Which way, Greek brand?

by Andreas Markessinis

Greece is a little country, and when a country is small in size, it is likely to be limited in its branding prospects. Since small countries’ voice is weaker than that of bigger, stronger nations, sometimes it is intelligent in place-branding engineering to benefit from a broader region with a clearer international profile instead of creating from scratch an own national brand. Marketed as part of the larger, better branded region to which it belongs, a country can make profit from the latter’s bigger presence and its more powerful and effective brand. This methodology has been followed by some small countries when embarking in a branding process, but, is Greece a suitable country for such brand engineering?

Finland is a good example of a country which has taken advantage of tailoring a vast part of its brand as relative to a larger, more powerful, supra-national brand. Part of Finland’s brand lays in projecting it as a “Nordic country”, which of course is, but the point was not simply asserting the fact of being geographically Nordic, but to attach itself to a very favourable set of values associated with the advanced Nordic European region, that is democracy, transparency, welfare and quality of life and work among others.

Finland could have branded itself as a “Baltic country”, which it also is, but the “Baltic” label carries less attractive attributes, since it would associate Finland to less favoured, but indeed also Baltic, countries such as Latvia, Lithuania or Poland. In Finland’s national marketing, the “Nordic” and “Scandinavian” adjectives are often mentioned, but the “Russian neighbour” or “Baltic nation” tags are only seldom used. Finland has marketed itself as a “Scandinavian country”, and that has been the country’s biggest success: has got people associating Finland with a Scandinavian country, although Finland is geographically not a Scandinavian country. Finland is in reality located at the Kola peninsula, which lays East of the Scandinavian peninsula. If you are surprised, then the Finns have done indeed a great job!

Likewise, Denmark, a country which is geographically a standalone peninsula (and also in this case it is certainly not Scandinavia but Jutland), has branded itself as “a Scandinavian nation”. In its government’s marketing policy, Denmark, like Finland, also usually demeans itsconnections which its closest neighbour, Germany, while emphasizing on the other side the links to its Northern neighbours Sweden and Norway.

In Denmark’s case, those connections are probably more justified being Denmark a traditionally “Viking land” just like Sweden and Norway are and being Danish a language very close to Swedish and Norwegian. But in the case of Finland, justifications are more preponderous, since Finland’s ethnic, cultural and historic background is very distinct to that of Sweden or Norway, and the Finnish language has no ties whatsoever with Germanic languages. If interested, Finnish language is a branch of the Ugro-Finnic language tree; akin to Hongarian and probably to Turkish too, for that sake. Even Estonia, that tiny former Sovietic republic, which dislikes being called a “Baltic” country, seems to be trying to join the “Scandinavian” b(r)andwagon.

Greece, like Finland, needs to be branded, but can this kind of place branding method which so succesfully has positioned Finland be of any use to Greece? That is, is engineering a brand as relative to a larger region a suitable way to position Greece? Let’s see. Greece is geographically part of the broader Balkan peninsula, but branding Greece as a “Balkan country” would harm more than help. Unlike Scandinavia, the international image of the Balkan region is pretty negative, fed by the recent developments in post-disintegration Yugoslavia. Therefore, Greece should avoid the “Balkan” label when introducing itsef to the global market, or it risks being aligned with countries such as Serbia, Bulgaria or Albania, which obviously do not enjoy attractive brands.

Greece is also neighbour of Turkey, but any intention to brand Greece and Turkey altogether would surely be not welcome by the Greeks themselves. Moreover, such ticket could be hardly marketed to a world audience which is well aware of the conflicts which have hindered the Greek-Turkish relationship for centuries.

A broader area to which Greece belongs too is the Mediterranean region. Here there is some chance, since the “Mediterranean” brand is highly regarded everywhere. Especially in Central and Northern Europe, the Euro-Mediterranean region is associated with good living, such as the French savoir vivre or the Italian dolce vita. Unfortunately, Greece lacks a similar trademark.

A further problem for Greece is that, unlike Spain, it is located in the Eastern Mediterranean, which carries a far more negative and conflictive background than the Western Mediterranean area. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Turkey’s political instability and the always bully Middle Eastern, but also Mediterranean countries such as Lybia or Egypt worsen the Eastern Mediterranean picture. Therefore, the “Mediterranean” label is risky if not held with care. Greece could benefit of the good conception the Northern Mediterranean region enjoys, but should try not being dragged to the powderhouse-alike Eastern/Southern Mediterranean region.

Some could claim that Greece is also an Eastern country. Yes, Greece is a Eastern European country, but the label, even if it carries some truth, can be misleading. Generally speaking the term “Eastern European” refers to former Communist countries in the Eastern bloc, a definition which does not apply to Greece. The term “Eastern” has more than a strict geographic meaning. After the Second World War, only two Eastern European countries remained in the Western orbit: Finland in the far North of the region, and Greece in its Southernmost part of it. None of them have branded themselves as “Eastern European”, even if Athens (at longitude 23.46 East) and Helsinki (a bit more Eastern, at 25.03 East), are geographically more Eastern than traditionally “Eastern” capitals such as Prague (14.22E) or Warsaw (21.00E). The reasons for Greece are manyfold, and evident: in the Cold War era, the “Western” adjective meant freedom, human rights, Capitalism and democracy. Greece, a pro-Western, democratic since 1945 (except for the short-lived, 7-years long Military Junta period), NATO member since 1952 and EEC member since 1981, of course belonged to the Western family of nations.

There could be chances for Greece to be attached to a broader commonwealth based not on a geographic basis but built upon ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious similarities. But here Greece reveals itself as a piece that does not match well in the puzzle. Greeks are ethnically different to the Slavic peoples inhabiting North of Greece, and different too to Turks living East, Arabs living South and even Italians living West. Therefore, the “ethnic” pathway is barred. As for the cultural basis, similar problems are encountered. Greek or Hellenic culture has no relationship with its neighbours’ either. As for the linguistic ties, there is no chance in there neither, since Greek is a standalone language. Religion could be the only bind, but it is too weak in today’s world. Moreover, of all of Greece’s neighbours, only FYROM and Bulgaria are Orthodox, and FYROM only partially since it is home to a large Muslim, Albanian ethnic minority. Italy is Catholic, while Albania is mostly Muslim. East and South, there is a Islamic arch sorrounding. Greece is again isolated in this field.

I am consciously mentioning not Cyprus, which of course is the world’s only country which Greece could build a shared brand with, but this perception is already existant and the prospects of such market brand are very few anyway, given the small size of both countries. So the Greece+Cyprus trademark is little more than a single Greek trademark. Cyprus adds little value to the brand.

Greece is thereafter located in a bad place in place-branding terms. Ties to a broader region would be in most cases more negative than positive. In any case, none of the above mentioned possibilities would greatly improve’s Greece’s positionment, so benefits would be scarce. Lest we forget, none of them are easily marketable anyway, except for the “Euro-Meditarranean” one, but this one is probably full-featured by France, Italy and possibly Spain too, and there may be no room for a distant country like Greece, even if it is also Euro-Mediterranean. There is a breach through the Adriatic sea which separates Western Europe from Eastern Europe, where Greece lays.

With such scenario, Greece cannot engineer its brand as relative to a broader area to which it belongs or to which it is close. The so-called “Finnish” method, so to speak, is not suitable for Greece thereafter. The choice which would bring Greece near to a solution would be the Mediterranean region, but Greece is already well aware of the potentials of the “Mediterranean” label and does already actively promote itself as a “Mediterranean country” rather than as a “Balkan country”. The further issue with the Mediterranean association is that it renders Greece as peripherical to it because Greece does not reside on the core of this regional dimension. And that results in a blurry profile, as if the country would not really match there.

As we have seen, putting Greece as part of a larger, more marketable region is a tough task. The methods of place-branding in relating the country to a better profiled, more powerful larger area like Finland did do not apply to Greece. Therefore, Greece’s country branding should not rely on larger, better known blocs. The brand engineering should go another way.