Global image: all the world’s a stage

A mega-event can instantly transform a country’s fortunes. But the long-term benefits are more subtle, allowing the host nation to change perceptions of itself across the globe

When South Africa originally won the bid to host the 2010 Fifa World Cup, there was great expectation within the nation. The largest event of any kind to be held on the African continent – based on projected visitor numbers and international media attention – was expected to leave tangible legacies, such as job creation, economic uplift, improved transport systems and new facilities that could be enjoyed by everyone. Although South Africa had a history of hosting other major events, none were near the scale of the football spectacle.

But long after the sun had gone down on this exuberant festival of football, both government and citizens admit that the real power of the event for the nation was its longer-term ability to help the world to see the country in a different light, highlighting its modern cities and vibrant and friendly population, and dispelling Afro-pessimism among the global community. For its citizens, the event proved a catalyst of inspiration and motivation as a result of South Africa’s globally proven capability. In essence, the lasting legacy of the event for the nation was its intangible contribution to nation brand development – the “soft power”.

The power of the World Cup for South Africa was that it helped the world to see it in a different light, with modern cities and a vibrant and friendly population

The experience of South Africa is certainly not unique. Large-scale, global or mega-events are increasingly sought after and fiercely competed over by nations and cities as marketing or public relations opportunities. Hosting a mega-event is seen as a strategic opportunity for a nation to gain international visibility, showcase its assets and garner goodwill from the international community.

International perception

Sydney is renowned as one of the best examples, with the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2000 instilling global perceptions of Australia as a sophisticated, competent and advanced society. Meanwhile, Germany used the 2006 Fifa World Cup to change perceptions of the nation from serious and hard-working to being considered a far more friendly, welcoming and innovative nation.

China, too, successfully used two closely held mega-events to assert its significance on the global stage. The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was swiftly followed in 2010 by the World Expo in Shanghai. These spectacles impressed the world with their technological advancement and celebration of human achievement. They also reminded global audiences of the nation’s formidable historic and cultural heritage.

Increased globalisation and heightened international competitiveness has resulted in countries and cities competing for the attention, respect and trust of a variety of markets and influential groups, including investors, tourists, consumers, donors, immigrants, media and governments. As a result, the reputation and image of a nation have become essential parts of a country’s strategic equity. There are an increasing number of reasons why nations must manage and control their branding in order to compete effectively on the global stage, such as the need to attract tourists, factories, companies and talented people, and to find markets for their exports. The image of a country is likely to influence people’s decisions related to travelling to a place, purchasing products from that place, doing business with local businesses or investing in the region, and even migrating residence to a new place. The unbranded nation has a more difficult time attracting economic and political attention.

There has also been an increase in the number of smaller, developing nations bidding for – and hosting – major global events, which are regarded as an effective tool for positioning nations on the global stage.

The Gulf region has been competing for and hosting mega-events – particularly sporting events – in recent years. Qatar was able to demonstrate its competence and capacity to host mega-events when it successfully organised the 2006 Asian Games, which proved the launching pad to a 2016 Olympic Games bid (albeit a failed one). However, its real breakthrough and endorsement of its capability was seen in it being awarded the hosting rights for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Highlighting the soft-power significance of this event for Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the recently retired Emir of Qatar, said: “A lot of people think that we are a small country, but we can accomplish great things.”

Nation branding

Developing a nation brand needs to begin with an assessment of how the nation desires to be perceived. It should reflect the very best of what the nation can be and aspires to be. Brand messages need to be repeated and consistent with one another. This doesn’t mean that exactly the same message is told every time to the same audience. Different stories related to the brand should highlight different aspects of the brand identity to different audiences across the globe. This is what China did so well with the mega-events that it hosted in 2008 and 2010. It followed up the 2008 Olympics in Beijing with the Shanghai Expo, and in doing so demonstrated two completely different facets of the country’s capabilities.

While the first highlighted the country’s human, sporting and technological prowess the second – dubbed the ‘economic Olympics’ – displayed the country’s organisational skills with an expo that broke all records for previous attendance (both among exhibitors and visitors) and cemented China’s reputation as a rising global power on the world stage.