Branding the Nation in an Era of Disorder

Keynote delivered at Loughborough University, April 2019

A spectre confronted me as I completed my book, Branding the Nation: the unmistakable sense that branding was not the panacea it made itself out to be. I used this image in the book’s conclusion to try to communicate the sense of unease that accompanied my thinking. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, were we not being shown the limits of strategic communication to salve the wounds lacerating the national self?

In retrospect it seems clear that the nation-state was dealing with an existential crisis. The cosmopolitan promises of foreign investment flows, supranational memberships, and global cultural industries to ready the nation-state for its “new and improved” role in a borderless society were being upended both within and outside national boundaries. The last ten years have witnessed the dramatic realities of growing unemployment and an increasingly emaciated social welfare system. States contend with the impact of market deregulation on their credit ratings and their political autonomy. News headlines announce flows across national borders, not only of capital but of migrants and refugees, of pandemics, of terror networks and organized crime. In the end, it seems that achieving the status of what Leslie Sklair cynically called “global nationalism” required compromises to the idea of the nation that could not be sustained.

At the time, I thought we would see the end of nation branding; or at least, the end of the magical thinking that accompanied it. I hoped branding would be replaced by more sensitive and accountable forms of communication in the name of national belonging. Instead, it is clear that reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. Nation branding has not gone away.

In some senses, that is to the good. The development of this new field of study – the journals, the conferences, the publications, the institutions – are a distinct evolution from its origins as something advertising creatives did to increase their client base into a more nuanced and reflexive practice. Current scholarship incorporates concepts of diplomacy, governance, and public policy, and assesses implications for communication, media systems, and identity at multiple spatial scales.

There is more to be said, however, about this development of the field. In addition to seeing greater intellectual intervention into the rationalities of branding, what we are also seeing in these studies is the rationalization or normalization of branding itself. To take one symptom of this transformation: scholars are not just expanding on and nuancing the ideas of the transnational promotional class; we are also awarding them titles and positions within our universities.[1] This is only one sign that we are slowly integrating the logic of branding into our professional and even our personal lives. The worry is that in doing so, we further reproduce the spirit of rationality that branding entails. For instance, instead of encouraging critical perspectives on the proliferating systems of ranking, reputation, and market value in our home institutions, we reproduce and reinforce them in our work.

This same problem of performativity pervades the current conjuncture of politics, media and identity, and its impact on the concept and form of the nation-state. Let me explain. In countries around the world, leaders, social movements, and citizens are today confronted with calls to rethink the meaning of national belonging. Many of these calls are antagonistic, chauvinistic, and sometimes violent. As stories multiply of border struggles, both real and imagined, they appear to reflect a new global mood, influenced by the failed promises of the nation-state to benefit those who live and work in its jurisdiction.

For those of us invested in the implications of nation as ideology, as a set of interests and institutions, and as what Rogers Brubaker calls a “practical category,” the question confronting us today is how to define the root causes of these troubled times, and how our research might contribute to understanding and explaining them. At the same time, we are faced with a major paradox, which is that it is precisely the promotion of claims in the name of the nation that is causing these troubled times.

No researcher would want to associate the outcome of their research to the devastating attacks in Norway, in Charlottesville, in Quebec, in Pittsburgh, and in New Zealand. But the fact of the matter is that all of these attacks were carried out by people with a vision of the nation, in the name of national identity. And in almost all of these situations, strategic communication was deployed to help enforce and circulate their vision.[2] National leaders now debate restrictions on not only weapons but on social media platforms to censor harmful online content that may build national imaginaries around exclusion, intolerance, and fear.

I don’t think we can reassure ourselves through compartmentalization: the idea that nation branding is distorted in the hands of radicals or terrorists, and a tool for good in the hands of elected leaders. This is partly because it is clearly not only radicals or populists who make chauvinistic claims to national belonging but also elected leaders themselves. But it is also because trying to distinguish information warfare from positive value narratives, or diplomacy from propaganda, does not really help our case. In fact, it reinforces the us-vs-them binaries that our work is intended to avoid.

Related to this, and making binary definitions even more problematic, is the doctrine of relativism currently dominating our political and information networks. In our so-called post-truth era, labels of fact or fiction are applied as epithets rather than as clear analytical distinctions.

In both domestic and international settings today, we are seeing principles of authoritarianism, populism, and globalism expressed in national terms, sometimes all at once. Whether we decide to see this discourse as “legitimate” or “illegitimate” nationalism is not the point. Instead, it is the fact of expressing belonging in the name of the nation that we need to pay attention to. In the words of Craig Calhoun, the key is to focus on the nation as form, not as content.

With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves whether it is possible to balance the potential of nation branding against the many prominent examples of nationalist communication that seem designed to foster hatred and resentment in society, at times violently so. What does it mean to conduct research on nation branding at the current conjuncture? Can this work contribute to opportunities to uphold the nation as a form of democratic solidarity, a container for human rights and protections, and an expression of inclusive belonging?

Wendy Brown’s book, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is, in a sense, a fascinating “longitudinal” study: published in 2010, it was quickly reprinted in 2017 as its relevance became all too clear to the current state of affairs.

The book is about the dramatic increase of physical barriers and boundaries within and on the borders of countries around the world – in Europe, in South and East Asia, in the Middle East, at the U.S.-Mexico border. For Brown, these walls symbolize not increasing sovereignty but of its decline. Building walls is meant to build a reputation for security, protection, and authority, a jurisdictional order amidst the disorder. But as Brown points out, this move comes with no small amount of irony: walls are a structure designed to project power, but this power is undermined by the wall’s very existence, not to mention its functional uselessness (2017: 37).

It strikes me that there is a strong alignment between the discourse of walls and the discourse of brands in the articulation of the nation. We cannot deny that branding is a form of boundary making, a creation of limits as a way to exercise power, whether this power is economic, cultural or political. A brand is not (only) a portal through which we gain understanding of how a text or product is made to mean something. It is a powerful authority, policing, and in many cases articulating, the boundaries according to which its objects acquire meaning.

At the same time, does the ongoing and relentless pressure to brand speak to some kind of failure? Failure to maintain the social institutions that would by their existence establish belonging and redress inequalities; failure to impose regulations on the technocrats and other unelected representatives in international settings, who call the shots for nation-states’ power to govern? And failure to heed the struggles of people less fortunate than we are, who primarily seek a place to call home?

If nation branding becomes a form of walling off, a claim to sovereignty that continues to exclude, and an articulation of values that many cannot afford to have, we will continue to witness how the practice contributes to the disorder we face today, instead of offering ways to think more productively with it.

In our ongoing study of the power of national discourse, it seems to me that our task is to heed the multiple, diverse, even opposing frames of belonging that are currently being expressed, and to avoid using our work to build further walls that separate a “we” from a “they.” Asking why and how people forge their claims at the level of the nation, what kinds of power this discourse offers, and by what means and with what effects it is circulated, can establish important contours to our research. Rather than trying to find legitimacy and illegitimacy in the various contents of nationalism, we might focus on how certain narratives appear legitimate to people, and why this is so.


[1] I am thinking here of the infamous nation branding consultant Simon Anholt, currently holding the title of honorary professor at the University of East Anglia, UK; but there are other examples.

[2] In the case of the mosque killings in Christchurch, New Zealand, to take a single example, the shooter wore a video camera to live-stream his attack after posting an 87-page manifesto to the anonymous message board 8chan. CNN called the attack “made for social media.”