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Canada's brand advantage

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Kevin Lynch, BMO Financial Group, Financial Post · Tuesday, Jun. 15, 2010
Corporations and other organizations spend enormous energy on creating, managing and protecting their brands. Through their brands, companies can differentiate themselves in crowded, competitive marketplaces. Many universities, for example, invest considerably in brand recognition to attract students, philanthropy and faculty.
This raises a rather basic question: If brand reputation appears to add value for high-performing companies and institutions, why would they not be similarly valuable for countries. In short, does Canada need a brand?
A number of countries already spend considerable effort on branding efforts. Remember the "Cool Britannia" campaign. France brilliantly markets both high culture and high technology. Ireland as the "Celtic Tiger." Singapore as a sophisticated, business friendly entrepot in Asia. Australia as an Asia-savvy, can-do partner. Israel as a high-tech centre.
What all these countries, and many more, have in common is that they understand that the global marketplace has great opportunity, but it is competitive, fragmented, characterized by imperfect information, and has considerable consumer and investor uncertainty. They also understand that the scale and scope of global markets make it very difficult for all but a few individual firms or institutions to create global brands. Therefore, they understand that "country" or "national brands" can act as a public good, helping to market the goods and services of their businesses, to attract foreign investment, to interest immigrants, to entice tourism and to encourage educational placements.
The countries that project national brands globally do so in different ways, but all involve strong partnerships between government and business and often universities. All are strategic in the type of brands they want to develop. All view these "national brands" as strategic and long term, not tactical and short term. And all are aware of the importance of projecting a unified brand image in targeted markets.
A national brand should encapsulate the strengths, characteristics, and values that the country has and wants to project. The brand has to be sufficiently broad to capture the essence of a diverse country and sufficiently focussed to make a clear, uncluttered impression and instill brand awareness. The country brand should be a combination of characteristic brands (e. g. high tech, cultural icons, values, sports, etc.), endowment brands (natural resources, unique institutions, history, skilled people) and public policy brands (fiscal policies, tax policies, immigration policies, foreign policies, etc.).
With the upcoming G8 and G20 meetings being held in Canada later this month, the world's spotlight will be on Canada. Now is the time to develop a strong Canada brand, organized around the rubric of public policy, endowments and characteristics.
First, Canada has strong public-policy brand potential, and this has increased in relative value as the world emerges from the financial crisis and recession. Canada's financial sector has been rated the world's soundest by the World Economic Forum. Canada's fiscal position is by far the best among the G7 countries. Canada has established a substantial corporate tax advantage over the U.S. to attract and retain business investment. Immigration policies provide a growing labour force to counter demographic aging. And Canada has unique access to the North American marketplace through NAFTA. A strong public policy brand helps reduce investor uncertainty and influences corporate investment decisions.
Second, Canada has a unique endowment brand potential. Canada is among the top countries for many natural resources, and is the largest provider of secure energy supplies to the U.S. market. We have a well-educated, multicultural workforce, and Canadian cities are consistently top-rated globally as places to live and work. Canada has a strong education system, good universities and excellent research capacity.
Third, Canada also has brand potential based on our values, our multiculturalism in a globalizing world, and our approach to relationships, networks and flexibility. To a large extent, these characteristics are a large measure of today's foreign impressions of Canada.
Taking these three elements together, the Canada brand should project our good governance in a world where trust and security have been shaken, our natural resources in a world clamouring for them, our skilled and multicultural workforce in a world scrambling for talent, and our values which make us a good and reliable partner in an uncertain world.
It is true that we can build an attractive and welcoming business environment, but we then have to market it globally in selective regions to selective target groups of companies in selective sectors. It is the national/ provincial equivalent of a sophisticated corporate "road show," and needs to be approached accordingly.
A clear and compelling "Canada brand" can be a key part of the investment promotion toolkit; indeed, a Canada brand can be the differentiator among similar investment possibilities. Given the global shifting of economic activity now underway, engaging in a concerted way on investment promotion would appear timely and potentially productive.
-The Honourable Kevin G. Lynch is vice-chair of BMO Financial Group.

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