Experiencing Nation Brands
By: Jian Wang and Shaojing Sun
Country image is a key element in international affairs and nations strive to cultivate and maximize their image and reputational capital on the world stage. The quest for this soft side of power is now,more than ever, a global phenomenon.1 One prime example of such soft power” projection is the World Exposition, where countries utilize the physical space of national pavilion for image formulation and public engagement. Despite skepticism about the extension of marketing principles into realms of public good, countries have also begun applying the principles and practices of branding in managing their national image.2 Such efforts have been amplified at the World Expo in recent decades, with countries taking up the mega-event as a platform for defining and delivering their “nation brands,” in hopes of not only capturing the attention of an international audience but, more importantly, transforming foreign public’s interest into understanding.
Indeed, despite the dizzying pace of globalization, few events grab much of any worldwide attention these days. One may count the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, and, to some extent, the World Expo. But unlike the others, the Expo is not a media event. It is instead best experienced in person; hence not much different from visiting a theme park or a county fair. In this study, we focus on Expo 2010 Shanghai, the first Expo held in a developing country and the most attended in Expo history. The study seeks to understand how Chinese visitors, comprising the vast majority of Expo attendance, experienced the branded space of national pavilions, and to discuss how pavilion experience may shape or re-shape visitor perception of the countries represented.
While there are important differences between product branding and nation branding, the logic and principles of branding can also be applied to country-image communication.3 In the case of the Expo, branding practices are clearly evident in the design of national pavilions as well as in discursive strategies concerning national image and collective identity. In the broader branding literature, there are several useful concepts that help to explain consumer brand perception and behavior (e.g., brand personality, brand relationship, brand community, brand experience).4 Yet, little has been done to test and apply these concepts in the examination of nation-branding efforts; and this study is a modest effort to help advance the field in that direction.
In the current study, we use the construct of “brand experience” to investigate visitors’ responses to select pavilions at the Shanghai Expo. According to Brakus, Schmitt and Zarantonello, brand experience refers to sensations, feelings, cognitions and behavioral responses evoked by brand-related stimuli.5 The national pavilions are constructed as a branded space not for commerce per se, but for winning the “hearts and minds” of a foreign public. They are in essence “experiential goods.” We surveyed visitors at eight pavilions, including Brazil, India, Israel, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, on the structural dimensions of “brand experience” at these pavilions. We also drew on interviews with pavilion representatives and observations based on site visits to the eight pavilions.
This investigation expands the conceptual range in the study of public diplomacy by examining a nation-branding event with a conceptual tool from general marketing. Through a comparative lens, the study goes beyond the prior analyses of nation-branding endeavors, based primarily on individual case examples.6 It also adds to the existing literature on the global institution of the World Expo, which has focused on historical, cultural studies, with few efforts in assessing its impact.7 In addition, specific to the Shanghai Expo, our analysis helps to broaden the current discussion on China’s rise and its soft power implications from a singular focus on China’s “charm offensive” to a look at an interactive system of China being not only the sponsor but also the target of public diplomacy by other countries.8 Finally, this study yields practical insights that organizers of future World Expositions or other similar events will find relevant and useful.
We begin with a discussion of the World Expo as a site for national image construction. We then set forth the concept of “brand experience” and examine its application in the nation-branding context. The next part focuses on analyzing the dimensions of nationbrand experience at the Shanghai Expo. We conclude by discussing both conceptual and practical implications of the study.