Odyssey article on Greece’s brand image

The Greek magazine Odyssey features an article on Greece’s brand image titled “Culture, the 2004 Olympic Games and Greece’s brand image”:

As 2004 approaches, Greeks are preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase their culture and country to the world. The image projected during the Olympic Games will stay with the world for decades. But what should that image be?

When the songs vying to represent Greece at the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest were announced in March, an especially turbulent tempest broke out in the Greek teacup

The furor erupted over the number of entries with non-Greek lyrics as the Eurovision hopefuls bid to match the success of last year’s third-place showing by Antique (the children of Greek migrants to Sweden). The pop-muzak concoctions with their ersatz English were vehemently denounced as a debasement of Greek culture by a parade of pundits who argued that the song contest should be used to showcase the true Greek politismos.

But amid all the rage and rancor over what most of the rest of Europe views as a laughable, albeit loveable, cultural forum, not a single critic touched upon the issue of what Greek culture was-other than to imply that it was somehow superior to pop ditties with English lyrics. The country’s culture was thus defined by what it was not: Greece’s Eurovision entry, the uninspired, but impressively tacky, “S.A.G.A.P.O.,” (I love you) written and performed by ageing rocker Mihalis Rakintzis.

C.U.L.T.U.R.E. is a serious, often somber, subject in Greece-and at times it is almost a national issue. (In 1981, culture was Greece’s ticket into the then-European Economic Community as Constantine Karamanlis played on European sensitivities that the “cradle of democracy” never again be vulnerable to dictatorship.) Indeed, the Greek language does not distinguish between “culture” and “civilization,” making it virtually impossible to describe a modern pop culture. The result is a segregation in the arts between the artistic (quality) and the commercial (mass appeal), and a rather curious inference that the two are mutually exclusive.

How Greece approaches this question will determine, to a large degree, the benefits that accrue to the country from the Olympic Games Athens will host in 2004. “It is the single most important event for Greece in the next 10-20 years,” says Denis Oswald, who heads the International Olympic Committee’s coordinating committee for Athens 2004. “The games established Barcelona and Sydney in the world’s eye; and all the ingredients are there to re-establish Athens.”

Media attention on the Athens 2004 Olympics has focused on progress in building or refurbishing athletic facilities and infrastructure. Equally intensive and far-reaching are the preparations for less tangible aspects of hosting the Games. As officials for the Athens Organizing Committee emphasize, it is simply not an issue of physically getting people from venue A to venue B, but of the mood and impressions set during that move. And what it boils down to is image: one that will likely stay with Greece for decades.

“A successful games is not just about making stadia work,” argues a Greek sports marketing executive closely involved with 2004. “It’s a projection of the whole country. The image will be vital. Greece has a wealth of cultural capital to draw on. Blow it, and the country will have lost the chance of a generation.”

High Brow vs Low Brow

But what is the nature of this cultural capital, and how should it be invested for the maximum return? It seems that Greeks are aware of the political and commercial value of “Greek culture,” but no one can define precisely what that is. Moreover, in a nation not renowned for strategic thinking or the ability to pull in one direction at the same time, can Greece’s cultural institutions transcend their distaste for anything “commercial” and rise to the task of selling Greece to the rest of the world?

“When we speak of Greek culture, it is assumed that we are speaking of ancient Greece-Pericles, the Parthenon, Knossos, drama at Epidaurus, Homer, mythology,” says a senior advertising executive, who asked not to be named. “These are the images conjured by such ‘Greek’ symbols as temples with columns, sandals, clay jugs.”

Pericles and the Parthenon are symbols of the high end of Greek culture. But Greek intellectuals tend to frown on leather-sandalled cartoon characters like Hercules, or television adaptations like Xena, Warrior Princess, who might represent a trivialization of the ancient Greeks but do at least show how deeply ingrained these symbols and ideas are on the Western psyche. Such disdain underscores Greeks’ proprietary attitude to ancient Greek civilization. And, sometimes, this official proclivity for the weighty yields mixed results, as seen with the recently unveiled mascots for the 2004 Games, Athena and Phevos (see sidebar).

“Up until a couple of decades ago, the heavy artillery of what we call culture were ‘our ancient ancestors’, a legacy that we monopolize as if those who live in Greece have the sole right to this heritage,” says ethnomusicologist Nikos Dionyssopoulos.

Whose Lion is it Anyway?

By effectively consecrating its antiquities and ancient heritage, Greece has also made it remote from the Greeks themselves. High-handed approaches such as a ban on having your picture taken next to monuments such as the Delos lions for fear of “degrading” them alienates them from Greeks and non-Greeks alike. As a result of this didactic approach, many Greeks are bored by antiquities and show little interest in consuming “their own” culture.

“It is not enough to call yourself Greek to be the sole manager of this heritage,” Dionyssopoulos says.

Often, possessiveness about Ancient Greece is expressed in ways that make Greeks seem petulant, even when they have a point. Examples abound, from the furious reaction to fashion designer Calvin Klein’s application a few years ago to stage a show at either the Herod Atticus Odeon or the Agora, to the use of Parthenon or column outlines in advertising campaigns for soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. But at the same time that Greece officially wrinkles its nose in disgust at any commercial exploitation of these “sacred” monuments, the state collects millions of euros each year from museum admission fees, merchandise, and licensing fees (which does, it should be said, contribute to the upkeep of these monuments).

The official fixation on antiquities has tended to obliterate all other forms of Greek culture. “Antiquity has certainly been at the center of Greek cultural promotion,” says Angelos Delivorrias, curator of the Benaki Museum in Athens. “Much less [attention has been trained] on the Byzantine era, while the period of foreign rule-from the fall of Constantinople to the creation of the modern Greek state-is almost unknown. Equally unknown is modern and contemporary culture, including the 19th century.”

It is only since the 1980s that Byzantine culture and traditional or folk art, including music, have received any attention or state support.

Ironically, this cultural focus on antiquities was not necessarily a conscious choice of the Greeks, but was

foisted upon them through the romanticism that spurred the Greek revival in which the founding of the Modern Greek State was rooted.

“The conditions [for this focus] have existed outside Greece from the 19th century as Greek classical culture had been studied and assimilated,” Delivorrias adds.

In Europe and America, which also provided support to the Greek revolution, “Greek culture” was thus defined even before Greeks had gained independence from the Ottoman Turks.

Identity Crisis

This image was potent enough to seduce successive generations of writers, poets, painters, and travelers from Lord Byron to Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. Byron, who gave his life for the Greek cause, branded the image of Ancient Greece as the cradle of democracy in the Western cultural consciousness. Miller and Durrell, who arrived on a quest for that purity, grafted that romanticism onto a new, more modern stereotype that partly spurred the tourism boom of the 60s and 70s.

“You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder-the discovery of yourself,” Durrell wrote in Prospero’s Cell.

Self-discovery was also the theme of two films that put modern Greece on the tourist map-Mihalis Cacoyiannis’ Zorba, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and Jules Dassin’s Never on Sunday. Fact and fiction were thus entwined, with the “Greek psyche” now embodied by the larger-than-life figures of Zorba, Melina Mercouri, Aristotle Onassis, and Maria Callas.

Tacked on to the icon of Greece as the font of Western culture was the image of Greece as a land of sun and fun.

“There has been a systematic effort to create the impression in the West of Greece as the land of sun, clean beaches, and hospitality. But that image is contrived-although that doesn’t mean that it has no substance,” says Dionyssopoulos, who coordinated the cultural program at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, where Greece was the honored country. “It is an invented image because the reality is that this is a country that is trying very hard to assimilate into Western culture. This idyllic image of Greece exists at the level of advertising but doesn’t always reflect reality.”

As an example, Dionyssopoulos cites what most foreigners consider Greece’s “national dance,” the syrtaki.

“Tourists are probably amazed when they realize that this dance does not exist beyond the Athens-by-night circuit because it is an artificial dance. A Greek who hears the music knows it is not directed at him but at tourists who come here to consume a certain tourist destination.”

Greece has certainly sought to capitalize on these images, as successive campaigns by the Greek National Tourism Organization have played off the antiquities and fun-in-the-sun stereotypes. “These are potent images, and deeply ingrained. Why even try to change them when they work and when you have no contemporary symbols to counterbalance the Acropolis or Zorba,” says the advertising executive.

The GNTO’s latest TV campaign, with the unwittingly ambiguous slogan “Greece: Beyond Words,” illustrates the intellectual confusion over the country’s cultural identity. Using a technique popularized by the Vodafone commercials, the spots superimpose various buzzwords over images of monuments, museums, drama performances, and-of course-beaches. The campaign, as with most others launched by the GNTO, is aimed at a foreign audience, but speaks to Greece’s “official” view of itself and its culture.

Olympic Challenge

Greece’s cultural image is being reshaped at home and abroad by a new, potentially more powerful, influence: the Olympic Games, which will return to Athens for the first time since being revived by Pierrie de Coubertin in 1896. From August 13-29, the 2004 Games will be a massive, continuous international advertising campaign for the country in the print and electronic media. It may well be a watershed for Greece; its first experience with, and attempt at, developing a cogent marketing strategy.

“The Olympic Games will give [Greece] tremendous visibility,” says Costas Bakouris, a former managing director of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee and present chairman of the Hellenic Center for Investment (ELKE). “[The Games] will highlight our infrastructure, transportation, other facilities-and hopefully a good image that things can be organized in a professional manner.”

The emblem for the 2004 Games is perhaps the first time the country has attempted to craft a Greece “brand,” so vital in this commercially-driven era. And as any marketing executive will tell you, when developing a brand, you go with your strengths.

“Yes, Greece’s antiquities are a strong point. No one can hide their past, especially when it is so significant. The question is what context you put that past in,” says Claudius Koenig, senior consultant with Wolff Olins, the British-based brand consultancy that together with Red Design developed the logo and brand identity of the Athens 2004 Games.

The logo-a hand-drawn white olive wreath, a dual symbol of peace and victory in the ancient Olympics, against a liquid blue background-is the centerpiece of a carefully controlled brand identity reinforced through symbols and colors. The brand palette is centered on shades of blue and white, the colors traditionally associated with Greece.

“When we developed [this logo] we thought more about the future than the past. In this media-driven world, you cannot take people’s participation for granted, and so the symbol is actually meant to show an embracing of humanity,” says Koenig.

Selling Greece

Wolff-Olins and their Greek partner, Red Design, beat 242 other companies who had entered the competition for designing the logo for Athens 2004. What the organizing committee sought was a symbol that could carry the cultural baggage of the Games’ return to Greece.

“The central idea is that the Athens Games are unique games on a human scale,” says Theodora Mantzaris-Kindel, image and identity manager for Athens 2004. The four elements that define these Games, she adds, are participation, celebration, humanity, and heritage: “The emblem, the olive wreath, reflect these values.”

The ideas are embodied in catch-phrases like “ethos,” “fair play,” and “heritage,” as well as the theme of the 2004 Olympics: a “unique” Games on a human scale-a dig at the hyper-commercialization of the Olympic Games. Thus far, however, the definition of “unique” does not seem to stretch beyond the mere fact of the Olympics’ return to Greece for the first time since 1896.

“This is definitely not an ‘American’ Olympics symbol-or rather, it is not how [Olympic logos] have typically looked since the 1960s,” says Koenig.


The Athens 2004 emblem also symbolizes the “Olympic look,” which, like a magic wand waved over the city, has already begun to transform the Greek capital. The formula for this transformation has already been tried and tested in the capital’s new underground mass transit system, or metro-a working example of how modern infrastructure can highlight heritage.

“As the organizing committee we must achieve a ‘spirit of celebration’ during the Games,” says Elina Dallas, who heads the program of the Olympic Look of the City for Athens 2004. “Of course, to put forth a good image during the Games, we need to have from the agencies involved with public works the best possible infrastructure.”

This work ranges from cosmetic touches, such as painting building facades and removing unlicensed billboards, to more radical interventions such as re-designing public spaces and planting trees and flowerbeds. Athens 2004 does not undertake any of these projects itself, but works with state and municipal agencies as an advisor.

“We want visitors and locals to have fun, but also to transform Athens to a special city. We shouldn’t forget the history of Athens. People who come to these Games will come precisely for that,” says Dallas.

History and culture are the main buzzwords of the Athens 2004 Games, but the mere act of hosting the world’s premiere sporting competition-one of the most logistically demanding events in the world-will subtly boost Greece’s image in a vital area: the economy. Short-term benefits include the increase in tourist arrivals in the years before and after the Olympics. A far larger dividend from the 2004 Games would be increased confidence and credibility in Greece as a place to do business.

“The country has to think of culture not just as heritage, but also as something to build a future from-and that is business,” says Koenig. He adds that one way “culture” can create a link between heritage and foreign investment is by playing up the ingenuity and creativity embodied by successful Greeks, from El Greco to Onassis, EasyJet founder Stelios Hadjioannou, and the composer Vangelis.

“Outside Greece, everyone, including the IOC, wants heritage to play a major role in [these] Games,” says Bakouris. “Greeks, from the outset, don’t want to portray just the past, but wanted to show that Greece is a modern country with all the pre-requisites to become effective and competitive in the global market.”

To reinforce this aspect of the Games, ELKE has initiated the Olympic Business Project and the Athens Business Club to take advantage of the “once-in-a-lifetime exposure” of the Games to highlight investment opportunities in Greece.

“I don’t think there is a conflict [between Greece’s cultural image and promoting business]. Greece has a heritage. And it is a country that has innovative people,” adds Bakouris. “The Greek entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen continues to be prevail even today as the essential ingredients for success.”

One sector where the Greek stereotype and business mesh is, of course, tourism. Bakouris says the Games can give the sector a boost beyond simple bookings by laying the foundations for developing more specialized, year-round tourism options such as golf and conventions. Another area where the Games can have a direct impact on Greece’s image is the services sector.

The focus on image as a centerpiece of the Athens 2004 Games will illustrate how Greece can deploy its heritage to its advantage.

“At the rhetorical level, Greek culture and heritage are definitely acknowledged as assets. But at the level of truly supporting culture-whether to promote national interests or simply as a process to educate people and increase their aesthetic sensibilities-I believe little is actually being done,” says Dionyssopoulos.

Delivorrias concurs. “Greece doesn’t follow the examples of France, Italy, and Germany in using the communicative powers of culture as the arsenal for its foreign policy,” he says. “For Greece to have a dynamic presence, a clearer strategy that does not evaluate [specific historical] periods is needed.”