Points of View: Nation Branding at World Expos

Bureau International des Expositions

For participating countries, World Expos are major platforms for national branding, offering a unique opportunity to showcase themselves to a large public audience. With almost two years until the next World Expo in Dubai, the BIE interviews Ambassador Nicolas Bideau, Head of Presence Switzerland, Dietmar Schmitz, Commissioner General for Germany at Expo 2020 Dubai, and Dr. Jian (Jay) Wang, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, to gain three different insights into nation branding at World Expos.

How is nation branding expressed in the context of World Expos?

Nicolas Bideau: In recent years, nations have become far more conscious of the value of their brand as an asset. Very simply, they are using the techniques of brand marketing to build up an image.

It is a long-term investment by different actors in different fields, such as exports, tourism, education and politics. We are convinced that strong nation branding has an impact in terms of the country’s soft power, that is to say: what makes a tourist travel to our country, a client buy a Swiss made product, a politician support an agreement with us or a student study in one of our universities. As representative platforms directed at an international public, World Expos provide an excellent opportunity to create and improve the image of a country abroad and to impart knowledge.

What is it about World Expos that makes them such important events for “soft power” cultivation and projection?

Dietmar Schmitz: Nowhere else brings so many different nations from across the globe together for six months to discuss the most pressing issues facing this planet. At World Expos in the 21st century, there is a particular focus on content reflecting the theme of the Expo. They thus provide an unrivalled format as a forum for topics of importance to the world’s future. Unlike trade fairs or political summits, they are not primarily geared to experts in a particular field or political players. First and foremost, World Expos are intended for truly everyone – young families, schoolchildren, higher education students and senior citizens. As such, they give the participating nations an opportunity to showcase all of their technological, economic and cultural capabilities and to convey a message that can make a small contribution to a better world for us all.

"Expos provide an unrivalled format as a forum for topics of importance to the world’s future"

In what ways are World Expos ideal venues for public diplomacy?

Jay Wang: Nation branding underscores the need for countries to create meaningful distinctions and differentiations in the minds of their international stakeholders for economic opportunities and political cooperation. The World Expo is one of the few global platforms for countries to bring their cultures into direct contact with foreign publics through national pavilions. The pavilions serve as gateways to culture and innovation. For most countries, the Expo is the single largest promotional event of a nation outside of its own borders.

The World Expo also represents a unique global communal moment. It embodies an elemental form of human communication through physical presence and movement. Similar to other live events, it is to be sensed and experienced by “being there.” As we spend more of our time in the digital realm, such in-person experience and a sense of conviviality are gaining new currency. Moreover, this outsized event is not only to be experienced, but also remembered. It creates memories of shared joy. So for people who want to expand their worldview, Expos are venues for cultivating their awareness and appreciation of other countries and cultures.

How can countries ensure that their own “brand” stands out from others while participating in an Expo?

Jay Wang: Every nation tries to present the best of itself to the world in an Expo. Branding practices and resources are crucial for a pavilion to stand out on the Expo site. National pavilions are “curated” spaces. Their task is not simply to sell a country or a cultural experience, but to demonstrate how a nation’s cultural assets or technological innovations can enrich visitors’ lives. In other words, a winning pavilion strategy is driven by visitor-centric storytelling. And devising such a strategy requires a deep understanding of the audience’s motivations and imaginations.

"The staging of a pavilion is akin to that of a dramatic production"

The challenge is also to find the right balance between presenting what’s familiar about one’s country to its audience and getting them to see the country in new, different ways. In the case of the Expo, it is advisable to use familiar and even stereotypical associations as points of departure to draw visitors into the pavilion’s story, given how crowded the Expo grounds generally are. After all, much of nation branding is about confirmation and reminding.

Providing delightful surprises is however crucial for successful nation branding in an Expo. Visitors expect fun and excitement on this special occasion. If a pavilion is viewed as mundanely familiar, it is not likely to spark much visitor interest, let alone any meaningful engagement. The staging of a pavilion is akin to that of a dramatic production. The production values of the pavilion’s communication increasingly matter for creating a compelling visitor experience. This is very much a reflection of the rising expectations of the growing global middle class that is young, urban, and tech-savvy.

Germany has an illustrious history of participating in and organising World Expos. What message does Germany aim to leave in the hearts and minds of visitors to its pavilions?

Dietmar Schmitz: Each German Pavilion is specially tailored to the theme of the Expo, i.e. showing what it can offer in that particular field. For Dubai, we decided to build the German Pavilion in the Sustainability district – an obvious choice in view of the leading role Germany plays internationally in terms of sustainability. Germany is the place where the energy revolution known as the “Energiewende” was born – a place where science, industry and large parts of civil society are actively committed to securing a sustainable future. Sustainability is the subject of analysis, research, practice and development in Germany, which is what the title of the German Pavilion at Expo 2020 sets out to convey: CAMPUS GERMANY.

Swiss pavilions at World Expos provide visitors with distinctive and interactive experiences. How do you define your objectives, positioning and narrative when planning Switzerland's Expo participation?

Nicolas Bideau: In order to define our objectives and presence we first have to understand how Switzerland is perceived in the host country. We do so by monitoring our image in the local media and through image studies. Based on the findings, we define the potential themes that will resonate best. It is always important for Switzerland to play to its strengths, such as the perception of Switzerland in the UAE as welcoming foreign visitors. However, equally important to consider is why Switzerland is perceived to underperform in certain areas, such as technology in the case of the UAE, an area where Switzerland has traditionally excelled. The Expo offers a significant opportunity for Switzerland to showcase its technological expertise and to promote Switzerland as fertile ground for scientific research and innovation. To cut a long story short: with more than 25 million people expected to attend Expo 2020, it is a great opportunity for Switzerland to educate visitors on its lesser-known strengths.

"It is always important for Switzerland to play to its strengths"

In addition, the Expo is an important platform, enabling Swiss companies and the Swiss tourism sector to promote the country’s economic capacity and attractiveness as a tourist destination to the UAE, which is Switzerland’s foremost trading partner in the Middle East. Therefore we will turn the spotlight also on Swiss innovation and the products and services of private-sector partners.

How will Switzerland differentiate itself from other countries at Expo 2020 Dubai?

Nicolas Bideau: Indeed, with over 170 countries that have already signed up to participate in the Expo, it is a great challenge to stand out from the crowd. To get visibility, you need content that is original, different and true. Key is to give visitors a one-of-a-kind experience that appeals to all senses. In Dubai we invite visitors to wander – a typically Swiss activity: as they pass through the pavilion, they not only experience the beautiful Swiss landscape but learn more about Switzerland as a country proud of its traditions but at the same time highly innovative.

And last but not least, culinary diplomacy is a popular form of country branding. Switzerland is renowned for its excellent chocolate and cheese, among other things. Therefore we will also leverage this part of ‘Brand Switzerland’ and engage foreign audiences ‘through their bellies’.

The theme of Expo 2020 Dubai is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”. How will Germany address this theme to convey its nation-brand story at the next World Expo?

Dietmar Schmitz: The organisers’ choice of theme for Expo 2020, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, really sums up the essence of a World Expo. In our age of globalisation, we have to work together to tackle the problems that exist worldwide. No one can overcome them alone. Germany wants to contribute to this global “connecting of minds” through an Expo presence that leaves a long-lasting impression. We have decided to focus on the subtheme of sustainability. In its long history of innovation and environmentalism, our nation has produced scores of new ideas and approaches. Germany’s energy revolution, the “Energiewende”, has become a global benchmark and we will be looking to incorporate that pioneering role into the CAMPUS GERMANY concept of the German Pavilion in Dubai too.

The campus symbolises a place of knowledge, research and interaction. On their journey through the pavilion, visitors will come across a number of campus-related features: the “enrolment” process while queuing at the entrance, an “induction event” in the Welcome Hall, three labs dealing with energy, the future of cities and biodiversity, and finally the grand finale of the pavilion tour, the graduation speech. Everyone will follow this “curriculum”, progressively deepening their knowledge as they go. The pavilion’s messages will be clear and easy to understand, not too complicated. The exhibits will be very interactive and some of them will only function if visitors work together to operate them. So the idea is to get everyone involved and give them the feeling that they are part of a large community.

Personalised communication will be a core feature of the German Pavilion and visitors will be welcomed by name in their preferred language when they approach an exhibit. This will be made possible by the IAMU, digital companion for visitors to the German Pavilion, which will be hidden in the name badge that everyone receives when they “enrol” at the start of the tour. In the grand finale in the Graduation Hall, everyone will sit down on one of the more than 100 swinging seats. The whole world will come together in this room. Together, they will realise there is more that unites them than divides them. When they leave, they can take home inspiration “made in Germany” to apply in their own everyday lives. Then we will certainly have achieved the objective of our Expo presence: to help create a better future – which is what the Expo 2020 theme is all about.

For the next World Expo, what are the major trends in nation branding that you foresee?

Jay Wang: The World Expo 2020 Dubai will be attracting the most diverse set of visitors in Expo history. For any nation, defining its pavilion’s points of parity and points of difference across the visitor range will be an exciting challenge. 

While the essence of nation branding remains the same, certain branding attributes are elevated to greater prominence in this age of information abundance, including transparency, authenticity, exclusivity, and convenience and speed, with creating emotional connection at the heart of the nation branding enterprise.

"As we continue to explore connectivity between the digital and the physical, it will be interesting to see how the Expo experience will be reimagined"

As our digital life interacts ever more with the physical realm, it will be interesting to see how countries at Expo 2020 Dubai will build a stronger digital voice and digital identity of their pavilion to shape and enhance the in-person experience. As we continue to explore connectivity between the digital and the physical, it will be interesting to see how the Expo experience will be reimagined and redefined.

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Opinions given by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views and position of the BIE