The Greek brand in the historical context

by Andreas Markessinis

Nation branding is not really a modern invention. In fact, it is quite old, if we take into account its earliest stages. Just think about Israel branded as ‘the promised land’ thousands of years ago. More recently, the multiple inventions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, exemplify that national identities can be invented -and reinvented- over periods of time, in response to changing demands and opportunities.

France, for instance, has rebranded herself in many periods of her history. The French Revolution, for instance, crushed the then sovereign family, the Bourbons, and their symbols. The tricolour replaced the fleur de lys, the Marseillaise became the new anthem, the traditional weights and measures were replaced by the metric system, a new calendar was introduced, religion was replaced by the faith in reason, and God was replaced by the Supreme Being. An all-new France had been tailored to project a new image of the country. When Napoleon made himself emperor, he re-branded the country once again with new symbols and liturgies to suit the imperial image he wished to convey. When the Bourbons came back, they once again re-shaped France’s identity to suit their needs.

This kind of changes have been succeding until today’s France. Britain is also a relatively recent and deliberately constructed creation. Germany, too. And Italy, and the same goes for Spain. All of them created an identity of who they were and what did they stand for. All of these operations are examples of primitive country branding.

The reality that national brands can be manipulated does not imply that they are necessarily not honest. In fact, the above mentioned national cases are examples of succesful branding processes which have lasted over time because they were at least partly true. Had they have had no truth at all in them, they would have not lasted because, common rule says, fraudulent brands do not perdure. Since they were intended to mirror the changes those countries were undergoing and project their new identity to the audiences, it is only natural that they would carry at least some truth about the new nation being represented.

The Greek brand in the XIXth century

In the case of Greece, the modern Greek identity was tailored when the new State was born in the early 19th century. Two hundred years ago, our ancestors crafted an identity upon the footsteps of Western philhellenes. Greece was presented to the world as a martyr, heroic nation. Greece was also projected to both an internal and external audience as a phoenix nation -the new state’s currency unit was also named “phoenix”-, an ancient nation which was striving for palingenesis, ressucitating, coming into being after centuries of darkness and decay. The image the founders of the new State wanted to project was that ancient Hellas was being reborn in the modern world in the shape of modern Greece. In some ways, it was something similar to a brand in the present meaning of the word.

The nineteenth-century Greek brand was constructed around a set of values which were appropiate for that age. First pillar was, of course, religion. It ensured Christian citizens in the country to align themselves with the new-born Greek state, while people of other faiths were outcast. Second, culture, so the feeling that people in the Southernmost part of the Balkan peninsula shared common customs and traditions built up a sense of a common local culture which was branded “Greek”. Finally, the legacy of ancient Greece, which was powerful and attractive enough in the Romantic nineteenth century so as to appeal to both ethnic Greeks and non-ethnic Greeks. Naturally, some other factors were involved, such as a common enemy such as the Ottoman Turks or more prosaic economic reasons.

This set of values crystallised into an extremely robust identity, which gave the new Greek citizens an extraordinary confidence and pride. The brand was succesful enough to provide a framework for Greece’s consolidation as nation-state and to relatively ensure national consistence. This primigenic brand had a virtue: it was for the most part true. Yes, it had a good load of Nationalist rhetoric, but that was normal to its epoch. The modern Greek identity was quite honest in concept, and so it grew strong and has lasted, even if somewhat eroded, so far.

The Greek brand in the 20th century

Of course, the founders of the modern Greek state were not omnipotent, and their new state’s image was also affected by outer forces. Outside Greece, philhellenism was a cultural trend and many cultured Westerners regarded modern Greece’s rise with high esteem. In that, their wish for ancient Greece to reborn was mutually supportive with the new state’s official propaganda. Greece was gaining value, and its fight for independence was admired throughout the illustrated West.

Thus, when the British Romantic poet Lord Byron threw himself body and soul into the rebellion of the Greeks against their Ottoman rulers in 1812, he had an image of Greece, a concept so strongly appealing that he would die for it. Shelley, Goethe, Victor Hugo or Schiller had similar feelings: they were willing to fight to liberate the oppressed descendants of the ancient Greeks. Those individuals, those young men of classical education, contributed to shape the mental, iconic image that the world would later have of Greece, along with that the Greek state apparatus was promoting.

During the fascist period in Greece (1936-1941), the new regime did try to rebrand the country. The new regime named itself “The Fourth of August” regime, after the day it came to power. The fascist leader, General Metaxas, envisioned the beginning of the “Third Hellenic Civilization”, a glorious, imperial period for Greece after Greek Antiquity and the Greek Byzantine Empire. New emblems were crafted for this, the more notorious being the Minoan double-headed axe, and new ‘brand guidelines’ were established about the correct blue shade and the right proportions of the Greek flag. The regime also attached the traditional values to the so-called New State, i.e. family, fatherland, religion. Also moral behavior guidelines were enabled, all of which affected the stakeholders, that is the Greeks, and the way Greece was to be perceived by foreign audiences.

More recently, Greece’s traditional image has been affected by the works of writers such as Lawrence Durell and Henry Miller, who succumbed to the country’s almost mystical allure. Their influence on American and English literature is overwhelming, and thus their experiences in Greece were formative not only for themselves but also for subsequent generations of readers. Among them, would-be writers such as Edmund Keeley, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Kevin Andrews.

Durrell and Miller’s work inflamed those young men’s imaginations to the extent that they would follow in quest of their own Greek experience too. The books of both generations propagated overseas the Greek myth crafted later on on screen by Michalis Kakogiannis in “Zorba the Greek” and Jules Dassin in “Never On Sunday”. This image worked as a brand, and indeed would partly spur the tourism boom of the 60s and 70s.

Since then, there has been no reshaping of Greece’s image abroad by identifiable individuals. It seems as if Greece had failed in seducing any outstanding, trend-setting individual since then.

The Greek brand in the mass-media age

In any case, it would be of little use, because while in the past those who shaped a country’s image in foreign lands were individuals -politics, diplomats, journalists, reporters, writers and painters- today the image countries have abroad now depend far more on mass-media than on certain influencing persons. In that, countries which do not carry a continuous branding process are more likely to have their brand asset damaged because media seldom propagates good images of a country. Quite the contrary: mass-media usually lurks at a second-rank country such as Greece only when sensational, negative events occur. Therefore, as for most countries, Greece is most commonly portrayed abroad in a negative way by mass-media.

Unless the country develops a strategy to confront this (and this kind of strategies are already quite advanced and standarized), a country whose image depends solely on the media risks gradually losing positive attributes earned in the past. When facing such situation, countries have a chance to improve its media image by developing specific strategies for the media. They can be extremely complex and draw different Ministries, or quite straightforward. Examples of the latter are the construction of a Formula 1 track in Malaysia, the summer music festivals in Spain, the Millennium Wheel in the UK, Berlin’s Love Parade in Germany… All of these actions attract the media interest and project an image of an innovative, modern or prosperous country.

Since the good health of a country’s image is a valuable asset, countries enjoying positive media exposure gain prestige, respect and in the long term, power. Conversely, countries suffering bad coverage face doom. Even worse: as generic mass-media often simplifies their content, stereotyping is not rare. Thus, media outlets can thereafter misrepresent the image or character not only of a country, but also of the whole population. For instance, when Greece hit the press over Greek officials leaking NATO secrets to Serbian Army officials in the recent Yugoslav wars, the negative perception of the audience would not only be sticked to the Greek officials specifically, but to Greek nationals in general.

Greece’s bad press

In the case of Greece, the country continues to be seen abroad as a backward-looking, hidebound, arrogant and insecure nation. And the media has contributed to this deceiving portrait with headlines about Greece’s most remarkable problems in recent years.

The hijacking of the bus by two Albanians has been the latest event to show Greece to the world entwined with negative headlines or inside stories. A couple of years ago, it was the planespotters detained in Greek police stations, and Greece’s failure at adopting the euro as currency in the first wave. In the 90’s, it was the Greeks’ support for the evil Serbs, the Macedonian name issue, and the following nationalist hysteria in Greece. In the 80’s, it was Papandreou’s threats to take Greece out of the EEC and out of NATO, pariah state leaders like Gaddafi visiting the country and football violence too. In the 70’s, it was the Junta of the Colonels. Throughout these years, Greece has also suffered from a negative political image. This applies especially to Europe, where we have been seen as an ‘awkward partner’ and a ‘bad European’, when not being accused of wasting EU funds.

The recent Euro2004 soccer championship in Portugal, won by Greece, brought the country a positive broadcast, but it was only relative because it was conscribed to sports. Moreover, the Greek team’s conservative and uninspiring game was not as excitant as the Czech Republic or Sweden’s, and most afficionados would have prefered the Czechs to win the championship instead of the Greeks, and so Greece was not too much sympathised. The success of the Olympic Games has been the sole, self-earned positive input in a generally dark scenario.

The Olympics have served well the purpose to improve Greece’s image abroad, and the country’s project has recovered somewhat from previous failures, but Greece’s image abroad is still in a quite fragile state. Greece should take care of capitalizing the boost the Olympics brought to the country and wasting not the positive impact it has had on Greece’s brand. In such a current media-sensitive world, a tight control on how Greece expresses its image abroad and within is required.