Life's a beach

We are never ever going to be able to agree what the idea of nation is.
Rio De Janeiro
Rio-De-Janeiro pixabay, CC0 1.0

Is it possible to distil a nation into a single brand? The experience from Brazil suggests these attempts will always be controversial.

In the globalised economy, people and money can go anywhere in the world. Nations compete against each other for foreign investment by promoting their economic credibility or desirability as tourist destinations.

In recent years, a number of countries have sought to control their identity through the creation of a ‘national brand’, presenting their preferred image to the world using slogans and carefully selected images.

But often these efforts to distil a nation’s identity tend to rely on a single perspective, usually one approved by the government. Different layers of a society will typically have an alternative view of what their nation means, and challenge the official line. 

The Department of Media and Communications' Dr César Jiménez-Martínez’s latest research tries to understand what national branding exercises can tell us about a country.

Dr Jiménez-Martínez’s interest grew out of his previous career as a journalist and working the development of a national brand for Chile. He says: “The media coverage of the trapped Chilean miners in 2010 became the defining international image of Chile during that period. How it was defined became highly contested, with the government presenting one narrative to Chileans, and another to the outside world.”

In his PhD research, Dr Jiménez-Martínez focused on the larger and more populous nation of Brazil, where national branding efforts are a more complex proposition.

Dr Jiménez-Martínez says: “At the start of the 2010s, Brazil was seen as one of the stars of the BRICS economies; it was expected to become one of the dominating world economies later in the 21st-century. Brazil then hosted the 2014 football World Cup and 2016 Olympics, developing a specific national branding for foreign audiences.”

During this period, Brazil’s national brand often resorted to familiar tropes that are associated with the country, which Dr Jiménez-Martínez describes as the “four s’s: samba, soccer, sex, and sand.”

“The government claimed to be showing that Brazil was something else. In practice, however, these stereotypes were strongly reinforced. For example, when the government was organising a trip for foreign correspondents, they were taken to shows with mulatas and taken to the beach. The international media is therefore likely to have a limited perspective of what Brazil is,” Dr Jiménez-Martínez adds.

Dr Jiménez-Martínez found that one of the major obstacles to national branding is likely to come from within the government itself. For example, the culture department’s vision of a laid back, fun-loving Brazil might jar with the business department’s projection of a stable and productive business environment.

Outside of the government, the Brazilian public have resisted politician’s attempts to define the country, especially when their lived reality is different from the idyllic, tranquil beaches portrayed in the official material.

The most obvious example of this dissent is the mass political protests that been a regular fixture in Brazil since 2013. Millions of citizens have taken to the streets to register their anger at corruption, crime and economic mismanagement.

These contrasting versions of Brazil’s national brand over the past decade illustrate how difficult it is to devise and agree on a coherent idea of the nation.

Dr Jiménez-Martínez says: “Brazil is a huge country in size, almost a whole continent. Western perceptions of Brazil might be led by the beaches in the wealthier south, but millions of people live in the north in the rainforest regions. Their lives and cultures are so different to each other.”

Because of these difficulties, Dr Jiménez-Martínez says attempts to create a national brand are always likely to be “shallow and superficial”. He says: “I cannot think of a single example where national branding been successful. There is always controversy attached to these kind of projects, because we are never ever going to be able to agree what the idea of nation is.”

Behind the article

Which image? Of which country? Under which spotlight?: Power, visibility and the image of Brazil by César Jiménez-Martínez was published in Revista Trama Interdisciplinar in 2017.