Jian (Jay) Wang
Director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and an Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

World Expos are more than a platform for nations to promote their cultures and innovations; it is a stage for public engagement on a grand, global scale. They are by design to provide a mind-expanding experience to the broader public through real-world encounters, and are hence an important element of a nation’s public diplomacy effort.

While the format of Expos has remained consistent over the years, contemporary Expos also embody nation branding practices through national pavilions, which are at the centre stage of the spectacle. The pavilions apply branding practices in design and narrative strategies about the countries represented. The stylised pavilions are de facto branded spaces for defining and delivering ‘nation brands’ to visitors in the hope of cultivating awareness and appreciation. Indeed, Expos are a site of the production and consumption of nation brands.

This essay explores World Expos through the lens of nation branding. As national pavilions are essentially a spatial form of storytelling to advance a positive narrative about a nation’s image, it discusses the opportunities and challenges in the practices of nation branding in this particular medium. It concludes with observations about future Expos as visitor participation and experience continue to broaden and diversify in a world increasingly defined by connectivity between the digital and the physical.

Nation branding and its dimensions

To explore nation branding practices at World Expos, it is important that we first understand the relevance and significance of branding to communicating a nation’s image on the world stage. The concept of branding has its own history and evolution. As an organised practice, it emerged and grew with the rise of the mass market, mass media and mass advertising during the first part of the 20th century. A brand is generally defined as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” Branding therefore refers to the process of defining, delivering and maintaining the identification of goods or services to achieve differentiation from their rivals and resonance with their customers. At its core, branding is about creating and communicating the sources of such identification. Brand identification is typically built around perceived benefits, such as functional, experiential, symbolic, or most likely a mix of these values, in consumers’ purchase decision-making.

In contemporary parlance, a brand is more than a product or a logo. It is a perceptual entity consisting of a set of properties and associations that define one’s competitive advantage in the marketplace. It seeks to generate consumer awareness and liking, motivate purchase action, and achieve customer loyalty. As Amanda Hess of The New York Times wrote, branding is “a process of humanization: It imbues companies with personalities.” The consumer’s relationship with brands is in many ways akin to person-to-person relationship, with brands serving as “relationship partners”. It is indeed this emotional aspect that is becoming increasingly central to consumers’ purchase intention and action. Branding is, in short, “a vehicle of human agency”.

"The concept and practice of branding is crucial to the effective communication of a nation’s image"

For the purpose of this discussion, the enterprise of branding comprises three main sets of activities: brand definition, brand communication and brand management. Brand definition is the establishment of the identity of a product or an organisation based on functional, symbolic, and/or experiential benefits that target consumers seek in it. Brand communication represents “the voice of a brand and the means by which companies can establish a dialogue with consumers concerning product offerings”. It includes two basic aspects of designing an identity system for the brand and delivering communication and brand engagement through a variety of platforms and vehicles externally (e.g. customers) as well as internally (e.g. employees). In brand management, organisations need to not only determine an effective and efficient mix of products and brands in their portfolio and the relationship structure among the brands, but also put in place the structure, process and resources for brand protection, promotion and growth.

Needless to say, nations are not and certainly cannot be ‘brands’ in the ordinary sense of a product brand. Nevertheless, the concept and practice of branding is relevant and indeed crucial to the effective communication of a nation’s image, given the competitive nature of global politics and economy, the enduring significance of national narrative and identity, and the crowded, symbol-ridden information ecosystem. Nation branding therefore refers to the application of branding principles and practices to the projection and promotion of a nation among foreign publics. As in general branding, it encompasses three principal endeavours of branding definition, brand communication and brand management.

Central to the nation branding process is defining a nation’s brand identity. It is to answer the basic question, ‘What does the country stand for in the minds of its international stakeholders?’. Countries then need to strategize on the means by which they can communicate the nation brand differentiation and resonance effectively and efficiently. In nation branding, it is virtually impossible to exercise the type of centralised control over communication as in the private sector; nor is such an attempt always desirable, especially in democratic societies. The multiple goals of nation brand management entail the involvement of various entities in the effort and a need for establishing mechanisms to facilitate coherence and consistency in nation brand communication.

Nation branding at World Expos

World Expos embody nation branding in vivid and varied ways, principally through the platform of national pavilions. National pavilions are built, themed environments that aim to craft a positive, distinctive identity about a country. They are typically designed as a multi-functional space, encompassing an architectural frame, indoor exhibitions, event and meeting spaces, and retail outlets (e.g., souvenir shops, restaurants), all with narrative possibilities for national representation. The physicality of a pavilion includes architectural design, physical layout and exhibition displays. By infusing it with national narratives and symbols, a mundane physical place becomes embodied and is transformed into a space of cultural meaning and significance.

"As richly imagined, highly specific cultural spaces, pavilions are constructed realities"

As richly imagined, highly specific cultural spaces, pavilions are constructed realities that seek to stimulate the public’s interest to visit and transform visitors’ experience into understanding and even liking of the countries represented. As representations of their respective nation brands, national pavilions provide a multisensory experience of nations and cultures on a grand-scale. They are emotive spaces that embody shared experiences that are both spatial and temporary. And they provide a setting for direct contact and cultural engagement. As such, Expos are prime venues for public diplomacy. Moreover, Expos are not only to be experienced, but also remembered. While the pavilion experience is ephemeral, one’s impression of the pavilion and what it represents of the nation can be lasting. Such memory crystalizes visitors’ pavilion experiences and is indicative of pavilions’ communicative capability and effectiveness.

While the Expo experience is, by and large, leisurely, national pavilions are normative spaces and the embodiments of nation brands. The nation brand identity is defined and expressed through the physical space of the pavilion. The process of visiting national pavilions - the consumption of pavilions as ‘experiential goods’ - actualises visitors’ dual identities as consumer and as citizen. On the one hand, visiting an Expo is an activity of fun and enjoyment, akin to visiting a theme park. On the other, nations are made visible through the pavilions. Indeed, national representation is the raison d'être for people to choose and visit a particular pavilion. The visitor’s own national identity is in turn activated and made salient during the process. It is in the space of the pavilion that people and ideas from different countries are linked and connected.

Nation branding in the age of cultural insecurity

The fundamental impact of globalisation and digital technology is reshaping international communication, including nation branding practices at World Expos. National self-representation aside, World Expos reflect the underlying landscape of international relations. The broader geo-political and geo-economic context for nation branding is undergoing rapid changes. The rise of China and other major emerging economies are engendering tectonic power shifts in world affairs. Uncertainties abound as the global political and economic order evolves.
Despite its tremendous benefits and positive impact over the last two decades, globalisation has also sharpened societal divides, heightening economic insecurity and cultural anxiety among the broader public. Many, especially in the West, are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by these changes, as they transition from a primarily mono-cultural existence to an increasingly culturally diverse environment.

"A crowded, fractured, and transparent information environment has become a part of our daily existence"

These encounters of cultures and peoples, however, have not turned out to be great opportunities for sharing knowledge and experiences; rather they have provoked our basic impulses of prejudice, especially in light of the real or feared downward socio-economic mobility. The French political scientist Laurent Bouvet calls the phenomenon “cultural insecurity.” Most lack the resources and capacity to address this transition brought forth by the fast face of globalisation. The rise of assertive nativism and re-nationalisation in many parts of the world is the consequence of a negative fallout of globalisation.

Adding to these complex dynamics, a crowded, fractured, and transparent information environment has become a part of our daily existence. The information cacophony in the digital space, with plenty of misinformation and disinformation, has exacerbated our incredulity and distrust. And to make matters worse, the excess of political rhetoric through these channels of communication makes the public’s existential fear ever more vivid and visceral. Popular emotion and public opinion are exerting greater constraints on policies and state actions, as nationalism goes global.

"The acceleration of digital technology has dissolved the boundaries between domestic and abroad"


Moreover, advancements in digital technology have transformed platforms and tools for communication and engagement. For instance, in both developed and emerging economies, many more people now turn to social networking sites for news and information, bringing about a platform-based media ecosystem that is both fragmented and interlocking. Empowered by digital technology, users now often find themselves in the driver’s seat, signifying a power shift from producers to users; and audiences are now simultaneously communicators. Virtual reality and augmented reality tools are poised to re-define how people experience their life worlds. And artificial intelligence and automation are revolutionising communication placements with precise targeting. Furthermore, the acceleration of digital technology has dissolved the boundaries between domestic and abroad, making the interaction of national concerns and international engagement ever more dynamic and interdependent.

All these notable disruptive developments compel us to rethink the fundamental assumptions underlying the current and future practices of nation branding, including at World Expos. While the essence of nation branding remains the same, certain nation brand attributes are elevated to greater prominence in this age of information abundance and mobility, including transparency, authenticity, exclusivity, and convenience and speed, with creating emotional connection at the heart of the enterprise. Building upon what we have learned about nation branding at recent World Expos, we lay out the following six areas to underscore the importance of reviewing and reconfiguring our framework for nation branding at Expos.

New rules for nation branding

1. Storytelling that connects the digital and the physical

Storytelling with mass appeal remains the foundation of this type of nation branding effort. However, the endeavour is now taking place in a new, dynamic, mixed media environment. As in general branding practices, shaping perception in this instance is less about making good arguments than sharing a compelling and relatable story about a nation. In our tech-infused world, Expos are no longer a controlled physical space, but a fluid, expansive one where visitor experiences are increasingly transmedia and can be instantaneously shared beyond the Expo grounds. Think about all the potential selfies moments and instagrammable places that are available on the Expo site. Storytelling in such an information ecosystem requires a broadened view of brand communication in terms of audience and content that increasingly transcends the time-space of the Expo. Given the growing connectivity between the digital and the physical, storytelling to engage visitors in the nation brand, which begins as a place-based experience, needs to be re-imagined and transformed.

2. Co-creating a nation brand

Nation branding is not merely about selling a country or a cultural experience to a foreign public; it is about demonstrating how the nation and what it has to offer can enrich its audience’s lives. At Expos, technology provides the tools that enable visitors to create their own narratives about pavilion experiences, thereby opening up diverse possibilities for co-creation of nation brand meaning in an immersive environment. Devising strategies that allow for visitor involvement in such storytelling requires a deep understanding of the audience’s motivations and imaginations.


3. The importance of delightful surprises

In this age of predictive algorithms, the value of serendipity and spontaneity has increased steeply. It is ever more crucial to provide delightful surprises that are relevant to nation branding goals. On the one hand, it is necessary to present familiar national symbols to establish association and connection with the visitor. After all, much of nation branding serves the purposes of confirmation and reminding. On the other hand, when the storytelling for the nation brand appears all too mundanely familiar, national pavilions will fail to spark any interest and capture any imagination among visitors. So there needs to be an element of surprise in presenting and delivering the experience or content at the pavilions. It is a balancing act of making the pavilions both familiar and unexpected places that are infused with a sense of discovery for the visitor.

4. Expos as playgrounds of creativity

Expos provide visitors an expansive exposure to the world in a confined space and time. The experience has always been both educational and recreational. Understandably, national pavilions seek to elicit an emphatic interpretation of the countries and cultures represented. Meanwhile, visitors to Expos also expect fun and excitement on this special occasion. The crowded environment of the Expo site is replete with real-world encounters that help to create memories of shared joy and wonder. It brings all one’s senses alive. And new and emerging technologies play a central role in shaping and enhancing the in-person experience. A sense of play is integral and essential to visitor experience. The public diplomacy goal of national pavilions can only be realised in a non-intentional way.

"A sense of play is integral and essential to visitor experience"

5. Communication with agility

High-tech, high-quality production is a hallmark of national displays at contemporary Expos. The production values of communication increasingly matter. This is a function of the ever-rising expectations of the growing global middle class - young, urban, and tech-savvy - of quality visual content and multisensory experiences. With real-time analytics and geo-location technology, national pavilions can now present their displays not necessarily as fixed exhibits throughout the six-month duration, but adjust and adapt them according to trending interest and received feedback. Building flexibility into displays and presentations that allow for agility in communication for the nation brand requires a more layered strategy for storytelling as well as sophisticated mechanisms that capture real-time data for developing tailored content.

6. Nation branding for global communality

Every participant nation naturally tries to present the best of itself to the world in an Expo. With pavilions and attractions on abundant display, Expos are decidedly comparative and competitive places. They are never short of “national rivalry and pomp.” While the practice of branding calls for strategies to differentiate, Expos are cosmopolitan spaces, where national promotion takes place under a unified thematic framework that speaks to shared challenges. Branding national identity in a globalised context, rather than in its narrow, self-expression form, creates the very foundation for cultivating collective empathy and expanding social cooperation in an interdependent world. World Expos represent a rare global communal moment, with a sense of conviviality, as nations of the world come together for six months, every five years, to celebrate culture and innovation. This spirit of finding harmony amidst divisive and discordant voices in the international arena is important and urgent now more than ever.


Dr. Jian (Jay) Wang is Director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and an Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

This article that initially appeared in “Image of a Nation: Country branding at World Expos”, the 2019 edition of the BIE Bulletin.

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