Towards the end of 2010 as I codirected a study on the Barcelona brand, my attention was caught by results demonstrating the deterioration of the Europe brand.
For Asians and those in North and Latin America, Europe stood for the past. An antiquated social and economic model with no future.
Asians saw Europe as a monumental theme park, brimming with art and history but locked into an inefficient economic model. North Americans shared this view of Europe: fascinating for its culture, but divided, lacking leadership and tied to an ineffective social and economic model. Latin Americans had a more positive image of Europe, recognising it as an important location for knowledge acquisition. For this cohort, Europe was a place to go to be educated and gain experience but not to work or develop a business, given that they view their countries of origin as more dynamic and with more opportunities.
I doubt that these results have improved in the last few years, it is more likely that the opposite has happened, which can’t be a good sign. A brand is a tool for generating expectation, and it is expectation that drives investment and consumption. Experience tells us that a decline in the image of a brand precedes a loss of influence and ability to grow and generate wealth.
This is the information, but we also need to find the causes of this loss of appeal in representations of Europe. If we analyse the rational attributes of the European brand we are left with a good profile: excellent infrastructure, emblematic places, capable people, competitive businesses, an extremely broad range of cultural activities, stability, security. The problem, then, does not stem from the image of the brand but the deterioration of the collective imaginary associated with Europe.
By imaginary we mean the intangible elements that shape a brand identity. An imaginary is formed by icons and encompasses all the emotional information of the brand. Managing a country/region brand means managing the icons that transmit the values that characterise and establish your competitive positioning.
After the Second World War, peace, democracy, humanism, the union of diverse cultures and capitalism with social inclusion were the identity traits of Europe. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Parliament, the Euro, the European Court of Justice, leaders such as Adenauer, Churchill and De Gaulle, and later Willy Brandt, Helmut Khol and François Miterrand, have all been icons of the values that determine Europe’s position in the world.
The problem of the European brand is that we have not used our identity traits to create added value. Brands have to make their positioning work by showing, through innovation and communication, their capacity to provide value and benefits to people. When a brand abandons its position and takes on aspects of other brands, it loses its raison d’être and becomes no more than a copy which will never be as attractive as the original.
The current economic crisis, though born in the USA, has been used as a reason to question Europe’s social and economic attitudes. The main loser in this economic crisis has been the European vision of how to generate wealth and welfare, leaving room for less humane and sustainable social and economic models. Instead of innovating and promoting a European solution, the EU has taken solutions on from the outside. There has been an unwillingness to defend European values on the part of some leaders who have simply concerned themselves with ensuring debts are repaid. The loss of the social and economic values that are associated with European identity is behind this brand crisis. However, the upside of losing something is that we miss it, and this loss makes it clear that indeed there are certain values that signify a European identity and unite Europeans. Europe needs leaders who know how to capture these values, defending them with innovative proposals. New icons that cherish the values that are the reason for the existence of Europe, as an entity and as a brand. Hopefully the upcoming European elections will serve to bring about the new icons that Europe needs.