Branding a Nation: 3 Things African Thought Leaders Need To Know

If we look at the image of Africa outside of Africa, two perspectives come to mind. The first one is the image of fascinating wild life, rich culture and mesmerizing landscapes. The second one is the one of war, poverty and diseases.

The latter features images promoted relentlessly by NGO’s across the world to raise funds, and has in reality done tremendous damage to the image of the continent.

There is however, a third perspective of Africa that the world pays little attention to; the built-up Africa, which is dynamic, very creative, entrepreneurial and tech savvy. African countries have a unique opportunity to position themselves as the leaders in implementing smart solutions and sustainable urban design through the strategic use of nation branding.

Far from being the magical wand that many public sector leaders feel that it is, this discipline of strategic communications requires much more tact, and Jay Wang, Director of the USC Center for Public Diplomacy offers some good advice on how to use nation branding to build and maintain a country’s strategic advantage.

  1. Storytelling as the Foundation

Storytelling with mass appeal is the foundation of this kind of brand communication effort. Shaping perception through branding is less about making good arguments than sharing a compelling and relatable story about a nation’s image.

Such storytelling needs to have a clear structure and order, and needs to engage the audience’s emotions – storytelling has the power to change the way we see things. Ultimately any nation-branding effort is also an educational experience. It is for the audience to learn and appreciate something about other countries.

Africa cannot be reduced to a place that is simply “rising,” nor a place plagued by poverty and corruption - a helpless, hopeless continent. While the continent faces enormous challenges, not every African nation is in need, nor in crisis.

We speak about the whole of Africa but the last time I checked, Africa was made up of many complex countries and cultures. So why do we so often tell stories based on a single narrative, drained of complexity?

  1. Strategic Use of Stereotypes

Given that stereotypes form the basis of our expectations in a communicative context, they should be productively harnessed to draw the audience into the bigger story rather than being uniformly jettisoned. For example, many mistakenly believe that Africa is not home to cutting-edge technological innovation and fast-paced urban civilizations.

African innovation is not yet getting the level of global recognition and support it truly deserves. The continent is brimming with a rising new generation of bold, creative-thinking innovators and entrepreneurs.

A good example is Arthur Zang, a 26 year-old Cameroonian who invented the Cardiopad - a touch screen medical tablet that enables heart examinations such as the electrocardiogram (ECG) to be performed at remote, rural locations while the results of the test are transferred wirelessly to specialists who can interpret them. With such innovations our daily lives will simplify and societies will transform.

As such, African countries should take advantage of these pigeonholes they are constantly put in and use them as a stepping stone to reshape the narrative and perception and attract the attention of the right stakeholders. Our innovations deserve a closer look, and it’s time the world took notice.

  1. Use of National Symbols

Much, if not most, of nation branding is about re-emphasis and reminding. National symbols are familiar representations and offer powerful mental shortcuts to the country. The association and connection established serve as points of departure for the nation to articulate its story.

From the government logos, websites, messaging, social media usernames to the campaigns and projects, the visual individuality of a nation should carry an ambient look and feel to it that creates an immediate connection with the country.

This can be clearly illustrated by products made in Kenya and sold globally, where the Kenyan flag colors are clearly printed on the product wrap paper to symbolize that they are from Kenya. Use of flag colors or symbols in presenting and delivering the content can be very impactful in making audiences identify with the particular nation.

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