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State of the nations

National image is a fragile thing or is it? The island mentality has Britons thinking that strikes at British Airways chip away not just at the carrier's image, but also at perceptions of its country of origin.

The disaster in the Mexican Gulf, meanwhile, has the press sniping at Barak Obama's repeated use of the term "British Petroleum" when the company has been called BP for years. He is, say the British Press, trying to divert attention from his dealings in the matter to BP's culpability and — likewise — its country of origin.

In Places, Simon Anholt's latest book, he argues that the reputations of "places" could be seen as deeply rooted cultural phenomena that move — if they move at all — very slowly, and only in response to major events and changes in the places themselves.

South Africa is currently reaping the benefits of one such major event. “The mood in the country is infectious,” says Added Value's Kate Wolters. “There is a real sense that this is Africa's time to shine. That the continent is on the cusp of an important moment in its history. That despite a media-fuelled reputation for turmoil and unrest, the world will now get to experience the warm welcome and hospitality of the African people.”

South Africa is a challenge for any marketer, given its cultural, economic and linguistic diversity — not to mention that a confusing mix of first and third world means that mass communication seldom works to reach all levels of the market. The World Cup, however, is seen as the ultimate nation-building event. “Our insight work in the market,” says Wolters, “suggests that consumers are fiercely patriotic and that brands who become "citizens" of the nation, and who seek to unite South Africans in spite of their diversity, will win hearts and minds. BP has also capitalised on the theme with a campaign titled "a nation united", featuring unlikely teams of stereotyped South Africans playing football against each other.

So a company that is being vilified on one side of the globe, and that is in danger of bringing its country of origin into disrepute is having completely the opposite effect on the other.

Happily, readers don't always believe what they read. “I have not seen or heard any connection between negative news related to British companies and perceptions of Britain overall,” says Joel Reish, of Next Level Research in the US. “It is Tony Hayward specifically, not the British people or government or culture, who is being vilified. BP is running television commercials here with Hayward promising that the oil will be cleaned up and BP takes full responsibility for "all legitimate claims", whatever that means. In the news, though, BP seems to be avoiding the issue as much as possible. It seems more concerned with PR damage control than technological damage control.”

South Africa is currently proving the power of the world's most popular sport to change perceptions of a nation. BP, meanwhile, is struggling to connect with an increasingly cynical public and an angry president. The one thing they have in common? They both need the media onside.

 

Louella Miles
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2010