Photo: Andrew Hulsmeier
Barbados is not in the rudest financial health, is labouring under a combined burden of debt, deficit and dysfunction, and is more fearful about the future than it is used to. Given the tsunami of sea changes in the global economic order, this retrograde and painful revised economic position for such a small island economy should be both understandable and to an extent be expected, although it is completely unnecessary in the case of Barbados.
While the trading conditions in which we must now all operate, and the behaviours you need to exhibit have changed beyond recognition, who you are, and what you stand for as an island people remain intact and unaltered. They form the underlying essence of brand Barbados, and combine to form a formidable national asset that should in my humble opinion be better deployed in support of a more sustainable future for the island.
A few years ago, having led work on rebranding Britain (dubbed ‘Cool Britannia’) I invested some time helping Invest Barbados and the then Government investigate how to leverage a reputation for the island that would help underpin a more prosperous, more balanced, less vulnerable economy of the future. At the time, the island was riding high and there seemed insufficient pain or hunger to take this important but complex cross-societal challenge forward, and I can’t help thinking now that had we pushed on, Barbados would today be in a more comfortable place.
The first point worth noting is that there is a link between tourism and investment. This is why there is so little investment in Alaska and so much more by comparison in the Caribbean. Your location is an asset.
The second point is that the sea, surf and sand imagery is now just a visual cliché for the Caribbean that offers no differentiated positioning to Barbados. Pictures of palm trees and beaches simply lump the island in with the region as a whole.
The third and most critical point is that what people perceive of you has less to do with what you say about yourself, and all to do with the consistent experience others have of you. This is the basis for Trip Advisor, which answers the question in a prospect’s head “yeah I see the hype, but what is it really like?” No amount of me telling you I’m thin and good looking will ever trump the reports from those who have met me and formed and shared their own opinions. Your reputation is earned, not created today and ever more than before.
Effective Nation Branding
The trick in effective nation branding that can deliver long term economic benefit is to find and occupy a position in the minds of those in whom you are most interested, that genuinely reflects who and what you are, and then make a major long term cross-party commitment to maintaining this position over decades not by sticking to the same promotional message, but to behaving in a consistent manner.
The first step in developing the way forward would be to truly understand what differentiates you, your people and your place. In our research we identified a unique rhythm, fusion, intelligence, fairness, a cracking sense of humour married to a sense of superiority and pragmatism as defining characteristics of a people that takes itself perhaps too seriously, loves to discuss and debate issues, and likes to punch way above its weight.
The second step is to look inside the mind-set of the investors and visitors who you most wish to associate with Barbados, and to understand their frames of reference and the mental imagery that already exist in their minds. This is critically important because if you are out of mind, you are out of business whether you’re selling coconuts, currency or cans of soup.
Singapore of the Caribbean?
For example, combining two existing mental images already in the minds of your target audiences, could Barbados be the “Singapore of the Caribbean” (wealthy, serious, entrepreneurial, and innovative but fun, sophisticated, relaxed and friendly too)? If so, does it have the wherewithal to live and breathe the daily existence of such a place? Singapore doesn’t suffer an action deficit disorder, while in my experience Barbados chooses to have one.
One aspect of brand management is certain; you can take decades to slowly build a reputation in the minds of others but events completely out of your control will turn up one day, prompt a sharp focus on you and look to turn your brand reputation on its head in a heartbeat, which leads some to ask, is it worth trying to build one in the first place when they can be so fickle, unstable and hard to maintain?
The most important aspect of a brand to remember is not about nation, product or corporate branding; the heart of why brands are so important to every business is our individual human need to feel special as we swim in a sea of individuals. We are all unique, but that apparently is not enough unless everybody else notices our individuality.
It is this relentless pursuit of a personal identity in the crowd that differentiates us self-absorbed humans from other species. What we wear, drive, and even how we cut and colour our hair is all designed for effect and to be a statement. But, you don’t see bees buzzing around in Choose Honey T-shirts or Giraffes in expensive Jimmy Hoofs do you? But visit China and you’ll notice the palpable unrelenting need of millions upon millions to stand out from the hordes of other faces. This is why Asian markets are so dominated by luxury brands like Rolex, Burberry and Bentley. Visit Hong Kong and you can’t move for luxury watch adverts.
The dichotomy of course is that we also want to belong and are strongly tribal as well as being individuals, so we select individual collections from the brands on offer in an attempt to paint a surface picture of who we want others to believe us to be.
Let me finish by concluding that the need for a clear accurate reputation that has integrity and is backed by consistent behaviour is only going to become more necessary as the global economy powers ahead under the tailwind of the internet.
The longer Barbados waits to grasp this priority, the more will it become less noticed, less relevant, less important, and less able to sustain the fine lifestyle to which it would like to remain accustomed.