Taiwan’s COVID-19 success isn’t enough to build ‘Brand Taiwan’
- Mark Stocker
While recent positive press coverage is a step forward, it’s now time for the real work on nation brand building to begin.
I think you’re likely to agree with me that the curse that has been COVID-19 has turned out, so far, not so bad for Taiwan. Not only has the island dodged a potential damaging nationwide shutdown, Taiwan’s even managed to garner a fair amount of international media exposure as a result of the government’s deft handling of the situation. Taiwan has made all the right moves, and the upshot has been a sizable boost to the island’s international image.
Yet, strip away the recent positive coverage, and it is all too evident that Taiwan has much left to do in order to forge a globally respected brand. Awareness of Taiwan remains surprisingly low among the global consuming public. Even with the positive coverage of recent months, acquaintances I make abroad (all online over the past half year!) are still more likely than not to confuse Taiwan with Thailand! Proof that Taiwan’s nation branding has some way to go.
Taiwan’s image problem lies, for the most part, in the nation’s strategy towards brand building, or, more appropriately, the lack thereof. Similar to the majority of Taiwanese corporations I come across, the nation’s tactics towards brand strategy and public relations remain disjointed, piecemeal, and reactive rather than proactive. Opportunities for press exposure are not so much built with concerted effort, as they are the result of external forces.
While COVID-19 has yet to pass, the positive public relations coup afforded Taiwan already has. We shouldn’t expect more in terms of international press coverage resulting from endeavors to contain the virus or those to develop a vaccine. Should we wish for greater international exposure, we will need to get serious about building and deploying a forward-thinking, brand building game-plan. Without it, the positive momentum gained over the past half-year will quickly dissipate.
Taiwan needs a timely strategy for national brand building and international public relation efforts. It is only by being strategic that Taiwan can hope to reap future benefits of a strong national brand image. Benefits that will not only contribute to strengthening Taiwan’s position in the world, but also spill over into the wider economy, serving to bolster the nation’s exports and tourism sector.
Taiwan is behind other nations when it comes to effective brand building
Other nations are far ahead of Taiwan when it comes to strategic brand building. Take Thailand for example. A nation with only one-fourth the GDP per capita of Taiwan—Thailand’s GDP per capita of $17,900 is dwarfed by Taiwan’s $50,300—Thailand began a series of highly strategic national branding efforts more than 20 years ago. Those efforts put Thailand on the map, making it one of the world’s favorite destinations for tourists from across the globe—40 million visitors in 2019 alone.
The widespread appreciation for Thailand’s culture and cuisine is the result of a very intelligently choreographed brand building campaign that began in 2000 under the direction of Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce’s Department of Export Promotion. The results of that campaign speak for themselves: between 2001 and 2019 visitor numbers grew from a little over 10 million to last year’s 40 million. During this time, GDP matched the growth in tourism with a sizable, fourfold increase from USD 125 billion to USD 505 billion. What exactly did Thailand do to achieve these results?
In 2001, the Thai government established the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd. with a plan to open 3,000-plus Thai restaurants worldwide. The objective was simple: expose consumers in developed markets to Thai cuisine and Thai culture, contributing to increased awareness of Thailand, and a directly correlated benefit to tourism. The plan was implemented with 1.) strategic focus and 2.) long-term commitment. The results speak for themselves, as evidenced by today’s greater awareness of Thailand over Taiwan among the global public.
Of course, Thailand is but one example. Great Britain has been equally active over this past decade bolstering its brand. Television programs such as the Great British Bake Off and Great British Menu, backed by government-funded BBC television and distributed globally, have spread the word of a growing appreciation for food and culture within Great Britain, contributing to the export economy and tourism.
I’m in no way suggesting that Taiwan should copy these two nations and their focus on food. (As a footnote: the Taiwan government did attempt to replicate Thailand’s restaurant campaign during the Ma administration. However, either the project failed to come to fruition or a lack of success meant little promotion following its launch.) Copying others isn’t going to work for Taiwan. Instead, the government needs to fashion a strategy that suits the island’s strengths, and that can form the basis of a long-term endeavor to build awareness and appreciation for “Brand Taiwan” in the minds of citizens around the world.
To be sure, Taiwan leads in many areas. Taiwan is ranked second in the world in recycling, only a few percentage points behind Germany. Taiwan makes the vast majority of the world’s functional textiles, which are used in athletic clothing from iconic brands such as Nike and Adidas. Combined with the island’s green credentials, why not position Taiwan as the source of the world’s ‘environmentally friendly’ textiles? Such a concept matches well with Taiwan’s capabilities, is inline with global trends, and could be owned by Taiwan.
No matter what the strategy, efforts to build awareness must not be treated as a local marketing exercise, as many have been in the past. We must avoid the trap of thinking that because something is known in Taiwan, it is therefore known around the world. It hasn’t helped that many programs launched in the past have garnered coverage in local news, but receive little to no exposure overseas. This reality creates a false sense of achievement among both the government and the citizens of Taiwan. As any brand consultant will tell you: “brands exist in the minds of consumers. If your brand isn’t in the consumer’s mind, well, then you don’t have a brand”.
Taiwan’s competent response to COVID-19 has put Taiwan back on the media map. It’s now time to be strategic with the nation’s branding. It’s time to pick one or two associations that are right for ‘Brand Taiwan’, and to fully commit to building these associations over the coming decade. Think Italy and leather goods, or Switzerland and watches. One or two strategic associations are all that are needed. Let’s take the positive momentum of recent international news coverage, get started now, and remain committed to the effort, until the people around the world stop confusing Taiwan for Thailand.