How To Rebrand A Country
Four lessons from Colombia, Rwanda, and Croatia
By James Nicol
With cycling furiously peddling back into fashion at the moment, I am reminded of an old joke which goes something like this, There are only two types of cyclists in this world: those who have crashed and those who havent crashed yet.
So too, are there only two types of marketers in the world: those who have crashed and burned on a rebrand and those who havent crashed one yet.
The simple truth is this: pulling off a successful rebrand is one of the hardest things in marketing. As Professor Mark Ritson warns his MBA students, only half-jokingly only ever attempt a rebrand if it is a legal necessity.
With so many variables at play, there are just too many things that can, and inevitably will, go wrong.
Think about it like this: when the very best-case scenario is alienating a portion of your existing customer base, the odds are not in your favor. But the worst-case scenario is catastrophic decades of hard work and goodwill can be destroyed in one ill-thought-out moment. In other words, embark upon a rebrand at your peril!
How to Pull Off a Successful Rebrand
Of course, in some circumstances, rebranding may be the only reasonable solution to the problem at hand. If this is the case, well, you better know everything can about how to do pull it off!
One industry, in particular, has consistently delivered incredible case studies for us to learn from tourism.
Highlighting this in her insightful 2019 article for The New York Times, Taririo Mzezewa presents us with three fascinating examples of once conflict-stricken countries which, having undergone successful rebrands, are now unlikely tourism superstars.
Twenty-five years ago, Colombia, Rwanda, and Croatia were all viewed as dangerous, war-torn countries only suitable for journalists and the most hardened of veteran travelers. Now, they routinely feature on travel bucket-lists, and will surely be heading millions of travelers to-do lists as soon as international travel returns to normal.
Pulling together the common threads from these three excellent case studies, we can identify four key takeaways that should inform any future rebranding efforts.
You Can Never Hide from Your Past
For most people around the world, Rwanda is defined by one horrific event. That is, the 1994 genocide which left 800,000 people, mostly ethnic minority Tutsis, killed at the hands of majority Hutus in barely 100 days.
However, in the decades since, Rwanda has undergone tremendous change. It now boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. It leads the world in female parliamentary representation, with over 60% of seats held by women. And it is regarded by experts as having sustained one of the worlds most impressive cases of post-conflict recovery.
Yet it is still difficult for many people to step past the horrific events of 1994, which left such a mark on the worlds conscience.
Acknowledging this, Rwandas Development Board has been open about never shying away from this dark past. It is simply unavoidable. However, they have done everything possible to focus attention on the multitude of positives Rwanda now has to offer. As such, the Development Board views its mission as:
Telling the world that Rwanda is not just one thing, not one event, not one series of events its a story of the depths of humanity, if people work together and are disciplined.
Importantly, that depth of story has worked. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of visitors through Rwandas borders has almost doubled to 1.5 million.
Lesson: Your brands history is what it is. You can never escape from it, nor completely erase it. But you can make it clear that you shouldnt only be defined by one thing.
Use Existing Perceptions to Re-frame the Debate
While not quite to the same degree as Rwanda, Colombia has also had its demons to overcome. Visions of rampant drug lords and a bloody guerrilla insurgency have plagued Colombias image for much of the past 30 years. Yet in a similar fashion to Rwanda, Colombias tourism ministry has taken pains to avoid glossing over the countrys notorious past. As Julian Guerrero, vice minister of tourism, reported to Mzezewa:
We didnt want to hide away from the fact that, yes, there was violence in the country and a guy like Pablo Escobar is associated with the country.
In fact, Colombia went so far as to embrace its dangerous past in its 2008 tourism campaign, “The Only Risk Is Wanting to Stay. Since then, the country has seen a 200% uplift in the number of visitors and tourists.
Lesson: Remain open to the possibility that a perceived weakness can be flipped on its head and turn into an advantage.
There Are Always Bigger Systems at Play
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in marketing is focusing too hard on developing creative communications campaigns, rather than prioritizing what you can actually deliver.
In the case of Croatia, Mzezewa explains that the biggest barrier to growing the countrys tourism industry was literally the barriers to entry for tourists.
Twenty years ago, anyone wanting to visit Croatia was faced with a logistical nightmare. With direct flights severely limited, simply getting into the country meant first flying into Italy, Hungary, or Austria, before embarking on another journey by bus, train, or ferry.
The challenge for Croatias National Tourist Board, then, was much greater than simply communications and story-telling. The biggest job was trying to convince airlines to schedule more flights into the country and expanding their network of connection hubs.
Through a lot of hard work and building upon small successes, Croatia now has flight connections with most major European hubs. In 2019, American Airlines began offering direct flights from the U.S. for the first time since 1991.
From 1.5 million visitors in 1995, Croatia welcomed almost 20 million through its borders in 2018.
Lesson: There is always a bigger picture. Branding and communications are one thing, but all the shouting in the world wont help unless you have the right systems in place to actually follow through on your promises.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race.
None of these countries saw immediate payoffs from their earliest campaigns and efforts. In each case, we are measuring success over a span of ten, 15, even 25 years.
It should be every businesss hope to still be operating 25 or 50 years down the line and to be in a better position tomorrow than it is today. All rebrands should be designed with the intention of the brand lasting through the long-term. Rebranding should never become routine.
This long-term approach is exactly what each of these three countries has taken. Small, initial wins pave the way for greater marketing investment and even bigger wins down the line. It is a virtuous circle which requires patience.
Lesson: Any effort to shift perceptions significantly is never going to be an overnight win. Prepare yourself for the long-haul and take every incremental win.
Embarking upon a rebrand is one of the most fraught and difficult things in marketing. There are so many pitfalls of which to be wary. Yet there are some great case studies smart marketers can draw on. Remember:
You can never hide from your past but you can make it clear that you should not be defined by only one thing.
Use existing perceptions to reframe the debate you may be surprised at what you find.
There are always bigger systems at play make sure you know exactly what the biggest challenges really are.
Slow and steady wins the race rebranding is a marathon, not a sprint. Get into the mindset of playing for keeps.
Following these four points will never guarantee success. But they will certainly help to improve your chances of pulling off any future rebrand.