Interview With Jose Filipe Torres CEO Bloom Consulting

Jose Filipe Torres is the CEO and founding partner of Bloom Consulting.  I have been following and reporting on Bloom Consulting’s Country Brand Ranking for several years.  It is one of the global index reports that Brand America actually ranks well in.  Jose started his career as a designer and was the senior creative at FutureBrand before starting Bloom Consulting.  It was during his tenure at FutureBrand that Jose became interested in the idea of measuring country brand performance.  Now, Jose is recognized as a global thought leader in the field of place branding.  He is a sought after speaker and his firm has helped a number of countries think through their branding efforts.

I wanted to better understand why the US scores so well in the Country Brand Ranking when it appears to be declining in other studies that evaluate global country perception.  In this interview, Jose clarifies exactly what the Country Brand Ranking measures, and why the study is important for anybody involved in place branding to be aware of.

I think you will find this interview enlightening.

The concept of nations as brands is fairly new. Do you think the better analogy is to think of nations as product brands or corporate brands? What are the implications of that choice?

I believe a nation brand is both a corporate and a product brand. Take Apple for example, which is both a corporate brand and a product brand. It has multiple purposes and several different target audiences. In some cases, it has non-transactional value, while in others it has transactional value.

Nation branding should not be treated solely as a tool to develop a country’s reputation, but also as a commercial asset. For example, nation branding should not only strengthen a country’s public diplomacy, but also work to attract tourists and investors.

Nations with a strong reputation in terms of public diplomacy motivate greater numbers of tourists to visit that country; however this is far from enough. When tourists are planning a vacation, there are several factors they take into consideration before deciding to visit a certain place.

Your Brand Wheel model is unique and very insightful for economic development professionals trying to manage place branding exercises. What aspects of the wheel do you find create the greatest challenge for practitioners? How can a group like Bloom Consulting help work through those aspects?

The greatest challenge is finding the “central idea”. A central idea should be the authentic and true definition of a country, and should be felt and understood by all stakeholders. It’s actually extremely difficult to find the central idea; one that meets of every target audience and reflects the truth about that nation. Spain for instance, is frequently associated with “passion”, and although this central idea is very unique to Spain and considered relevant for tourists, it’s difficult to attract companies and investors based on such an idea. It does not meet their particular needs and thus is not relevant for them at all.

I must also add that, while central ideas work well in theory, these ideas may fail when put into practice. When local governments and organizations begin implementing these concepts into their daily activities, meetings, and strategies, they encounter several difficulties that create great challenges for practitioners.

Our job at Bloom Consulting is to explain to governments that place branding is not just an advertising campaign, nor is it simply a logo. It’s about how a government or a nation wishes their country to be perceived. Moreover it’s about convincing them that a brand has a practical use, and that a country brand is an asset that must be managed accordingly!

Place branding is not a romantic, utopian exercise, it should create added value for a given place. This may either be transactional (represented by the dimensions on the top half of the Brand Wheel), meaning it should attract tourists, investment or exports, or it may be non-transactional, that is, it should attract talent and increase national prominence (shown by the bottom half of our Brand Wheel). This also involves aspects such as improving quality of life, admiration and respect for a given country.

I must admit that most of the time it proves too difficult to find a single idea that suits all stakeholders in the Brand Wheel, therefore Bloom Consulting tries to find two or three separate ideas. It is important to note that this does not result in a fragmented image of a place, as places are multi-faceted anyway. In order to work through problems with regards to implementation, we often have to reverse the branding process. This means we prioritize putting a brand into practice, before focusing all our efforts on perfecting the central idea.

We are aware that ideally you should create one overarching central idea that fits all purposes and dimensions, however the ones who have experience in this activity know that place branding is a very challenging discipline, very complex to manage, and with an abundance of stakeholders and interests, it often fails (especially on a national level).

Places, like any brand, benefit from having an overarching promise to guide communication. What best-in-class examples have you come across that illustrate how to cascade an overarching promise to specific strategic target groups in a communication plan?

New Zealand found an excellent central idea that focused on “purity”. The idea of “purity” was perfect as it complemented every target audience’s needs.

New Zealand also did an excellent job of aligning all of their actions and policies with this central idea. We can measure this using our Brand Wheel:

  • Exports – they promoted natural and good quality products,
  • Investment – their film industry promoted beautiful, pure landscapes,
  • Tourism – they focused on nature, rather than nightlife or other aspects.

The same can be said for the other two dimensions, talent and national prominence. I must add however, that the country has now diverged from its path and may suffer the consequences of this in the future.

This topic is also discussed in a New York Times article, which is featured on my blog: http://countrybranding-josefilipetorres.blogspot.pt/2012/11/is-new-zealand-that-pure.html.

Interestingly, the case of New Zealand gives an excellent example of what I mentioned beforehand, that is, a country must primarily focus on aligning and developing all actions and policies with regards to their central idea.

Your counsel that a brand is not the logo is so spot on. Why is it that leaders of place branding exercises fall into the trap of focusing on the logo (and/or tagline) rather than the brand promise?

I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that often the most tangible and immediate aspect of a country branding strategy is the logo. As country branding has a lot to do with actions, policies and recommendations, logos can easily become the only “observable” aspect of place branding exercises.

Secondly, country branding is a relatively new industry, and there are few professionals that practice, study or research this field full-time. Alongside this, there are large numbers of advertising agencies, and because there is a misconception that country branding involves simply communicating a brand, these advertising agencies are given the opportunity to break into the country branding industry by ways of selling their creativity. They are interested in selling creativity because they lack core competencies in fields such as strategy or policy-making.

These agencies convey the idea that country branding is about promotion and advertising, and because they have high prestige, it’s easy for governments and leaders to become influenced by them.

Please note that this is not a crusade against advertising agencies! Advertising can be an important element of country branding, however it should be considered one of the final steps in a country branding process, rather than an initial one.

I also believe this process can be reverted, and that governments should spend more time researching and consulting experts in the field before making decisions regarding their country branding.

In your 2014/15 Country Brand Ranking Report, the United States is ranked #1 for the fourth year in a row.  Given the growing animosity toward the United States globally, this result seems incongruous.  What are the key drivers of this result and should the United States be concerned it will lose the #1 ranking looking forward.

In order to answer your question, I would first like to highlight exactly what our current rankings measure:

Our current Trade and Tourism rankings do not measure the perception of a country brand, they measure the impact of perceptions on any given country brand. Furthermore, the rankings measure this in the most tangible, objective way. This means that certain dimensions of the Brand Wheel haven’t been measured in the past, as they’ve been too difficult to calculate in tangible terms.

Another reason we analyze the dimensions of the Brand Wheel separately is because a nation brand represents very different things to different stakeholders (see tourism example mentioned in the previous question). This is shown by the fact that both rankings have very different results. Possibly the only exception to this rule is the U.S.!

The U.S. is number one in both rankings and, despite a growing number of concerns, the effectiveness of its country brand for investment still puts it way ahead of its competitors.

I don’t think the U.S. will lose its position in our Trade and Tourism ranking anytime soon. Any negative opinions haven’t yet made an impact on investors or tourists. The only way the U.S. could lose its spot in the rankings is if there were to be a series of sustained undesirable actions, events or policies. Sporadic or one-off events are unlikely to affect the nation brand.

Personally, I also don’t think that the nation brand of the U.S. has deteriorated at all, especially not in the transactional dimensions of our Brand Wheel.

If you had an opportunity to speak with the President of The United States and offer a thought about how to further strengthen Brand America’s global image, what would that thought be? 

The U.S. presidency needs not to worry about the transactional dimensions. I believe the focus and concern should be on the national prominence dimension.

I must admit, I think President Obama has done an excellent job at improving Brand America. When he entered the White House, the brand was in serious trouble, but as soon as he began implementing new policies, the U.S. was seen less of a radical country, and more of a diplomatic, responsible nation. I can enumerate recent examples to refresh your memory; the termination of the economic embargo on Cuba, the consolidation of ties between the U.S. and South America, and the Iran nuclear talks to name a few.

Perhaps, Americans do not currently perceive Brand America in a positive way, but I believe that internationally, with the exception of Ukraine perhaps, the general population sees the country in a much more positive light. The funny thing is that, “we” the general population, constantly criticize leaders of nations for absolutely everything they do. Let me remind you that when Bush was in power, there were several protests against the invasion of Iraq, the war, and so on, yet now “we” are asking for the U.S. to have a stronger and more aggressive disposition towards Russia… I guess “we”, the people, can never be pleased and 100% satisfied with any nation Brand.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite President Obama to our session at the City Nation Place conference, where we will be launching our new index called ‘The Digital Country Index’.

The event takes place from 4-5 November 2015, at Kings Place London. Full details can be found here: http://www.citynationplace.com/. 

If a reader wants to talk with Bloom Consulting about place branding support, what is the easiest way to reach out to you?

Visit our website at http://www.bloom-consulting.com and contact us via contact@bloom-consulting.com or +34 91 308 02 86 (CET)

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2 Comments so far

  1. Diedra Freedman

    August 24, 2015

    Unfortunately AZ didn’t hire Bloom Consulting. AZ is wasting taxpayer money on a new logo and tagline rather than investing in Place Branding. Maybe one day they’ll understand what is needed to attract businesses to AZ but I don’t see that happening any time in the near future.

  2. Edward

    August 24, 2015

    AZ is going to turn out to be a classic example of how NOT to do place branding. Investing money on a new logo and/or tagline with the expectation it will attract capital is misguided. AZ needs to understand how it better enables residents to achieve their American Dream, and then create a strategic plan to ensure it can continue to do so at a competitive level going forward. Over the years, I have come up with a simple formula to help elected officials understand what place branding really is: Place Branding = Place Making + Place Marketing Without the place making component you have a recipe for disaster. Hopefully somebody will pass this comment on to AZ elected officials.

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