During the current economic crisis, many Spanish firms have attempted to downplay their country of origin while conducting global business, fearful that they could be damaged by Spain’s poor image. The situation reached the point where, after the summer of 2012, construction firms and service providers that tried to participate in bidding processes outside of Spain found themselves facing barriers if their proposals were endorsed by a Spanish bank. Spain’s country brand was so devalued that companies rarely boasted about their Spanish origin. But the high point of national shame came on September 24, when The New York Times published a photo report titled, “Austerity and Hunger in Spain,” which stressed the most dramatic situations that were being experienced in the country.

In an effort to reverse this climate of pessimism and negativity, accounting firm Grant Thornton prepared a corporate video for its conference of international partners last October. The video attempted to counteract Spain's negative image outside its borders. "[We felt that we] needed to prepare a video that, without denying that the current situation was difficult, would [put forward a positive] image by providing examples of the country’s entrepreneurial success stories,” says Maria Ruiz, director of communications and marketing at Grant Thornton. The idea was simple: Talk about the economic and business sectors in which Spain sets the international standard. Examples included leading firms such as Renfe, the state railway  company, which has exported its model for high-speed railway to Saudi Arabia’s Medina-Mecca line; Indra, which provides airport management services throughout the world; and Acciona, a leader in renewable energy.

When Grant Thornton loaded the English-language video onto YouTube, it was an immediate success. In little more than three months, the video has had more than one million visitors. It has been a hit not only among web surfers, but among businessmen such as José Manuel Entrecanales, chief executive of Acciona. His firm used the video to illustrate the strong points of Spanish companies during the annual meeting of the Instituto de la Empresa Familiar (IEF), which brings together hundreds of Spain’s most important business players. “Many public institutions, such as the Spanish Embassy in China, ICEX (a public agency that promotes exports) and even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have asked us to use it to promote the country,” notes Ruiz. Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo used the video during Investor Day in January to promote the image of Spain in front of international fund managers.

National Pride

Although such cases are not yet common, other companies are becoming less shy about linking their brands with Spain, despite the ongoing economic turmoil in the country. Campofrio, a food company, did so in its Christmas television campaign, which was later reproduced on various web sites. Entitled, “Everyone’s curriculum,” the campaign showed numerous artists and famous athletes citing the country’s successes in business, sports and culture. Aimed at the Spanish public, the ad series praised the country’s achievements, while also mentioning — with a certain satirical tone that is typical of Spanish humor — the difficulties that the country is undergoing.

With this campaign, Campofrio hopes to repeat the success it achieved during the 2011 Christmas season, when it managed to increase its sales by 11%, thanks to a spot ad in which it paid homage to the legendary humorist Miguel Gila, and to the capacity of Spaniards to enjoy life even during times of crisis, as the company explained in an press release. Although it is still too early to evaluate the results of the latest campaign, some experts believe that it has been effective. Ignacio Gafo, marketing professor at the IE Business School, believes the campaign has been a success because “[the ads] became a trendy topic, and were among the favorite ads during this Christmas season.” Nevertheless, several other critics have cast doubts about whether the effect of the campaign is all that positive, given the way it incorporated irony by pointing up negative aspects of Spain's economy as well.

According to Grant Thornton's Ruiz, “several indicators, such as the number of visits to our web site, make us think that awareness [of Spain's brand] has increased substantially. Nevertheless, it is hard for the success of the video to be translated automatically into more contracts for auditing and consulting services, since the process of contracting for professional services has less to do with emotional factors than it does in the case of [selling] consumer goods.”

“In each of these two campaigns, there was a component that was opportunistic and not free of controversy,” points out Gafo. In the case of Campofrio, the firm needed to bounce back from the bad publicity it received for massive layoffs that took place in 2009. In the case of Grant Thornton, the company had a vested interest in reviving the Spanish economy, which is critical for the company’s volume of business. "Nevertheless, from my point of view, the overall impact [of the campaigns] has been quite positive when it comes to [increasing] brand recognition" of those two firms.

Country Branding

“Without doubt, country branding originates in the need for companies and institutions to generate their own identity in international markets,” says Charlotte Gaston-Breton, professor of marketing at the ESCP Europe business school. “This process of building a brand must be based on distinctive characteristics in [a country's] population that are favorable and credible … so that the campaign can be a success.” According to Graston-Breton, it is dangerous to link a brand or a campaign to a changing political situation, as is the case with Spain.

She notes that there is a difference between the risk that is assumed by an initiative such as that of Grant Thornton — a private video for a meeting of members on the topic of Spanish companies — and a publicity campaign such as that of Campofrio, which was aimed at a broad public of consumers, including other politicians in Europe, and referred to decisions made by regional Spanish governments, such as the construction of phantom airports. Nevertheless, Gaston-Breton has a positive view of both campaigns, which she considers “emotional and quite skilled at accentuating the community and the social character of the Spanish people, which is why I don’t think that they should be discredited. Optimism is in style, and qualitative characteristics count more than those that are quantitative.”

Gafo believes that linking a brand to a political topic “is not a good strategy over the medium or long term for most companies, especially for those firms that are targeting a huge market. This is too risky, and your brand can wind up being rejected by a significant part of the market.” While there are some examples of companies that have linked themselves to a political movement with successful results, "we do have recent examples of companies and brands that have suffered from the consequences of their ill-advised decisions to link themselves with specific political causes, either on a corporate level or through their chief executive officers,” notes Gafo. One case is Chick-fil-A, an American fast-food chain whose brand was affected when its chief executive openly criticized gay marriage.

However, linking a brand to a country is not necessarily political, he adds. “The brand of Spain, such as it is, is something viewed and valued positively within [Spain] and in other countries with which Spain shares historic ties, such as Latin America. This is a positive cause, a priori, and consumers in these countries are going to be receptive. They are going to value the messages in that regard. If such initiatives are well executed — that is to say, if they are sending optimistic messages that are well formulated and have a sound foundation — then they are going to contribute to improving the image of the brand of the company that is doing the advertising."

Keys to Success

Executives need to keep in mind several factors in order to make this sort of linkage work properly. According to Gaston-Breton, “the main precaution to keep in mind is this: Don’t tell a lie. We live in a society where there is so much information that we must make transparency our priority, so it is a mistake to try to hide things and not recognize the negative aspects of a [given country's] society.” For example, she mentions a recent government tourism campaign in Colombia, which uses the slogan, "Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay." In this case, “The creative people recognized, in an indirect and humorous way, that they had a security problem, but they knew how to unite this [concern with] a positive aspect of their culture — entertainment.”

When it is time to plan the content of an advertisement, notes Gafo, one has to differentiate between those sorts of causes that generate extreme reactions in the population and those that are simpler and are accepted by most people. The first category of causes must be avoided, while the latter category is the right place to focus people’s attention, he says, although this will depend on the cultural context in each country. While it is neither well regarded nor advisable in Europe to express support for any political parties, he points out that in the United States, doing so is quite common. Generally speaking, the most widely accepted causes, such as the environment, “are a sure bet, because they generate support from the majority, and very few negative reactions.”

Is it a good time to use a country brand, as in the case of Spain, when the general situation and the mood of the country are not at their best? Charlotte Gaston-Breton has no doubt about that. “Yes, it is [okay], provided the strategy of a campaign is focused on positive aspects that have either a qualitative or emotional nature. Those [kinds of] aspects are more lasting and credible.” In her view, emphasizing values such as hard work and team spirit are critical in situations such as the current one.

“Who is not going to agree that there are positive things happening in Spain, or that there are some things that we are going well, despite everything?” asks Gafo. The key is to praise the positives and stress national pride, Gafo says, although he concludes that these types of connections are not suitable for every brand. “Campaigns that associate a country brand with marketing can be more effective for those labels that aim at an emotional positioning, such as Apple and Benetton. On the other hand, when it comes to those companies that are looking for a more functional positioning, as was the case with Procter & Gamble for many years, the benefits derived from this approach are going to be limited, since differentiation [for such brands] is achieved as a result of the features provided by their products, not as a result of the emotions that their products stimulate.”