Can the Olympics succeed in re-branding Britain?

Can the Olympics succeed in re-branding Britain?

With London 2012 proving a once-in-a-generation global showcase for Britain, a key uncertainty nonetheless remains over whether a substantial, meaningful 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 pounds (455 billion baht), a figure parliament believes is nearer 11 billion pounds, and Sky News estimates to be a staggering 24 billion pounds, this is a key question, especially as Britain languishes in a double-dip recession.

The two most frequently cited legacies of London 2012 are: firstly, securing long-term success from the regeneration of the Olympic Park and surrounding area; and, secondly, inspiring a new generation of sportsmen and women across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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, 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 business investment and growth: "To sell Britain on the back of British success" in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron.

The government estimates that the "London 2012 effect" will stimulate some 13 billion pounds of benefit to the economy over the next four years, and is seeking to underpin this by hosting a global investment conference and 17 business summits during the Olympics.

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

On the first issue, boosting a country's 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 country 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 relatively simple, unified, cross-sectoral vision can be powerful. To be sure, the country is not unique in having an unspoiled environment and quality produce.

However, 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 country reputation strategies can be one key component of national economic success. In New Zealand, for instance, the tourism sector has enjoyed a boom _ visitor numbers from Britain increased by around 60% between 2001 and 2006 alone.

Meanwhile, the success of the country's agriculture sector, which has become more competitive and efficient, is symbolised by the fact that it now accounts for one third of global dairy exports (that is twice Saudi Arabia's share of the world oil 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 pounds asserted by the government will depend, in significant 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 pounds of spending and the creation of 70,000 jobs.

This is speculative, and, in truth, the medium and 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 well 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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