THE PAPER | Why Care About Nation Branding?

THE PAPER | Why Care About Nation Branding?

By Nadia Kaneva

This abstract discusses the growing body of research on nation branding, arguing for an expanded critical research agenda on this topic. It begins with an extensive overview of scholarly writing on nation branding, based on 186 sources across disciplines. The discussion organizes the sources in three categories, teasing out key themes within and across them. 

Second, it proposes a reflexive conceptual map which identifies four types of research orientations across disciplines. Finally, some directions for future critical research on nation branding and its implications are outlined. The ultimate goal of this mapping exercise is to stimulate more work informed by critical theories on the global phenomenon of nation branding.

In its 2005 “Year in Ideas” issue, The New York Times Magazine listed nation branding among the year’s most notable ideas. The article featured British brand consultant Simon Anholt and summed up his position in this way: “Just as companies have learned to ‘live the brand,’ countries should consider their reputations carefully—because . . . in the interconnected world, that’s what statecraft is all about” (Risen, 2005).[1] At first glance, this claim seems hardly revolutionary. Nation-states have historically used various forms of persuasion to advance their political, economic, and cultural agendas. Indeed, one could argue that the American field of mass communication research has its roots in the study of propaganda and its imputed effects (e.g., Lasswell, 1927, 1936), as evident in early work on development communication (e.g., Lerner, 1951, 1958), public relations (e.g., Bernays, 1923, 1955), and public opinion (e.g., Lippmann, 1922, 1925; Lazarsfeld et al., 1944).

Nation branding, however, is not a mere synonym for propaganda, nor are its suggested applications limited to influencing public opinion through advertising or public relations. Despite nation branding’s growing popularity, there is much disagreement about its meaning and scope (see, for example, Dinnie, 2008; Fan, 2009). Conceptual debates are discussed in more detail later in the paper, but at the outset, I offer a working definition of nation branding as a compendium of discourses and practices aimed at reconstituting nationhood through marketing and branding paradigms. In terms of practical manifestations, nation branding includes a wide variety of activities, ranging from “cosmetic” operations, such as the creation of national logos and slogans, to efforts to institutionalize branding within state structures by creating governmental and quasi-governmental bodies that oversee long-term nation branding efforts.[2] The most ambitious architects of nation branding envision it as “a component of national policy, never as a ‘campaign’ that is separate from planning, governance or economic development” (Anholt, 2008, p. 23, emphasis in original). In addition, nation branding programs can be directed at both domestic and international audiences, and they are often funded with public money. In short, nation branding seeks to reconstitute nations both at the levels of ideology, and of praxis, whereby the meaning and experiential reality of nationhood itself is transformed in ways that are yet to be fully understood.

In light of this, communication scholars should be particularly interested in developing a critique of nation branding because efforts to rethink nations as brands relate to theoretical debates central to critical scholarship of culture and communication. These debates include the problems of cultural imperialism and commodification (e.g., Mosco, 1996; Schiller, 1976, 1989), the perils of capitalist (neoliberal) globalization (e.g., Beck, 2000; Sassen, 1998), the state of public spheres and civil society in a globalizing world (e.g., Calabrese, 1999; Habermas, 2001), and the centrality of identities in contemporary experience (e.g., Castells, 1997; Hall & du Gay, 1996; Laclau, 1994). Critical theorizations of the transformation of space and place in post-modernity (e.g., Appadurai, 1996; Harvey, 1990, 2001, 2006; Lefebvre 1991) are also relevant and should be brought to bear in discussing the implications of nation branding. Finally, a growing body of recent critical work investigates brands and branding as distinctive phenomena of late capitalism that transcend the economic realm (e.g., Arvidsson, 2006; Einstein, 2007; Lury, 2004; Moor, 2007), but it mentions nation branding only in passing.

Research on nation branding has been the focus of a number of literature reviews from marketing (e.g., Kavaratzis, 2005; Papadopoulos, 2004) or public relations perspectives (e.g., Wang, 2006b). Some scholars have also conducted partial cross-disciplinary reviews with the goal of clarifying the relationship between nation branding and public diplomacy (e.g., Gilboa, 2008; Szondi, 2008). While these sources offer helpful insights into the growing literature on nation branding, the intended contributions of this paper are different. First, the present review offers a synthetic reading across disciplines as a way to illustrate the relative weight of different disciplinary approaches on nation branding research as a whole. Second, it teases out themes and assumptions that cut across disciplines, and it does so from a critical vantage point. Finally, this review is intended to stimulate interest in nation branding among media and communication scholars, and it hopes to encourage a new wave of research on this topic that is informed by critical theories. The paper’s interest in critical theoretical approaches is, admittedly, in line with the author’s own critical research agenda. It is also motivated by the fact that critical scholarship is currently a minority voice in debates about nation branding.

For the purposes of this review, 186 sources on nation branding were examined. These sources were all published between 1997 and August 2009, and they range from scholarly articles to book-length studies. The sample comprises 140 articles published in academic journals (including theoretical and empirical studies), 17 books or chapters in edited volumes, 8 graduate theses, 15 reports or essays published by think tanks and private branding agencies, and 6 academic papers presented at conferences or available on academic websites. Brief opinion pieces and commentary, even if appearing in academic publications, were excluded from the count of sources, although they were examined by the author. Also excluded were publications in trade journals (such as Advertising Age) or general interest media (such as The Economist), although the topic of nation branding is often discussed by such sources.[3] Although the sample includes an extensive collection of sources, it likely does not contain every publication on the topic, due to the limitations of electronic search methods and the author’s lack of access to some materials.[4]

The discussion organizes the sources into three categories which, borrowing from Bell (1976), are labeled: technical-economic, political, and cultural approaches.[5] Technical-economic approaches include studies from disciplines that concern themselves with conditions for economic growth, efficiency, and capital accumulation. These include marketing, management, and tourism studies. Political approaches include studies primarily interested in the impact of national images on nation-states’ participation in a global system of international relations. These studies come from the fields of international relations, public relations, and international communication. Cultural approaches include studies from the fields of media and cultural studies, which tend to focus on the implications of nation branding for national and cultural identities. A limitation of this categorization derives from the fact that some sources raise questions pertinent to more than one of the three categories.[6] Overall, most studies demonstrated a clear predisposition toward one conceptual approach. Nevertheless, the three categories proposed in this review should be viewed as a heuristic, rather than as a strict classification.

The discussion that follows unfolds in three steps. First, it offers an extensive overview of the current terrain of scholarly writing on nation branding and teases out key themes within and across the three approaches outlined above.[7] Second, it suggests a reflexive conceptual map which identifies four existing orientations that relate to the ontological assumptions of research and cut across disciplines. Finally, the paper outlines the beginnings of an agenda for further critical cultural scholarship on nation branding. By engaging in this mapping exercise, the paper’s ultimate purpose is to show that critically informed research from media and communication scholars can contribute significantly to the understanding of nation branding and its multiple implications for nationhood.

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About The Author:

Nadia Kaneva is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film, and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver.  She holds a PhD in Media Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder, an MA in Advertising from Syracuse University, and a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from the American University in Bulgaria.

Nadia's research draws on critical theories of communication and culture and explores the construction of identities in various contexts. She is particularly interested in critical perspectives on consumer culture.  Much of her research focuses on the cultural transformations of post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

At DU, Nadia teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in media theory and history, public relations, and advertising.

Before becoming a college professor, Nadia has worked in advertising and public relations in the United States and in her native country, Bulgaria.


[1] Anholt claims that he coined the term “nation branding” in 1996 (, n.d.). He is undoubtedly the most prolific author on the subject (e.g., Anholt, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006a, 2007, 2008), and he has played a key role in establishing nation branding through consulting practice, speaking engagements, and efforts to institutionalize it as an academic field with scientific legitimacy. Another “founding father” of nation branding is Wally Olins, also a British brand consultant, whose work for governments, speaking engagements, and publications (e.g., Olins, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005) are commonly referenced.

[2] Examples of such bodies include the following: UK’s Public Diplomacy Board, established in 2002, and of which Simon Anholt is a member; the International Marketing Council of South Africa, also established in 2002; and South Korea’s Presidential Council on Nation Branding, founded in 2009.
While not included in this review, several online blogs compile information on nation branding and present commentary by practitioners. See, for example, and

[3] Studies were located through searches in academic databases, online searches, and by following the topic in academic publications, conference presentations, and media reports. When mining electronic sources, the following search terms were used: nation(al) brand(ing), country brand(ing), public diplomacy, place brand(ing), destination brand(ing), and reputation management. Not all of the identified sources are cited in this article, but all have informed its claims. The selection of sources was also limited by the fact that only English-language publications were considered. However, because the biggest proponents of nation branding are based in the UK and the United States, and as English is considered the universal business language, this selection is likely to be fairly comprehensive. Bell (1976) outlines a tri-partite “ideal type” structural model of the capitalist social order and proposes that capitalism’s contradictions can be understood by recognizing the “antagonistic principles that underlie the technical-economic, political, and cultural structures of the society” (p. xvi). The technical-economic realm is based on principles of efficiency, specialization, and hierarchy where the ultimate goal is to maximize profit (pp. xvi-xvii). The political realm is governed by the principle of equality, where the ultimate goal is to ensure equal representation and participation (p. xvii). The cultural realm is one of “self-expression and self-gratification” (p. xvii). Because branding is a uniquely capitalist tool for producing value through rationalizing meaning, Bell’s conceptual framework seems particularly fitting.

[4] This is especially true for studies from the technical-economic and political approaches. In such cases, studies were categorized based on the reviewer’s subjective assessment of a study’s main argument and its orientation.

[5] Although some comments are made on common methodologies within each approach, a systematic discussion of methods is beyond the scope of the present review. 

Copyright © 2016 (Nadia Kaneva). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at 
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