We all know how Ukraine is struggling to not only stand up to Russia, but to also become a new democracy that could eventually attract investments from the West. Awareness is not the issue. Perceptions are!
If Ukraine can somehow survive and retain its independence, it can learn from other country branding efforts by similar nations adjacent to mother Russia. A brand is more than a new image, or what a nation “looks like” based on a collection of impressions that form a perception in one’s mind. Good branding forms an emotional connection with targeted customers that is based on trust and integrity. A brand is also a promise of predictable experiences, creating an expectation of performance. A major challenge for Ukraine is to be able to deliver on new promises, which will probably require a complete overhaul of its government, economy, and business attitudes/practices.
Fortunately other countries in similar circumstances (i.e. under pressure from Russia) have successfully re-branded themselves. When Estonia won its independence in 1991, its awareness was relatively low in the West, and for those who knew anything about this tiny Baltic state, their perception was deeply influenced by the more familiar Soviet style of planned economy and authoritative politics.
Fortunately Estonia had a well educated (yet low cost) work force, respected cultural values, a heritage of trade as part of the Hanseatic League, and a progressive attitude toward free market business. To build on these strengths, Estonia benchmarked itself against Scandinavia, especially its northern neighbor Finland which shares a common language base. In the past two decades, it has established itself as an emerging technology center in Europe (Skype was invented there) and has become a model for economic stability and continued growth. Their “Brand Estonia” project has created an emotion-driven brand that is successfully attracting Western capital and instilling a deep sense of pride among its citizens.
Other nearby countries have been able to straddle this fence too, retaining a distinct culture while continuing trade with the West and East. Finland has long been praised for walking this tightrope as part of the EU, yet still maintaining healthy relations with Russia. Poland is a Slavic-speaking country like Ukraine, and has enjoyed noteworthy prosperity from its integration in the EU since leaving the Soviet Union.
Ukraine has a long way to go before it can enjoy the benefits of a newly branded nation. Assuming it can become free from Russian dominance, it must re-structure its economy and develop a culture and business environment that is credible and can be trusted by Western investors. At a minimum, this will involve eliminating corruption (now one of the highest in the world), establishing democratic practices that are fair and sustainable, and ensuring a willingness among its leadership and people to make sacrifices in the short term.
In today’s global economy and fragmented markets, most successful companies start by establishing a niche that focuses on their key strengths and offers a distinct benefit or value to targeted customers. Similarly, Ukraine must find its own niche that foreign businesses can trust and be willing to invest in. Unfortunately Ukraine’s history is very complicated. While Putin is now trying to create a perception that Ukraine is essentially “New Russia,” the reality is that Ukraine has been historically less Russian than other regions – see recent article in the Los Angeles Times on “What Vladimir Putin chooses not to know about Russian history.”
Ukraine must first identify its competitive strengths (e.g. natural resources? a reliable and cost efficient work force? new centers for technology? its wines and champagnes? etc.), and then develop a brand positioning strategy that targets select Western investors, creates a promise of value to them, and uses these strengths to convince business people to support it. A solid dose of creativity will be needed to establish and communicate a new Ukrainian brand, too. Most important, and more than just image setting, is the need to develop an emotional, trustful bond with these Western business people, which is essential for successful country branding.