Brand Ukraine

Written by Farzana Baduel | Originally featured in Ukranian Dialogue

Ukraine is one of Europe’s greatest undiscovered gems, rich in culture, history and natural resources. Yet, how have events in recent years impacted perceptions of Ukraine around the world, and, more importantly, what needs to be done in order to improve its ‘brand’, and boost tourism, foreign direct investment and international trade? Farzana Baduel, of Curzon PR, investigates.

Ukraine is a country rich in cultural heritage and biodiversity, from stunning alpine resorts to the wonderfully sunny seaside resorts of the Crimean coast. Fairy-tale castles perch precariously on cliffs overlooking breath-taking views while stunning architecture sees buildings such as the Saint Sophia Cathedral inject urban spaces with gravitas and life. Its rich landscapes yield world class vineyards (indeed, Ukraine produces excellent champagne), and towns such as Odessa are much-loved by visitors. The history of the country is just as rich, far-reaching and complex, a major world power in the medieval period, home to the famous Cossack Warriors, and living in the shadow of Soviet power until its independence in 1991. Since then, steady economic growth has marked it as a fertile ground for business, trade and tourism.

However, it seems few know much about Ukraine and the sad fact is that the image of Ukraine has suffered in the press in recent years, with reports of topless feminists and brawling politicians dominating the headlines. Meanwhile, the shadow of Yulia Tymoshenko’s trial and subsequent political consequences, like that the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl years before, lingers on in the public consciousness like a malignant cloud. For many, Ukraine has never fully emerged from the shadow of Russia – and yet here we have a country of great national and cultural richness, diversity and depth. The largest country in Europe, its many positive points remain undiscovered or, worse yet, buried under other preconceived notions as poor tourism infrastructure while a reputation for corruption deters trade. Ukraine remains one of Europe’s great undiscovered gems – after all, it was the country that inspired George Gershwin’s Summertime – and how many know that?

This is where the concept of ‘country branding’ steps in, an important factor that has come to be used to both brand, rate and rank nations around the world. Each year the FutureBrand Country Brand Index publishes a comprehensive study of country brands. Drawing on respondents around the world, it bases its ranking on perceptions that include heritage, culture, tourism, the business/trade environment and quality of life, among others. It is widely used as a marker of the quality of life within each country. In the case of Ukraine, 2012 saw Ukraine ranked 98 out of 118 countries (coming in at 105 in 2011, and 99 in 2010). The ‘brand’ of a country is important as it functions as an indicator of its reputation and standing on the international arena – public perceptions of a nation, and how it presents itself, play an integral role in shaping national identity as well as forging international trade, tourism and arts and cultural ties. “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). “Ukraine has a rich culture, we have much to be proud of, and at this stage it is important to overcome outdated stereotypes that often hinder productive communication and cooperation at various levels.”

Previous attempts by the Ukrainian government to hire branding companies have not had the desired success in launching the country’s image, including the most recent slogan ‘Ukraine: Moving in the Fast Lane’, with 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 more than 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 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. Explains Jonathan McClory, a London-based policy and place branding consultant, “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.”

“As with many countries in Eastern Europe, there is the perception that Ukraine is a very poor country,” says Andy Hunder, Director of the Ukrainian Institute in London. “What is important is to have a strategy – and I don’t think Ukraine is unique in sending out mixed messages – Russia, for example, has a massive issue in its image abroad, as do other large countries.” In order to combat this, then, Ukraine needs to promote itself as having a safe, transparent, and above all, stable business environment for foreign direct investment. This is a dual challenge for Ukraine, as it also means combatting corruption and negative stereotypes in the West over government interference. “A track record of successful investments that can be publicly accessed and verified is crucial,” as one investor to 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 (EU) 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 links (such as the declarations of interests required 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.” Adds Sandell, “It is easy to forget nowadays the historical role of Ukraine since antiquity as Europe’s ‘breadbasket’, especially in a time of global food shortages and escalating world prices for grain and other food. It is also not realised that in some areas, Ukraine is amongst the world leaders in resources such as coal reserves, and so on.”

This is where ‘soft power’ steps in – for, in addition to trade and government regulations, it is the role of art and culture that 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. “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 world cultural map and attraction of cultural flows.”

Then there is tourism. Not only is Ukraine rich in mineral resources and agricultural land, but it also has Black Sea resorts. “The Crimean Peninsula in particular can potentially rival the best resorts in Spain and France, given 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.” Often it is the case that tourism is the most difficult aspect of a country to sell – and ensuring the reality matches the glossy images promoted in the media is integral. “If we look at Turkey, as an example, it has done a great job tourism-wise,” says Hunder. “Beautiful coasts, low budget holidays – Turkey is the place to go. Other countries, such as Belarus, have unsuccessfully tried to imitate this success; ultimately, a campaign should steer clear of any political issues completely and focus on not just the cosmetic, but delivery of ‘the goods’ in terms of infrastructure and quality of service.” It is clear that 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 as comfortable for a stay of foreign tourists – and it 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, though recent wounds are still painful.” 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 initially by careful selection of just a few priority places as 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.”

It is clear that Ukraine has the potential to rebrand itself as an affluent, educated and trade-rich country – what the country needs is at least one specific existing (or rapidly emerging) success story, the requisite infrastructure (tourism, highways, health care, etc) and the full exercise of human intellectual potential and talent. 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. “Ukraine’s brand – for better or worse – hinges on the balancing act relations with its Western and Eastern neighbours,” concludes McClory. “Only with a thorough understanding of the weaknesses it needs to deal with can Ukraine deal with its strengths and, with the government and private sector working in concert, make a significant impact on Ukraine’s brand.”

Originally featured in Ukranian Dialogue, October 2013.