Photo: Mystetskyi Arsenal (c) 2012
‘Branding Ukraine’, by Farzana Baduel
To compete on the world stage, Ukraine needs a strong image. Farzana Baduel, Founder and Managing Director of Curzon PR, explores what should be done to improve brand Ukraine, and thus boost international trade, foreign investment and tourism
by Farzana Baduel
From stunning mountain villages to the sunny seaside resorts of the Crimean coast, via fairytale castles perched on cliffs or ancient cathedrals injecting urban spaces with gravitas and life, Ukraine is a country full of cultural heritage and diversity. Agriculturally rich, Ukraine’s landscapes supply the world with grain — as well as providing excellent champagne, and even the inspiration for George Gershwin’s Summertime (who knew?). Meanwhile the country’s far reaching and complex history has the power to fascinate: a major world power in the medieval period, Ukraine was home to the famous Cossack warriors before the country succumbed to Soviet power until independence in 1991. Since then, steady economic growth has marked out Ukraine as fertile ground for business, trade and tourism.
Globally, however, few know much about Ukraine — and what people remember of current affairs are the negatives: topless feminists and brawling politicians, the shadow of Yulia Tymoshenko’s trial and subsequent political consequences. Like the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl years before, these impressions linger in the public consciousness like a malignant cloud. The perception of poor infrastructure deters tourists, while a reputation for corruption deters trade. In the FutureBrand Country Brand Index of 2012, Ukraine was ranked 98 out of 118 — meaning that perceptions of Ukraine’s heritage, culture, tourism industry, business environment and quality of life are low. “Clearly, the way our country is perceived in the world is important for Ukrainians,” says Natalia Zabolotna, Director General of the National Art and Culture Museum Complex Mystetskyi Arsenal (Art Arsenal). Thus managing Ukraine’s brand is important not just in the spheres mentioned above, but also to the country’s national identity.
Previous attempts by the Ukrainian government to hire branding companies have not had the desired success in launching the country’s image. The most recent slogan ‘Ukraine. Moving in the Fast Lane’, included cute, large-eyed cartoon mascots ‘Harniunia’ and ‘Sprytko’ promoting an idyllic, almost pastoral image. Other campaigns, including ‘Ukraine. For Snowlovers’ and ‘Ukraine. Beautifully Yours’ have similarly had a short shelf life as, ultimately, they haven’t succeeded in promoting Ukraine for much other than its beautiful landscapes. Indeed, in the article ‘Branding Ukraine: Lip-Synching a Happy Tune’, Zhanna Bezpiatchuk recently examined these and other failed attempts by the country to give itself this cultural facelift of sorts. So what is it, then, that could be done to revive the image of Ukraine and shine the spotlight on the many positive aspects of the country, and, in doing so, boost tourism and trade?
Factors that contribute to a country’s ‘brand’ include government and political values, cultural appeal, foreign policy, education and a healthy business environment. For Terry Sandell, Director of Cultural Futures, the key to a positive country brand means “it has to be one that the country’s own population can seriously and actively identify with — if [the country] disregards this, and it is focused only at people outside the country, it will come unstuck.” Indeed, post-Orange Revolution, Ukraine has been struggling to define itself as something more than just the sum of its parts. Jonathan McClory, a London-based policy and place branding consultant explains, “A strong country brand is crucial to overall international economic competitiveness. It can also be a powerful tool for rallying citizens. It requires government leaders to think strategically about the country, its strength, and its ambitions. If this is well communicated, it has an impact both internationally and domestically.”
In order to stimulate trade and foreign investment, Ukraine needs to promote itself as having a safe, transparent, and above all, stable business environment. This is a dual challenge for Ukraine, as it also means combatting corruption. “A track record of successful investments that can be publicly accessed and verified is crucial,” as one investor in the Ukraine notes. “Perhaps one could go so far as to say the main interest of the people of Ukraine in its ‘brand’ is the acceptance by Europe and the West as a trading partner. If the country can prove that the Presidency and related parties are absolutely clear of links to private business (for example by implementing a declaration of interests register such as the one used by British MPs), it can eliminate distrust of Ukraine as a business and trading partner.” This is echoed by Maryana Greenberg, Curzon PR Director for the CIS Region, who calls for “concrete steps on the part of the government, including the long overdue signing of a cooperation agreement with the EU, and fighting corruption on all levels to provide peace of mind to foreign investors.”
In addition to trade and government regulations, art and culture can go a long way to healing negative perceptions of a country. Initiatives such as the first Ukrainian Biennale of Modern Art in Kyiv, organised by Zabolotna, have already made a difference. “Very often the image of a country is formed by outstanding creative people or attention-grabbing cultural events,” explains Zabolotna, citing the likes of Kazimir Malevich, Oleksandr Archipenko and David Burliuk. “Thus, for me, as a patriot of this country, and for Mystetskyi Arsenal, it is extremely important that these and many other names of world art enter the associative array of the way Ukraine is perceived. We are aware of how the emergence of new museums can affect the reorientation of the world’s cultural map.”
Then there is tourism. Not only is Ukraine rich in mineral resources and agricultural land, but it also has the Black Sea resorts. “The Crimean Peninsula in particular can potentially rival the best resorts in Spain and France, if the hotel infrastructure is properly developed,” says Greenberg. Here, branding is essential in shaping perceptions. “It is important to communicate a clear and attractive offer to tourists,” says McClory. “This tends to start with historical strengths and traditional culture, and eventually moves towards investing in cultural infrastructure to draw interest from abroad. In short, it is about understanding tourists and what they want, then telling the right stories about your country in the right ways.”
Ensuring the reality matches the glossy images promoted in the media is essential; strategy is the all-important factor in rebranding any aspect of a country. “Ukraine is a huge country with seas, mountains, different climatic zones, and our travel routes should be comfortable for foreign tourists — which requires the joint efforts of public and private sectors. This requires foreign investment as well,” says Zabolotna “We have never been a typical Soviet country, Ukrainians are different from Russians and we have a different mentality and logic.”
In order to attract the necessary investment and shake up infrastructure, “what is needed is a long-term strategic plan for tourism development which takes into account both a domestic and foreign market,” observes Sandell. “This should be followed by a careful selection of tourism targets where investment is made to meet any infrastructure needs and to make sure facilities and activities meet international expectations, which middle class Ukrainians also now have.”
Ukraine has the potential to rebrand itself as an affluent, educated and trade-rich country. But to actually do so, those in power need to do much more. PR and branding agencies can only go so far, for what they have failed to do to date is tap into the country’s true potential and work with its image on a level that is sustainable and, most importantly, identifiable to both Ukrainians and international audiences. What will help is at least one specific existing (or rapidly emerging) success story. “Ukraine’s brand — for better or worse — hinges on the balancing act of relations with its Western and Eastern neighbours,” concludes McClory. “Only with a thorough understanding of the weaknesses it needs to deal with can Ukraine promote its strengths. And only with the government and private sector working together can there be a significant improvement in Ukraine’s brand.”