Nation-Branding: the Case of Russia

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Anna Velikaya, PhD, the Gorchakov Foundation expert

Russia seems to have finally realized in recent years that nation branding, seen as a set of actions to improve country’s image abroad, is a form of investment, not a cost. In order to analyze the Russian approach to nation branding, it is necessary to highlight several dimensions: economic, scientific, cultural, sport, media, and development.

The economic dimension of Russian nation branding is aimed at creating an investment-friendly environment and promoting Russian brands abroad. The necessity for being internationally branded economy was realized in Russia in early 2000s. In 2006 Russian Government hired Ketchum Inc. to develop proper Russia’s image and implement business image strategy. After the first wave of investors had occurred and economic boom had passed, Russian Government joined the competition for foreign capital and established in 2011 The Russian Direct Investment Fund, aimed at attracting equity investments. Russia’s accession to the WTO was followed closely by foreign businesses, as it was expected as a green light for Russia’s economic upgrade. Meanwhile, in 2013 Goldman Sachs signed three-year contract with Russian Government to help attract foreign institutional investors. Julia Belyakova, GR expert, shared her view about the state branding-achivements: “Russian market was extremely attractive for foreign investors due to its huge opportunities which is always the best advertisement. But economic turmoil and inconsistent business climate policy have dramatically damaged Russia’s economic attractiveness”.

Still, there are several effective tools for nation branding in the economic dimension. Roscongress, founded in 2007 with the aim of contributing to develop Russia’s economic potential and strengthen the country’s image by organizing congresses and exhibitions with an economic and social focus. It organizes regional forums established in order to work with local and foreign business circles. The best known are in Sochi, Krasnoyarsk, Vladivostok, and Saint-Petersburg. The main economic event is annually held Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), attracting over 14 000 participants from 143 countries, representing government and business leaders, academic and media experts. Besides these forums, coordinated by Roscongress, another one – VTB Capital’s RUSSIA CALLING! – also brings together policy makers, investors and business figures to promote dialogue, and encourages strategic investment into Russia’s economy.

Another positive step for promoting image of Russia among foreign business circles was the establishment of the Russian Export Center in 2011 – it coordinates inter alia the activities of Russian trade representative offices abroad in supporting export projects. Some of Russia’s world-famous business schools are also shaping the country’s economic image. For example, Moscow School of Management Skolkovo (which earns annually, by the way, only 3 times less than LSE) has established the Institute for Emerging Market Studies (SIEMS), shaping Russia’s business image in BRICS, developing and emerging countries. SPIEF, Russian Export Center and the Skolkovo Business School are the best practice examples of nation branding, but in the current business climate governmental authorities and civil society should pay serious attention to reattracting foreign investors. Besides, much should be done for developing strong recognizable brands: according to Brand strength index-2017 the strongest Russian brand which is Sberbank (with state participation) is worth $9.1 bln, while American private Google is worth $109.5 bln.

Regarding the scientific dimension of Russian nation branding, Russia is one of the seven leading countries in terms of the number of its Nobel Prize winners. In addition, it is 13th out of 239 in the SCImago Journal & Country Rank global science rating. Several interviews conducted by the author among Russian scientists during the Moscow Science Week reveal that while Russian exact science achievements are internationally recognized, the humanities have great potential for being presented to the foreign audience. Russia plays a leading role in space exploration and has the safest nuclear technology. These achievements contribute significantly to promoting Russia as one of the major scientific powers, but these resources are quite underused. It’s possible to activate scientific diplomacy in various spheres – from oceans development to the Arctic, which would be seen as a positive agenda for the international community. Vivid example of scientific nation-branding are the Primakov readings held annually by IMEMO RAS aimed at promoting cooperation between the leading IR scholars. Russia should focus on regional cooperation in this sphere: as it is mentioned by Kazakhstan scholar Chokan Laumullin, the key task of EAEU countries is creating joint scientific centers of the advanced studies.

As for the cultural dimension of Russian nation branding, Russian literature, ballet, and art are internationally recognized. Such names as Feodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Petr Tchaikovsky, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Dmitry Shostakovich, Georgiy Sviridov, and Sergey Prokofiev are among the best advocates for Russia. When Valeriy Gergiev and Denis Matsuev performed at Carnegie Hall during the current deterioration of the Russian-American relationship they were warmly welcomed by the New York crème de la crème. In this case, artists acted as goodwill ambassadors of their country. According to Simon Anholt, he first heard of Russia’s capital through the phrase «Oh, to go to Moscow, to Moscow!» from Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. Moscow for him was a place one had to strive to get to, regardless of anti-Soviet propaganda efforts. Russian culture is a powerful resource for nation branding, but it has much untapped potential.

If we look at the sport dimension of the Russian nation-branding we can say that Russia is using this dimension of nation-branding rather efficiently: be it Universiade-2013, Olympic games-2014 or FIFA World Cup – 2018. As President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach told in his interview, “We arrived with great respect for the rich and varied history of Russia. We leave as friends of the Russian people”. Still, regardless active work in this sphere partial disqualification of the Russian Olympic team and the whole Paralympic team has to some extent undermined positive achievements.

Talking about media dimension we should say the necessity of having influential channels to work with foreign audience was realized in Russia after 1999, when because of the “CNN effect” Russia could not effectively present its position on NATO airstrikes of Serbia to the foreign public. Nowadays different mass media are acting in this sphere, namely Russia Today, Sputnik news agency, Russia Beyond The Headlines, TASS news agency. A lot of attention is paid abroad to the RT channel: it is harshly criticized, seriously analyzed, but attracting billions of spectators. Partially thanks to it Russian position on Syria, Iraq, Libya was heard and warmly welcomed by millions of people all over the world. Still, according to Professor Robert F. Lauternborn – pioneer of Integrated Marketing Communication: «Television is very efficient to do certain kinds of things. If the issue is a little bit complicated, credibility comes through print. So, we’re simply using them in tandem to do what we need to do…Print is the fundamental core of business-to-business communications, and always will be». That is why while RT channel attracts a vast audience, not less important mechanisms for covering Russia’s position on several items, especially among foreign decision-makers, are printed (RBTH) and online products (Sputnik news agency).

Looking at the development cooperation as the tool for Russian nation-branding one should admit that during the Davos Forum-2015 a landmark Partnership Framework Agreement was signed between Russian Federation and UNDP creating a foundation for a long-term strategic partnership with Russia that will mark a transition to its role as donor to UNDP. It will create a new stage of partnership, focused on cooperation at the regional and global level. It is supposed that the trust fund will be created, enabling to promote Russian assistance to the Central Asia states shifting from the non-specified aid under the aegis of different international organizations to the target-oriented specific humanitarian cooperation. Also analyzing development cooperation the aid given by Russia to the refugees should not be underestimated – even according to the official UN statistics, with a total of almost 275 000 registered individual asylum requests, the Russian Federation became the largest single recipient of new individual asylum claims worldwide in 2014, close to 99 per cent of claims in the Russian Federation were lodged by Ukrainians. Informing foreign auditorium about such issues could become an instrument for positioning Russia as a responsible international shareholder.

It is worth mentioning that Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov in his interview was saying that speaking about positive image of Russia abroad he would rather say objective. In the last few years serious efforts were made in this sphere. Such structures as the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Foundation, Russian International Affairs Council, the Valdai Discussion club, Russkiy mir Foundation were created. Significant status was given to Rossotrudnichestvo, Russian Union of Youth has launched a lot of international projects. All these institutions are involved in shaping Russian image abroad among foreign civil society and decision-makers. We can also mention such regionally oriented active NGOs as BRICS Research Committee or Association for cooperation with Baltic Sea countries “NORDEN”. Besides, civil initiatives like “Russian humanitarian mission”, “Rethinking Russia” or “Creative diplomacy” also influence Russian nation-branding.

The main treasure of Russia is its people and its geography – that is why substate diplomacy would be very timely. Branding various Russian regions, using twin cities initiatives and launching new tourism programs could contribute a lot towards Russia being associated not only with “balalaika” and “vodka”, but with Tomsk University, Karelian resort or Baikal omul. So, “out-of the-box” thinking and a broad discussion on revealing key tasks, segmentation of the target audience and proposing a long-term branding strategy are of great necessity.

The Author would like to thank Julia Belyakova and Robert F. Lauternborn for consultation and inspiration.

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