Brands are omnipresent in our lives and they help us make choices as consumers. Historically, they began life as a mark of ownership (for example on livestock) as well as a form of primitive guarantee – attesting to quality in provenance – and over the years brands have evolved to become a complex mix of the tangible and intangible. They have arisen in the context of fierce competition that exists globally which has resulted in the need to differentiate ourselves, and our businesses from each other.
How are brands relevant to sociocultural linguistics, though? More specifically, what is the role of language in branding, and how does branding shape our language? These questions can be answered empirically, among other ways, if we look into the relationship between language and country branding.
Like human beings, countries form their own identities that distinguish them from each other. The equivalent process of human identity construction is country branding, namely the process whereby a distinctive physiognomy and, eventually, a value is attached to a country, with the hope of rendering it attractive for tourism, investment, studying, working, and strategic and military coalitions.
At the same time, the process of language-based country branding is also relevant to harmonious intercultural communication, inasmuch as the key to a good country brand is to be distinctive without, nonetheless, being offensive to other (usually neighboring) countries. In that respect, language-based country branding can be seen as a highly interdisciplinary field, which draws together ways of thinking, ways of acting, and ways of designing strategies and implementing policies from diverse fields, including (but not limited to) politics, geography, anthropology, marketing, sociology but also political science, and diplomacy.
Language is dealt with as a set of social practices. It is seen as a wider communicative code, including written, oral and digital realizations of single linguistic items, phrases, and sentences, or even whole dialects associated with countries functioning as brands but also branding and branded discourses, which are indexed through specific uses of language.
Language is also descriptive, associative, and abstract. In its descriptive role, what is highlighted is its informative character relevant to what it is that the country brand actually does, means, or offers. Its associative aspect is identified with an attempt to create a clear association with the desired benefit of feeling that the place under discussion offers. In addition, branding-related language can be abstract, in the sense that it can include made-up or creative linguistic items associated with a specific country. Such creativity is usually very evident in country branding logos and advertisements.
The role and impact of language as a signifier of a country brand is considerable. The range of linguistic tones or registers which belong to an individual language offer a rich and diverse range of communicative resources whereby the overall process of country branding can draw upon. At the same time, sociolinguistic variation paves the way for branding the richness of the sociodemographic and physical landscape-based mosaic that is usually found in various countries. Such diversity, more often than not collides with a general attempt to reproduce a nationalist discourse of homogeneity through the process of country branding, and it is exactly at that level that the analysis of language becomes pertinent, useful, and essential.
In order to understand these dynamics in a more deep way, you are invited to read the Routledge volume we recently co-edited with Johanna Tovar titled “Research Companion to Language and Country Branding”, where the focus is on the ways whereby countries, as places and nations, employ language to imagine and portray themselves today, tomorrow, and in the past. The volume explores nation and place branding in relation to many subjects, including nationalism and populism (with chapters on Modi, Bolsonaro, Brexit, Putin, and Trump), cosmopolitanism, authenticity, time, tourism, and mega events such as the Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup and Expo, among others. The countries explored in the volume include (in alphabetical order): Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, China, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Peru, Qatar, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and United States.
In the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the reasons we are all suffering so much all over the world is because we cannot travel to (or within) our own native countries, or to other countries we have always wanted to visit. Such lack of mobility points at exactly how important it is for countries, especially in the highly anticipated post-pandemic era, to brand themselves as safe destinations offering high quality life and memorable experiences, but, above all, a robust public health care system. Inevitably, the role of language will be important in that process, especially in persuading travelers to choose a particular country as their most desired destination. Given the financial recession that will follow in the post COVID-19 era, coupled with the general insecurity regarding traveling but, at the same time, the intense psychological need to make trips and to “be somewhere else”, travelers will have to make limited choices regarding their traveling, so countries will have to act strategically in terms of how they will brand themselves.
We hope that readers will find in the aforementioned volume ideas on how to research and how to design and implement language-based country branding strategies and policies in the challenging but, at the same time, exciting, era that lies ahead of us, once the pandemic is over…