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Dean Jain with Professor Toemsakdi Krishnamra in Bangkok
Photo © Paithoon B.
The Kellogg School's academic partnership with the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration in Thailand has been longstanding and mutually beneficial. Kellogg Dean Dipak C. Jain, left, visits with Sasin's director Professor Toemsakdi Krishnamra in Bangkok recently.

The ultimate marketing challenge
A nation's soul isn't easy to define, but Dipak Jain knew he would have to identify Thailand's unique essence if he was going to tackle the really tough job: branding the country

By Rebecca Lindell

If branding a conventional product proves challenging, imagine the complexity of branding an entire nation.

Sprawling, diverse and multifaceted, with people, products and politics that may or may not embody the desired "brand values," nations could pose the ultimate marketing challenge.

Yet that is precisely the test Kellogg School Dean Dipak C. Jain undertook in 2002 when he agreed to help develop a brand image for Thailand.

Jain spent 18 months at the request of Thai officials shaping a marketable identity for Thai products and services. Aided by students and faculty at the Kellogg School and Thailand's Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration at Chulalongkorn University, Jain fused the many strengths and perceptions of Thailand into a distinct, competitive brand.

"Thailand could be the Detroit of Asia, because it is a center for the continent's automotive industry," says Jain, whose expertise involves marketing research and new products and services.

"It could be the Geneva of the East, because of all the health organizations located there. There are many options for marketing Thailand. The question is, what is the competitive edge?"

In the global economy, "place marketing" has become an important practice, particularly for developing nations. Places compete for investors, tourists and new businesses, and each locale must offer the marketplace a unique or superior quality.

The pressure to stand out has become particularly intense in the huge Asian market, which is affluent and growing. Asia accounts for 60 percent of the world's population and a quarter of the planet's exports and GDP. At the same time, the region faces competition from Central and South America, which have also become attractive investment destinations. The places that will attract the most visitors, investors and businesses will be those with a strong brand and a strategic marketing plan.

As in product marketing, the first step in marketing a place is to develop a robust and attractive positioning and image. With a nation, however, that can be an enormous, complex task.

"Brands are built by all the messages that form a service," says Tim Calkins, Kellogg clinical associate professor of marketing and co-editor with Kellogg Professor Alice Tybout of the recently published Kellogg on Branding.

See the related story: Faculty Bookshelf: Kellogg on Branding
"In the case of a country, it's what the national policies are, what the leaders say, who they visit, what they say when they're there. It's also reflected in things like the country's transportation system and where the money is invested. You may think of these as policy decisions, but they're really branding decisions.

"Products are easier, because there's usually a product manager who's calling the shots. Countries are much trickier because there are so many constituents and so many ways to get the message out."

Crucial to the success of those efforts is the buy-in of government and business leaders. That support was apparent from the earliest stages of the Thailand branding project, in late 2001.

A new political party had just assumed power, and a number of top administrators had Kellogg ties. Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak '84, for example, holds a PhD in marketing from the Kellogg School, as does one of his advisers, Suvit Maecincee '96. Maecincee and Jain have also authored several marketing texts together, including Marking Moves with Philip Kotler, the S.C. Johnson & Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing.

The new government was keen to leverage the country's strengths, particularly in its tourism, food and fashion industries. A previously commissioned marketing study had drawn a public outcry due to its multimillion-dollar price tag. Jain, who has taught at Sasin since the late 1980s, suggested the two business schools work together to develop the Thai brand.

  Dean Jain with Thai senior officials
  As a marketing consultant to Thailand, Dean Dipak C. Jain, center, meets regularly with the country's senior officials. Here, from left, are Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak '84, Jain, and Vice Minister Suvit Maecincee '96
"This is one of the Kellogg contributions to Thailand," Jain says. "It grows out of the partnership we have had since 1982."

Under Jain's supervision, about a dozen Sasin students, six Kellogg students and several Sasin professors teamed to survey 1,000 Kellogg alumni on their perceptions of Thailand.

After three months, the team emerged with a sense of the country's brand essence: the warmth, caring and hospitality of the Thai people. These qualities, Jain says, can be leveraged into a national brand identity. They embody "Thai-ness," a term Jain hastens to define.

"This is not a word used in the Western world as it is used in the East," Jain says. "In Asia, there is a sense of 'India-ness,' for example, or "Chinese-ness.' It refers to the nation's core cultural values. In Thailand, that means a sense of respect and care. The spa experience in Thailand, for example, is different from the spa experience anywhere else in the world. So are the trekking and dining experiences. The way they treat you and respect you is unparalleled."

Even last December's tsunami, which devastated some of the country's tourist areas, created opportunities to reinforce this identity.

"The way the Thai people treated the guests after the tsunami was remarkable," said Jain, who himself narrowly escaped the deadly wave while vacationing with his family at a beach resort. He noted that the government made special efforts to assist tourists affected by the disaster, while Thai Airways scheduled extra flights to help evacuate visitors and ferry relief supplies to hard-hit areas.

"I was there, and I tell you: The 'Thai-ness' was very apparent," Jain says. "The people readily demonstrated their caring nature."

Another essential element of the Thai brand is the nation's rich and varied culture.

"Many places are known mainly for just one thing: Hawaii and its beaches, for example," Jain says.

"But in Thailand, there's so much going on that you are always engaged. There's the cultural heritage, with the Buddhist religion and the many temples. There are many sites of historical interest. There is the natural beauty of the nation and the environment. There are activities such as trekking and snorkeling. And of course, there are beautiful beaches as well."

This positioning opens up new avenues for marketing Thailand to both vacationers and businesspeople, Jain says.

The results of the study have been published in the Sasin Journal of Management and presented to governmental and tourism officials in Thailand. Jain, meanwhile, continues to counsel Thai officials on the best ways to leverage the country's strengths.

Maecincee has said that Thai government is particularly interested in helping small- and medium-sized business brand their products.

"We have the hospitality and the service-minded culture, so what else can we do to increase added value?" Maecincee said. "What segments of the biotech and agro-tech sectors, for example, should we be focused on? In information technology, should we focus on graphic design due to our artistic skills?"

The branding study's results are just the beginning, he has suggested. "We will tackle these questions from the national image down to the micro level."

The idea of branding a country in a disciplined way is relatively recent, says Tybout, the Harold T. Martin Professor of Marketing and chair of the Kellogg Marketing Department.

One example of successful national branding is South Africa, she says. The country's new theme is "South Africa: Alive with Possibility," evoking not only the rapid changes in South African society but also the new business and investment opportunities. "It was intended to promote a new image for the country after the fall of apartheid, and it's been enormously successful," Tybout says.

The challenge, she explains, is to find a common thread that transcends the diversity inherent in national populations.

"Often you do have to go to a fairly abstract concept, such as 'freedom' or 'opportunity,'" she says. "It must be very broad and not controversial, a big tent that many can live in. And it must resonate with the people for it to have credibility."

Nations should actively shape that image, since, as Tybout notes, the global marketplace will create one for them anyway.

"Even if you aren't consciously working to brand a country," she says, "it will still be a brand. You can ask all around the world, for example, what it means to be French and you'll get fairly consistent answers. Regardless of how the French went about doing it, they've built a strong, clear brand."

Thailand is capable of doing the same, Jain says.

"Thailand has a unique hospitality culture which can be built upon," he says. "Just as important, it has the willingness to put into place a strategic marketing plan. A strong brand will help ensure that Thailand becomes one of the top places in Asia to visit, invest and do business."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University