From Bloom Consulting’s collective experience in the field of Nation and Place Branding as strategists over the last 20 years we have become familiar with the many things that can damage or enhance brands of Countries, Regions and Cities. From insufficient funds to implement a brand strategy and lack of risk assessment to political scandals and environmental and health emergencies, brand reputations can be affected by a number of factors.

Thus, how a Country or City manages major emergencies, such as the Covid-19 Pandemic, the clarity and honesty with which politicians deal with it can provide valuable lessons for future development on Nation and Place Brands’ strategies.

For most people the impact of the pandemic on their Country’s Brand will not be top of mind. But for practitioners in the field of Nation and Place Branding and for managers of brand strategies, there are a few important questions that should be taken into consideration when assessing how a Country, Region or City Brand is being impacted by this pandemic:

1 – How open are governments being about their actions and their impacts?

2 – What is the new normal in terms of its offer to citizens and businesses and to what extent should it be reflected in the future Place Brand offer?

3 – What needs to change about the brand strategy to honestly and accurately reflect the new normal of the place?

4 – Are there any changes and innovations being built into the brand offer as a result?

5 – Overall, how effective are the policies and initiatives being introduced in dealing with the scale and nature of the problems which the pandemic is creating and how is this affecting the reputation of the place?

6 – How is the place being seen by the rest of the world?

7 – What are the critical lessons from this experience to date that should be positively considered in adapting and improving existing or new brand strategies?

Below I provide an entirely personal reflection about the impact of the pandemic on the United Kingdom using these questions as my frame of inquiry. These reflections are based on my reading of news and comment from media in the UK and in other Countries. I also had online conversations with Nation and Place Branding practitioners around the world. The accuracy of my reflections will be for others to judge.

How well is the United Kingdom coping with the Covid-19 pandemic?

Before sharing my observations, it is important to note that the UK does not have a Nation Brand strategy. However, there’s well-developed tourism brand offers and strategies and an active “Visit Britain” marketing strategy. The Country has had an effective marketing strategy and associated campaign – the “Great Britain” campaign – which has promoted a large number of positive messages about what the government believes the Country does well and its strongest offers. And the recently created “ScotlandIsNow” brand promotion campaign is regarded as being effective in portraying its offer.

How open is the government being about its actions and their impacts?

The extent to which a government is open with citizens and the media is a key factor in determining its brand reputation and as a proxy for how the Country is seen externally.

The UK Government took the decision to hold a daily briefing for the nation (televised live) with questions from selected journalists. After the introduction from Ministers, they are given a right of reply in the form of a supplementary question or comment. In this way the government has been communicating directly with citizens in a way that no amount of broadcasts from the House of Commons has ever offered.

What has been interesting about this is that Ministers have been appearing alongside the Government’s chief or senior medical and scientific advisors. The former mostly focus on the performance of the Government against its targets and promises and the recurring mantras concerning social distancing, regular hand washing and the latest interpretation of guidance on what the population is or is not allowed to do. And the latter are deferred to the analysis of trends in infections, hospitalization and deaths, and questions on these considerations.

From a Country Brand perspective this form of briefing is beneficial in that it offers insights into Government thinking and the workings of government that have not been the norm historically, which is to be welcomed. This approach to Government communications might be carried forward as part of a “new normal” providing that it is grounded in fact and not on opinion or political rhetoric.

Personal Protective Equipment is now part of the UK’s citizens “new normal” [©SkyNews]

What is the new normal of the UK in terms of its offer to citizens and businesses and to what extent should it be reflected in the future?

In brand terms a Country’s norms are the characteristics that indicate what life is actually like there, good and bad, that affect domestic and international audience’s perceptions of the place.

Geographically the UK is a part of Europe and it is interesting to compare what Europeans think about the impact of Covid-19 on their lives and what its consequences will be in comparison with UK citizens.

[Bloom Consulting is shortly going to publish a new and innovative study about these matters, especially about the impact of Covid-19 on worldwide Nation and Place Brands and on tourism, with free consultation for the assessment of Countries, Regions and Cities.]

Are European citizens more optimistic or pessimistic that things will rebalance in short-term? From Bloom Consulting’s and others’ research there are indications that in some European Countries the new normal of online food shopping and online accessing of cultural and entertainment offers may presage continued behaviour of this kind, less travel and movement in the future, with implications for travel, retail and cultural sectors – potentially a “new normal”.

The new (or “now”) normal in the UK is not business as usual and it’s unlikely that the Country will return to business as usual for some time, if ever. Some commentators have predicted a better, kinder, more communal society while others have postulated civil unrest if the lockdown lasts for much longer. Who will be correct? Only time will tell.

However, the government should take note of the positive and innovative actions being taken by people, groups and businesses outside government’s scope of activity. These can be indicative of a Country that the UK should seek to become and be seen as, behaviours which it welcomes and will support. For example, we have seen a significant rise in people volunteering to help the NHS, donating groceries to food banks and groups making PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for use in the health service. Companies are adapting production lines to manufacture and increase the supply of ventilators and other forms of breathing equipment for those in intensive care units.

Funds have been raised by voluntary action and community giving for the NHS (despite most people being on lower incomes and many on nothing at all except charity), as well as provision of advice for parents discovering the challenges of continuing their children’s education at home during lockdown. And increasing accessibility to the Country’s arts and cultural offer has been created online which is taking it to a much greater audience who might not have had the money to listen to or watch it in person.

Are these and other similar initiatives examples of what might typify a future UK in the eyes of the rest of the world and profoundly alter perceptions of the Country? If yes, then we need to organise ourselves to make these activities a continuing reality of the Country and its brand.

What needs to change about the brand strategy to honestly and accurately reflect the new normal of the place?

As noted above, the UK does not have a formally agreed Country or Nation Brand strategy. In this context the response to the pandemic could be an appropriate time to frame such a strategy based on learning the lessons on how the governments of the UK have handled the crisis and the many initiatives taking place beyond government. These should include the many innovations coming out of community action, businesses innovating in distance working and cooperation, etc; in other words, a strategy that defines a changed Country, a changed approach to investment in public services (not just the NHS), a changed appreciation of its people and businesses.

In any case, such a strategy has been long overdue to move the Country forward from its disputative character engendered by Brexit to a “new normal” defined by its new relationship with Europe and emergence from the lockdown; new and innovative ways of making and delivering public policy, enabling those most adversely economically affected to recover jobs and businesses.

Are there any changes and innovations being built into the brand offer as a result?

The pandemic has reminded people that community is important to them, community organisations that step into the breach when public policy fails them, the community of businesses – small and large – working together to enable government initiatives to be undertaken, individuals, families, community groups and businesses turning to making PPE for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

I’ve heard many people saying that the pandemic has “introduced” them to neighbours they had never known or seen – one benefit of standing outside their front doors and clapping to thank the front-line workers of the NHS.

The brand issue here is how does the Country positively harness this re-found value of community as a core characteristic of the people of the Country, one that might come to define it for people elsewhere.

Overall, how effective are the policies and initiatives being introduced in dealing with the scale and nature of the problems which the pandemic is creating?

A number of UK Ministers, politicians and some media commentators have argued that it is too early to reach judgements about the impact of government policies, initiatives and actions while the imperative remains to successfully address the challenges of Covid-19. However, the impact of its actions is being identified in Government’s briefings and the media more widely. Most recently, it reopened a more televised and digitally participating Parliament, where the Country and people outside it can see and hear both the Government’s line as well as those of its critics and commentators.

Government Ministers are stressing the extent to which “the curve is being flattened” as a result of their actions, principally through the NHS and their herculean efforts to supply hospitals, and more recently, care homes with PPE – witness the recent airlifts of PPE from Turkey by the RAF. On the other hand, many in the media and individuals on social media are criticising shortages of PPE, the delays in its distribution and the resultant impact on front-line health sector workers, in particular those in the “Care Sector” and their residents.

Clearly the speed and scale of the impact of the pandemic is far greater than anyone in government (and not just in the UK) – Ministers, MP’s and civil servants – had imagined or planned for. Despite the ongoing and increasing efforts to address the challenge of the virus, citizens of the UK will rightly hold the Government responsible for any missteps made along the way in terms of policy, its implementation, procurement and distribution of much needed resources – be they PPE, grant aid for struggling businesses, temporary tax reliefs and financial support for those losing their jobs or being placed on unpaid furlough.

All of which is to say that the reputation of the Government for competence is on the line and may benefit or harm its standing in the Country and in the rest of the world – a key element in brand reputation and brand evaluation.

Reuters reported on 23 April that six in ten people recently surveyed by Kantar said that the Government was handling the coronavirus crisis fairly or very well. In comparison three in ten said it was handling it fairly poorly or badly. This is a welcome (to the Government) sense of positiveness despite Government’s difficulties in meeting its testing target of 100,000 per day by the end of April.

In comparison, ORB International reported on 17 April that there has been a decline in approval for the way in which the Government has been handling the situation – down from 68% to 59%, with interviewees in Scotland and London showing the greatest dissatisfaction. In the same poll less than one in five (17%) said that the situation in the UK is under control with 67% saying that the spread of the virus is not under control with 16% remaining unsure.

What would certainly boost belief in the Government’s pronouncements would be absolute clarity and honesty about the challenges it is facing and how it is learning to address these challenges more effectively. In other words, getting the situation under control. Such clarity and honesty lie at the heart of well managed Country Brand strategies and action planning.

Countries from the UK are proposing a phased return of tourists [©AP]

How is the place being seen by the rest of the world?

While domestic opinion about the reputation of the Country and the competence of its Government is clearly important, from a Country Brand perspective, also of importance is how the rest of the world is viewing the Country. Something that we will be able to assess with Bloom Consulting’s new Covid-19 report about the impact of the pandemic on the brand’s perceptions.

Most comment on the pandemic in the European press has been nationally orientated and not that much concerned with the UK other than to express amazement on its “Herd Immunity” strategy (soon abandoned) in the early stages of the pandemic. One exception is a perceptive article by Giles Tremlett published in the UK newspaper the Guardian (on 23 March), where he provides a personal perspective of the UK from Spain where he lives. As he put it: “watching the UK from a distance has felt like scrambling out of your car at the front of a pile-up on the motorway, only to see other cars smashing into the rear 20 minutes later. Didn’t anyone warn them about what lay ahead. Surely everybody knew?”.

What are the critical lessons from this experience to date that should be positively considered in adapting and improving existing or new brand strategies?

There are a number of lessons emerging from the UK’s handling of the pandemic to date that are relevant for any Country wishing to strengthen or recover its brand reputation and a number for the UK and its constituent country administrations to consider.

It is necessary to think strategically about plans for combatting the pandemic and share them with the citizens in a coherent way providing information on action and actual progress. This is the first step for a Country Brand Management Team. This and other key actions will be addressed on the webinar that Bloom Consulting is hosting with City Nation Place on May 27th.

Governments needs to consider a range of actions that will recover or strengthen their reputation and that of the Country as a whole. These include developing its strategy, albeit an evolving one, with some form of endgame in mind – a gradual exit strategy from lockdown, one that sequentially eases aspects of it in a planned way.

These and other relevant insights on Countries’ responses to the pandemic will be covered in the forthcoming Bloom Consulting Covid-19 Report which will shortly be accessible from our website.