Can the Olympics re-brand Britain?

Andrew Hammond

Saturday, August 25, 2012    

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With London 2012 proving a once-in-a-generation global showcase for Britain, a key uncertainty nonetheless remains over whether a substantial legacy can be secured in future years from hosting the games. Given that the official public cost of the Olympics is some £9.3 billion, this is a key question, especially as Britain languishes in a double-dip recession.

The two most frequently cited legacies of London 2012 are: first, securing long-term success from the regeneration of the Olympic Park and surrounding area; second, inspiring a new generation of sportsmen and women.

However, above and beyond this, the government's ambition is nothing less than enhancing Britain's reputation across the globe. The goal of its innovative cross-departmental GREAT campaign, of which the Olympics is the high point to date, is to refresh the brand of the home nations as amongst the top places in the world to visit, live, work, study and do business, with key areas of excellence (as highlighted in the Olympic opening ceremony) including technology and innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, knowledge, green, heritage, sport, shopping, music and countryside.

At a time of continued economic uncertainty, the bottom line is to increase growth. The government estimates that the "London 2012 effect" will stimulate some £13 billion of benefit to the economy over the next four years.

Two major questions arise. First, can a country's reputation be enhanced in the same way as a corporate (or other organisation) might do? Second, can this have a significant national economic impact?

On the first issue, boosting country reputation is an ever common ambition in what is an overcrowded global information marketplace. Competition for the attention of stakeholders like investors and tourists is intensifying, and national reputation can therefore be a prized asset or a big liability, with a direct effect on future political, economic and social fortunes.

In general, the most effective country reputation strategies align all key national stakeholders (across the public, private and third sectors) around a single, coherent vision for global positioning. This exercise should not just be the preserve of tourism agencies, let alone government.

A good example here is New Zealand. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the country has transformed itself from earlier perceptions of being a relatively remote economic backwater which, despite its scenic beauty, was not a major global tourist destination.

Especially in the midst of the difficult economic climate of the 1970s and 1980s, partly caused by the country's loss of preferred trading status with Britain and the Commonwealth (amongst the nation's then major export markets), New Zealand recognised that a strong reputation for quality would be hugely beneficial if it was to better compete in global markets.

Here, the untapped potential of the country's natural environment was recognised (and indeed showcased in films like Lord of the Rings). And not just in terms of natural produce exports, but also for building a destination brand for tourism and outdoor sports.

The New Zealand example underlines how even a unified, cross-sectoral vision can be powerful. To be sure, the country is not unique in having an unspoiled environment and quality produce. But it has managed to capture the world's imagination with its consistent branding that has put natural values firmly at its core as epitomised by the "New Zealand 100% Pure" slogan.

Turning to the second question, top-class reputation strategies can be one key component of national economic success. In New Zealand, for instance, the tourism sector has boomed - visitor numbers from Britain increased by around 60 per cent between 2001 and 2006 alone.

Meanwhile, the success of the country's agriculture sector is symbolised by the fact that it now accounts for one-third of global dairy exports, including significant amounts of milk powder to Chinese consumers wary of safety concerns surrounding local brands. This success helped drive, in 2011, New Zealand's largest ever trade surplus, with terms of trade at an almost 40-year high.

Whether Britain's GREAT campaign succeeds in helping secure the £13 billion asserted by the government will depend, in part, on the global economy's fortunes in coming years. For instance, the government estimates that the "London 2012 effect" will stimulate an additional 4.5 million overseas tourists over the next four years - resulting in some £2.3 billion of spending.

This is speculative, and, in truth, the long-term economic impact of previous Olympics has frequently been overstated for host nations. To maximise prospects of the GREAT campaign helping to enable Britain's economic recovery, it will therefore need to be sustained beyond London 2012, and also increasingly utilise the innovation and expertise of Britain's private sector.

Andrew Hammond is an associate partner at ReputationInc, and formerly a UK Government special adviser and senior consultant at Oxford Analytica.





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