On nation branding in Luxembourg
Over the past years, I have argued that Luxembourg’s cultural policy has transitioned from nation-building in the 19th and 20th centuries to nation branding in the 21st century. Though I am aware that it simplifies a complex history, it still captures one of the most important developments in Luxembourg, not limited to cultural policy.
Since the late 1990s, researchers and actors from the marketing industry have published books and articles about nation branding, some more critical, others less. Simon Anholt first wrote about it in 1996. Since then, he has put forward another idea, that of “competitive identity” . Working in brand management and as a policy advisor, Anholt is not the most critical voice of nation branding, but he is aware that a country cannot be branded like a product, at least not in the same way, because of the interplay of national identity, political and economic competitiveness, and public diplomacy.
The authors of more critical publications usually agree on the fact that
nation branding is a historically specific phenomenon connected to ideological and economic changes on a global scale in the later decades of the twentieth century. What those changes consist of and how the main drive behind the rise of the brand nation should be understood is also rather unquestioned. Nation branding is usually associated with neoliberal politics favouring a weak state and strong markets in an increasingly globalized economy.
I agree with the fact that nation branding emerged in a specific context and that is not the same than nation-building, though both have some aspects in common. In my opinion, if we want to critically analyze any nation-branding campaign, we need to examine the historical development of the narratives, images and identity it disseminates, the national context, and the process of implementation. I will attempt to do this, in a non-exhaustive manner, for the case of Luxembourg.
Before nation branding: nation-building
Luxembourg was not the first country to venture into nation branding, but it picked up an international trend (as in so many cases). In 2013, the government created the nation branding committee, now the Inspiring Luxembourg Committee, reuniting 15 stakeholders in total (ministries and other bodies). This first step was followed by a process (“collective and collaborative”, according to the official webpage without further details) that sought to devise a national profile.1https://luxembourg.public.lu/en/toolbox/brand/approach.html (last access: 17/10/2021).
Nation branding has introduced new elements into the promotion of a country with the aspect of “branding” and with brand management. There exist now marketing agencies that advise governments in creating their national brand. In a more general sense, however, the promotion of a country’s reputation and objectives – or public diplomacy – is much older than the idea of nation branding.
After the First World War, Luxembourg entered a national era, limiting immigration, increasingly promoting the nation as an idea, while insisting on its “intermediateness” between the two neighboring cultures (French and German). The government also tried to develop a tourism industry. The presence of Luxembourg at international exhibitions would contribute to this objective, while also showcasing the distinct culture of Luxembourg, thus legitimating its independence in a period of rising tensions. For the Paris International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life in 1937, the government commissioned a promotional movie (Il est un petit pays). The national pavilion at the exhibition was putting forward a Francophile tone through its narratives and artworks, while insisting on its intermediateness, being a country at the crossroads of two cultures. However, such efforts were embedded in a different context than nation branding today.
Cultural policy was once mainly destined to strengthen the national idea and to create a national consciousness within the fledgling Luxembourgish state. Nation-building is oriented inwards, targeting the own population (more precisely: national residents). This does not mean that it cannot react to external threats such as Nazi annexationism in the 1930s. The Luxembourgish version of nation-building included a dimension which legitimized the country’s existence to its neighbours. This was the case, for instance, with the Centenary of Independence in 1939.
What is nation branding?
In the 21st century, Luxembourg is not threatened by its neighbors. We live in a globalizing world – which doesn’t mean that nationalism is gone or that governments don’t try to strengthen the national idea. Over the past decades, Luxembourg has increasingly tended to improve its international standing, also affecting cultural policy since at least the 1990s. Indeed, cultural policy has entered the age of nation branding.
As researchers have pointed out, nation branding is an example of Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power . In cultural policy, nation branding might be regarded as a form of what the scholar Raymond Williams once called “cultural policy as display”, encompassing economic reductionism and national aggrandizement .
Of course, nation branding does not only concern cultural policy, but the latter plays an important role considering the narratives, the images, and the national identity conveyed by nation-branding strategies. Nation branding is not identical to nation-building: “[I]f previously the nation was constructed as a collective community in relation to political legitimacy and citizenship, it is today imagined as a competitive entity in a global economy” . Nation branding is, in principle, directed at an international public, though researchers do not always agree on how much nation branding can be oriented inwards . Yet, nation-building and nation branding are based on choices made by governments and implicated groups of people. It is a choice of the images to disseminate, the narratives to reproduce/construct. Obviously, a country wishes to show its best side; negative elements are removed and cleansed. As Paul Jordan in his study of Estonia’s nation branding writes: “By branding a nation a country is effectively saying what it is and, in the case of Estonia, doing so by saying what it is not.”
When he wrote his book about “competitive identity”, Simon Anholt was aware that statements about “branding” a country can elicit negative responses:
Whenever branding is spoken about in the context of countries, regions or cities – as it is with increasing frequency today – people tend to assume that these promotional techniques are simply being used to “sell” the country; and not surprisingly, they don’t like the sound of that. More than one journalist has compared the branding of places to the branding of cattle: applying an attractive logo, a catchy slogan, and marketing the place as if it were nothing more than a product in the global supermarket .
In the case of Luxembourg, it can be hardly overlooked that the nation-branding campaign has developed a logo (“Luxembourg” with an outstanding “X” in the colours of the national flag – visible in publications, on official webpages, in public spaces, in mail signatures from government officials), includes a slogan (“Let’s make it happen”) and disseminates promotional material (as I’m writing this blogpost, I use a Nation Branding mousepad…).
More research is needed to understand the context and the motivations behind the initial development of the nation-branding campaign back in 2013. In an international context, countries, regions and cities are competing in a globalized world to attract industries, investments, tourists, and skilled workforce. This is very much different to the promotion of the tourism industry in the 1920s/1930s that I mentioned above.
In Luxembourg, the nation-branding campaign was a logical step considering developments of the previous two or three decades. Opportunities to showcase the country within or beyond its borders were abundant: from international fairs over EU Council presidencies to exhibitions abroad. In the early 1990s, the travelling exhibition Imago Luxemburgi was shown in different cities in Europe . Though the exhibition did not aim to “impose” an official image of the country, it still did. It highlighted how Luxembourgish identity was forged through the contact with other cultures. It lauded the country as a “prefiguration of tomorrow’s Europe”.
Luxembourg as a meeting spot of cultures, at the heart of Europe, with its own identity: such narratives are not missing in the nation-branding campaign, as the official webpage Inspiring Luxembourg illustrates. “[Luxembourg] has been at the heart of a multitude of cultural influences, partly because of its geography but also because of trade, industrialisation, and immigration […],” the visitor of the page is told. And further: “The Grand Duchy leaves no one indifferent, for it has its own place in the concert of nations: a pioneer of economic alliances and partnerships, a modest and persevering mediator, and a nation where everyone feels at home.”2https://luxembourg.public.lu/en/toolbox.html (last access: 18/10/2021). Such (bold) statements (personifying the country as if it was one homogeneous entity) might apply well to promotional occasions, but they are stripping down a complex reality.
The nation-branding strategy aims to strengthen Luxembourg’s position on the international stage, which the former state secretary at the Ministry of Economic Affairs Francine Closener described as “putting Luxembourg on the map” back in 2014 . The results of the (collaborative) process launched in 2014 were published in an official document in the following year. It identified three key values of Luxembourg: dynamic, open, reliable. In the annex of this document presenting the profile of the country, the authors (the marketing agency) explained how they resorted to the theory of “archetypes” developed by the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. The “personality” of Luxembourg’s brand would be that of the “ally”. “It is the same archetype used by popular brands such as Volkswagen, Ikea and LinkedIn”, the authors stated.3https://luxembourg.public.lu/dam-assets/toolbox/documents/Luxembourg-profil-d-un-pays.pdf (last access : 18 October 2021). The use of these examples has not aged well, considering VW’s Diesel scandal, for instance. The brand development was entrusted to the Luxembourg-based marketing agency COMED in collaboration with the German agency CONCEPT X – which has worked for private companies such as…Volkswagen.
In June 2021, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented the new roadmap for 2021-2025 . The nation-branding initiative was updated and revised, but the core principles remain the same, as the government pursues the “promotion of the brand” (promotion de l’image de marque). Not even the discourse seems to have dramatically changed. “Our mission is to make known and therefore to put the country on the map”, said the main coordinator of the project Beryl Koltz in an interview . Inspired by the first triptych of values developed in 2014/2015, the revised strategy puts forward creativity, diversity, and sustainability (durabilité) as the main themes, while the updated narrative is guided by two principles: “the grower’s mindset” and “a common ground for all cultures”.4https://gouvernement.lu/dam-assets/documents/actualites/2021/06-juin/30-asselborn-nation-branding/Communique-de-presse-Promotion-de-l-image-de-marque-MAEE-30062021.pdf (last access : 18 October 2021).
Since the beginning, and unsurprisingly, Luxembourg’s nation branding has elicited critical comments and reactions. In 2015, the young artist collective Richtung22 created a theatre piece parodying nation branding, entitled Luxembourg, you malicious piece of shit (Lëtzebuerg, du hannerhältegt Stéck Schäiss). Discussing the new strategy presented in June 2021, the journalist Michèle Sinner observed that “less stupid” does not necessarily make it smart (“manner domm ass och nach net direkt gescheit”) and criticized the gap between the narratives of the campaign, on the one hand, and political and social reality, on the other .
New strategy, old recipes
Considering the themes of the new strategy, they are clearly inspired by previous developments and the present context. The theme of creativity, for instance, is explicitly linked to the creative industries. I have not yet found studies that investigate the connection between the rise of creative industries since the 1990s and the emergence of nation branding. Maybe it is not a fruitful path to pursue, but in the past I have argued that nation branding relies on the creative industries, if we posit that the latter encompass, among other things, graphic design, web development, audiovisual publications and marketing. Furthermore, Luxembourg has increasingly promoted its image as an innovative place with strong intellectual property protection. Around the same time the government came up with nation branding, it also introduced the creative industries as an official concept.
The theme of sustainability is also clearly linked to the current context (though further research is necessary to expand on this analysis – especially as we lack a comprehensive environmental history of Luxembourg). In an era where climate change is one of the most important global challenges and countries invest efforts in sustainable development, the choice for sustainability as one of the themes is practically a given – especially when the government boasts itself with the free public transport introduced in 2020. In this sense, sustainability has become an instrument to highlight a country’s (not necessarily accurate) exemplarity in the matter. If sustainability was such an important matter, one might ask why, as of October 2021, the Ministry for the Environment, for Climate and for Sustainable Development is not represented in the Inspiring Luxembourg Committee (unlike others such as Economy, Finance, Culture, and Education).
As for the theme of diversity, it has been present in cultural policy since at least the 1990s. From the cultural viewpoint, it might be a modern, updated version of the “between two cultures” trope of the 20th century. I won’t get into the details here – I have done so on other occasions – but official publications have been highlighting the multicultural, diverse society of Luxembourg for decades. The first European Capital of Culture in 1995 had the dialogue between cultures as its main theme. In exhibitions abroad or at international fairs, public authorities have used this trope; since its beginning, nation branding has relied on it. The document of 2015 insisted on the country being a “real melting-pot of nationalities, cultures and languages” (“véritable melting-pot de nationalités, de cultures et de langues”), an “international meeting place” (“lieu de rencontre international”). One of the official themes currently showcased by the Luxembourg pavilion at Dubai 2020 is precisely that of “creating a society that draws its wealth from the diversity” (“créer une société qui puise sa richesse dans la diversité“).5https://www.luxembourgexpo2020dubai.lu/fr/expo-2020/theme/ (last access: 18 October 2021).
Branding the nation for whom?
I mentioned above that researchers do not always agree on how much nation-branding campaigns are also targeting the resident population. One could argue that the positive reception of nation branding by the own population facilitates its dissemination and penetration. In the case of Luxembourg’s nation-branding strategy, I am quite unsure how much this is the case. The press release of June 2021 does not mention who the target audiences are. That it is oriented outwards is quite clear from the objectives it states. Yet, considering the abundance of nation branding symbols within Luxembourg, the government possibly tries to convince its own population of the narratives and images. Some researchers see this as being part of nation branding, turning “citizens into the embodiments of the message of the brand”, as individuals become “brand ambassadors” .
The overview I have provided is only a small part of what could be written about the topic. As stated in the beginning, a critical analysis needs to study the (pre-)history of nation-branding narratives and images; it needs to attempt to understand the context in which nation branding takes place; but it also needs to examine the process, the revisions over the years, the responses. As much as nation branding seems to “freeze” the image of a country into a set of positive statements and a collection of captivating pictures, a country, and the campaign as such, are never static.
“What is a nation?” (“Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”) asked the French Historian Ernest Renan in 1882, reflecting on the topic. Nation branding assumes that this big question has been answered. It is only a matter of smartly communicating it.