It is the beginning of March 2022 two weeks into Russian invasion of Ukraine. “The world is watching”, media states and for a good part of the world, that is all it is doing.

For many, the shock comes from this war developing on European soil, seemingly forgetting about the tragedies of the 1990s in the Balkans or WWII. For some, this is an opportunity to signal values, (re)act symbolically or with substance. For all, there should be an understanding these emotionally charged times add to our pools of association to the countries’ brands, our perceptions of places and our responses as “consumers”.

Europeanism is often lauded as the reason behind Europe’s influence in the world, understood as shared political, economic and social values of Europeans. These shared values shape responses to issues and (supposedly) differentiate Europe – or its “Region” brand – from the rest of the world.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine question the very meaning of Europeanness and whether this idea can withstand such divisions and polarity that emerge from no longer sharing the values. They re-shape our understanding of the West-East dichotomy, though the question should also be whether the division is binary.

When this crisis abates and arms are laid down, we can expect Russia to (re)start a lengthy process of repositioning itself in the world. The same will not apply to Ukraine. To the world and even Europe, Ukraine as a country and as a nation was largely unfamiliar. At the beginning of March 2022, this changed. We witnessed stories of unparalleled resilience, bravery, resolve and tact.

“Suddenly Ukraine built a Nation Brand without knowing it, so much and so strong that the attributes it represents and is known for will likely position it as a brand Europe wants, or rather needs, under its umbrella.This is how Nation Brands are ultimately built.”

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a Family portrait before the invasion
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a Family portrait before the invasion.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a photo during the invasion
Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a photo during the invasion.

Branding a post-conflict place

Countries, regions and cities with stable economies and in peaceful times, as much as those going through tremulous changes are equally trying to adapt and ultimately manage their international reputation. Nation Branding and City Branding, however, goes well beyond promotion, public relations, negotiating identity. It is a messy process that includes infrastructure and its shortcomings, national heroes, and oil reserves, as much as the hospitality of people or medieval built heritage. A country’s brand includes a pool of associations, with an arguably reciprocal relationship to the country’s reputation and perception.

“Europe as a Region Brand gained purpose, traction and cohesion, not by virtue but rather by need. Ukraine Nation Brand was built in a week while unfortunately Russia Nation Brand was almost destroyed in a day (time will tell) – all for the worst reasons possible.”

Zelenskyy receives standing ovation after the speech to European Parliament in March 2022
Zelenskyy receives standing ovation after the speech to European Parliament in March 2022

In the Russian invasion of the Ukraine crisis, the military involvement of European Countries and the rest of the world carries a lot of dangers. However, without taking appropriate, sufficient or quick actions, how will this affect the organic images we are building of countries on a daily basis – the same organic images that can be an asset or a burden to the strategic Nation Branding initiatives?

What will this mean for Ukraine and Russia? “First world” branding strategies often fall short when implemented in a post-conflict environment. The latter is emotionally charged, licking the wounds of the past, counting victims, building shelters.

Amidst the chaos, a post-conflict environment needs to (re)negotiate a feeling of belonging, with its residents, but also regionally. It often involves a combination of public relations, public diplomacy and yes…marketing strategies.

Russia will need to rethink its position and reputation going forward, whether and in what way will it acknowledge it. Its pool of association is dominated by one person’s brand and its actions in the days following have an unprecedented power of shifting the narrative. How will this conflict affect the perceptions of the Russian people and how will they (re)negotiate the relationship to their country?

Protest against "Russian" invasion

Protests against “Russian” invasion

For the rest of the world, different levels of involvement in the conflict will dictate how our perceptions will change. In any event, we need to acknowledge that our new reality will be that of a (post) conflict environment.