“A Colombian person can be described as someone who thinks like a European, speaks like an indigenous and dances like a black person”
“Nation brand” as a marketing term was coined in 1996 by Simon Anholt, a British policy adviser. Since then the term, and the marketing theories behind it, has become part of the lexicon of government officials looking to change the images of their nations. The annual report edited by Anholt, Anholt Nation Brand Index, has become an important measure of a county’s international image. There are six elements that are taken into account: Export, Governance, Culture and Heritage, People, Tourism, Investment and Immigration. Colombia is not rated in the Index, unlike other like Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. Nevertheless, Colombia has been extremely active in promoting the “Colombian brand”.
In 1996 the government of then President Ernesto Samper contacted a prestigious marketing consultant, David Lightle, in order to improve the image of the country. Given the realities at the time that included a president accused of receiving money from drug cartels and the bloody violence from paramilitaries and the guerrilla, Lightle turned down the offer. When he was contacted again in 2004, the country had showed considerable improvement in important areas such as security. Since then the government has been committed at promoting the Colombian brand in the hope of changing the deserved image of violence, drugs, kidnappings, poverty, displacement, and corruption.
“Colombian is passion” is the slogan that the Colombian government at the helm of pro-export chose to brand the nation. The aim was to bring the continued negative perception about the country closer to reality, at least the reality that the government thought they had achieved. The actions taken to promote the “brand” have been unprecedented: from licensing the “Colombia is passion” keys chains to over 250 companies to flooding Washington’s and New York’s downtowns with fiberglass heart sculptures. The heart exhibition, according to the General Manager of the branding program, María Claudia Lacouture, received over 750,000 visitors in both cities.
These marketing efforts, however, have not gone without criticisms. Critics argue that the slogan, “Colombia is passion” is not representative enough, and that the marketing strategy is an oversimplification of the Colombian realities that only does a disservice to the country. Two of Colombian Reports’ columnists have ascribed to both views in previous articles. Felipe Estefan questioning the slogan wrote that, “if Colombians are, amongst other things passionate, couldn’t that also be a legitimate label for many other peoples, especially in Latin America?” While Pablo Rojas Mejia referring to the hearts in Washington D.C. argued that, “the current strategy of blinding policymakers with glowing hearts does little to alleviate their already crippling ignorance with regards to Colombia”.
These two views are strengthened when a more fundamental weakness in the marketing campaign is introduced. The best expositor of this weakness is Anholt himself who said that “Places can only change their images by changing the way they behave.”
The government’s marketing slogan is primarily focused on foreigners, thus leaving the Colombian people somewhat clueless to the campaign and thus losing some credibility. Moreover, in light of Felipe’s criticism is important to understand whether Colombians are really passionate, or more passionate than other cultures. Some cynics, for instance, may claim that Colombians can be passionate at massacring their compatriots. In terms of Pablo’s criticism, one needs to wonder whether Colombia is really ready to embark in this kind of branding expeditions given that many the problems that people feared in the late 1990’s have not ended, and in fact have been exacerbated.
To be fair, the creators of the slogan “Colombia is Passion” may have devised the slogan, with the help of the marketing company, to covey that Colombians are friendly, helpful, cheerful, and hard-working people. This may very well be what a tourist, a foreigner or a Colombian living in certain places of the country experiences. But this kind of passion is not what the millions of other Colombians have received. For instance, what is the kind of passion that 4.6 million internally displaced (mostly farmers), the 1,4 million indigenous, the inhabitants of the Choco region living in Sub-Saharan Africa-like conditions, the thousands killed and kidnapped by the FARC, the 24,000 thousand killed by the paramilitaries and the innocent civilians systematically killed by governments forces have received?
Although Colombia’s asset is on its people, there needs to be substantial improvement in the social relationship and standards of living of certain sectors of society before attempting to brand the country and its people. This is where Colombian poet and novelist William Ospina’s phrase is enlightening. He mentioned that Colombians think like Europeans. But more than thinking, Colombians attempt to act like Europeans/North Americans and believe that that means liking everything that is categorized as European/North American. And likewise, it means despising everything that is different to that artificial standard – paradoxically, Europeans/North Americans appreciate even more what Colombia has to offer than Colombians themselves.
But more importantly, Ospina reminds us that Colombia is a different Colombia to each and every ethnic group – let alone socio-economic status – that inhabits the land. The future of a person born into a “white” family is not the same as the fate of a person born into an indigenous or black family. In Colombia it is still a common insult calling someone black or indian. The stark difference of each of Colombia’s social groups (European-descendants, indigenous, afro-descendants, wealthy, poor…) can be regarded as causing Colombia’s conflict. Each group perceives their well-being as a zero-sum game, where a social group can only “win” at the expense of others.
The vagueness of the slogan “Colombia is passion” evidences the idiosyncrasies of the country. Attempting to impose a deluded and wishful conception of the country does nothing to further the image of Colombia. The degree of division along ethic lines highlights the difficulty and the danger in finding a homogeneous description. Perhaps this variety, when socially cohesive, can lead the way to finding a better brand slogan that actually characterizes the country. But at the moment there are starkly different Colombias .