“Culture is a country’s brand”

I just came across this exclusive interview with Steve K.W. Chan, chairman of the board of Coca Cola China Limited. Conducted by People’s Daily Online during the occasion of the 2006 Cross Cultural Communication Forum held in Beijing on August 31 on the theme of "cross-cultural exchange and soft power building". Here’s an interesting snippet,

"Commercially speaking, national culture serves as a kind of brand for a country. Unfortunately, the symbol for Chinese culture is now rather weak. If we treat culture as a kind of product, then we need to ensure it has original and distinctive characteristics. The definition of Chinese culture is the concept of the Chinese people, and it should represent 1.3 billion Chinese people. The precondition for China’s cross-cultural exchange and communication with other countries is the production of original Chinese cultural products," said Chan.

This viewpoint of culture being a country’s brand is intriguing. One could argue that China, in part due to its recent history, has a monolithic culture and national language, and a largely homogenous population. What if the country in question was Singapore? This news article claims Singapore is looking for a definitive new brand, going so far as to conduct straw polls in numerous nations and also evaluating the competition.

The Singapore government is trying to come up with a single brand
identity for the city state, but authorities may find the task a bit
challenging to put a myriad of perceptions into one bag.
[…]
The consultant will be tasked with the job of examining the global
marketing efforts of competitors such as Dubai, India, China, Hong Kong
and Thailand and to study local and foreign perceptions of Singapore.

I, for one, would love to be that consultant to Singapore. How does one go about pitching to a nation? Singapore is a challenging case – there is no homogenous ‘native’ culture or heritage per se like China’s or India’s going back millennia in history, while Thailand is a complex nation with a rich history and heritage.

One could point to the successful marketing of Dubai. Is there a South Asian unaware of the  "Fly, Buy, Dubai" campaign of a decade or so ago when Dubai spent millions in touting its world class airport as a transit point and shopping hub for the latest deals in consumer electronics, duty free goods and of course, gold?

Hong Kong’s mystique, unhampered by the former Portuguese colony Macau’s proximity as another free port, as an exotic titbit of the then closed China has not been diluted much by the handover in 1997.

Whither Singapore? For decades it was considered the shopping destination for the region, Orchard Road’s shops outdoing Fifth Avenue, the Miracle Mile or even the Champs Elysees in luxury and size. High end, where Hong Kong was bargain basement. A tropical isle with bars, pubs and nightclubs to compete with Dubai’s middle eastern reserve. Now she wants more.

What is unique about Singapore, asks this article. I’ll tell you – its a genuinely multiracial, multicultural, multilingual society that has one foot in the West and one in the East. Its the face of modern Asia. Not the Orient. The one key thing I come away with every time I visit is the respect that that is embedded in the national identity for the ‘other’. This is not a matter of being politically correct or polite, people will identify someone by their race as a matter of course. That’s the surface "pretending that you are not of a different ethnicity" form of PC.

What Singaporeans have is inherent, eating with their hands when visiting an Indian friend’s home, taking their slippers off before entering someone’s house, covering their heads when attending a muslim Malay wedding or exchanging ‘ang pows’ at Chinese New Year. Open houses for each major festival are de rigeur – whether its Deepawali for the Indians, Hari Raya [Eid] or Chinese New Year.

Maybe that is what Brand Singapore can be about – respect for the other’s cultural nuances, blaring the train stops in 4 languages in the MRT, accepting and acknowledging cultural and religious differences, tolerance. Maybe Singapore can teach the rest of us how to rub along together with all our differences; how to create a safe civil society where a woman is not afraid to take a train at 2am alone.

Singapore is the microcosm of the global village.

Hire me, she said, to the EDB. Whoops just found out its a tender!

Technorati tag onebrandsingapore

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2 Responses to “Culture is a country’s brand”

  1. The talk about brand China made me wonder about the tension between bottom-up and top-down branding: the corporate head office PR versus the on the floor values and activities.
    Compare Ford’s top-down effort to brand the company with “quality is job one” and their recent “innovation” talk, with what the company’s bottom-up emergent brand: cheap, uninspiring, homogeneity. Given Ford’s current trouble it seems that the bottom-up emergent brand has captured popular imagination.
    So if you want to drive brand change from the top, is it better push a consistent image or change the organization’s values and activities and let the brand emerge out of that?
    On another note, since I’ve never been to Singapore, is its diversity just skin deep (skin tone and customs) or does it also embrace a plurality of intellectual perspectives and debate?

  2. niti bhan says:

    I’ll remark upon the first half of your post later today [going sightseeing with my aunt now] but on your last question – very good question and one I hadn’t thought of, I’d say doubtful if its political debate. otoh india actually does embrace the plurarity hence its external image as this lumbering directionless elephant.

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