How to create a national brand of Kazakhstan? 

How to create a national brand of Kazakhstan? 

Why does Kazakhstan need a country brand and why is a lot of money being spent on its creation? What is the most correct strategy for establishing a country brand and are we following it? Ultimately, will our country be able to enter the league of the top 30 countries of the world?

Ruslan Zhemkov, CEO of the Eurasian Media Forum, Kazakh entrepreneur and country-branding expert, answered these and other questions. 

– What are the practical benefits of the Eurasian Media Forum for the citizens of our country? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to direct the budget allocated for the Forum to the development of the social sphere or, say, the construction of roads and hospitals?

– If you talk like that, you can question everything. For example, why do we celebrate the Day of the City or the New Year, when it would be possible to spend money on the construction of social facilities? Actually, that is not the question. The issue is that each big project has its own mission.

– What is this mission?

– In our case, we hold a media forum with a clear goal of creating a positive image of Kazakhstan abroad. This represents the integration of our country into the global information space. The Eurasian Media Forum (EAMF) is a part of the global development strategy of Kazakhstan, designed to present our country to the international community as effectively as possible.

Speaking of the cost element and what could be done with the money – a lot could of course be done with the money.  But why do we hold a media forum and invest in the image of the state? Because as a result of the implementation of such projects, we formulate and emphasize the competitive advantages of our country. In addition, this inevitably leads to economic growth.

When a country is active in the international arena, it always attracts foreign stakeholders, investors and tourists who somehow affect the development of its infrastructure and national economy. Let’s turn our reasoning into marketing and branding. There is a concept of image – this is what we talk about ourselves. Overall, there is reputation – this is the opinion about us that has evolved over time,  the assessment of our country by the parties with whom we interact. Our task is to form the right image, so that the reputation of Kazakhstan is at a high level, and the actions of the state in the international arena are regarded as the most profitable.

By projects like EAMF we demonstrate that Kazakhstan is open to address global issues and is physically able to solve them. This is our statement to the world: this is what we are, we provide an expert platform for open discussions, we take a direct part in them, we are part of a large ecosystem and we influence the formation of public discourse about international relations. The Eurasian Media Forum also solves the relevant problems.

Talking about country branding as a marketing tool: what other projects, in addition to the Eurasian Media Forum, are implemented in Kazakhstan in the framework of this task? And how successful has it been?

– Very good question. Each country tries to stand out from the others and talk about its competitive advantages, emphasizing the strengths of the nation, as well as cultural and historical features of the country. Some countries can boast success in the field of information technology, while others associate the benefits with agricultural products.

In our case, the situation is twofold. On the one hand, we are working to solve the problem of forming our own image, but we have not yet invented a single and clear vision of what Kazakhstan is, although we are actively moving in this direction. For example, in our country there is a Commission on the formation and promotion of national and regional brands of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The issues of country branding are not just raised here – the work in this direction is carried out at the state level, and I hope that in the near future we will achieve certain results.

I know for sure that it was decided to create several sub-brands – one brand is for investment Kazakhstan (national company “Kazakh Invest”), another brand is for tourism (national company “Kazakh Tourism”). The country’s administrative-territorial units will also brand themselves to stand out from each other.

As far as I’m concerned, the country should, first of all, have one big brand that will carry all the key messages and very briefly position the country, emphasizing its main strengths and advantages.

The creation of additional brands is the result of state strategists seeking to target their messages more narrowly, working only with a certain target audience. For example, in the case of “Kazakh Invest” – the target audience is foreign investors, as well as large Kazakh market participants. The goal is to highlight the strengths of the country’s economy among potential investors. Incidentally this brand is not yet quite launched.

Only time will show the validity of this strategy.

What do you know about the foreign experience of country branding? How did it happen in other countries, in our neighbors?

 – All countries are divided in principle into two categories: those who create a country brand and those who do not focus on their own outer packaging.

The second category of countries has long developed a well-known positioning, for example, “the Land of the Rising Sun”. Alternatively, if we talk, for example, about Germany, what association, what word, what ‘code’ comes to the fore at the mention of this country? Probably, it is German quality or punctuality. If we are talking about the US, it is freedom of choice. If we are talking about Italy, it is fashion, national cuisine.

Thus, some countries pay great attention to form, while others work primarily on content, which is very noticeable to an outside observer. You can see when countries create their slogans, logos (not counting state symbols like a flag or an emblem) – like “Malaysia Truly Asia”, in one slogan immediately explaining who they are.

What do I mean?  In some cases, of course, you can live perfectly without a slogan and without a logo, and the country will be very well associated and perceived by the target audience. To do this, it is not necessary to create 35 variants of sub-brands, because one specific positioning is enough, founded on the basic values and key advantages of the country. The most important thing is that countries should clearly understand their strengths, how and in what direction they plan to develop, and who their main audience is.

These are historical things that have been formed over the centuries, aren’t they?

– Everything in this world is dependent on evolution and development. Our country is just 25 years old. We are too young, and we simply have not had time to go through the long process of changing generations and forming sustainable advantages that would be clearly associated with us in the eyes of the rest of the world. On the other hand, we live in such a fast-changing and very dynamic time, so we will make up for it.

However, Georgia reached its objective in 25 years.

– Yes, Georgia succeeded; Georgia had an aggressive strategy of forming a certain image in relation to itself. The emphasis was placed on the cultural component, on the tourism potential of the country – a lot of money was invested in all this. Georgians invited a large number of international guests who could then broadcast the key ideas of Georgia’s image in their environment – these are travel agencies, tourists themselves, and business. I would not like to say about Kazakhstan that we are doing something good or bad, but definitely, we are far behind. I would like us to develop faster and make decisions more carefully.

As for money: how much do countries spend on country branding in general?

–  Absolutely all countries spend money on the formation of their image. This is worked out with different tools, methods and approaches – from holding international forums, summits, conferences, to the physical presence of official representatives of these countries at relevant events abroad.

In this case, the official representatives become ambassadors of their country. Large financial resources go into such elements of marketing as slogans, advertising. Even exports of certain products can play their part. Many countries are associated with one or two products, and this is enough for people to say that the best pasta is cooked in Italy. At the same time, everyone understands that those countries that have grain are capable of producing very high-quality flour and flour products, therefore, in the end we will get pasta of no less high quality.

Actually, an effective way to create country branding is to abandon sub–brands?

  There is no definite answer; it is like answering the question what is better: black or white?  Some like things one way, others differently. The question is not how it looks; the question is how the target audience perceives it. Therefore, we have to start from the beginning. First, to understand who our target audience is? Do we focus on the West, or maybe we should focus on China, for example.

What is your point of view on this issue?

– My subjective opinion is that, firstly, we should focus on the nearby neighbors.  I would focus Kazakhstan’s country branding on the Eurasian continent – Europe, Russia, the Middle East, China. It is with these countries that we interact most actively and will continue to interact. These are our joint trade routes, trade relations, foreign policy communication.

Returning to the question of which direction we are going and who we want to be – there is a certain vision, it is framed by the Head of State together with the country’s development strategy. Moreover, it has been stated very clearly that Kazakhstan should enter the top 30 developed countries of the world. This is a very good goal. Whether it is achievable or not is another question. Hundreds of factors influence it, but the goal is clear and understandable – we want to become a developed country. What is needed? Some people say that we need to build our own image; others think that we need to build hospitals and schools, and others believe that the achievement of this goal ultimately depends on our contribution to future generations. I think that the right way is somewhere in the middle and you need to do it all in a complex manner. Then any goal will be achievable.