How To Brand A Nation

As a governmental project, nationalism adopts nation-centric rhetoric and policies that instil a feeling of patriotism and devotion among its citizens. The practice emerged in the 1800s as Europe’s dynastic empires tumbled in favour of nation-states. Over a century later, a new form of nationalism has appeared: nation branding. With nation branding, national consciousness is taken up and repackaged to enhance a country’s trade strategy and soft power. This new tactical form of nationalism is a response to the emergence of the 21st century globalized nation, one whose commercial markets and policies are intertwined with other countries and coalitions. Traditionally, a country’s economic health was based on its national corporations and levels of production. That changed with the increase in free trade agreements, foreign acquisitions and the cross-border production chains of the late 20th century. A country’s economic value could no longer be defined by its corporate landscape. It could, however, be defined by its citizens.


So how does one brand a nation? Nation branding operates as a series of campaigns meant to promote a nation’s value to international audiences.[1] Melissa Aronczyk break the process down into four stages: research/evaluation, training/education, identification and implementation. 

The first stage involves evaluating a nation’s level of attractiveness based on national and international perceptions. Citizens are then trained on nation branding and its importance. Thirdly, a nation’s essence or “core idea” is developed, which is then shared through multiple channels as a distinguishing feature of national identity.


Canada is no stranger to the practice. Right now, as the country celebrates its 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Liberal Government has taken advantage of the opportunity to “sell” Canada both at home and abroad. Canada’s Sesquicentennial celebrations fit in as part of Aronczyk’s fourth stage of nation branding, to “distill the political, economic and cultural interests of the country into a single but mutable proposition.”[2]  The celebrations’ four themes, diversity and inclusion, reconciliation with indigenous peoples, the environment and youth, reflect the rhetoric that has come to define the Liberal government since Trudeau took leadership. Crafting the themes in the image of the Liberals’ platform is a branding tactic that ensures citizens are embodying the party’s values throughout the celebratory events. The themes are meant to create a cohesive and attractive story of Canada that we, as citizens, are compelled to embody and share.


When announcing diversity as a Sesquicentennial theme, Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly reiterated what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has exclaimed many times: “we want to celebrate our diversity” because “Canadians understand that diversity is our strength.” Trudeau’s dependence on the concept of diversity as a selling point was evident during his address at the World Economic Forum Signature Session in Davos in January 2016. The Forum was Trudeau’s first post-election opportunity to tout the “new Canada” on a global stage. In his Davos speech, entitled “The Canadian Opportunity,” Trudeau used the occasion to rebrand the Canadian economy from one that is heavily reliant on natural resources to one that is dependent on its country’s confidence and diversity. The address was one way to establish the innovative technology industry as a natural fit for Canadians because “diversity fosters new ideas.”


With his speech, Trudeau shifted Canadians’ understanding of diversity from a key descriptor of their identity into an economic asset. For decades, Canada’s pride as a functioning multicultural society has been at the center of our identity. Now, it is part of our global brand. Yet just 10 years earlier, diversity was deemed an impediment to our “brand.” [3] Now, in the age of “innovation,” mixing different ideas, background, and methods has become valuable. It is true in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal, and here at Milieux. We embrace diversity; operating at the intersection of art, culture and technology, we encourage each cluster to work together in challenging assumptions about what is possible. The government knows the industrial and technology sectors will only continue to grow. They understand the future of our economy will depend more and more on being innovative and pushing technological boundaries. That is why they are so eager to shift how Canadians and international investors see our economy. The Liberals want us to be known as a country that produces ideas, not oil.


When the Liberals took over planning for the Sesquicentennial in 2015 and abandoned the historical aspect of the anniversary in favour of themes, the celebrations moved away from a birthday celebration to a political project, one steeped in nation branding strategy and with a specific mission: to establish long-lasting Canadian myths in their own image for both their citizens and potential investors. As spokesman for Minister Joly, Pierre-Olivier Herbert explained in a January 2017 Globe and Mail article, the celebrations are “our chance to reaffirm our social contract – rooted in our two official languages, our attachment to pluralism as well as our continued efforts towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”[4] Indeed, to live in the nation of Canada is to sign a social contract. With the Sesquicentennial, the Liberals have rewritten the contract, redacting and expanding certain sections while adding others.


Nationalism does have its benefits, creating a reassuring and communal bond among citizens. However, as we are seeing today in the United States and Europe, it is also dangerous. The danger of nation branding, like the nationalism it serves, is the mistaken assumption that these myths are intrinsic. When traits are mistaken for intrinsic, one doesn’t want to contaminate them. Nationalism is inherently biased; a group, even one as big as a nation, can only be formed through exclusion. That exclusion can remain benign, or grow into a hostile sense of protectionism to preserve the traditions or way of life (the myths) of a nation.