Japan may be an export powerhouse, but it has a serious problem when it comes to importing tourists. Most travelers in the world, it seems, would rather go somewhere else. In 2005, the most recent year on record, Japanese visitors to other places outnumbered inbound tourists by 60 percent. So the government decided to launch a full-barreled advertising campaign to promote the delights of Japan to an international audience. There was just one problem: the approved slogan, "Yokoso Japan!"—a perfectly nice sentiment—requires translation before the people it's aimed at understand that "yokoso" means "welcome."
Creating an effective brand identity for a company is difficult. Doing the same for a country is practically impossible, and yet countries from Australia to Israel have mounted image-makeover campaigns in recent years. Israel has been promoting bikini-clad beachgoers and Tel Aviv nightlife, rather than its contested holy sites. Uganda prefers to advertise the fact that it is "gifted by nature" instead of plagued by a brutal past.
Simon Anholt, founder of the National Brands Index, argues that a country's "brand" is nothing less than the sum of its politics, culture, religious traditions, business practices, landscape features and natural resources. Building an image dependent on so many variables—and subject to the stereotypes of faraway audiences—is a long and painful process. "The reality is that most governments never really have an opportunity to think in a strategic kind of way, and branding offers a good opportunity to discuss this," says Anholt, whose clients include Botswana, Iceland, Bhutan and Latvia. The best way for a country to generate a good image, he argues, is not by conducting clever ad campaigns, but by implementing good policies. "The most important thing is to tell the truth," he says.
Or get others to do it for you. Countries ranging from Costa Rica to Morocco have burnished their national brands with clever public-relations offensives that eschew the pictures of pristine beaches in favor of visitors' telling their stories. Singapore's "Uniquely Singapore" campaign, which officials cite as one of the reasons tourism has grown dramatically in the past few years, included TV spots that featured foreign visitors describing their trips to the country in their own words. The Singapore Tourism Board also created a $6.5 million program to subsidize international film and TV productions in the city-state. "We believe that movies and TV are an excellent way of creating more awareness of Singapore and generating buzz in a competitive tourism market," says Lim Neo Chian, deputy chairman and chief executive of the STB.
The quirkier the campaign, the better. Tim McColl Jones of M&C Saatchi in Sydney was one of the architects of the Australian national tourism bureau's "So where the bloody hell are you?" campaign, which shows Australians extending a characteristically blunt but friendly invitation to tourists to check out the country's unique natural wonders. His agency, says McColl Jones, conducted research suggesting that many outsiders' picture of Australia was "stagnant," and the campaign aimed at "disrupting attitudes." It certainly did that; government censors in Britain found the ad's language offensive rather than cheeky, and threatened to ban it; though unintended, McColl Jones says, the controversy did help to generate "tens of millions of dollars in free PR" and sparked debate within Australia as well. "It's certainly stirred up enormous interest and discussion, both locally and overseas," he says.
That's no accident. Experts say that no one should expect to shape a national brand without taking into account the people who live in the country. "In the end it's the Italian people who brand Italy, and they do it so damn well," says Anholt. "And the countries that haven't quite succeeded at that are the countries that don't quite love themselves." Among the latter Anholt lists Germany, Japan and the U.K. But that may be changing; in 2006 German government and industry used the World Cup to showcase their country with a multifaceted branding campaign emphasizing Germans' openness and friendliness. It all helped to make the Cup an undisputed success, but the main beneficiaries may have been the Germans themselves. "The Germans made a huge step forward after the  World Cup," notes Anholt. "They suddenly felt what it was like to be Italian—to have a healthy love of your own country." Indeed, perhaps the best way to turn your country into an attractive destination for visitors is to make it a place you'd like to visit yourself.