Branding Canada

Embassy, October 4th, 2006 NEWS STORY By Lee Berthiaume
Branding Canada

As Asian and Latin American students find it increasingly difficult to get into U.S. schools, Australia is taking up the slack, and public-diplomacy-poor Canada is falling badly behind.

Missing chances for students and trade

It’s a problem Lloyd Axworthy has experienced firsthand as president of the University of Winnipeg: Too many Canadian institutions doing their own thing to attract foreign students and losing out to other countries with a more unified recruiting approach even as the U.S. becomes less student friendly because of security measures.

In recent years, Canada has seen its share of foreign students–especially from Asian countries like China and Japan–first decline, then increase only slightly. At the same time, other countries, like Australia, have seen significant increases.

“The universities and colleges [in Australia] work in a very concrete, coherent way,” Mr. Axworthy says. “There’s integration; they identify niche markets.

“The Canadian approach is very fragmented,” he adds. “Various universities traipse in and try to establish their connections. Some do, some don’t. The overall impact is one where we are substantially failing in attracting students in what is now a much more competitive market.”

The problem is one that is starting to affect numerous companies and industries, and has prompted some to start investigating ways to create what is essentially a “Brand Canada” in various sectors that have, until now, been represented abroad through associations, provincial and regional marketing efforts.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Australia was swept with what Deputy High Commissioner Tony Huber describes as a “broad-based intellectual conspiracy” that saw academics, industry representatives and others touting the need for a unified and cohesive effort to promote Australian companies and products abroad to remain competitive.

“I can’t say there was a seminal moment when branding Australia came out,” Mr. Huber says. “It gained momentum and acceptance in the 1980s. Any differences in regional references were put aside to promote Australian sectors.”

Fortunately the timing was right as a wave of federalism was sweeping the country, but Mr. Huber says it wasn’t always easy to get everyone on side and to set up the necessary framework to move forward.

But over time, the idea caught on and a concerted, unified effort to promote post-secondary education in Australia, Australian mining companies, agriculture and tourism emerged.

“Some really tough decisions had to be taken,” he says. “Some of the states have given way in some areas that are blurred. I think all sectors… understand the Australia brand can be used effectively.”

Not only does Australia have about 380,000 foreign students studying in the country, bringing with them cultural, political and financial benefits, but exports of wine to Canada are increasing on average about 20 per cent per year.

The change has also affected the way diplomats and other government employees who work at missions abroad operate, Mr. Huber says.

“For the last 10 to 15 years we have had to think of the whole of government,” he says. “We do not represent the agency; we represent the government.”

And the benefits are that Australia has for years topped competitiveness surveys and seen its markets abroad steadily grow.

“I think it has been successful,” he says. “I don’t think having a fragmented approach could improve our results.”

Public Diplomacy ‘Third-Tier’

Mr. Axworthy says it is a problem he struggled with even when he was Canada’s foreign affairs minister from 1996 to 2000.

“Going back to the time I was in service, we could never get the approvals for increases to what used to be called third-tier, but is essentially public diplomacy,” he says. “Based on my experience, I don’t think the Ottawa system understands or thinks it’s important; they don’t give it priority.”

“I just don’t think there’s been a proper assessment of the impact and influence that can be brought to bear,” Mr. Axworthy says. “There’s never really been any attempt to put these things in an integrated way.”

Speaking from his position as head of a major Canadian university, Mr. Axworthy says Canada has not developed an academic strategy, unlike Australia where recruiting international students is a major priority.

“We’ve never really mastered that or spent much time or attention on it, and I think we pay a big price for that,” he says, adding Canada is even missing opportunities. “The last couple of trips I’ve taken both into Latin America and Asia, it’s increasingly becoming more difficult for universities in those countries to relate to the United States because of the security measures. We’ve done very little to take advantage of that.”

Debra Steger, director of the Emerging, Dynamic, Global Economies Network at the University of Ottawa, says while well-known large companies and institutions might know their way around the international stage, the challenge is helping the small and medium-sized companies.

She attributes the problem with the absence of a pan-Canadian strategy that will highlight our strengths and market them to the world, which is likely because of our past dependence on the U.S.

“I think it’s because in the past we’ve been so reliant on the U.S. market,” Ms. Steger says, explaining that the international marketplace is becoming complex. “Relying on this relationship with the U.S., which we assumed will always be there, we haven’t put enough energy into other areas.”

In addition, Ms. Steger says the government has failed to properly consult the private sector, which other countries have realized is essential for their economic success.

“It’s really important that government consult with the private sector and look at new ways to deal with what’s coming down the pipe,” she says.

Tailoring the Message

Later this week, a four-week experiment looking at ways Canada can develop a more strategic approach to marketing the country’s exploration and mining industry in Mexico will conclude.

Since Sept. 12, the Canadian Association of Mining Equipment and Services for Export (CAMESE) has been hosting a website where mining companies and associations can log in and explain aspects of the industry for Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade officers working in Mexico and what they can offer to the country.

As a result, says CAMESE managing director Jon Baird, the officers will have a better grasp of Canadian mining industries and tailor their message to the Mexican situation, with the aim of helping the companies secure more business.

During the Mines Ministers’ Conference in Whitehorse on Aug. 29, Mr. Baird called for a program to brand Canada in the world of mining, which prompted DFAIT to approach his organization with the website idea.

In the mid-1990s, the department had organized a Canadian International Business Strategy, which Mr. Baird says saw a lot of bureaucrats work very hard to produce annual strategy reports that weren’t very useful. A second attempt proved as unsuccessful.

The problem, says Mr. Baird, was the strategies were generally too wide ranging, with the same approach, for example, being used to market Atlantic fish as Alberta beef, mainly because of a lack of consultation with the private sector. Rather than fix the approach, the idea was scrapped for years.

“Now we are seeing a little glimmer,” Mr. Baird says. By educating DFAIT officials about not only the industry, but also how the industry operates and relates to specific countries, a concrete plan can be created on how to market Canadian companies there.

“Product selling is about knowledge,” he says. “And there’s where we fall down. That was my pitch: ‘We need a sectoral marketing scheme.’ Canada’s lack is starting to show.

“It’s just common sense,” says Mr. Baird of the need for such an approach to marketing Canada’s strengths abroad. “It’s not so much money that’s need as coordination.”

A Common Approach

One ministry that has been actively looking at a Brand Canada is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which has managed to get provincial and territorial ministers of agriculture onside in focusing their efforts in a common direction.

According to the department, despite the successes that Canada’s food and agriculture sector has achieved, research shows that Canadian products are not well-known. However, the research also shows that international customers do know Canada.

During a meeting in St. John’s, Nfld., on June 27, the ministers reaffirmed their commitments to a common approach to raise the profile of Canadian food and agriculture products, as well as increase international demand.

At the same time, the different governments are working to encourage the participation of all industry players involved in exporting Canadian food and agriculture products.

“Canada’s international branding strategy is designed to capitalize on the positive impressions that people tend to have about Canada, and build on those images to broaden awareness of Canada and its products,” says a press release issued after the meeting.

“By presenting a consistent message to customers, in every interaction, the organizations and companies that make up Canada’s food and agriculture sector can leverage the existing image of Canada into something stronger–widespread recognition of the excellence and diversity of Canadian products, and a corresponding increase in demand.”

However, it adds that the success of the branding strategy will depend upon collaboration between governments and industry, especially since it is a voluntary initiative.

Sheila Barth, the department’s Branding Strategy Manager, says the idea came about as part of a federal policy aimed at promoting the sector abroad. Not only will Canadian companies and trade delegates advertise and promote Brand Canada, it also allows for more focused research and attention to standards by which Canadian products can be marketed.

While Ms. Barth is quick to note that the approach is not about to become reality overnight and isn’t perfect, it does allow industry and the government to take the lead and fight on an even footing with other countries that have undertaken similar approaches.

“It’s certainly a competitiveness issue,” she says. “We need to differentiate ourselves.”