20 Mar 2013

Branding a continent, eating insects

20 Mar 2013

In Teotihuacan I continued this year’s ongoing experiment in eating insects, with white and red caterpillars and ants’ eggs; my client Mr X, adopting the persona of a nature documentarian (but failing to keep a straight face), made a short film of the escapade, “For science!”


I’m always up for a challenge.

Ever since getting into the field of branding and identity a decade ago, I’ve been drawn to challenges: post-war countries with no obvious visitor attractions who, nevertheless, want tourists (East Timor); regions that are mistakenly identified with a different country (Swedish Lapland, when Lapland is commonly thought to be a part of Finland); or the country with the most bombed hotel in the world, that’s also the home of the Titanic and Bushmill’s whisky (Northern Ireland).

With this track record, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when RedIbero, the association representing the trade promotion authorities off all Latin American countries, asked me to attempt to create a coherent identity strategy for an entire continent, I said count me in.

We’ve had meetings in Buenos Aires, Panama City, Lima, and Mexico City. I’m not sure where it’s all headed, as by its nature, the client has a limited ability to take large-scale actions — and actions, as I hope I’ve made clear, is where branding happens.

I’ve had a few pieces of advice for them thus far, the best being to create a flag. Because a place really isn’t a place unless it has a flag. And because “Latin America” is the continent that doesn’t exist but really ought to, encompassing the swath of land and people from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego as a natural, albeit large, grouping. It needs the basic trappings of placeness.

UPDATE: A very, very smart person agrees with me. The flag idea has been given the imprimatur of a Harvard Business School associate professor. I met Diego Comin by chance at a restaurant in Arequipa, Peru and we had a wonderful conversation over roasted cuy (guinea pig). I like to bounce my ideas off others to vet and refine them before I take them to the client. Diego said:

I really think producing a flag for Latin America is a neat idea. The ‘deep’ reasons why I believe so have to do with the fact that Latin American countries share many fundamental things: values, history, significant attributes for tourists and for business such as warmth and friendliness of the people, natural beauty, distinct cuisine, great energy, economic dynamism in the near and medium term, enormous cultural wealth in all thinkable dimensions (art, architecture, literature, music, fashion, etc.).

And yet, despite all these commonalities, my feeling is that Latin American countries rarely go on the same boat. They tend to fight more than cooperate despite the huge gains at all levels from pursuing policies, and alliances that are good for them globally rather than individually. The idea of the flag could help them embrace these commonalities and appreciate the common gains from integrating, pretty much as we did in Europe 50 years ago. It is just a symbol, but sometimes, symbols have important intangible consequences. And this could well be one.

In Mexico City I visited Diego Rivera’s house and studio (and many of his murals), the house where Trotsky lived and died, and the “Blue House” of Frida Kahlo (lover to Diego and Trotsky).


My client, Mr X, at Mexico City’s architectural marvel.

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