New Delhi: He specializes in so-called nation branding, which conveys the sense of a country’s reputation and can have an effect on the outcome of its business, trade and tourism efforts, apart from international diplomatic and cultural ties. Simon Anholt has since 1996 been working with governments to help them plan policies, strategies and investments that lead countries towards an improved profile.

Anholt is a member of the UK government’s Public Diplomacy Board and works as an independent adviser to 20 other national, regional and city governments on brand strategy and public diplomacy. In 2005, he developed the Nation Brand Index, a report that measures perceptions among 50 countries based on influencers such as exports, governance, culture, people, tourism, investment and immigration. Anholt was in New Delhi on Thursday to address a seminar on nation branding. Edited excerpts from the seminar and an interview with him:

Studying perception: Anholt says it is important to know that a brand is not the message but the context in which the brand is received which is why, even for a nation, the way it is perceived makes a difference. Rajkumar / Mint

A nation’s brand is a way of signifying a country’s reputation, and it is important to make sure the reputation is strong because everything the country does is then easier—whether it’s exporting products where the Made in India label becomes a premium, or whether it’s the political and cultural relations the country forms with other nations, and even for the people who come from a country with a good reputation, then find it easier to get jobs, study abroad and even get married.

Is it fair to compare the way companies brands their product, and a nation manages its reputation?

Comparing a country to a brand is only a metaphor and nothing more than that. A nation is not a product but it does have a reputation that needs to be managed carefully and that is important. While branding is always associated with a company making people buy stuff, when it is applied to a nation, it is no different. We live in a globalized world where we no longer compete locally. Suddenly everybody woke up in the 80s and found that the world had changed. We compete for products globally, we even compete for destinations across the world. In this situation you don’t know your customer and your customer doesn’t know you but your product has a reputation that is formed by the country of its origin.

In a paper I wrote, I described an imaginary situation where a DVD player on the shelf has the same price and same design and same characteristics and no brand name but while one said it was made in Guatemala, the other was made in Japan. The DVD player that a customer would choose is the one from Japan because of the perception or myth that Japan is a credible manufacturer of electronic items. The customer would choose the same DVD player from Japan even it was 20% costlier. It is important to know that a brand is not the message but the context in which the brand is received which is why even for a nation, the way it is perceived makes a difference to the success of its business, trade, political relations and to its people.

Can the efforts made by countries to brand themselves, like the Incredible India campaign, be measured?

It is measurable, though it’s not easy to measure. One can become obsessed about expecting immediate results but it is not useful because 90% of a country’s reputation is beyond the control of a country. Perceptions have been created over generations and it takes generations to alter it even slightly, but 10% is something that can be managed and that is what government initiatives usually try to do. But a government is spending taxpayers’ money, so it is essential that it is measurable, which is what the Nation Brand Index (NBI) tries to do, not by measuring the performance of nations that try to change themselves because that just doesn’t show up. But the purpose of the NBI is to find out what ordinary people around the world think or believe about other countries. The idea for the NBI came about when I realized that there were a lot of surveys that looked at the reality surrounding countries but none that studied perceptions.

What does the NBI say about how India is being perceived by other nations?

In 2008, India came in 27th among the 50 nations, Germany was number one, China was 28. In the six areas that influence perceptions of a country, which include exports, governance, culture, people, tourism and immigration and investment, India scored well in most areas except in governance. (As a) country that competes directly with China, (India) has a competitive edge over China where people are concerned and this is a crucial advantage because it is the human factor we are talking about here. When you talk to most governments on what they are proud of, they will talk of products, services, tourist destinations, investments but the one thing they don’t talk about is people, and it is this that makes the reputation of a country the strongest because people like to put a face to a nation because a country is nothing but the genius of the people.

If you were given the task to re-brand India, where would you start?

The country is one of the oldest brands. India is undergoing rapid economic growth and is in touch with other countries now more than ever and this will make its image grow extensively right from its food, culture, people and as a tourist destination.

Notwithstanding the country’s vast economic disparities, people are doing much better and this is being projected to other nations. I don’t see a need for rebranding India at the moment but I do see a sense in protecting the brand as it is today. As I see Brand India, the train has left the station and is running rapidly in the right direction.