Written by Dr. Kayode Fayemi
A few years ago, Professor Dora Akunyili, who was then the Federal Minister of Information, launched a campaign to rebrand Nigeria. The campaign slogan was “Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation.” Despite the best of intentions, the campaign was not only dismissed by most Nigerians, it failed to gain traction. In the few months that the controversy over the campaign lasted, much of it was about deriding the campaign, rather than enhancing the image of Nigeria. Before this, there was another attempt to brand the country. That earlier attempt had a different, but no less rousing, slogan: “Nigeria, Heart of Africa.”
The Economist of London summed up the (re)branding efforts in an epigram: “Good people, impossible mission.” The respected international magazine reported that, “The previous exercise failed, and there is little reason to expect the latest one to do much better. Many Nigerians say their government should tackle the country’s fundamental problems – power shortages, crime and corruption – before worrying about its image.”
Why did these attempts at branding and rebranding Nigeria fail? Why was the rebranding mission an “impossible” one?
Most Nigerians expressed the position that the problem was with the brand and not with branding. However, there were some who had a problem with the idea of branding or rebranding a country. Those who hold the latter position were not expressing any strange opinion. Throughout the world, there are controversies about branding a country. This attitude has been described in some contexts as “visceral antagonism” to the idea of branding a country. The major objection to this is that a nation is not a corporation and therefore should not be reduced to something that can be branded. One of the most articulate objectors to this idea, Michel Girard, stated that a country “has a nature and a substance other than that of a corporation. [Therefore] A corporation can be re-branded, not a state…. A country carries specific dignity unlike a marketed product….”
But Girard was mistaken. Indeed, nations, like corporations, change and even reinvent themselves, especially under new regimes, new governments, and in a new era. Even though the people who make up a state or a nation may continue to exhibit many of their inherent characteristics, but changes, reshaping and rebranding take place throughout the entire history of every state, every nation, and every people. As an expert in this area, Wally Olins, states, “The reason why nations continue to shape and reshape their identities, or if you prefer explicitly and implicitly to rebrand themselves, is because their reality changes and they need to project this real change symbolically to all the audiences, internal and external, with whom they relate.”
I want to emphasise a salient point in this illuminating position on why nations rebrand, because it is not only relevant for understanding why Nigeria’s rebranding efforts that I mentioned earlier failed, but why other rebranding efforts succeed. That important point concerns the emphasis on changes in reality. By this emphasis, Olins alerts us to the fact that changes in the reality of a particular state or nation constitute the fundamental conditions for rebranding. “Nigeria, Heart of Africa” and “Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation” (re)branding efforts failed because they were not predicated upon any changes in the reality that Nigerians experienced – which the world was invited to witness. How can you rebrand a reality that remains unchanged? How can you change the attitude to a spade by calling it another name, or by rebranding it?
Deconstructing a National Brand
The architecture of a national brand connects values, service-delivery, quality control, ideals and standard operating procedures, in a seamless garment of national identity. The national identity is both implicit and explicit in the rhetoric and conduct of the national elites, in the ideas and values that drive institutional behaviour; permeate the popular culture, and shape domestic and foreign policy.
In 2008, President Barack Obama cast his election as America’s first African-American president as a sign of his country’s uniqueness in the world, as a place where people can fulfill their highest aspirations irrespective of their race. In US elections, the very idea of American exceptionalism which is central to the American brand whether as “the greatest country in the world” or as “the hope of the earth” is not at all contested. What is contested is which candidate can best project the national values and embody the national brand. A national brand is symbolically and substantially rooted in the country’s cultural and institutional DNA and therefore transcends partisan contestation. It is a paradigmatic consensus that members of a society share about their land and which their society willfully transmits to the world at large.
In the late 1990s, the Labour government of Tony Blair launched the Cool Britannia campaign aimed at casting Britain as the trend-setting global capital of fashion, finance and culture. This campaign went beyond Blair’s personal advocacy and nifty sloganeering. It involved institutional and policy measures designed to make the country, particularly the City of London, more market-friendly, more open to foreign investments and more hospitable. In short, it was about making Britain a place where foreigners would feel very comfortable investing and spending their money, and therefore an important node in the network of global capitalism.
Perhaps, the most powerful example of nation-rebranding in Africa is that of South Africa which within the short span of a decade moved from being known in international circles as a racist enclave ruled by white supremacists to a multiracial democracy. In ten years, she moved from being a pariah apartheid state to the “rainbow nation.” This profound change involved changes not just in the country’s totems such as its national flag but also a recalibration of South Africa’s institutional settings to more adequately reflect her aspirations as a land of many races, colours and creeds woven together in democratic freedom. It put in place measures and institutions to guarantee a smooth transition and also to ensure that the bitter memories of apartheid would not lead to a racial civil war as many pundits widely expected.
Instead, having swiftly ended apartheid, and elected Nelson Mandela, the world’s best known political prisoner as president; South Africa set about righting historical wrongs with the establishment of a Truth Commission. Within a few years, she had hosted the Rugby World Cup and the African Cup of Nations football tournament. In 2010, she became the first ever African country to host the FIFA world cup. Today, she is Africa’s largest economy.
Two decades ago, China was still considered a Maoist in Tiananmen Square, more in the news for jailing dissidents and cracking down on civil liberties. Today, China is spoken of as a rapidly expanding economic power and she is expected to become the world’s largest economy within twenty years. South Africa and India also boast of similar radically transformed narratives.
The understated aspect of the rise of emerging market countries today has been their strategic and calculated branding of their countries to project positive impressions in the international arena. China consistently refers to her increasing profile as a peaceful rise rather than an aggressive expansion to avoid alarming other nations around her and arousing unnecessary hostility. Instead, she has massively increased aid to developing countries, while making herself the workshop of the world unobtrusively. She projects the impression that she is a benign power rather than a malevolent empire with hegemonic designs on the world.
India used to make the headlines in the international media for sectarian violence and chronic political unrest. These days, she is serenaded as an emerging market economy and as the world’s outsourcing capital. It used to be that conflict in Kashmir, a territory historically disputed with neighbouring Pakistan, propelled India into the spotlight. Now India is better known for her information technology hubs like Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad and the vibrancy of Mumbai, her booming commercial capital. India is also now a leading destination for medical tourism.
The important thing to note is that these countries are not perfect. Hindered, they still exhibit many of the unpopular attributes of their past and they have not tried to project perfection. What they have done instead is to leverage their strengths, accentuate already existing positives, implement institutional and policy measures to reflect their strategic visions for their nations, and then project those visions powerfully and skillfully into the global consciousness. It is a measure of how masterfully these branding efforts have been pursued that these countries narratives’ have dramatically changed.
The odysseys of these countries tell us that authentic transformation is possible. They teach us that it is entirely within our powers to change our story. Twenty years from now, I believe the dominant narrative of Nigeria in the international media will not be about terrorism, corruption or conflict but about a rapidly expanding continental economic power whose strides bear witness to the fact that Africa can produce a progressive world class society. This will be a dramatic change in our story and it will come down to how seriously we engage in brand engineering, not as sloganeering but as a deliberate effort to transform both the reality and perception of our nation and her institutions.
The Values Gap
A national brand identity consists of two primary elements. Firstly, there must be a set of core of values and ideals that undergirds the nation’s entire socio-political and economic life. The second element involves how these values are projected to the world through national institutions, systems and structures.
Our nation branding failures can be summed up as a values deficit. It is the failure of successive administrations to articulate a strategic national vision and calibrate institutional realities to match this vision. In broader terms, this represents not just the failure of particular administrations but also our failure as elites to generate a consensus about what sort of place we want our country to be. We can not convincingly answer the question: What is this entity called Nigeria? What does it mean to be a Nigerian? Are we citizens or are we subjects? We have not adequately and firmly framed the values that we want to drive our institutions. At an administrative level, even when certain ideas have been articulated such as the service compact or charters aimed at enhancing service delivery in the public sector, they have failed to elicit sufficient buy-in. Proponents of such plans are often unable to inspire confidence. In other words, the brand evangelists are often inadequate representatives of what they are selling.
Institutional transformation of the scale that Nigeria needs will not be achieved by just rhetoric. It requires a willingness to restore values to the front burner of the discourse on transformation. It requires a willingness to lead by example, to incarnate the values of the society that we want. In the words of Gandhi, we must become the change we want to see. Transformation cannot be imposed from above. It can only be generated by exemplary leadership which not only elicits emulation but inspires the conviction that the proposed path of change is the right road. Behavioral theorists tell us that behavior is infectious. The unruliness and incivility that we bemoan in our public spaces closely reflect the level of discourtesy and uncouthness demonstrated by public functionaries. The long history of intimate association between power and impunity on our shores is why many Nigerians once placed in positions of authority begin to manifest previously unrealized authoritarian traits. It is both a result of the institutional ethos that we have constructed around authority and a manifestation of the power of example.
If we are to change the character, tone and content of leadership and thereby enhance the appeal of Brand Nigeria, we will need to join the corps of leaders and elites exemplifying the wave of the future. We will need to see ourselves as exemplars of a certain way of doing things.
Public Service and Exemplary Leadership
One of the most profound paradoxes of the Nigerian condition is how a country so reputed for corruption, ineptitude and dysfunction also produces so many high achieving men and women of unimpeachable integrity and sterling competence. There is a disconnect between the existence of such Nigerians and popular impressions of Nigeria. This is indicative of a wider dissonance between what we are capable of achieving as individuals and what we are capable of achieving collectively in the public domain. When a first time visitor encounters our embassies and airports, he is experiencing our public sector and all the deficiencies of our collective enterprise as Nigerians.
What is at issue is the very idea of public service as a dimension in which we come together to pool our talents and gifts in order to protect and project our common interest – the national brand. This notion of public service has been lost for decades and needs to be restored. Public servants, regardless of how high or low their station, are the first line of advocacy for the national brand. The tardiness of a low-level staffer can undo months and years worth of brand construction. When corrupt officials engage with foreigners on behalf of Nigeria, they irreparably subvert the national brand. This is why we must no longer see the public service as an irrelevant organization filled with slothful errand boys and errand girls. On the contrary, it is the engine of governance and the fulcrum of policy formulation and implementation – though more of the latter than the former. Indeed, one of the main reasons for the gulf between excellent policy conception and abysmal execution is the scant attention paid to the civil service which is actually charged with executing. Typically, high-sounding policy initiatives are announced with much fanfare only to die almost immediately because the strategic role of the public service as the policy and brand vehicle has not been factored in. With very low or non-existent levels of buy-in among civil servants, it is no surprise that these initiatives are dead on arrival. Much of the sloth and lethargy frequently attributed to civil servants mirrors how lowly they are esteemed in the calculus of governance and policy architecture.
Revitalizing public service goes beyond issues of working conditions and morale. These are, of course, important but they are only a tip of the iceberg. The real key is to restore a missionary sense of purpose to the public service; to get civil servants to see their work in sacramental terms at the altar of a purpose far greater than themselves. In pursuing the defined objectives and values of the state, they become envoys of the national brand.
To this end, political office holders have to see themselves as being organically bound with civil servants in the service of the common good. Restoring the lost idea of public service means modeling a culture of servant leadership in which political executives see and define themselves as servants. It also means creating an atmosphere in which rank and status cease to be important and pale in comparison to the task of achieving excellence.
A national brand is shaped to a large extent by a country’s conception of heroes; by the character of those that it bestows iconic status upon. For us, certain questions are relevant in this regard. What sort of people are we celebrating in Nigeria? Is hard work a reliable pathway to reward and recognition? What is the nature of our reward system? These are all salient questions.
The sort of people that we celebrate as heroes in our society says far more about our values and our image than we imagine. Our heroes are symbols of the national brand. When we serenade fraudsters, ex-despots, ex-convicts and other assorted persons of dubious reputations with national honours and appointments, we are sending a terribly unedifying message to the world. No kind of public relations blitz can undo the damage done to the national image by the sort of people that have become our symbols. We are also sending a dangerous signal to the young about the relationship between competence and honesty on one hand and promotion and recognition on the other. Nothing destroys the work ethic like the idea that hard work is futile. Nothing subverts public ethics like the idea that honesty does not pay.
Those who we want to represent the national brand must be chosen wisely. Even in the market driven corporate world, ethical calculations guide the choice of celebrity endorsements for commercial brands. Celebrities like Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong were dropped from multi-million dollar endorsements by their sponsors because these corporations did not want the celebrities’ misdeeds to taint their brands. Even in the remorselessly secular domain of capitalism, the moral injunction that a good name is better than riches resonates with modern branding wisdom. Choosing the company you keep is essential to good brand management.
One of the reasons public service is not esteemed in Nigeria is because it is regarded as a realm in which factors other than merit dictate one’s progress and promotion. A perverse notion of affirmative action and entitlement feeds a sense of unfairness and grievance which ultimately saps morale.
Consequently, we cannot attract our best and brightest into the public service and so cannot but put forward the most ill-qualified or at best average products to undertake critical national tasks. This has also popularized the association of public service and politics with mediocrity. The mediocre and ill-qualified personalities who rise to leadership positions become faces of the nation and degrade the national brand even further. Many of our top public functionaries through their substandard performances have contributed to Nigeria’s negative reputational indices. It is said that we perpetuate what we permit and we receive what we reward. Mediocrity thrives because it is permitted and rewarded. Excellence will flourish and proliferate when it is not merely permitted but celebrated, encouraged and rewarded.
The Ekiti State, Nigeria Re-Branding Experience
In the final analysis, branding is not about crafting propaganda or marketing illusions. It is fundamentally about our ethos, our character as a people, how we want to organize our society and how we want to be perceived in the world. All too often, our costly efforts to rebrand Nigeria have fallen far short of the mark because of our prioritization of style over substance and aesthetics over actuality. Rebranding Nigeria must of necessity firstly mean an internal reengineering of our worldview, and a shift in the ethical orientation of our society. A new Nigerian brand must first of all be a new ethic.
Politics and governance are forms of brand management because our work is to continuously strive to close the gap between our aspirations, our realities and our reputation. Branding is as much about values and substance as it is about visuals and symbols. In the past we have emphasized the latter at the expense of the former and have reaped slogans aplenty but nothing remotely approximating change. The demand of our time is to restore values and institutional behaviour to the core of all efforts to remake ourselves and our nation and thereby pave way for authentic transformation. This is what we have done in Ekiti State, Nigeria; we have demystified office-holding and restored a sense of public service as a means of bettering the lives of our people. This is because we believe that the values that shape the Ekiti of our dreams has to be first incarnated in our calling as public servants.
Let me share the highlights of Ekiti State’s rebranding experience with you. I am proud to contrast the unsuccessful attempts at the national level, with the successful effort in our state, Ekiti State. When we came to office in October 2010, we realised that the proud heritage of our people had been bastardised through the imposition of unpopular governments. These governments violated the spirit of community and honour in the state. Before we came into office, we already prepared “A Road Map to Ekiti Recovery,” while our task was described as a “Rescue Mission.” We rolled out our 8-point agenda through which we sought to aggregate all aspects of the socio-political economy of the state including, Governance; Infrastructure Development; Modernisation of Agriculture; Education and Human Capital Development; Health Care Services; Industrial Development; Tourism development; and Gender Equality and Empowerment. But we realised that it was impossible to succeed in an environment in which values had been degraded, with a sense of community savagely eroded.
We knew that the rescue mission could not succeed, while the roadmap to recovery would fail without promoting a new culture which involved a return to our old values. Therefore, we rechristened the state “The land of honour” (“Ile Iyi, Ile Eye”) and in 2011, following robust consultations across gender, age, religion and political party divides,we launched a new brand identity, with the full compliments of arguably the most aesthetically appealing and functional visual icon among states in Nigeria that have adopted logos. Our approach in creating the externalities of our brand identity signaled to the world that we were going far beyond adopting a fancy emblem. The results of this exercise were six unique attributes that eventually made up our logo including: the Woven Cord; the New Dawn; the Rolling Hills; the Lush Vegetation; the Water and the Open Book.
However, this rebranding project would have been ineffective if it was not preceded by, and founded on, our 8-point agenda – upon which the changes in the reality of Ekiti State today is predicated. What this means is that, for rebranding to have meaning, reality has to change first, or reality has to change along with rebranding. Our rebranding was therefore not in a vacuum.
We do not merely proclaim this land as the land of honour, we live it every day; every day, we are rebuilding this land of honour; every day, we are spreading knowledge and providing better opportunities for our children to have good education while ensuring human capital development; every day, we are building new roads or repairing old ones, not only to create better transportation system, but also to network and link every part of the state with one another through good roads; every day, we are attending the needs to pregnant women and women in general, and their children too, thus reducing infant and maternal mortality rate; every day, we are improving governance, by delivering on our promises and also effectively coordinating the interface between all government agencies to ensure efficient and effective service delivery to the people; every day, we are stimulating industrial development in Ekiti State by creating technology and industrial parks for small and medium scale enterprises, including focusing on agro-allied and solid mineral sector; every day, we are working on modernising agriculture, for instance, through reviving cocoa plantation to make Ekiti a world leader again in cocoa production; every day, we are expanding the opportunities for youth employment and empowering women.
Our rebranding is successful because we have a real change to project symbolically to our audiences, both internal and external. We have been able to meet all our obligations and fulfil as many of our promises as we can fulfil in two years because the fundamental motif of governance, one upon which the government and people relate is “honour.” Our people have recovered their pride and they are now able to enjoy the benefits of good governance. The changes have been real and profound. Therefore, while branding is important, we have gone beyond branding to build lasting values for growth.
For many years, neo-liberal economists insisted that self-interest and rational choice are the only paths to economic growth and development; and we have been told that as developing countries, we need to embrace this credo and ignore our cultural values. However, the Asian Tigers have proved them wrong. The link between economic development and cultural values has been demonstrated by the Asian Tigers; indeed, people’s cultural beliefs and values are crucial for economic development. As some experts have stated, “Economic growth and development need to be a substantiation of a people’s beliefs and values.”
Therefore, in Nigeria, we must recognise that the state, the market and the people are all agents in the process of economic growth and development. We are already demonstrating this recognition in Ekiti State. The “Land of Honour,” a land of virtuous, hardworking, chivalrous, accommodating, and proud people, is one in which there is good governance; one in which we pay attention to education and human capital development; one in which we provide good health care services; one in which we are committed to industrial and infrastructural development; one in which we are modernising agriculture, while promoting tourism and ensuring women empowerment.
This is where reality and branding converges. It is this convergence that will produce, promote and sustain economic growth. In solving the country’s fundamental problems, we will also be providing the basis for rebranding the country. It is upon such a convergence that the rebranding of Nigeria can be built. In contrast to what the Economist of London stated about the last rebranding efforts, this is how to ensure that the rest of the world would see Nigerians and Nigeria as “Good people, Possible Mission.”
Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Governor of Ekiti State Nigeria presented this paper at the Verdant Zeal Marketing Communication’s INNOVENTION SERIES in Lagos, Nigeria on Friday, March 22, 2013
 Economist, London, April 30, 2009.
 Wally Olins, “Branding the Nation – The Historical Context”, Brand Management, Vol.9, No.4-5, April, 2002: 241.
 Ibid, p. 243. Emphasis added.
 Symphorien Ntibagirirwa, “Cultural Values, Economic Growth and Development,” Journal of Business Ethics, 2009, 84:297–311.
 Ibid, p. 297.