Nation Branding and Public Diplomacy: Related, not Twins

by Marc Hedman

Gyorgy Szondi gives a rather concise definition of nation branding when he writes, “It can be defined as the strategic self-presentation of a country with the aim of creating reputational capital through economic, political and social interest promotion at home and abroad.” (Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding: Conceptual Similarities and Differences, Szondi) Nation branding instinctive feels at least tangentially connected with public diplomacy, but there seems to be several major distinguishing differences between the two.

Before diving into the differences however, let me go over some of the similarities that stand out to me. First, both are clearly rooted in reality but emphasize positively perceived aspects of a home country. Nation branding and public diplomacy with choose attractive aspects of the home country and present them to foreign publics for benefits they hope will redound to the home country’s favor in some way.  Second, both hope to capitalize on the human emotional connection with symbols. Nation branding attempts to tie certain symbols to the conception of the home country, while public diplomacy tries to use symbols to develop connections with foreign publics.

The power locus in both nation branding and public diplomacy seems to live in the minds of the audience. Reputation, credibility and soft power are all perceptions of a given state, culture or population. A nation branding campaign or public diplomacy officer can display whatever home country strengths that they wish. However, if the audience doesn’t recognize them as true, they won’t be very effective. Finally, the main drivers of both are attraction, reputation and attention. A state will use leverage its reputation to attract an audience or use the attention of an audience to make its reputation more attractive. The two concepts are clearly somewhat intertwined but the practice of each is quite different.

For one, nation branding primarily utilizes one-way communication. A state decides which of its characteristics or stereotypes it wishes to capitalize on and then this functions as the brand. The brand is communicated and marketed to publics around the world. Public diplomacy hopes to take advantage of more two-way communication. A necessary corollary of this is that public diplomacy has a very important receptive listening function while nation branding does not.

Another major difference is that nation branding seeks to define a nation with positive characteristics which are relatively static. This message gets spread across all the countries it is trying to garner favor with through a given campaign. Public diplomacy functions through more narrow conduits of communication. Public diplomacy officers have the ability to diversify their presentations and responses to different foreign constituencies. A PD officer in Egypt can emphasize family values, while a PD officer in the Sweden can emphasize pluralistic attitudes toward immigrants. While public diplomacy officers have a template of values that serve as a broad strategic guide, face-to-face communication and digital engagement allow them to focus on the aspects of that template that they feel are going to be most attractive to their audience. Nation brands are less flexible and tend to come as an entire package of marketed values or country characteristics. This ties in with another difference, which are the desired audiences of nation branding and public diplomacy. Nation branding is meant for everyone to see, while public diplomacy hopes to affect smaller, strategically chosen groups or sections of the population.

Finally, nation branding is essentially a marketing strategy that is looking to garner an economic advantage. Nation branding seems to be born out of advertising and hopes to attract people to buy home country products, attract tourism and investment and influence individuals to study and immigrate to the home country. Public diplomacy is more focused on building networks, opening lines of communications and is very much an alternative form of diplomacy. The intention is to connect public diplomacy with foreign policy goals even if public diplomacy can also add other value, such as economic value or function as aid to a foreign population.

There are certainly some big similarities between nation branding and public diplomacy, but the differences outweigh the similarities. Both were born from different disciplines and hope to accomplish different objectives. Sometimes these objectives overlap, but the practice of each relies on different methods of communication and deployment.

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5 Responses to Nation Branding and Public Diplomacy: Related, not Twins

  1. brins12 says:

    An interesting piece. Just as you said, there is quite an overlap with their activities. It’s interesting
    to observe how one-way and two-way communication continue to be used to try and
    accomplish strategic goals. Nation branding still uses the former extensively in campaigns, targeting large audiences composed of country populations. This large-scale targeting of hearts and minds with a uniform message to achieve objectives is a challenge.
    The challenge stemming from the fact that individuals are motivated differently and may not react the same to a message.
    This is the leverage that public diplomacy has over nation branding, as you said; the use of two-way communication to connect with their audience, build relationships and influence heart and minds.

  2. Paul says:

    Guerrilla Diplomat Daryl Copeland summarizes the difference well: public diplomacy is a book about a country, while nation branding is its cover

  3. Ed Burghard says:

    Public diplomacy is a way nations communicate their brand promise. As a consequence, diplomacy decisions should be taken with the impact on a nation’s bran equity in mind. Is the action consistent with the nation’s promise? If not, then the risk to equity versus the anticipated benefit should be assessed before the decision is taken. You can read more about place branding at the website.

  4. mflash16 says:

    Marc – I thought your insights on nation branding and audiences were very instructive. Particularly related to the idea that a PD officer is limited, not by what his State Department wants him to say, but what his audience will or will not believe about his nation. However, you said that nation branding is a one-way communication. But I wonder if that is necessarily true. It seems to me that a nation cannot brand itself, or rather re-brand itself, until it knows how it is already branded, which requires listening to what everyone else is saying, and is therefore in some ways a response to those received communications. But I certainly agree with you that even if nation branding may begin as a listening exercise, your point about it being relatively static is well taken and seems to indicate that it does turn into a one way communication. Perhaps the way to avoid the inevitable staleness of branding, a brander should utilize PD officers, not only as the distributors of the nation brand but also as anthropologists gathering information on how the nation brand is received and liked, what needs to be changed.

  5. CB says:

    I wrote my Master’s thesis on nation branding and public diplomacy, and also referred to the Szondi analysis of the similarities and differences between the two. My thesis was a case study of the German nation brand – this might be something you’re interested in for further reading (

    I’m so happy to have found a blog that shares my interest in nation branding and I look forward to reading more! :)

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