In this week's L'Hebdo (a Swiss French-language newsmagazine) French economist Guy Sorman has an interesting op-ed piece about "country branding". He doesn't actually use this concept, but that's his topic. Many countries are working on "re-branding" or "repositioning" themselves, including the strongest and most loved/hated national brand of them all, the United States (but also Canada, Estonia and many others).
The process can be implicit (observe the current revival of national pride and positive image-building of Germany, thanks to the football World Cup) or explicit (the UK ran a significant research project on this a few years ago). When explicit, pretty much all of these efforts include a strong element of jettisoning ballast: of getting rid of stereotypes and clichés and of classic images and mental associations that, most "re-brander" seem to believe by tacit agreement, hinder progress. And of replacing them with new, fresher, future-oriented, designed ones. Sometimes this goes overboard: for a short moment, a while back, Estonia considered re-branding itself "e-stonia" (as in "e-business" and such) to underscore its intention to become a beacon of the digital future...
Sorman takes the opposite view. Certain countries can count more than others on positive stereotypes and preconceived views to sell their products and promote their culture, they say, and they should use them without worries. Excerpts (he wrote this for a Swiss magazine, but the argument applies to all countries):
From the distant and near past, countries have inherited images and stereotypes: the French were frivolous, the Swiss slow, the German serious, the Americans shrewd and the Chinese astute. (...) The globalized world remains a virtual universe of cultural images. If we transfer that to the economy, you're really in trouble when you don't have any image at all. To sell something when your origin does not evoke anything is as difficult as to sell a product without a brand. (...) This "cultural value" serves large globalized countries well. A French company that sells luxury goods has no need to explain why it sells luxury, nor even justify its prices and profits. A Swiss company would find it easier to navigate the financial, insurance, machines, pharma and tourism industries. These products and services are preceded to the market by Switzerland's reputation: precision, discretion, seriousness, cleanliness.
Generally, no people is happy with the images and associations attached to it: the French would prefer to pass for serious; the Swiss for sharp; the Americans for distinguished; the Chinese for reliable; the German for stylish. But, while all efforts in this sense are of course legitimate, says Sorman:
Swiss companies would be foolish not to play to these preconceived notions. (...) The cultural added value that's represented by this reputation is worth much more than any ad campaign. Businesses have a key interest in cultivating their national image when they have a positive one, in the same way they cultivate their trademarked brand. (...)
Sorman's full column (in French).