The Financial Express

Boarding the branding bandwagon: A make-or-break year

| Updated: January 05, 2018 20:07:23

Boarding the branding bandwagon: A make-or-break year

Branding can happen naturally, through comparative advantage, or by the marketing and advertising skills typically taught in business schools. Eye-catching sceneries depict the natural type, Bangladesh's RMG (ready-made garment) prowess exemplifies the comparative advantage, and classroom techniques constitute the marketing/advertising skills. There is also a place for coordinating various assets to project an identity-specific image or claim.

Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index has built one, upon which it ranks countries. For example, its 2017 Index lists six European countries in the Top-10, with Canada (ranked joint 4th), Japan (also ranked joint 4th), the United States (6th), and Australia (9th) from outside. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom top the list, occupying the first, second, and third slots, with Italy (7th), Switzerland (8th), and Sweden (10th), completing that list. Slightly over 50 countries have been measured with China, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand from Asia and Down-Under, Argentina, Brazil, Chile,, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru from Latin America, Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria from Africa, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates representing the Middle East, and, back to Europe, this time Central and East, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine finishing that list.

Two obvious questions arise: What is it that brings such a motley lot into the list? How does Bangladesh fare?

Anholt-GfK Nation Brands measures countries along six dimensions: governance; exports; tourism; investment and immigration; culture and heritage; and people. Clearly one sees a smattering of the naturally bestowed, comparative advantage opportunities, and marketing/advertising skills all put together, and extended in every which way. These need not be put together administratively, but they do factor in public perception and policy recommendations. Just getting on the list, for example, attracts investors, tourists, and migrants (three of the six dimensions), while perceptions and performances within the country (the other three dimensions) play a huge role in influencing the above.

Directing 'nation-brands' upon Bangladesh is relevant at this stage for several reasons. First, 2018 is the bridgehead to an election whose democratic conformity might go a long way to boost perceptions and domestic performances: it might be pivotal to attracting those turned off in 2014 and 2015 by hartals and oborrodhs, such as investors, manufacturers, mostly foreign importing countries, and civil society subscribers.  Second, it can be used as a stepping-stone to fine-tune the country as Bangladeshis prepare for its fiftieth anniversary in 2021. Third, this index will be thrown against Bangladesh whether we prepare for it or not, simply by becoming a middle-income country, indeed, we will be held more accountable precisely where we fall short on any of those six dimensions unless we gear up. Fourth, diversifying production and boosting exports demand these indices be spruced up, and as we clamour to comply, the index is there as a barometer of our performances.

Fifth, since we are also investing hugely in infrastructure-building, it is only appropriate that we measure what these projects will deliver on a comparative basis, something more urgent now than ever before, and crucial, since, if we fall short now at the start of this development-consolidation process, it will get harder. Sixth, since we are tossing and turning between some of the major drivers of the global economy now, like China, India, the United States, and West European countries, we need to show a face they will understand, since all of them dot the Index, yet through differently constituted pathways. Finally, in a neo-liberal age accenting identity-driven salience, we do not have a choice but to engage in this competition so as not to be mowed over: the opposite perception of attractiveness about Bangladesh may become much harder to abandon at this stage of our development than to ascend the attractiveness ladder.

To explain how Bangladesh fares along this spectrum, one must begin with what it must do and where it must begin. To enter, then climb the Index, Bangladesh must begin where it currently enjoys an edge: its RMG competitive advantage opens the door faster than any of the other five windows, even though we may have such 'natural' magnets, like the world's longest beach and largest mangrove. These have not yet been harnessed and cannot instantly attract the number of visitors needed to rival the RMG income: in short, they are potential but not actual sources of comparative advantage.

With the RMG sector targeting $50 billion export income by 2021 setting the tone, the country must also accelerate other export areas where competitive advantage lies: leather, fish, and small-scale manufacture, like bicycles, must augment RMG income. Supplementing this dimension would be lubricating further the investment/immigration frontiers. Here too we have not been idle, though the pace must pick up: export processing or special economic zones must be expanded, beginning, as is the case, with countries least worried about our security picture, which drove foreign investors away in 2014/2015. Beyond inviting them, we need to also make both macro and micro-policies more effective, transparent, and comparable worldwide, from customs regulations and tax-exemptions to currency manipulations and market controls. More active commercial sections within embassies would feed this drive by disseminating our wares and needs, an exercise extendable to advertising the country to get the third dimension of tourism underway, while also uplifting the fourth of exporting our culture and heritage through artistry performances and production.

With the culture/heritage emphasis we return to the domestic front where the remaining two dimensions await meaningful cultivation. Both the 'people' and 'governance' resources can prove slippery: they have shown adaptability to make local-foreign blending comfortable in the past (not a difficult task for a former colony to do), but they can also run into often self-generated impediments, likes corruption, smuggling, infighting, segment-mindedness, and lethargy. It is here where the battle must be won: and to win, education must be encouraged and enhanced, enabled and make encompassing.

In the final analysis, behind these sufficient conditions lies the necessary condition: political order. In turn, that means a peaceful transfer to power in the 2018 election, indicating in no uncertain terms that this is as close to being a make-or-break year for the country. Every goal is permissible and attainable once we can stand and vote fearlessly, in a fretless way, and fruitfully.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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