Thursday, July 05, 2012

Repairing Greece's Brand

I’ve been thinking a lot about Greece’s brand lately. In part because I just came back from a trip to Singapore, a country’s which started with so little and yet has developed an impeccable brand around efficiency, cleanliness and connectivity. In part because the British prime minister, David Cameron, hinted that the United Kingdom ought to be ready to shut the door to Greek immigrants, a sure sign that the “Greek” is increasingly seen as a problem in Europe. And in part because it was the Fourth of July yesterday and I inevitably came across continued references to that quintessential brand that is imprinted into the American psyche: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

There is no doubt that Greece’s brand has taken a plunge – Peter Economides’ speech is as good as any about the deterioration of Greece’s standing. But what exactly is Greece’s brand, why has it collapsed, and what can we do about it?

At its core, the Greek brand is “history” and “the sea.” Of course, that brand has changed recently, but we’ll get to that shortly. The brand “history” means that since the War of Independence (1821), Greece has counted on Philhellenes for monetary, material and moral support. The allure of ancient Greece, in particular, has created bonds of kinship with peoples and countries around the world, and those bonds have led to economic, political and diplomatic ties. Greek philosophy and literature means that Greece’s name recognition is far above the country’s demographic, territorial or economic weight. This is also a brand that has a strong internal constituency within Greece – not only are the Greek people proud of their history, but Greeks overseas move with a certain confidence that, to borrow Isaac Newton’s phrase, they stand on the shoulders of giants. Even better, this is a self-replenished brand. As long as schools and universities find the “Greeks” to be relevant and include them in their curricula, this brand will keep growing.

The brand “sea” has also served Greece well. It has been the cornerstone of the country’s tourism industry, which is the most important engine of economic development bar none. Combined with the brand history, it has made Greece into a “must-see” destination, a status from which the country has benefited handsomely (though not as much as it could and should). The brand “Greece-History-Sea” has done wonders for the country, but it has also exposed its limits in the current crisis. The reason is that this brand has nothing to do with what Greece is today – it says what Greece used to be and it says also what land Greece inhabits, but it has little to say about the Greek people and who they are.

To understand what I mean, consider America, whose brand can be summed up into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or the “American dream.” With this brand, America can recover from such events as the Vietnam or the Iraq War. In effect, the bad brand is constantly battling the good brand – America the powerful and the warring versus with America as the land of opportunity. It is this essential clash and ambivalence that allows people to retain an image of America as the land of opportunity while also knowing of wars and inequality and other social and political deficiencies.

If we come back to the case of Greece, the negative stereotypes that have emerged in recent years have no pre-existing brand with which to clash. Therefore, “lazy,” “corrupt” and “entitled” Greece – to pick three stereotypes out there – are perfectly consistent with “Greece-History-Sea.” People can have lots of history and still be lazy. The audience is not required to engage in any mental gymnastics or contradictions: the new, expanded brand is internally consistent.

Why has the Greek brand deteriorated so badly? First and foremost, brands always have semblance to reality. They are not perfect representations of reality, of course – that’s why we call them “brands” rather than “reality.” But they do represent a version of reality, and the truth is that there is a lot that is wrong with Greece. As a result, there is a torrent of news that highlights this or that problem about the country, serving to reinforce Greece’s negative image. Besides creating a negative image, this barrage of news also crowds out any positive stories about the country. Even success stories have an air of disbelief: “how odd that this person is successful in a country that is so inhospitable to success.”

Dealing with this problem requires a three-layered effort. First, the underlying fundamentals have to get better – no branding effort can save us if the country doesn’t correct its chronic ailments. Koh Buck Song in his book “Brand Singapore” notes that, “Singapore has an excellent track record of staying within the boundaries of credibility – never claiming to be too much more than what you really are.” The Greek image reparation has to start with the underlying “truth” and a managed set of expectations for change. The country won’t change overnight but it does not have to.

Second, the branding strategy has to look for positive news around specific critiques. For example, the country tried to make some efforts by publicizing the pace of new company creation under easier company registration rules. And the effort to bring corrupt politicians and tax evaders to justice can be seen under the same branding effort. But this is damage control and little more.

Therein lies the third and more fundamental challenge: that Greece cannot have a strong brand until it knows what the brand has to be. This is not a question of tourism or which slogan will get more foreigners to visit Greece. This is a more fundamental problem of identity and purpose. I am reminded here of the words of Constantine Karamanlis (the elder) who lamented when foreign leaders praised Ancient Greece but had no good words for modern Greece. They reminded him, he said, of the story of Caesar, who returning from Egypt told the Greeks “Till when will you let the glory of your ancestors cover for your failings?” This is an apt way to think about the Greek brand: till when will Greece let the ancients and the natural beauty form the entirety of its brand? Greece needs a brand “beyond history and beyond the sea.”

What might that brand be? If I think about Greece at its purest, most attractive and most seductive, it is a country that can offer an unparalleled work-life balance. Life in Greece can be very good: the problem in the “work-life balance” is the ”work.” Go to any Greek outside of Greece and ask them: if I could offer you the same job and job environment that have you have today in Greece, would you move? My sense is that an overwhelming majority would say yes. The reason is that if you can have a good job, Greece can offer an unbeatable work-life balance – its lifestyle is simply too attractive to match almost anywhere in the world. So if I had to rehabilitate the Greek brand, I would try to do so around the notion of “a place where you can work hard and enjoy the fruits of your labor with a great life.” Or, more simply: “Greece: Work. Life. Balance."

8 comments:

  1. Kali i analysi Niko......dystyhos, de mporo para na symfoniso se genikes grammes!
    To brand pou proteineis stin teleutaia paragrafo an kai fainetai ligo asteio stin parousa fasi (dioti proton to sxima Greece-Work einai oxymoron at the moment kai deuteron stin Ellada den yparxei douleia oute gia deigma tora) tha mporouse na fanei poly xrisimo argotera an kai otan dimiourgisoume ena entrepreneurship-friendly environment kai tis proypotheseis gia FDI into Greece. With such a beautiful country and a good life-work balance we could easily outcompete Singapore in attracting foreign companies and talent ( Singapore's logo is "Singapore.Work.Work.Work.). D

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  2. Dear Nikos,
    Your piece is very interesting and I enjoyed reading it. However, I must admit that the part I agree with most is "The Greek image reparation has to start with the underlying “truth” and a managed set of expectations for change...".
    This morning I was disappointed, to say the least, whilst reading the shallow article of P. Hatzinikolaou in Ekathimerini: "Ministry unable to collect tax fines - Over 12.5 billion euros in penalties could have entered state coffers..."
    The part that especially annoyed me in that article was the assertion that the unpaid amount of EUR 12.5 billion includes an amount of EUR 4.8 billion (yes these are billions...) related to the Acropolis brokerage case.
    I wonder why the journalist didn't even comment on the sheer size of this amount and why the MoF hasn't written it off altogether. Is there a single greek company with the financial clout ever to pay such an amount ? I don't believe so. The mind boggles. Considering a small brokerage firm, with a discontinued business (?), do you think that it could possibly pay even one thousandeth of the EUR 4.8 billion penalty ?
    Why then does the MoF and the media continue to serve this kind of nonsense. Further up the line, how can a judge reasonably expect a greek brokerage firm to pay such a hefty fine, whatever the circumstances? My impression is that some people are totally disconnected with reality: (a) when deciding to impose such outlandish fines, (b) when assuming that such astronomical amounts will ever be paid, (c) when keeping them as receivables in there budgets (MoFinance) and, (d) when, for the media, not even commenting on the sheer size of these amounts and their incongruousness. As if by some miracle everything would be solved and the budget balanced if only this recalcitrant brokerage firm or some other defunct company or its ruined principals would pay these measly billions in fines (however unjust they may be)supposedely owed to the State...

    You wrote "underlying truth" and you are so right... It's time for some truth and hard facts...from the media and others...

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    1. Thank you - that inability to confront these basic realities and facts is the main reason I started to write this blog. On the tax arrears question, I too have been puzzled at (a) why the government cannot seem to collect what it can/should and (b) get rid of what is clearly un-payable so that we can all focus on the real numbers.

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  3. Stamatios KoutsoukosJuly 7, 2012 at 11:00 AM

    Dear Nikos,

    An insightful article, as always. It is particularly disturbing that the most vocal part of the population in Greece does not seem to comprehend the damage done to the Greece brand over the past few years at least and I will not comment on the people who simply do not seem to care.

    I would like to comment on the last paragraph of your article, regarding modern Greek lifestyle. Indeed, the life-work balance (I like to arrange the words in this sequence) in Greece is probably the best I have seen, at least in the countries I have had the luck either to visit or in which to work. Having lived abroad for a (small) number of years, studying and working, I have come to the conclusion that modern Greeks are, on a national level, much less respectful to their fellow citizens than most people in the developed world. One only has to walk around for five minutes in a Greek city to understand this, witnessing the aggressive stance of drivers, the omnipresent graffiti and the foulest language imaginable, not to mention the complete lack of rules when it comes to queues, whether in shops, banks, public institutions or even in church.

    My point here is that it normally does not take long to make an outsider or Greek expatriate get annoyed at the stance of our fellow Greeks in everyday life. It was in 2000 when a professor of mine in Washington, DC, asked us in class what the best thing and the worst about each one's country was. My reply was that Greece was the most beautiful and attractive country in the world, in no small part because of the Greeks, who have a great stance at life and a superb life-work balance. Regarding the worst thing in Greece at that time, I said that, again, it was the Greeks, with their lack of respect, generally anti-social stance and envy of success.

    In any case, I would not be that optimistic that people would prefer to establish their presence in Greece, at least as long as the current way of behaviour prevails.

    Before I close my comment, let me also suggest a correction in the third paragraph of your post, where the word "kingship" should be replaced with "kinship".

    Since it is the first time I comment on your articles, let me add here that it is very uncommon to encounter analysis as deep, accurate and rational as yours in Greece today. I am glad to have come across your blog over the past year or so and it is needless to say I look forward towards reading your next post.

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    1. Thank you much for the comment - and for catching my typo (which I have corrected).

      Your observations are spot on. It takes me about 5 minutes driving around Athens to feel a great urge to write a post "How Greek Driving Explains the Current Crisis." I just haven't gotten around to it yet :-)

      But this is a very serious problem of political philosophy and upbringing that the country will have to correct.

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  4. Sir: Perhaps you can elaborate on this unparalleled Greek lifestyle that is so attractive.

    "its lifestyle is simply too attractive to match almost anywhere in the world. So if I had to rehabilitate the Greek brand, I would try to do so around the notion of “a place where you can work hard and enjoy the fruits of your labor with a great life.” Or, more simply: “Greece: Work. Life. Balance."

    Please tell me how life in Greece "would be very good" if it involved two hour commute times each day, eight hours of work, and two-three weeks holidays per year.

    Your naivete is breath-taking!!

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    1. I am not quite sure what you find naive in the statement above - my point is that if I think about how Greece could possibly stand out in the future, this would be it.

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    2. I'm feeling a bit obtuse, because I don't get Anon's point at all.

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