27 Apr 2020 21:55 IST

Will Covid-19 determine the fate of nation brands?

The real test for countries will be in how well they manage their brand strength index

Towards the end of 2019, when the Nation Brands Report for the year by Brand Finance estimated a 30-fold growth for developing economies, compared to that of the developed economies, little did anyone foresee how the unprecedented cataclysm wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic would shatter that estimation.

With India entering the top 10 league of valuable nation brands, at seventh position after the US, China, Germany, Japan, the UK and France, it was expected to work towards sustaining its brand strength index at a strong level, and keep competing with China in its positioning.

Despite the slowdown, policy measures such as ‘Make in India’ and ‘Swachch Bharat’ were viewed as great moves in that direction, that would not only boost the country’s valuation but also help in getting us to the next level of exceptional nation brand strength in the long run. Apart from this, the crisis in leadership in the Western world opened up opportunities to the bolder, more agile and innovative Asian and Latin American nation brands to clock high growth figures.

Indiscriminate virus

But with more than half the world’s population under lockdown now, that scenario no longer holds good for even the most promising of nation brands. The good news, and the bad news, is that the virus has been indiscriminate in its effects. This would mean that the going will certainly get even more distressing for the ones who were already in distress. However, the good news seems to be that the stronger nations are expected to act in solidarity through this global crisis, with closer cooperative policies and measures to support one another.

Without a doubt, Covid-19 will hugely impact the fate of nation brands. The indications are getting stronger. A recent report published by The Economist quoting the Institute of International Finance, said the Covid crisis resulted in an outflow of more than $83 billion from the emerging market shares and bonds in March 2020. Currently, when countries are struggling to get their list of essential services and industries to be spared from the lockdown, concerns over what next and how to bounce back are looming larger than ever before. Everyone knows that this too shall pass, but the nation brands are all slated to face the toughest test of their resilience in their efforts to emerge as super brands.

Brand strength index

The physical lockdown, coupled with financial constraints, and its unprecedented spiralling implications in the globalised economy, are bound to play havoc with the GDP streams of respective nation brands, irrespective of their position in the brand valuation meter. However, the real test for nation brands will be how well they manage their brand strength index (BSI) that will pave the way for long-term sustainable growth in the post-Covid world.

The BSI score will manifest a more accurate reflection of the way the Government steers its nation brand through these testing times by way of thoughtful socio-economic policies and actions. This could well become a competitive identity for the state in the global marketplace that will have long-term positive economic implications. The nation brands which emerge stronger on the other side of the crisis will be the ones who got it right, with:

Focus on positive storytelling over propaganda: As the nation brands chart their own journey through this pandemic, positive, transparent communication highlighting the achievements of its quick measures and favourable outcomes will go a long way in building long-term trust.

Assuring internal involvement: Official, resilient, non-partisan government organisation structures to manage the changes and respond to challenges will be the order of the day. A working ecosystem with effective management of the digital information flow, monitored as an integral part of the sociology, will work as a crucial differentiator.

Goal-setting and aligned resource allocation: Clear key performance indicators need to be formulated, and the measurement process to evaluate the success of strategic responses needs to be put in place and practised. Having a coherent, consistent and reliable set of socio-economic actions, policies and measures, aligned with the central idea of balancing crisis management and public diplomacy, would result in tangible benefits for the reputation and image of the nation brand.

Scoring exceptionally high

On an optimistic note, a closer look at the case of India as a nation brand handling its Covid crisis reveals some positive actions so far. Despite being an emerging economy with limited scope for generous fiscal response, unlike its richer counterparts in Europe and North America, India’s strong response to contain the pandemic, scoring exceptionally high in the stringency index from an early stage, has not only yielded some timely results, in the form of a check on the spread of the virus, and has enhanced its image and reputation of being a responsive and proactive nation brand.

Announcing a further lockdown extension, the Prime Minister’s commitment to “Jaan bhi, Jahaan bhi” perhaps resonates as a positive reassurance for moves that would try to balance the most crucial issue of sustaining life, first, and then the economy. Keeping cynicism at bay, India’s moves, ranging from the diplomatic decision to temporarily license hydroxychloroquine exports, to tactical moves with the timely launch of the Arogya Setu app to trace and contain the spread of Covid, have been putting our nation brand in the headlines for all the right reasons.

Facing the contagion, India’s initiatives to remain sustainably competitive, while pursuing innovative social progress, have been working well. However, the concern remains as the final scorecard would be contingent on how well we keep the momentum going with a nation of 1.3 billion, especially with a large chunk of the population of daily-wagers, and especially migrant labour, facing great hardship during this lockdown.

(The author is Associate Professor and Marketing Area Chair, International Management Institute Kolkata.)