Dann’s portfolio, and there are even some speculations that the multinational intends to sell some of the products in its Russian portfolio abroad. Maybe such a roundabout way -- first becoming strong locally, then hitting overseas markets under the umbrella of PepsiCo, Danone or Unilever -- is a way for Russian brands to expand abroad?

 

 

To summarize, success of Russian brands will depend on how quickly they realize that brand strategy cannot be an afterthought, but key to overall business development.

 

Only by shaping and implementing a smart brand strategy framework will Russian brands set themselves on the path of market success internationally.