The refugee crisis and the politics of country branding

How and whether a country reacts to the crisis is having a powerful influence on how that country is perceived

One of the less talked about aspects of the refugee crisis is the role that the brand values of the nation state play as part of the debate.

How and whether a country reacts to the crisis is having a powerful influence on how that country is perceived internationally, and especially within Europe.

It would be hard to argue that Hungary, for example, has built a reputation for compassion as a result of recent developments.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was recent dubbed ‘Orban the Awful’ as a result of his outspoken and deliberately provocative pronoucements on the issue.

Hungarian businesses trying to attract inward investment must be tearing their hair out at this sort of mood music.

It’s especially bad when your key trading partner has made plain its displeasure at the nature of the public discourse being driven by your Premier.

Germany, meanwhile, which has been undergoing, shall we say, a long-term reputational rebuild since the mid-20th century, has projected an image of sharing compassion, at odds with the conventional image of a cold and rational nation.

Britain’s own country brand position within Europe is already coloured by our “in-out” rhetoric over the European Union – to the other Member States, we are already fully paid-up members of the awkward squad.

Before today’s Prime Ministerial U-turn over refugee numbers, our troubled national standing was being further undermined by a perception of a United Kingdom lacking in compassion.

Our Daily Mail brand values were too much for some sections of the population to stomach, who recognise Britain as one of the original countries of refuge for the oppressed, harking back to the 1970s expulsion of Ugandan Asians by tyrant Idi Amin.

And it’s not just country branding which has been in play. Religions have been pitching in to burnish the relevance of their doctrine of compassion to the present situation: witness recent pronouncements by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis himself, a Pontiff who is fast changing perceptions of the Vatican from troubled and shrouded theocracy to a radical platform for advocating change.

Our colleagues at FutureBrand have produced the excellent Country Brand Index for a number of years. According to FutureBrand, the key drivers of a country brand include having a reputation for high quality products, a desire to visit or study in a country and perceptions of good infrastructure.

According to the Country Brand Index Hungary, global ranking 56/75, has relatively weak perception strength on the attributes of ‘political freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ – in the bottom 50% of the Index. And it’s ‘good for business’ perception ranking is 61/75. Similarly, Germany is a ‘country brand’ in this year’s study, with an overall global ranking of 3rd position, but political freedom and tolerance (at 15th and 16th respectively) are among its weakest perception scores.

One has to ask whether, after recent events, the perception of a compassionate society will be added to the list of key drivers that make up a country’s brand reputation.