Cool Balkania? Nation branding and the rest of Europe

In case you haven’t seen the latest EU promo video about Southeastern Europe, it’s trying to tell you we are all different and one and the same. Really?

The only problem with this enlightening video is that it doesn’t exactly explain how we are different. Apparently, with beret-wearing young girls eating on-the-go croissants, Serbs are just like the French (no Monica Bellucci wannabes feasting on burek?), Bosnia is like Italy (minus the coastline), Croatia is Austria (that’s an old one, by the way), Montenegro is Sweden (no, it’s an island from that James Bond film) and Turkey is just like Germany (yes, it was built by Turkish seasonal workers). Kosovo is not Albania, because that would be too much of a confusion, since Albania is just like Greece, so Kosovo is Spain, which makes Macedonia the UK of the Balkans, okay? In short, Balkan is Europe, Europe is Balkan and it’s all one big happy family as in every TV ad.

But you’re not buying a shampoo this time, you’re “buying” a country. And not just one, but an entire set of countries. During the last decade, the concept of “nation branding” emerged as a handy extension of traditional soft power, a way for a country to boost its public image through version advertising techniques, hoping to create more favorable conditions for direct foreign investment, tourism and trade, even political relations with other countries. According to British policy strategist Simon Anholt who first coined the term “nation branding”, state diplomacy and private enterprise join hands to engage in a “reputation contest” with the local and foreign publics: the better a country’s reputation is, the better its positioning on the global market. Anholt has even devised a global ranking scale of countries according to their reputations – the nation brand index.

However, the EU video So Similar, So Different, So European is slightly, well, different. It doesn’t originate from the global province towards the center, not even the other way round. It is a narrative the EU is telling to itself. Look honey, these people are not bloodthirsty savages after all, they’re just like us. Check out these skyscrapers in Turkey! And Kosovo has a TV station!

But what is the real impact of this campaign? Should we get disappointed when we find out Bosnia is not Tuscany? Or should we remain grateful that real life is more exciting than a polished video ad?

When it comes to “nation branding”, there are a number of nations carrying strong, simplified narratives that could be associated with qualities of a ‘brand’. We say ‘France’ and think of style and elegance, just as we say ‘Japan’ and think of cutting-edge technology, or ‘Germany’, thinking of efficiency and precision. But France did not acquire its reputation through advertising. Unfortunately, nor did the Balkans. After years of being associated with wars and political instability, the region seems to be entering a taming, neo-colonial phase, where the threatening ‘Other’ becomes the benevolent ‘Similar’, through tacky, region-branding advertising. It doesn’t really enrich our experience and awareness of other cultures, but acts as a sedative, a mild pain-killer for the average Western European.

Maybe that’s progress, after all, but the ‘Similar’ is still not quite the ‘Same’, especially when stuck behind the Schengen border check-points. If you really want to witness the Balkan ‘similar’ and the ‘different’, you’ll have to stop watching that video and come down to see for yourself.

So make sure you check out Sweden this summer. I hear it’s even better than Greece.