Since my inaugural column on Brandingmag, a few interesting new developments have emerged in the nation-branding space that could be pointing us to a paradigm shift. Brand Australia replaced its boomerangs with an Uphill Wattle, following a recommendation from the country’s Nation Brand Advisory Council. To celebrate its 250th anniversary, Brand USA commissioned an entirely new identity aiming at uniting a divided country. TikTok has entered the ranks of the world’s top 100 brands, reinforcing China’s growing commercial dominance. Finally, nation-branding expert, Simon Anholt, published the book The Good Country Equation.

Rather than focusing on the design side – boo Australia, yay America – I would rather spend the next few paragraphs on a possible meaningful change to be brought about. Beginning from the role of narrative in the nation-branding practice, nations will invariably pursue a ‘Hero’s Journey’ variant. These are often animated by “an external enemy” (e.g., COVID-19), an eternal struggle (e.g., scarcity of natural resources that forged Israel as the Startup Nation, Switzerland to be a Willensnation), and all sorts of self-imposed “villains”, curated against a desired heroic image.

This is a common approach that relates to our “civilisatory” process, a continuous struggle against nature and the self. Its origins come from a divine curse imposed on Adam after eating the forbidden fruit: “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made.” Since then, every man, woman, business, and community – just as much as nations – had to fight for their own survival and become the heroes of their own journeys.

Nations, as artificial constructs from the early 19th century, had an important political mission that has greatly lost relevance in our more interconnected and globalized world. Brexit and other separatist movements from recent years may become the fossilized evidence of tomorrow’s shift.

This is what Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua, author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, believes: “Humans, like other primates, are tribal animals. We need to belong to groups, which is why we love clubs and teams. Once people connect with a group, their identities can become powerfully bound to it. They will seek to benefit members of their group even when they gain nothing personally. They will penalize outsiders, seemingly gratuitously. They will sacrifice, and even kill and die, for their group.”

The above may seem common sense, but the implications are tremendous. This rise of identity politics is linked to resurgent tribalism that can, ultimately, thorn nations apart and undermine their common identity and the common good these are intended to provide.

Reframing the narrative

Interestingly, archetypes [like the “civilisatory” process] can also be organized in terms of developmental stages. The Hero is a “child” archetype, its role is to go out there, test himself, learn, achieve some sort of mastery, and slay the enemy.

For instance, with regards to COVID-19, many national leaders have primarily utilized the narrative of ‘war’, positioning their nations as the likely war-heroes. Chinese premier Xi Jinping swore to wage a ‘people’s war’ on the coronavirus; US President Donald Trump described himself as a ‘wartime president’; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked the imagery of the 18-day battle from the Hindu epic Mahabharata when commencing the country’s lockdown.

The problem with the wartime narrative is that the Hero archetype wins his/her battle not through adaptation or change but merely through recognizing and tapping into the power and strength s/he has had all along.

When we use this narrative to frame the current crisis, we can expect to see little-to-no long-term social change once the virus comes under control. The reason for this is that the narrative demands we’ve always had the resources to succeed: If we already have the power to beat this enemy, why change a thing? In fact, pundits have pointed out that when this narrative has been used in the past to characterize crises, return to the status-quo was swift and no lasting change occurred.

If we want the outcome of this crisis to be different – if we want to establish enduring cultural change – then we must shift the narrative that we are employing to one that focuses on adaptation, evolution, and future betterment. As a civilization at risk, we need a more inclusive and less selfish narrative.

A breath of fresh air

For Brand Australia, the new brand mark is meant to balance a literal and abstract interpretation of a wattle flower and convey “an optimistic burst of gold positivity”. Brand USA’s new identity eschews away from stars and stripes imagery in favor of messaging that aims to bring citizens together and inspire them. TikTok, the rookie of the year, has built its USP around the concept of “Competitive Positivity”. Further, differently from Facebook’s creepy algorithm aiming at learning as much about you as possible, TikTok’s focuses on understanding the things you like so it can deliver more of it. And, to wrap it all up, Anholt’s new book makes a convincing case for why countries should cooperate rather than compete in today’s world of global disorder. Can you see the pattern?

While heroes seek to collect individual victories, kingship is about collective success, being of service, and, ultimately, leaving a legacy for the greater good. In the Disney animated film Moana, the goal of the plot is to restore the heart of the island Goddess. The main characters in the story are not trying to defeat anything, they are trying to restore the Goddess’ heart – a metaphor for natural balance. And, when they do, she turns from an angry fire monster into a peaceful green island.

For nation-brands to transition onto a more evolved positioning, they must demonstrate how they are part of a larger whole and in service of the planet. Could TikTok (and its parent ByteDance) unleash new policies in China incentivizing the creation of more businesses and brands in the wellbeing sector? Could the trading tension between China and Australia be replaced by a dialogue of positivity? Could America become a less individualistic, teen culture and invest more on equal opportunities? After all, isn’t all that what Anholt’s new book is trying to tell us?!

There’s no precise answer to “what Earth wants to become”, but that’s the question to be asked. It may take another millennia to find out what the answer is but, overcorrecting the damage left by the Hero’s Journey narrative would be a good starting point. Essayist Anaïs Nin famously said: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Although this may sound metaphorical, recent research across academic fields ranging from neuroscience to cognitive psychology to linguistics has revealed just how true this adage is. Quite literally, the narratives we use to organize and understand the world determine to a large extent our perceptions of, our interactions with, and our emotions towards the world.

Becoming the brand change we want to consume

As a social catalyst, COVID-19 has already led to a few interesting examples of positive change. For instance, Amsterdam has formally embraced the Doughnut Economics model, a breakthrough, holistic alternative to the destructive, growth economics employed over the last few centuries. Similarly, in Spain, progressive steps are being taken to the implementation of a universal basic income. In Milan, one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating street space from cars to pedestrians is being introduced in response to the pandemic. Likewise, Princess Sofia of Sweden is now volunteering to clean and cook at a local hospital, having exchanged her royal attire with a white and blue uniform.

As author William Gibson would say, “the future is already here, just not evenly distributed”…yet.

This is all to highlight that a shift in the narrative can occur, and, if nations desire to see lasting change following this pandemic, they must collectively incentivize the businesses able to fix the problems society faces, to flourish.

Interestingly, according to the theory of mediatization (which argues political and social discourse are shaped by mass media), this shift will need to almost certainly begin with the media.

How can the media adopt the King narrative? In this instance, the virus would stop being referenced as an ‘enemy’ (something to be defeated before returning back to normal) and would start being referenced as a ‘catalyst’ (something instigating change and requiring adaptation). Pushing further, the focus of newscasts and advertisements would no longer be disaster and tragedy. Rather, the focus would shift to healing and the measures being taken to engender protection and improvement. Finally, brands would not simply look backward on the events of the day, they would begin to look forward to the larger impacts of our daily actions and decisions.

If we want to avoid a reversion to the status-quo – a world marked by social inequality, climate change avoidance, scarcity of resources, and the Kardashians – then the brands supporting our access to media must work to change the narrative. Once this is done, leaders across all levels of society will follow suit which, in turn, will lead to wider social adaptation. Importantly, as we learned above, when the narrative shifts, so too will our perceptions, our actions, and our interactions.

Cover image source: Victor Garcia