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Lacking self-awareness? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India on Feb. 21, 2018. Trudeau was pilloried in domestic and international media for wearing Indian traditional outfits during his trip. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Justin Trudeau’s India debacle shows the pitfalls of ‘nation branding’

Justin Trudeau’s multiple missteps on his recent visit to India — wearing inappropriately formal dress and posing for corny photo-ops, at least once with a controversial figure — have prompted critical onlookers to suggest that self-awareness is sorely lacking from the Canadian prime minister’s “brand.”

The ease with which we use the term “brand,” especially when speaking of political diplomacy, underscores how the discourse and practice of corporate branding has spread into previously unbranded contexts.

Branding now encompasses the management of a nation’s image.

A brand is an identity deliberately crafted according to the principle of competition, oriented from its outset towards the market and circulated with specific, competitive goals in mind.

A brand must be at once marketable —recognizable, preferably “authentic” — and distinctive from other competitors.

A narrative, name and logo — in textual and visual forms — are the common vehicles for these distinctive identities. Through repetition and over time, these names and images become enmeshed with a variety of meanings that go far beyond the qualities of any literal product.

‘Brand identity’

The term “brand identity” reflects this, implying that the way a company presents itself to its target audience should also convey its broader priorities and values.

Brand identity explains why a series of sentimental McCain frozen food advertisements that ran in the U.K., for example, focused on celebrating the diverse and myriad forms of modern-day families and romantic partnerships. The brand wants us to associate their product with love and family. The oven-baked French fries were merely incidental:

Brand identity is also why, we might cynically observe, a corporation like Starbucks bothers with philanthropic outreach.

This notion of competitive identity has extended from its origin in the world of marketing into the economic and political fates of nations.

This is a recent chapter in the longer story of neoliberalism, advocated for by a select group of economic advisers to the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan administrations in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Alongside the explosion of globalization and an overarching shift towards entrepreneurial forms of governance, the now-pervasive market logic of neoliberalism has reconfigured distinctions between economics, politics, international relations, cultures and identities.

Countries as corporations

Nations have essentially become corporations, citizens are stakeholders and consumers, identities are brands — and business tycoons become presidents of the free world.

The industry of nation-branding emerged in this context.

British PR experts offered governments a way to counteract the erosion of traditional forms of national legitimacy and to shore up the interests and authority of political and socio-economic elites to exploit free market exchange.

Proponents argue that branding is an essential means of harnessing control over the nation’s image, which already exists “out there” in the stereotypes a person might have of a place and its people.

Often this rationale means engaging directly with negative clichés: Colombia’s tourism slogan “The only risk is wanting to stay,” for example, riffed off the country’s reputation for drug-related violence:

Earlier this year, a Haitian ad agency spun Donald Trump’s “shithole country” affront into a campaign idea, plastering taglines such as “Our shithole beaches go on for days!” and “Welcome to shithole island!” over shots of idyllic coastlines.

Mountains tower over visitors enjoying the beaches in Labadee, Haiti in March 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kevin Bissett

Some champions even go so far as to suggest that nation-branding offers the chance to level a playing field made uneven from histories of colonialism, violence and exploitation, offering new opportunities for profit and self-representation.

In Latin America, a historical sense of inferiority to the West has often incited assertions of regional and national distinctiveness in ways that segue into the logic and practice of branding. Turning the nation into a singular, attractive narrative — a brand — allows a shrugging-off of painful pasts.

But while engaging with stereotypes may guarantee your inclusion in the marketplace, it still serves to perpetuate unequal images, confirming certain nations, like Cuba, as carefree and exotic, and others, like Great Britain, as serious and industrious.

Nation branding is also directed internally, towards the population, placing branding within a longer history of collective self-imagining. But securing the consensus that branding requires among such a broad range of stakeholders can be tricky.

To name one example, branded mega-events like the Olympics promise the host country huge profit, development and priceless PR coverage, but, as intense debates and protests in the run-up to Brazil’s 2016 hosting of the Games bore witness, they may also stir up underlying currents of exclusion and inequality among the citizenry.

Besides, enrolling the private sector, the public sector and civil society as stakeholders in one entity —the city, region or nation — that is itself reconfigured as a sort of corporation exposes its ultimate motive: Profit.

Given these complexities, we ought to take a critical view of the nation brand — and in evaluating Trudeau’s diplomatic debacles as a failure to be “on brand,” we might want to deride not the player, but the game.

Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and children, Xavier, 10, Ella-Grace, 9, visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India on Feb. 21. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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