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Leaving an Impression:
Nation Branding at World Expos

by Urso Chappell


Various world's fair passports showing stamps

Various expo passports including the visual branding efforts of Mexico, the Netherlands,
the United Kingdom, and France at Germany’s Expo 2000 (from the author’s collection).

International expositions, even in their earliest days, were much about marketing. Certainly, they aren’t solely about marketing, but it’s always been there – from Corliss’s steam engine in 1876 Philadelphia to General Motors’ automobiles in 1939 New York to Hitachi’s robots in 2005 Aichi. As marketing strategies have become more refined over the years, they’ve also found new applications.

Diplomacy has also been an historical element of world expos. Nations have long used diplomatic means  to develop and maintain reputations, even to the general public. These reputations can affect such things as exports, foreign investment, tourism, and even political relationships.

One of the ways marketing methods are applied in contemporary times is through nation branding. Much of what we’ll see when Expo 2010 opens, is a product of nation branding efforts. As a consumer, as a visual branding specialist, and as an expo watcher, I’ve certainly seen nation branding at world expos evolve in the past few decades to become an important tool for nations to present themselves on the world stage.

Even before marketers were tasked with “branding” nations, nations had brands. When people think of France, for example, they might think of wine, romantic travel, or perfume. When people think of Canada, thoughts might turn to snow, Mounties, or wildlife. This kind of branding can also be negative – such as when a nation becomes associated with qualities like corruption, bleak landscapes, or rudeness.

Contemporary nation branding is marketing, but it’s also diplomacy. When a country amasses goodwill, it also develops soft power.

After the Balkan conflict in the early 1990’s, Croatia started marketing itself as a modern nation with quaint towns and beautiful beaches. I personally remember being charmed by Croatia’s pavilion at Lisbon’s Expo 98. Until then, I’d only known the region by its grim  associations as part of Yugoslavia: a land of relative poverty, political isolation, and less-than-reliable automobiles. Today, through its nation branding efforts, Croatia is not just known as a tourist destination, but it is seen as an attractive place for investment. I still haven’t had the chance to visit Croatia in person, but when I saw  “Made in Croatia” on my furniture’s packaging recently, I had positive associations with the country… and hope the worker who built my shelving unit is enjoying those beaches on his day off. I suppose you could also add that those branding efforts humanized the country, as well.

Critics could, rightly or not, claim that nation branding is nothing but crass manipulation, but the tactic ultimately works only when it reflects reality. When Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, it had the opportunity to showcase Greece on the world stage. We saw the ancient culture, the architecture (both old and new), and the spirit of a people embracing itself as an important member of the European Union. Those aspects survive today, but any efforts to show Greece as economically powerful in 2010 would fall flat, to say the least. Let’s hope, for Greece’s sake, the rest of the European Union absorbed 2004’s message of Greece’s value to non-Greeks.

Expos are a feast of the senses and a nation’s brand can be conveyed through all of them. A pavilion’s visuals might be the most obvious, but a successful pavilion also addresses the other senses. The Indian pavilion is notable for the wonderful smells drifting over from the restaurant. The Belgian pavilion has been known to hand out free cookies at past expos. Some pavilions will use unique flooring such as sand to transport you to a new environment and most pavilions offer a sampling of native music. All of these help build a visitor’s impression of the country the pavilion represents.

Since Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada, it’s become traditional for visitors to have special expo passports stamped when they visit a pavilion. Even here, there’s an opportunity for a nation to leave a (quite literal) impression. To be sure, impressions of many types will be made this year along the Huangpu River.

This article was originally published in China Daily as part of a 6-part series.
Urso Chappell | 1219 Parker Street, Unit B, Berkeley, California 94702, USA | +1.415.867.9994