Czech branding lessons

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I don’t think anybody would argue that countries are not brands.  In fact they could be the ultimate brands.  So, as the Czech Republic enters its fourth week in the Presidency of the EU, its interesting to see the many illustrations it has already provided of the challenges of brand development.

The EU presidency is a fantastic opportunity for a nation to demonstrate the calibre of their politicians and earn respect on the world political stage, but the outgoing French President Sarkosy is a tough act to follow and there are those who feel that the Czechs won’t hack it.  Should they fail however, it won’t just be bad for them, it’ll be bad for Europe and it will damage the credibility of other Eastern Block countries too.

Hampered by a national President who is an extreme Euro-sceptic, which for some onlookers is enough to render Chechia an unsuitable candidate for the presidency anyway, Prime Minister Topolanek has already made what was described on a BBC Euro News show as “a shaky start” when one of his ministers came down loudly on the side of the Israelis on the Gaza Strip issue and another described the Russian/Ukrainian gas debacle as “just a commercial dispute”.  Then he announced that he had solved the gas dispute with an agreement that turned to sand before he got off the plane on his return to Prague. Finally the PM proclaimed that he had revived it. Almost a week later, guess what? There was still no gas and Slovakia and Bulgaria had lost patience and were already having independent talks.

To add to their woes Czech artist, David Cerny (pronounced Cherny) was commissioned to produce a mural to be hung in the European Commission’s building in Brussells to commemorate the Czech EU Presidency. The result was passed-off by Cerny as a composite of works by artists from the 27 Euro countries each representing their own nation.  He even provided the names of the artists concerned.  This turned out to be a hoax, when, at the unveiling the representatives of two countries – Hungary, which had been represented on the piece as a lavatory and Germany, which was shown with a swastika, went into spasm!

Amidst the flurry of diplomatic toys being thrown out of prams across Europe Mr Cerny fessed up to having taken three hundred and eighty thousand pounds from the Czech government and then knocking up the “work” single handed in his garage (well, almost!).

You might consider that the politic thing for Topolanek to have done at this point would be to apologise to all concerned, taken back the money and hauled Mr Cerny onto Wenceslas Square to be stoned to death by the ten-million-odd Czechs who he had shamed. Instead the Czech government embarked on a campaign to justify the piece, claiming that it’s a joke by a renown artists, famous for his pranks and that the rest of Europe should get a sense of humor!  Shaky start?  Well I’ve seen better, but its early days and there’s a steep learning curve involved here.  There’s still time for the Czech Republic to turn this around and make their appointment a stroke of genius for Europe, a helping hand for the old iron curtian countries and a triumph for the Czech people. 

Anyway, what has this to do with brand development? Well brands are communities, just like countries and the way they are viewed by outsiders is determined by their words and actions.  This extends to the company they keep, which as we will see, doesn’t augur well for other former Eastern Block countries.

Nations elect politicians, in part, to represent their views and values to the outside world, while commercial organisations choose the Chairmen that they do and brands agonise over the choice of celebrities who they appoint as spokespeople. In this case outsiders take Topolanek’s performance as illustrative of Czech people. I can’t help thinking that, were he a celebrity representing a brand, he’d be dodging lawsuits and on the dole by now!

While we’ve yet to see how well the Czechs leverage this opportunity, consider how their performance so far has affected the former Eastern Block countries who are desperately trying to persuade the rest of the developed world that they are their equal. Czechs had maybe made some ground in presenting themselves as the most Western orientated of the former Eastern Block, so you could excuse the rest of these countries for feeling they had a stake in Topolanek’s performance.  If he doesn’t raise his game a bit quick he could blow the brand strategies of all these other countries out of the water.

Consider too how the Presidency is making the EU look to countries outside of the EU. My guess right now is that there are a few doing what the Czech President Klaus has been famously doing for a while, trying to get a green-card!

The need for consistency of message shouldn’t be underestimated by anybody in the brand-building game – that’s not just consistent across all communications routes, but consistent with your positioning.  Neither should the influence that the company you keep will have on the perceptions others have of you.  Just as the things Czechs do now that they are representing Europe will reflect on the reputation of the EC, a rogue distributor will have a detrimental effect on a manufacturer’s brand.  Likewise, the products that are alongside yours on the retailer’s shelves will colour consumers’ perceptions of you in the same way that other Central and Eastern European countries will be affected by Czech actions and behaviour.

So next time you are formulating a brand strategy, devote a little time to defining the kind of partners, suppliers, distributors etc. you want, because they will influence your success in subtle ways. As the owner of the highly successful Prague Marathon explained, because the Prague International Marathon is a world leader in their sector, they will only take on partners who are leaders in theirs. But then, he’s Italian!

By the way:  You can get a full and accurate picture of the antics of Czech politicians and more at www.praguemonitor.com

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