Rebranding Armenia

A Toronto agency crosses oceans to tackle a country brand with a troubled past

A Toronto agency tackles a country with a troubled past

In March, Canadian agency Cundari signed one of its most exotic and challenging contracts yet—designing a national identity for the country of Armenia.

Armenia has never gone through a branding or marketing process before, says Arman Khachaturyan, executive director of the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia (NCFA), the project’s client. As for awareness, what is known about Armenia tends to be negative. (Try googling Armenia—the second suggested search deals with genocide.) Surely not your everyday brief.

“Armenia is known to Armenia, but Armenia is not really that much known to foreigners,” says Khachaturyan. Those outside the country may know a little about the former Soviet republic of three million landlocked between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

They might know the tragic early 20th-century genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the late 20th-century war with Azerbaijan, or perhaps that 21st-century reality star Kim Kardashian is half-Armenian, but not much else.

Cundari’s partner on the project, New York-based agency GK Brand, was initially contacted by the NCFA. It chose the Canadian shop—a fellow member in the independent agency network Tribe Global—as its partner because of Cundari’s portfolio of place branding work, says Kelly Frances, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at Cundari.

“It’s a very unique skill set you need to have to complete a place branding assignment,” says Frances. “It’s different from branding a product, service or company. There are so many unique variables that make up a place, whether it’s a destination like a museum, whether it’s a city or town or region—or now, a country.”

Cundari first got a feel for branding a destination when it worked on the high-profile unveiling of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Crystal redesign. Since then, its focus on the practice intensified.

After working with Washington, D.C. on its rebranding, the firm worked with North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh, developed the Waterfront Toronto brand and designed Niagara Falls’ “Niagara Original” identity.

“It is very different from branding a box of cereal,” Aldo Cundari, the agency’s chairman and CEO, explains. “A cereal brand doesn’t need to consider a history, a diaspora, spirituality, tourism, investment, multiple internal and external stakeholders, and physical and cultural assets.” He says this kind of work “stretches the creative talents of an agency” because a place is so multifaceted. “Differentiating it in a powerful story is a challenge.”

One of the more famous cases of place branding is the iconic “I Love NY” campaign from the mid 1970s.

New York City was suffering a black eye from crime and troubled civic finances when advertising agency Wells Rich Greene was commissioned to build a campaign that would generate tourism for the whole state. It was the logo by Milton Glaser with a heart replacing the word “love” that helped make the campaign one of the most successful ever and changed perceptions of Manhattan in particular. The torn envelope with Glaser’s original doodle is now housed in the Museum of Modern Art.

Khachaturyan says the goal is to portray a more positive image of Armenia: “An image that reflects the past, but that is first and foremost a message of the future.” Don’t think genocide, think impressive medieval churches, a vibrant cuisine, eco-tourism, contemporary musicians and filmmakers.

The national identity initiative is meant to boost economic growth by attracting investment and tourism, which made up 7.6% of Armenia’s economy in 2012, according to the World Economic Forum; Khachaturyan estimates it’s higher now, and expects it to rise further.

The targets of the tourism component are complex. The campaign will need to speak to those who have no preconceived ideas about the country, as well as prospective tourists in countries such as Russia, Germany and Italy. But many of Armenia’s tourists are themselves Armenians living abroad. Branding and advertising Armenia will have to be done with its large diaspora in mind.

“While tourism is a big driver, economic investment is also important,” says Cundari. “The ROI can be measured in terms of ‘heads in beds’ or the amount of money that leisure travellers spend in the place. The KPIs will vary by location.”

Branding a whole country is a brand new animal with exponentially more stakeholders, adds Frances.

“I know many companies have multiple stakeholders, but when you’re dealing with a country, you really do have multiple stakeholders. When we met with the prime minister and president, we were starting to get into geopolitical issues. When we were meeting with the head of a high school or innovation centre, we were looking at how to tell a better story for them to attract students.”

Expected to be completed in December, the project will include content across all media, from traditional print and television to online and social media.

It’s a big job, but it has a payoff. Unlike an agency designing an orange juice logo that may be redesigned a year later, the agency has the satisfaction of knowing that its creative vision will be around for awhile.

“You don’t rebrand a country like Armenia [again] for a long time,” says Frances.

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