Debt growing, unemployment spiking and crime on the rise as politicians bicker over the dying embers of a country that has lost the trust of its European partners: If Greece were a product, you would be pulling it out of stores, taking it off shelves and dumping whatever stock you had left. Or maybe not. Maybe you would have the crazy idea that this is just the right moment to rebrand your flagging product and sow the seeds of success.
Brand strategist Peter Economides knows about taking brands at their lowest ebb and turning them into world-beaters. He was part of the team that helped create Apple’s “Think Different” campaign in 1997. At that point, the computer manufacturer was on the wane – the public and the media had lost interest and the firm’s finances were in a mess. The campaign, featuring iconic 20th-century figures such as Maria Callas and Muhammad Ali, transformed Apple’s image and set it on the way to becoming one of the world’s largest companies today.
Economides believes that Greece is at the point where an inspired and properly managed rebranding campaign could turn it into the “Apple of the Mediterranean.”
“I know that a country is not a computer or software but there are lessons from branding that can be applied,” he told Kathimerini English Edition. “Branding rests on sociology, psychology and anthropology and if we believe in those disciplines, then we can talk about fixing nations.”
At a conference in Thessaloniki on Friday, Economides presented his ideas on what is holding Greece back and how the country could change the way it is perceived. He received an enthusiastic reception at the event and since then, his presentation has gone viral on the Internet. By Wednesday evening, more than 20,000 people had viewed it via the www.slideshare.net site alone.
The brand strategist says that his presentation – which describes Greece as “one of the greatest brands never to be branded” – was born from an article he wrote last year about “reimagining the future” of Greece. The presentation is an uplifting look at the country’s potential – its history, natural beauty and people – but it does not shy away from being totally blunt about the dire situation Greece finds itself in today. Perhaps the most telling point of his presentation is a look at the result of searches using Google: A search for “Ancient Greece” brings up 15.6 million results while searching for “Greece crisis” leads to 224 million results.
Economides says that any effort to transform Greece’s image must begin by recognizing what has gone wrong and just how badly it has gone wrong. “The presentation is brutally honest,” he says. “Our image is sick right now, really sick. Branding starts with the truth.”
Perhaps Greece needed to reach this low point to take a look at itself and regroup, Economides argues, while offering one of the most succinct analyses of the Greek economic crisis you are likely to hear. “In 2004, we were at the apex of feeling good. We had that incredible opening ceremony at the Athens Olympics, which for me was probably the best Greek narrative I’ve seen in my life. It was the first time we managed to reconcile the past, the present and the future.
“Then what happened? Because we felt good, we thought we had everything and we started pursuing Gucci and Prada and Porsche and Ferrari. And we actually converted the International Broadcasting Center – the world’s best broadcasting center – into a shopping mall. Why did we do it? Because we wanted other stuff. So, we sold the good stuff we had to get the stupid stuff, which got us in the position we’re in. 2004 was a turning point because we started consuming like lunatics.”
Having crashed so spectacularly from such a lofty position – when Greece earned rave reviews from around the world for its hosting of the 2004 Games to the point where it is now difficult to find any positive coverage of the country – presents a unique opportunity, according to Economides.
“At the Thessaloniki conference, I invited people to think big,” he says. “You’ve got to be crazy to think you can change a situation, but you can.”
Economides is currently working on rebranding the Cypriot city of Limassol and says Greece can learn from how this project has developed. “It’s exactly what branding has to be in the future,” he says. “It’s an open source project where you talk to the people because the people are the brand. That’s what this country needs to do. Greece is a concept but if you don’t get Greeks to buy the concept, forget about it.
“For people to buy a concept, you don’t sell it to them. You’ve got to get them involved in it, you’ve got to talk to them. Great brands have always had a conversation with people,” adds Economides, citing successful branding campaigns of the past, such as Absolut Vodka.
However, the key element to the Limassol project is that it emanated from the private sector. Seven businessmen who envisaged a different future for their city initiated the scheme, which has since developed such momentum that it made it difficult for the public sector to reject the offer to climb on board.
“We launched a brand development project, which was process of involving people. Having launched that, we then went to the authorities and asked if they wanted to join us,” says Economides. “The politics of that made it undeniable, they had to join us. But if you go to the political system just with the idea, it’s not going to get off the ground because you’re standing on too many people’s toes.”
Economides admits that the encouraging applause he received in Thessaloniki made him feel like a politician but he is under no illusions about the role that central government and parties should play in any rebranding campaign. In fact, his presentation points out the Greece has had nine different tourism campaigns since the 1990s, as each minister chopped and changed the slogans and content of the advertisements. During this time, tourist arrivals in Croatia and Turkey have increased rapidly while falling in Greece.
“The way to do branding is a public-private partnership. It should be collaborative. To have brand leadership in political hands is wrong. It’s not because politicians are incapable, it’s because politics is by nature about opposition, politics is by nature about a four-year term, politics is by nature about making and building political capital. We need to build brand capital, which extends beyond four years,” says Economides.
The brand strategist, however, stresses that the attempt to rebrand Greece must be about much more than just selling it as a tourist destination. “There are two stages in this: involving the people in the development of the brand and then disseminating the brand so it becomes a behavioral or image guide for people to use generally,” says Economides.
“It’s not to sell tourism. It’s to guide the actions of society. It’s about changing the way people think and feel. Although the way out of crisis is economic, if you don’t feel good, you’re not going to do good things. I read the other week that half an hour of worry is more tiring than a week’s work. This is a very worried nation and we need to get the worry out of the way. When you have vision, you can do amazing things.”
Economides is now looking to attract seed funding to get the project off the ground. He also stresses the importance of getting the Greek diaspora, media and philhellenes on board. It seems a thankless task to attract angel investors at a time when there is so much political and economic uncertainty but Economides says that not knowing if Greece’s future is in the eurozone or with the drachma makes no difference to the need to get the rebranding scheme going.
“If you think of history on its longer time scale, we’re going through a momentous time right now but we will look back on this point and it will be a small dot on a long line. We’ve got to put this dot in the right perspective and we’ve got to do it now or it might become a large smudge on our history
“To cope with it means dealing with our own social psychology as a society and individuals. Branding is not about selling the country, it’s about selling ourselves to ourselves, it’s about believing again, it’s about relighting the flame. It’s up to us to reconnect the concept of Greece – who we are and where we are today – with where we want to be in the future and to draw one continuous line through that so we can really feel the narrative that will take us through that.”
The opening lines of the original text that accompanied the “Think Different” campaign are eerily similar to the words some might use to describe Greeks and their country today: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.”
Rebranding Greece as the Apple of the Mediterranean? It’s a crazy idea. In fact, it’s an idea that is just about crazy enough to succeed.