Does Africa really need a new brand?

Does Africa need a new brand? Photo by: mandykoh / CC BY-NC

In recent years, the practice of nation branding has attracted growing interest from academic researchers and gained prominence among communications and marketing practitioners.

Branding consultants promise foreign governments that improving their reputation abroad will increase their competitiveness, leading to more foreign investment, trade and tourism. A better brand, they say, will enhance their soft power and influence on the international political and economic agenda.

Several African countries have jumped on the brandwagon and included nation branding in their national development program. The Brand Africa initiative, intergenerational movement to create a positive image of Africa, celebrate its diversity and drive its competitiveness, was launched in 2010.

While it is true that we need to correct misrepresentations of Africa, using the concepts of ‘brand’ and “branding” in the African context is misleading, dangerous and undesirable. A development strategy based on identity-building, public diplomacy and public affairs has a better chance to improve Africa’s image abroad and competitiveness while also preserving its rich, complex and diverse nature.

Nation branding is premised on the idea that economic globalization has fundamentally transformed the role of states and the nature of world politics. Branding consultants joined the world of international development with claims that branding affects growth. The slow development of some parts of the world, such as Africa, they say, is partly a result of the unfavorable “brand” Africa has in the developed world. If this is the case, the solution is for poorer nations to retake control of their image.

African countries and the continent as a whole have been misrepresented for centuries. Nowadays, there are two dominant images of Africa: the wildlife and natural beauty promoted by the tourism industry and the poor, corrupted Africa riddled with wars and disease, used excessively by the international aid and charity sectors and reinforced by international media.

It is true that African countries need to monitor their international reputation and develop the right strategy to improve it. However, “branding” isn’t the solution.

Countries are not for sale

A country image is the mental perception and association people hold about a country. It has yet to be proven that a country can directly manipulate this image using communications and marketing tools. Branding indexes show is that country images tend to be stable over time. The public generally does not think about other countries, falling back on clichés and stereotypes when they do.

Some governments might be tempted to use expensive media and advertising campaigns to whitewash a bad reputation without substantially changing their behaviours and policies. Numerous repressive regimes have turned to European and American PR firms to clean their reputation to attract investment, undermining the credibility of the PR industry as a whole. Ironically, when these relationships are revealed, they further tarnish the reputation of the countries.

For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has retained the services of a French PR firm to help it secure and buy positive coverage in international and pan-African media.

Moreover, applying corporate branding principles subordinates a country’s identity to market preferences. This has at least two worrying consequences. Countries are encouraged to reduce their culture, values, history and heritage into simplistic stereotypes that are easily understandable by the target audiences. This strategy also forces countries to adapt their identity to please the tastes of outsiders.

Building your reputation from the inside out

The practice of nation branding is outward-looking and is ultimately about putting outsiders’ interests and preferences ahead of a country’s own. What African countries need is to build their reputation from the inside out. Here are the key aspects of what that could include:

1. Nation-building.

Countries should focus first and foremost on redefining and strengthening their identity using nation-building strategies targeted at national citizens and the diaspora. They should adopt visions that define where their countries stands today and what they want to become. The aim is to revive a sense of national pride and unity. Advertising campaigns can help take this image global, but the real work would be done through educational, cultural, political, social and economic policies that empower a country’s people. Citizens and diasporas will always be a country’s strongest advocates and ambassadors.

Take, for example, the social media campaign #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou to share positive images and stories of Africa or the backlash CNN faced after describing Kenya as a hotbed of terror during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit last year.

2. Public diplomacy.

African countries can enhance their economic attractiveness and soft power by sharing their complex and unique identities with the rest of the world through public diplomacy. Unlike the rather simplistic ideas promoted by nation branding, public diplomacy aims to educate people abroad about a country’s culture, people, values, history and heritage through art, fashion, sport, and cultural and educational exchanges. It is about creating mutual understanding between nations by building and maintaining durable relationships between key individuals and organizations. Only such an approach can help a country gain the respect, tolerance and trust of foreign audiences, that will in turn be more willing to invest in, visit and work in the country.

3. Public affairs.

African governments should invest more in developing their public affairs capabilities in order to influence the international agenda and push for new global norms, standards and values. The main source of Africa’s underdevelopment is the way the global economy works. If African farmers are still struggling to compete on the international market, it is because European agricultural subsidies continue to distort global prices. What caused the de-industrialization of African countries was the uncontrolled open market policies imposed by the global trade system. These are the types of international rules that need to be vigorously challenged through advocacy and lobbying.

How the development community can help

Global development professionals can contribute to rebuilding Africa’s image in at least two ways.

1. Update your photo database of Africa.

NGOs have been using stereotypical images of African countries for decades, because they help raise money quickly. If this comes at the price of people’s dignity, however, it’s not worth it. Development organizations must strike the right balance between showing the reality on the ground and respecting people’s private lives. Besides, overusing these stereotypical images can be counterproductive; the Western public has grown desensitized to photos of hunger, poverty and diseases.

Instead, NGOs could use their prominent positions to educate constituents and donors about the real causes of poverty so that the international public understands that long-term structural change is needed more than short-term charity.  

2. Adapt policy reforms to local cultural and societal norms.

Numerous development consultancies support policy reforms in developing countries. Unfortunately, most of these reforms are based on a neoliberal view of development. They legitimize the so-called Washington Consensus: that poorer countries must open up to the global markets without restrictions in order to develop.

Instead, these consultancies could leverage their expertise to challenge the conventional wisdom and offer more creative solutions that take into account the history, culture and societal norms of the countries they are trying to help.

Building a country’s reputation and solving global inequalities are both long-term processes that require economic, social, political, cultural and educational reforms, as well as actions. By aligning their objectives, African governments and global development professionals have the power to not only bring meaningful changes to the lives of billions of people but also help them reclaim their dignity and respect.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jessica Ilunga

    Jessica Ilunga is a communications consultant specializing in African markets. She used to work for africapractice in London where she advised clients from the financial, mining, international development, education and agricultural sectors. She holds an LLM in European and international law from the Catholic University of Leuven and an M.Sc. in global politics from the London School of Economics.