08.11.2021 / Lazar Džamić

Brand Europe and its challenges

Brand management lessons for the future of the EU

(in this article, by ‘Europe’ I mean the European Union (EU), not a more ambiguous geo-political or cultural space on a map)

‘Do we still need Brand Europe?’

This was the question I asked members of a panel I was moderating a few years ago at a conference dedicated to all things European and Balkan. One of the panelists, an ambassador of a EU country to Serbia, tartly retorted that ‘we need Europe, not Brand Europe’.

The ambassador was right, of course. And then again, he also wasn’t. What we call ‘Europe’ – in the minds of all who live (or would like to live) there, of all who fantasize about it or loathe it – is essentially a concept known in business and marketing as a ‘brand’. Like most of things in our life, a brand is much more than just a product or a service. A brand is also a psychological wrapper around the product, a perceptual and experiential field that can be (and for successful brands always is) strategically and skillfully managed.

This observation is much more than, how it may seem, a trivial analogy made by a former marketing consultant hungry for publicity. Looking at Europe as a brand cuts to the core of many a current debate about its present and future, as well as about the assessment of capabilities of its leaders. Europe has the potential for reinvention provided it is capable of an unbiased and evidence-based understanding of itself and the world it exists in, as well as the vision, courage and resources to act upon it. That is a game, as we will see, in which commercial brands are undisputed masters. The EU can learn a great deal from them, especially how to survive in turbulent times while preserving internal consistency.

This article is an attempt to offer a new set of optics for discussing the future of the EU and the possible ways for making that future a reality.

What is a brand – and why is the EU that too?

Every brand is a stone fruit. It has two parts.

One is the ‘stone’ made of the actual product or service – what the company makes in a factory or organizes into a process of service delivery. It is the ‘base’ for the brand, the core ingredient of its existence. Beer is a product, Heineken is a brand; the process of crunching data to forecast weather is a service (or a ‘product’), the UK Met Office is a brand (literally, as they have their own successful line of T-shirts for sale; I have one). A T-shirt is a product, Fruit of the Loom is a brand.

The other part, the ‘flesh’ of a brand is all experiences, perceptions, associations, emotions and conversations that are generated over time by direct experience of using a product or a service and all of the brand communications that contribute to creating, reinforcing and managing those perceptions and memory structures. This is a set of psychological aspects that prof. Byron Sharp calls the ‘mental availability’ of a brand.

A brand is always a promise that we expect to be fulfilled through our actual experience of using it and every contact with that brand. Many parts of that promise are created and even delivered through the strategic management of communications and brand actions. It is planned perception management. In that sense, brands are also big and strong narrative platforms that project systems of values and emotions that define and – if done strategically and skillfully – reinforce a specific brand promise.

A brand is, paradoxically, both a fragile and potentially immortal phenomenon. In the analogy once made by one of the bards of the British advertising, Jeremy Bullmore, a brand is like a bird’s nest: built slowly, painstakingly, straw by straw (association by association) over time. It grows and it becomes stronger. However, despite all of that, all it takes is a gust of strong wind (a scandal, a controversy, a product recall or – most dangerous of all – misalignment with the times) to damage it. That’s why it requires constant nurturing, reinforcement and rejuvenation.

Europe, especially the European Union (EU) as its ‘official’ manifestation, is also all of that.

Europe is a brand because it is also a ‘product’, a ‘service’ and a narrative whose characteristics (the ‘stone’ and the ‘flesh’), render it more or less desirable in the eyes of its various audiences, both internal and external. The EU projects (and it wants to project) certain values, perceptions, emotions and behaviors; a certain ‘essence’. Europe does – and it must not forget to keep doing it – ‘sell’ itself to the world.

That world, however, has now changed compared to the times the modern EU idea was conceived. The EU is now competing as a brand in a multi-polar ‘market’ of ideologies, systems, models and actions. The EU idea is – and the quicker this is accepted by the EU, the better – in a constant ‘campaign’ against multiple competitors for our minds and hearts. Most of them, it seems, are better organized and with bigger resources dedicated to their perception management (and against the EU’s). Their stories are simple and emotive, which makes them resonant; they strike right into the hearts and minds of various audiences. Their brand perception management is focused and poses a real, specific challenge for the EU.

Paradoxically, from the economic, social and civilizational point of view, the actual ‘products’ of many of those competitors are, in fact, inferior. Populism and nationalism (and that is what we are talking about here, notwithstanding war), are usually the only and the last resource various kleptocracies, neo-feudal elites, Orwellian states and assorted other democracy bashers use to rule, in the process making the lives of their populations repressed and miserable. If it were not the case, the EU would not be such a desired immigration destination. Whenever they can, whenever they are allowed and have the means, the citizens of those wretched geographies vote with their feet, usually in the direction of the EU. It seems that Europe’s brand promise is still strong.

Even if people are not leaving repression, and at least one big country in the world comes to mind, they are conditioned to accept the society of total surveillance and control, usually by one authoritarian or totalitarian party, where the usual norms of enlightened democracy are nothing else but trivial and sentimental bourgeois distractions from the promised global economic, political and military domination by them, the ‘chosen’ people. They obviously have their promises, too, not to be taken lightly.

Not very obvious to many, but the EU’s most insidious brand ‘competitor’ is the USA because its ‘neoliberal brand’ mentally frames and often even dominates the current EU view of the world and is the cause of many of its structural problems. The biggest battle that Brand EU has to fight is inside its own head, against the lure of Brand USA, which is possible only by a planned, strategic repositioning of its ‘product’ and the brand reframing it requires.

EU’s broken promise and the need for ‘brand reframing’

           Marketing and warfare are related as the life of a brand is nothing else but a constant struggle in a cut-throat market full of ‘enemies’ (competitors). That is why the early marketing borrowed its terminology from the Army, expressions such as ‘campaign’, ‘launch’, ‘target groups’, ‘bull’s eye’, ‘strategy’, ‘tactics’, ‘ambush’ and many others.

Whether it is ready to admit or not (and it better be ready), the EU is also in the midst of a ‘market war’ for minds and hearts both of its current citizens and especially the future ones, on its periphery, willing to join, but not allowed yet. The behavior of the Brand EU – and the very definition of its essence – is, and is increasingly going to be, the main factor driving the feelings, opinions and behavior of those millions of noses flattened against the imaginary shop window of that ‘ideal’ EU store everyone wants to inhabit. If that store is shown to be just imaginary, then the EU may (almost certainly will) lose the war of perceptions with great consequences for the future.

What the EU has to do is a brand practice called ‘reframing’. It is different from ‘rebranding’. The latter is just a change of the key brand assets: the logo, the packaging, sometimes even the name (often with disastrous results, such as British Royal Mail’s re-christening into the hated Consignia). Occasionally, rebranding may tweak some of the core values of a brand, its tonality or audiences it talks to. You know the drill, we see it all the time: ‘let’s become a bit more cheerful, more dynamic, show we get the Millennials, start talking more about sustainability’… Rebranding is mostly a surface change aimed at bringing the brand, outwardly, in line with its times. It’s the equivalent of repainting the house, with maybe a new porch and a new set of windows.

Reframing, on the other hand, is one of the trickiest, most complex and demanding exercises in brand management. Reframing reinvents the brand from the inside, even if the outward symbols may stay the same or are just tweaked. A reframed brand is a new personality, new philosophy, new narrative. We were one thing, now we are something else. Marlboro was initially a woman’s cigarette, then in was reframed as archetypally man’s; Lucozade was a medicinal drink, now it’s a cool energy drink; Haagen Dasz was just a premium ice cream, then it became a sensual (even sexual) treat for grown ups; Persil was once all about washing whiter, now its about enabling a happy childhood by encouraging parents to shoo their kids outside to play away from screens. ‘Dirt is Good’ now.

And here’s the paradox: what Europe needs is a ‘reverse reframing’. Going back to its roots. Rebuilding what made it successful in the first place, which was the values of the Enlightenment. Europe is now a declining brand, declining from its heights of unashamedly being – in practice – about equality, social democracy and its safety net, human rights, quality of life and balance, a moderate system that marries the best sides of capitalism and socialism. Above all, peace and stability. Even now, give or take a few countries usually far, far away (New Zealand and partly Canada), Europe is a bright spot on the battered and stamped-upon face of the planet. One of the last places to hide from the advancing (so it seems) Mad Max world and the dark forces of oppression. It is our only Minas Tirith left standing.

Everyone, once the Cold War was over and the decline of America had started, aspired to live in Europe or be like it. A lot of copying ensued but that second solution didn’t work for various reasons and people decided to start physically moving over to the EU. Ask the Bulgarians, the Serbs, the Latvians or the Croats, as well as the desperate souls braving deadly seas in the hope of shipwrecking on its shores. The pull on the individual level, despite the failures of the ‘imitation strategy’ that Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes so eloquently wrote about in their book ‘The Light That Failed’, was and still is relentless. Even worsened Europe is better than their current places.

Why has Europe got worse, why is it a declining brand?

This author strongly believes that it is a self-inflicted condition (and that, in that way, predates another self-infliction called Brexit) through the blind, almost hypnotized, acceptance of a failed ideology: American ‘neoliberalism’. (I know that this label is not perfect, but it seems everyone gets what it entails, so I’ll keep it). This is at the root of many of its current ailments. That has given wind, among other things, to the new right-wing populism, as I will explain below. Brand Europe has lost some of its sheen. Its promise got tainted, both for its citizens and the aspiring periphery.

As with any other brand, to start winning again, the EU will have to change two things: its ‘product’ and its communication. Both aspects demand to be examined in detail. The practice of commercial brand management offers a raft of tools for strategic analysis: from defining a tight brief, through insight generation, to strategy formation, to communication frameworks and tactics. And, of course, adequate budgeting. Brand EU could learn a lot from this long-established body of practice.

Europe’s broken ‘product’

Why is the EU’s ‘product’ seen as a declining offer? Why is it not such a ‘premium’ experience anymore? For a variety of reasons, each of which provides a specific jump-off point for a possible change.

1. The European ‘product’ doesn’t match its promise anymore. The EU’s mission, the social-democratic promise it used as the basis for its formation, as described above, was a ‘premium’ product. The neoliberal creed has diluted that experience. The EU is now just ‘EU Lite’. Several crucial, reinforcing straws were removed from that brand nest and replaced with more shiny and smooth, but structurally weaker, gold-colored ones.  

2. The decline of the EU brand promise is a consequence of the disintegration of the social contract between the EU elites and the citizens. That is what neoliberalism does to us first: it divides us, atomizes us, makes us selfish and Darwinistic; it is a universal diluter of everything except multinational corporations, for whom it acts as a super-glue, the mortar of growth at all cost. Europe once understood that not all of the answers, and often not the most important ones, could be found on and through the market, on the contrary. However, it seems that that particular lesson is not understood anymore, or at least its ruling technocratic elites refuse to (or can’t) understand it, given that many of them are recruited from the ideologically similar professional backgrounds.

This is one of the main reasons why many of the EU’s current inhabitants feel that something is ‘broken’, that something from its vision is missing. Europe has moved away from what it envisioned to be.

3. As the British journalist and social thinker George Monbiot once described, neoliberalism is the ideology of selfishness. It is a gung-ho, Darwinian economic view of the world where rules are bad and freedom to pursue profit is everything. The State is a burden, a handbrake, a wasteful ball and chain around entrepreneurs’ legs. Greed is good, extreme inequality is fair and even natural. This dog-eats-dog economic dogma is then translated into the social one. A society is not a community anymore, but a jungle in which everyone hunts everyone else, a predatory state of being where you eat what you kill and there is no protection, no safety net, bar your own ruthlessness, resourcefulness, pre-emptive strikes and market collusion. The role of the state is reduced to a slow and late corrector of commercial excesses. This ideology (actually, a mythology) has been by now thoroughly disputed by too many credible actors, from Nobel-winning economists to social scientists and, above all, undisputable empirical evidence that sits at the core of the European broken promise.

4. Neoliberalism has replaced the vision of a better society with that of a richer society, but on average, statistically, based on the GDP. Rampant inequality is also part of the equation. Growth, as the hypnotic dogma of the modern markets, is neither sustainable nor equally distributed. Inequality in many rich societies can be quite shocking and the beloved ‘trickle down’ hypothesis of the beneficial effects of tax reduction was unmasked as an illusion even by the American president! Analysis shows that the number of millionaires, and even billionaires, per one million of population (outside of the artificially inflated tax havens) is the highest in Scandinavia – also one of the highest tax regimes in the world.

Another inconvenient truth, conveniently hidden from public debates in the decades after the WW1, is that democracy and capitalism – especially in its more predatory forms, where it becomes a sort of neo-feudalism – do not have to go hand in hand. Singapore, China, Russia, Chile under Pinochet, Serbia, Hungary or Turkey are just some examples of illiberal capitalism in action and these tendencies can now be seen even in the proverbial beacons of democracy: America and the UK. A deficit of democracy doesn’t automatically imply a deficit of capitalism – sometimes even the opposite.

One manifestation of this is that work in many of the ‘neoliberalized’ societies has become a sort of blackmail: citizens’ democratic choices are becoming reduced (while consumer choices are stimulated) by the hamster wheel of the daily grind to make the ends meet, sometimes in two or even three, largely menial, jobs. In-work poverty, an illogical phrase by any common-sense standards, is also on the rise in America and the UK. In such societies, the unions are broken and largely irrelevant, social safety net is ripping apart, personal debt is an ever more precarious way of coping and the overall feeling is that of being left alone: there is no protection from the merciless globalization. Everyone has to fend for themselves. (It’s no surprise that hundreds of millions of people around the world have become addicted to Squid Game, that brutal satire on life in one of neoliberalism’s poster children: South Korea.)

This is one of the strongest generators of the new tribalism we see in many developed countries, based on this fear in the air, making the ‘left behind’ so vulnerable to populism preaching circling of our own wagons around the warm and intimate (yet another excellent notion from Krastev’s book) emotional story of ‘us’ (under threat) and ‘others’ (the threat). It is a great populist ‘product’ for our neoliberal times: an immediate and visceral protection from the vicissitudes of the globalized world, through a small, compact herd. These days (Hitler and many others did it before), it is people like Marine Le Pen who are the defenders of the working class, not its extinct ‘red internationals’. The brighter future for ‘the salt of the earth’, promised by the deceased global workers’ movements, has turned into yet another pointless hope. The European brand promise now rings hollow too, because life experience itself has undermined it (the behavior of the technocratic elites, who now struggle to justify even their competency – think the vaccines disaster). Marine Le Pen looks like the new Rosa Luxemburg, in the eyes of those who feel betrayed.

5. The European ‘product’, for the first time since the ascent of America, now has competition, and a local one at that. The elites of the European periphery (and even in some countries inside the EU) have now realized there are new Potemkin villages to retreat to as a way to preserve their privileged positions, authoritarian tendencies and reluctant and sloppy reforms. China, Russia, Turkey, UAE and, increasingly, Hungary are only some of the players that have opened up their coffers and showered the wannabe Euroids with Danaan gifts. Some of them may not have any long-term political pretensions (although everything that annoys the EU feels good to them), but they do amplify the cultural and ‘methodological’ aspects of their ways of operating: the taste for shady deals with powerful individuals, the corresponding lack of transparency for public procurement, the culture of the myth and archetypal narratives, especially about the past, glorification of the Leader and treating citizens as subjects.

Where they competitively really scored against the EU in brand terms (more on that later) is that because of their more aggressive propaganda their investment cents look to the manipulated locals like millions, although the EU investments (in Serbia, for example) tower by far over any other player, or even combined. It’s sad. Europe as a whole, for the first time in recent history has had the tongue stuck out at her, symbolically. The message is clear: ‘Oh, you don’t think we are good enough for you? No problem, there are others who don’t mind.’

It feels now as if Europe gives to the periphery (and to swathes of its citizens too) a choice between only two serfdoms: the autocratic or the precariatic. Neither is particularly palatable, although the latter has more glitter on it.

A simple strategic approach to the EU brand reframing

What do smart brands do when the old product, old promise and the old perceptions are not cutting it any more?

First, they carry out a rational, evidence-based analysis to cut to the core of the problem. And that is usually defined with a question posed in 1986 by Tony Stead, one of the pioneers of the discipline of ‘account planning’ (developed in London in the 1970s by a few innovative ad agencies): ‘Why the f*** would they?’ ‘They’ are the audiences, the ‘target groups’ brands are talking to. ‘Why’ are the reasons they would pay attention to what the brand has to say, why would they think, feel and eventually do what the brand would like them to think, feel and do.

Carefully managed brands know there are various methodologies to get to the answer to this question. The same would go for the EU if it had the courage to apply these analytical tools on itself – and to then execute the strategy coming out of it (nearly always the main barrier).

Usually the first, and one of the most powerful, techniques is the question of ‘purpose’ (the old mission/vision issue): ‘Why do we exist in the first place? What makes us different from the competition? Why should we exist? What are the needs and wants of our audiences that we can serve better? What are the gaps between that and what we do now?’

My favorite variation of this technique (I often used it when I was a consultant, with interesting results) and one of the quickest ways to determine whether a brand is well managed is the following thought experiment: imagine that your brand died – what would it say on its gravestone? Why would people miss it – if at all? This caused grave (pardon the pun) consternation with those brand managers whose opinion of themselves was not always in line with their results. ‘What do you mean „if my brand died?!“‘As if brands do not disappear every day, as if they are bound to live forever, just like that. The speed with which brand managers can answer this question off the cuff in meaningful and insightful ways was usually one of the best predictors of the quality of their work on that brand.

So, what would be inscribed on Europe’s gravestone if it were really what it claims to be? Something that no one else in the world has? That’s easy: liberté, égalité, fraternité. We just forgot what it means in practice.

The most dangerous combination of traits in brand management is lack of imagination married to lack of courage. Smart brands innovate all the time via their NPD (New Product Development) process. Europe now needs a quick activation of its NPD ‘runway’ and practical testing, with great publicity, of the new variants of its ‘product’: new, more communitarian modes of ownership of the public goods such as water, new models of economic organization and post-growth strategies, new methods of direct and participative democracy and new models of education fit for the 21st century, to name just a few. New ‘flavors’ of Europe, new ‘brand extensions’…

Evolving Europe’s ‘product’

Sadly, it now seems that the EU too is suffering from that lethal combination of traits above, seen in both its ‘product’ and the ways it manages its brand communications. Brands rarely undertake a radical reframing, unless they are forced by circumstances or years of neglect; instead of such ‘brand revolution’, most long-lasting brands are in the state of permanent evolution by constant testing of new ideas and approaches in order to stay relevant for their audiences. Europe needs exactly the same, but on an official, public and organized level. Visible and committed. There are several big areas of such potential evolution of the Brand EU’s ‘product’.

1. Wider support for new forms of direct and participatory democracy is a good start. The Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland is a good example. It is made of randomly (but statistically representative) selected citizens who are joined by the representatives of the state and main political parties. The Assembly was responsible for establishing and maintaining the largely civilized and rational national debate on legalizing abortion in Ireland. Its recommendations were sent to the government who was obliged to discuss them within a certain time frame and issue a position paper on the recommendations. Here is one of the quick new answers to the widely debated and much derided topic of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Brussels.

2. Another one could be a stronger support for the new forms of corporate ownership, or tax benefits (and other incentives) for the post-growth business models not based on the quick extraction of capital; in other words, reduce the appeal of ‘exits’ and asset stripping as the entrepreneurial ‘carrot’. Paradoxically, a very neoliberal country who recently exited the EU has some very good examples of this approach. For decades, one of the most beloved UK brands has been John Lewis Partnership, a conglomerate of the eponymous department stores and a chain of equally beloved posh supermarkets – Waitrose. All employees in the group are partners in it, and that is how they are always referred to. Every year, after part of the profit is put aside for business development, the rest is divided between all of them.

3. Even more, the already accelerating approach of ‘social enterprise’ should be given a further substantial push through legal, tax and financial incentives. On top of that, even bigger help would be on the symbolic, narrative, promotional level. New, reframed Brand EU demands new heroes – quite unlike moral idiots from the Silicon Valley or global corporate predators. This is where the EU media system and strategic communications could start making a difference.

4. The fourth possible opportunity for Brand EU is a gradual weaning off GDP as the only measure of success and shifting towards quality of life (if not happiness) as the key metric of national success. Paradoxically, these two aspects – economic development and quality of life – are fully compatible if we address the lack of imagination and the lack of courage to move away from discredited mythologies. The Green New Deal, in it various forms, is one such opportunity. The world simply has to get itself off fossil fuels, if we want to have any civilized future at all, as was all too evident from the recent GOP26 meeting. Europe is in a strong position to become a leading force in this new green economy, if it plays its cards right. A vast new eco-system needed for such a shift demands armies of employees: for installing millions of charging stations for electric vehicles, for converting tens of millions of homes into energy efficient dwellings and many other opportunities. The Green economy is the largest economic and business opportunity of the 21st century, a springboard for the EU to increase both its economic output AND quality of life. That requires strength from Brussels to stumble out of the intoxicating fog of big capital and Brand USA.

5. Finally, education. The current educational systems, even in developed societies, were designed at the beginning of the 20th century with the main aim of supplying people conditioned for work in factories and on the assembly line. ‘Average’ is the king. Success is defined as being a bit, but not too much, better than the average, otherwise the system (both school and company) didn’t really know what to do with you. Those sitting on the farther frontiers of the average, negatively or positively, suffer: the creatives, the innovators, the eccentrics, the ‘neuro non-typical’…

Education is still based on memorizing facts, although they are now available at the touch of the finger, anytime and everywhere. In many societies and their respective educational systems, even in Europe and especially in the UK, praise goes to the obedient, more than to the creative. Punishment, as reinforcement of the ‘desired’ ways of thinking and behaving, still rules. We still need to see thorough and serious curricula based on developing creativity, critical thinking, team work and emotional literacy. (I’m deliberately avoiding discussing Finland here). Again, this doesn’t require too much imagination as inspirational leaders such as Sir Ken Robinson and prof. Todd Rose have already shown us the way. The only thing lacking is courage.

The biggest lie that Brand EU has to break with is the neoliberal TINA lie: There Is No Alternative. There are plenty of credible alternatives, for the creative and the brave. There have always been. None of our current political and economical systems have fallen from the heavens or are a product of some inevitable natural state of being. They are the result of a permanent squabbling between various academic and ideological tribes and whatever happenstance brings as people in the positions of power and their convictions and decision to believe this or that ideological narrative. There are always many alternatives. As Nietzsche once observed, the biggest enemy of truth is not lies, but convictions.           Successful brands know that very well and, like the phoenix, regenerate themselves permanently. In doing so, they also strategically, actively, manage the perception of themselves, instead of leaving it to the vagaries of circumstances and competitive activity. Enduring brands constantly fight for hearts and minds of their audiences.

How is Brand EU challenged in the war of perceptions?

The corrosion of the Brand EU ‘product’ is not a new phenomenon and is already well-covered in the works of many academics, organizations and even traditional economists. Many of them are Nobel laureates, adding that particular weight of a seriously considered opinion.

However, what are not often discussed – if at all – are Brand EU communications and the efforts to actively manage perceptions of its brand. And this is the theatre of war – more visible than anything else, on every screen and in every moment – where the battle for the soul of Europe is being fought.

Brands that do not actively manage their sets of perceptions are extremely rare, usually do not last long and just confirm the rule that this is one of the critical strategic levers in brand survival. Brands have learned persuasive communications from the church, salespeople and war propagandists. The American state learned it from brands. It is now high time that Brand EU learnt it as well. The lack of imagination and resources in this space is already costing it dearly: politically, economically and civilizationally.

First, the hope that the product itself is enough to sustain a brand is naive and utopian, especially in the age of super-competition and (to start with) if the product itself is shaky. The modern world is diluting the fundamentals of the old and the presumed strong anchors of established values. This is exacerbated by the extreme relativism (we might even call it nihilism) of the digital space, the primary mode for conveying and shaping what we call ‘reality’ today.

Second, perception management, in a strategic, planned, focused way, supported by adequate resources, is a powerful force, and always has been. Perception often beats facts. Europe forgot it to its own detriment.

Third, as mentioned above, the EU now faces stiff competition and is engaged, willing or not, in a communicational-perceptual battle on several fronts: against Russia (which sows confusion), America (which sows destructive economic mythology and political hypocrisy), populism (inspired and driven by the dynamics created by the first two) and China (which advances the narrative of the superior form of authoritarian capitalism).

How is Brand EU attacked?

‘When information is a weapon, everyone is at war’, stated once Peter Pomerantsev, British journalist and TV producer of Ukrainian descent – and one of the rare researchers of the ‘new Maginot line’ drawn across every digital screen we dedicatedly stare into during our waking hours. Those screens are a big part of the EU’s perception problem. They are neither free, nor independent, nor unbiased.

The screen is the main mode for conveying reality in modern societies. We live in the civilization of the eye. Pictures and stories rule, even over personal experience. TV started this revolution, the internet has amplified it many times over. Digital screen decontextualizes even more than the TV, largely because the editorial action of providing context is left to us, the users. Alas, we are cognitively lazy ‘satisficers’: we rarely actively seek context around information and tend to stay in the space drawn for us by our views of the world and by algorithms – which means staying locked in our filter bubbles. The great paradox of the internet age is that despite unlimited amount of information in it, we have never been more confused. Digital has undermined even knowledge, let alone wisdom.

To add to the aggravation, most platforms that feed those global screens are proprietary ‘black boxes’ whose main goal is to churn profit for their owners. They are robotic ethical idiots. Like everyone else, Brand EU can use them, but can’t manage them. Even influencing them is a problem in the war of perceptions. Imagine if all the tanks in WW2 were privately owned by Facebook and that the Allies had to share access to them with the Wehrmacht based on individual bidding and overall spend…

Putin’s propagandists were the first to realize this. That’s what makes them so successful in the digital space. Russia has managed to undermine the very fabric of democracy in the so called ‘West’ because it was the first to develop propaganda for the digital age. It is not propaganda of the old kind. It doesn’t push one alternative truth, different from the Western one. As Pomerantsev explained in his book ‘This Is Not Propaganda’, this new approach  demolishes the very notion of one fixed, defined reality by spreading confusion and extreme relativism about anything. ‘Everything that is solid melts into air’ (as Marx put it). It is much easier to do that on a ‘free’ screen. Attention-driven algorithm is the only gate keeper. ‘Algos’ are the new tanks.

As explained in the Pomerantsev’s book by Gleb Pavlovski, one of the architects of Putin’s success, in the absence of old ideologies the aim became ‘to lasso disparate groups together around a new notion of „the people“, bound around an amorphous but powerful emotion which everyone can interpret in their own way, and then sealed with enemies who will threaten to undermine that feeling’… ‘“emotional highs” and sloganeering based in vague and unsupported nostalgias’. The slogans like ‘Make America Great Again’, the Brexiter ‘Take Back Control’ or the Russian ‘Bring Russia off its Knees’.

For the first time ever, Europe is fighting for its soul on media platforms that are global, outside of her full control and weaponized by the competitors. Today, anyone organized has an almost immediate and unlimited reach to almost anyone else, in many ways, with screens as the ‘metamedium’ and pixels as bullets.

Brand EU is attacked from various angles: sophisticated, hidden and even outright illegal data manipulation strategies for hyper-individualized targeting and message profiling based on affective polarization; industrial-scale creation, by state actors, of fake user profiles fronting the ‘troll farms’ run by the state secret services and propaganda outfits, supported by an even more efficient army of the intelligent software ‘bots’; emotive and sensationalistic ‘news’, often completely invented, with the sole purpose of spreading consternation and division in target societies; or, state-controlled (and more traditional) news portals and online TV stations pumping more official propaganda into the global media space and supporting the more nefarious ways of generating confusion and polarization.

‘It is not the case that one online account changes someone’s mind,’ Pomerantsev notes. ‘It is that en masse they create an ersatz normality.’ This is the way to demolish the information space as audiences give up on trying to find truth in a chaos; societies under such an attack witness the increase in social and political tensions and starts unraveling into radicalized factions. ‘Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible’, as the title of another Pomerantsev book suggests.

Technologies and methodologies of this new propaganda are perfected for years, but there is one particular idea that Pomerantsev finds crucial as the inspiration for the new strategy. As explained in his book, ‘Lifespring’ was a popular, but controversial, US ‘life training’ program that went bust in 1990s after former participants sued for psychological damage. Based on the combination of NLP and Gestalt therapy, the program has, according to Pomerantsev, become a favorite ‘format’ for creating parts of the state-run TV programs in Russia, as well as in various countries on the EU periphery. The sequence of this media methodology for ‘re-programming’ people is very interesting: first, they have to be confused to the point where their critical thinking breaks down, then frightened and humiliated with the recollection of past collective traumas, all before they are lifted up with the promise of success via unconditional trust in the ‘trainer’ – in this collective case usually a strongman – the Leader – who is running the country.

It worked in Russia, it works in Serbia and the danger is that it may work in Hungary and Poland, too. ‘The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions, make him the president,’ Pomerantsev is told by one of the state TV producers. One big emotion that binds it all, ‘one ring to rule them all’ in our real world.

Using brand language, the EU competitors currently have a better communications strategy for its product, not because it is truly better, but because they are more successful in undermining Brand EU’s narrative coherence, where it exists at all. The competitors’ ‘share of mind’ seems on the rise, which then leads to the rise of the ‘market share’ – the growth of populism and the number of EU countries now run by the populists with more or less explicit anti-EU agenda. Only the strategic, orchestrated, concentrated and well-resourced approach by Brand EU can put a stop to this unraveling of the EU brand narrative and the associated set of perceptions.

Brand EU needs a better product, better told.

A naive temptation, already visible in the positions of various EU officials, is to fight manipulation, lies and deceptions with official facts; that the ‘truth’ will be enough. Although admirable, such thinking is a delusion born out of the 20th century’s media environment with its gatekeepers and almighty public broadcasters. The truth is a great, maybe even the best, weapon, but only if it’s emotionalized and dramatized. If it’s strongly told. And Brand EU is not very good at it and it seems it is not even trying.

Take the West Balkan countries, for example. They are the societies of the Story. Facts get little traction there. People’s heads and hearts are terminally confused with decades of state propaganda through numerous wars, as well as the lack of a strong civil society that brings strong civil norms. The Story was always more important, for example, to my fellow Serbs (I was born and brought up there) than even the actual reality they were experiencing. Here’s an example: when the (later assassinated) prime minister Zoran Djindjic increased, almost overnight, pensions by 18% and salaries by 30%, he was still reviled as the ‘unpatriotic’, a ‘traitor’ and the overall untrustworthy person by a significant part of the population – all as a consequence of the atrocious propaganda onslaught on opposition figures during the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and the fact that he was an intellectual, i.e. ‘soft’ and not overtly nationalist. He wasn’t spewing out toxic national myths. Story always wins against naked information, fantasy almost always beats reality, because they are based on emotion and irrational processing of reality.

What can the Brand EU, then, do about this, in practice, on an everyday level?

How can the Brand Europe fight back? – quick wins on the ground

As the French historian Marc Bloch noted in 1921 in an article analyzing the proliferation of fake news during the First World War, ’emotion and fatigue destroy the critical faculty… The error propagates itself, grows, and ultimately survives only on one condition—that it finds a favorable cultural broth in the society where it is spreading. Through it, people unconsciously express all their prejudices, hatreds, fears, all their strong emotions. Only great collective states of mind… have the power to transform a misperception into a legend.'(1)

The last sentence should be written large on the walls of every ministry of information, defense and economy in every enlightened country (as it is written large in the operating manuals of their challengers). Brand EU probably cannot put back in the bottle the ghost let loose by its competitors, but it can (re)create a new, better, stronger one that will undermine the seductiveness of the competitive narratives. It needs improvements in its ‘product’: a better society, much better told.

It is difficult to overstate the lack of emotions in existing Brand EU communications. Alongside various operational factors immanent to the digital space, which I will address below, that is (after the product) one of the main problems of Brand EU communications: they’re crushingly dull and uncoordinated. Its technocratic management mind has desiccated all the narratives; all the official messages are as dry as a gunpowder, but without its power.

Europe’s competitors are, on the contrary, masters of emotionalization. Facts, whatever the convictions of the EU planners, are just not enough anymore on their own. There is no powerful story without emotions; only they can create and engage those ‘great collective states of mind’ Bloch wrote about. People respond to strong stories, not meticulous policy documents.

What is, then, to be done regarding Brand EU perception management?

Brand planners would immediately pull out their notepads here and draw the so called ‘strategy cube’, a 3-dimensional space of options based on the following pairs of opposites: simple/complicated, cheap/expensive and big gain/small gain. And they will then start brainstorming… For the eye of the non-Brussels-insider ‘civilian’ like me, some ideas look like a really good and quick start with immediate, although moderate, gains (only a wholesale EU ‘product’ revamp will do the trick fully, but this could start improving the perception).

1. Have you noticed how hopelessly ugly and low-impact the boards announcing EU donations and projects are, littered across the EU and its periphery? They are billboards for the EU product, for heaven’s sake, and should be treated like that! They are one of the reasons that manipulated populations of some Balkan countries believe that, for example, Russia or China are their biggest donors, although the truth (yes, that dry, factual truth) is different: it is the EU. Those billboards should sell the EU brand better. Each should have three key things, visible from 50 meters away: the blue background, circle of yellow stars and in that circle a big, fat number with the € sign. The money granted or loaned. Everything else can go into the ‘small print’ below.

2. Local faces of the Brand EU (local ambassadors, trade and other representatives) have to be people of more charisma and inspirational attitude. One of the good rules in the business world is that senior executives have to spend 8-10% of their time on the shop floor, in direct contact with their staff and consumers. The same should go for the Brand EU representatives. Instead of stiff robots in cookie-cutter suits, with a limited repertoire of phrases, Brand EU representatives should be leading, or at least be present at, every project opening, cutting of the ribbons, laying down the foundation stones and any other activities financed by the EU. Dressed smart-casual (Tony Blair was the master of that), with sleeves rolled up, all smiles and bonhomie and with a few familiar local vernacular phrases for the occasion, ideally in the local language. They don’t have to spit into their hands when grabbing the shovel, but they have to perfect that critical local skill of back-patting, energetic handshaking and cordial embraces. And to be everywhere. Always. Learn something from the current Serbian president, another master of this art form.

3. Or, take for example the act of entering Europe, crossing its magical border. Many companies, especially supermarkets and department stores (think Walmart and similar) have their ‘greeters’ at the entrance. Some cities, like Chicago, Huston and New York, too. They are volunteers who greet the visitors, explain and answer questions about the destination and just make all well-meaning visitors welcome. Europe doesn’t have its ‘greeters’, and it should, if nothing just as the tonal antidote to dour, grumpy border police faces – yet another point of improvement. Imagine the impact of being welcomed in this way to the EU ‘castle’, which, if needed, can also become a fortress…

Or, what about the EU’s ‘doors’? If, for some, the idea of introducing ‘greeters’ to Europe is far-fetched, redesigning its border crossings shouldn’t be. They are literally the doors to Europe, gates into its ‘shop’ and shopping windows at the same time, so they should bring Brand EU to life, there and then. Currently, they are also a big disappointment, especially for the legitimate and enlightened travelers from the EU periphery. Cheap, austere and dull objects with a distinct ‘flatpack’ feel, unpleasant even to the police working there and with the design aesthetics that could have been devised by the Ikea’s head of security. This is the case even with the more developed EU countries. With those at its outermost edges, the situation is often dire. Some of the ex-communist border crossings are a visual horror: ramshackle, scruffy ‘Todor Zhivkov’ school of design edifices in various stages of disintegration, they are a disgrace. I wonder if this is really the best strategy to show to those unwanted in Europe (read: immigrants) that they are not welcome.

Brand EU ‘customer service’ is in these places invisible, and it doesn’t have to be like that. Imagine the shock and awe of the Balkan travelers crossing those borders if that border welcomes them with a bit of celebration, if the border is happy that they are coming to visit; if, even with its visual appeal, it makes a powerful statement about another kind of living, about that Narnia feeling of endless opportunities to have a better life, right now, today. There is no better EU propaganda for the tormented souls of the Balkan travelers, tortured by the decades of mistreatment and abuse by the local political elites, than this shock of pleasant and friendly official procedures! All internet fake news and counter-EU propaganda fades into oblivion in moments like these…

How can the Brand Europe fight back? – online

Because this new war of perceptions has just started, historically speaking, Brand EU needs both medium- and long-term strategies. There are a lot of actions and measures that some of Europe’s more enlightened members have started putting in place already that have to become a part of the EU’s permanent defensive repertoire.

For example, the usual brand practice of ‘sentiment monitoring’. Most leading brands now have their own 24/7 aptly-named ‘war rooms’ in which small teams of social media experts, using various publicly available tools, monitor what is publicly being discussed in various digital places globally and locally about the brand, its products, competition and the whole category. It is a system for early warning about potential controversies, product or customer service problems, threatening competitive behavior and similar.

This practice is, literally, the eyes and the ears of modern brands, on top of traditional market research. If it doesn’t have it already (not known), Brand EU could really do with a similar ‘cockpit’, for two reasons: to enable early detection of ‘competitive’ activity along with early deployment of pro-EU activists and other actors to mitigate that. This could mean several lines of action.

Take automated fake news, for example. On platforms that are under control of the rapacious, American-spawned private algorithms, the only way to fight against the legion of automated, state-sponsored, machine-learning-powered bots – in the absence of effective (self)regulations – is with our own clever virtual machines. That means that Brand EU needs a strategic approach for fortifying its ‘digital immunity’ – to use Douglas Rushkoff’s phrase – through permanent and agile evolution of its own AI bot-hunters. These ‘digital white cells’, in addition to automated alerts about fake news posts, would use the same strategy as their malevolent opponents: automated processing of posts in the ‘natural’ language and rapid automated blocking of fake accounts (with an equally agile unblocking in the case of false positives). There is a whole ecosystem, commercial and academic, of solutions that could be deployed here – but aren’t, because the EU political elites do not really understand this space and, hence, have neither the plans, nor budget, nor people to do something meaningful about it.

Or, how about the equally state-sponsored ‘troll farms’ staffed with ideologically inflamed zealots or just plain digital mercenaries? They are crucial for targeted perceptual aggression and reputation assassinations. Facebook and Twitter could do much more with quick identification and blocking of fake accounts, but are largely dragging their feet (despite some sporadic, PR-lead, actions). For this kind of digital trench warfare Brand EU also needs its soldiers, an army of willing volunteers inspired by some new, more imaginative, forms of citizen activism. A very good example in this space is Lithuania which had supported the formation of such a digital fighting force under the trooping name of the ‘elves’ (as opposed to trolls). It has about four thousand members, all volunteers, actively fighting against the national digital space polluters. This could become one of the main digital immunofactors in the future, unless serious and well-thought-through regulation kicks in. Citizens themselves, for their various witting or unwitting reasons, are currently the largest ‘node’ in propagating fake news, but they could also become the main part of the ‘digital civil defense’.

Hate curdles like milk: some lessons in fighting fake news and hate speech

Science and expertise are great friends of Brand EU, if it’s willing to listen. Take the example of preventing hostile players bent on undermining the integrity of our democratic elections. France, more precisely president Macron’s election media team, have the answer, tested in practice during the presidential elections in 2017(1). Despite an orchestrated campaign of ‘leaking’ fake compromising information, the (foreign) spoilers failed. There are three main reasons for that.

One is the supposed heightened ‘Cartesian’ nature of French society in which rational and critical thinking is stimulated from elementary school onwards and where the power of the tabloids is not so excessive as in some other countries. The second was good preparation of Macron’s communications team: they had carefully studied British and American experiences and the modus operandi of the attackers in those situations; they had understood sequences and timings of attacks; they knew which technical and practical preparations were needed for defense, education and coordination of the ‘comms’ teams; they exerted preventive pressure on global social (and traditional) media platforms to be agile in this case. They tried to plug all the holes.

The third reason was the actual organization for quick and coordinated action. It involved various tactics: momentary publication of the hackers’ attacks to the wider public; setting up fake information ‘bates’ (‘digital blurring’) to confuse them and drain their resources; strong and permanent presence of the comms team in the social media, reacting to disinformation (‘elves’); the use of humor and irony to trivialize and defuse the leaked and fake information and constant reminders to the main news outlets to act responsibly. All of this created a strong front against the attackers.

Science, if anyone bothered to check, also knows how hate is fomented and travels via our screens. It literally curdles like milk. Just ask prof. Neil Johnson from the George Washington University. He is a well-known physicist who applies complex mathematics to human behavior, sometimes with surprising results. One of those is that there are only about a thousand ‘lumps’ of online hate, globally. It may not feel that way to us, the users, seemingly awash with an acrid ocean of the worst sides of humanity, but their actual concentration, usually around a few big topics, is much smaller: some of them are bigger, mountain-size hives with a hundred thousand visitors , while the others are just boulders with only ten, but the key point is that there isn’t a huge number of those toxic echo chambers. A focused and strategic fight against them doesn’t seem to be such an insurmountable task, especially given substantial resources an entity such as Europe can put into it.

Prof. Johnson’s findings go against our intuitive analogies that screen hate spreads like ‘cancer’ or ‘virus’. The truth is that hate curdles like milk left in the heat of the day. Bonds in such a process are also literally identical to the chemical, not the epidemiological ones. Hate is gelatin.

The good news is that to dissolve those toxic lumps we need to affect only 10% of them, randomly chosen. No matter how big they are, the same percent and randomness apply. Prof. Johnson is monitoring all the links and analyzes the bonds in those ‘lumps’. An organized, concentrated and sustained activity of the world’s biggest trade block in neutralizing this random tenth would bring more benefits than the current toothless and theatrical parliamentary enquiries.

Resourcing and budgeting for the Brand EU perceptual management

Whatever Brand EU is attempting in this space at the moment is impeded by the lack of the equivalent of two functions every strong brand has: a Brand Manager and a Brand Council, in addition to vertically integrated delivery teams. Most EU efforts in this space, looked at the point of view of their citizens, are scattered, unfocused, unclear, uncoordinated and ineffective. That’s how it feels ‘on the ground’, at the point of reception. At the same time, EU competitors act with resources and conviction as if their whole existential mission is to negate Brand EU values and purpose. A new EU focus would bring depth, breadth and strategic longevity to planning.

Take the brand development budget, for example. EU is equity- and communications-wise a neglected brand. World’s leading brands invest 2-5% of its annual revenue into perception management, with the overall marketing investment up to 8%. This is, of course, impossible for the EU, but even a (comparatively) microscopic planned investment could make a huge difference. Let’s say that Brand EU decides to put aside for brand building only 1/10,000th percent of its GDP in 2018, in other words one tenth of one per mille. This gives an annual brand budget of €1.35 billion. This is enough for a much more robust, as the Swedes would call it, ‘psychological defense’. Compare that to the reported €1.1 million budget the EU currently puts aside to fund its three small teams for strategic communications. Enough for one decent marketing campaign for chocolate wafers…

Another striking example of a missed opportunity is the pan-EU program for developing media and communications literacy. In today’s world, this is the skill that has to be taught for a very early age, from the elementary school upwards, constantly, especially as a co-operation between the government institutions, NGOs, media and marketing professionals. All together, they would lift the bonnet under which the modern propaganda machine is silently purring. The biggest global pandemic today is that of attention illiteracy. It is striking that we are not trained from very early on in the management of this precious and scarce resource.

We are illiterate about the ways and psychological mechanisms various industries, media and other vested interests are constantly unleashing on us to manipulate our evolved perception and cognitive mechanisms. The civil sector has a lot to learn from this field. Very few of them know how to create a strong, more emotive and resonant communications strategy. Take the Balkans, for example: most of the programs based on EU money can’t show a specific measurable impact, not for the actual want of it but mostly because of the lack of communication and emotionalization skills that could help them broaden the organic awareness of and engagement with their audiences. The civil sector still, sadly and incestuously, talks the dry language of program policies, aimed at their think-tank kin.

Regulations are the other problem. Brand EU’s legal framework for ’empathic’ and polarizing communication lags behind technological inflictions by about 30 years. The main legal defense of the global platforms such as Facebook is that they are just that: neutral ‘platforms’ where everyone can post whatever they want, not the actual ‘publishers’ who should regulate that content with an editorial eye. This is the extreme stress-testing of the principle of free speech that showed us that it cannot be an absolute principle. It already legally isn’t in our ‘analog’ lives through the institutions of slander and libel, as well as other media and marketing regulations. They are not mere ‘opinions’, they create damage. Big social media platforms are not neutral, as they strategically and actively encourage behaviors that are good for their business models and they allow, much more that they should, various organized, and even state actors, to abuse them for aggressive propaganda.

Finally, there is one thing that, despite my scorn for the Brand EU’s love of the Brand USA, Europe can learn from its trans-Atlantic cousins. The modern world and the manipulative representations of our reality via digital screens demand such creative approaches. What we call ‘culture of a society’, the prevailing cognitive models, is a combination of narratives that are mostly soaked in through the symbolic spaces of media, film, music and art. Funnily enough, the Pentagon has understood that quite early on, by establishing its Hollywood office in 1942. Fully aware of the impact of the 20. century’s film and TV screen on the masses, the Pentagon has developed a symbiotic relationship with the dream factory in California, often using its power of influence to stress narratives important to various American administrations over the years. Many global film hits were influenced by this symbiosis, whether by helping recruit new fighter pilots or framing the American interventionist wars through the lens of fighting the bad guys in the cause of spreading democracy. Again, some state players not very sympathetic to the EU set of values are doing exactly the same now: just take a look at the patriotic film and TV production in countries such as China or Serbia, with a significant influx of the state-generated money.

Moderately applied to avoid such ideological excesses, this could also be one of the strategic projects for the Brand EU. It would not be too difficult, via carefully designed grants, to stimulate various creative industries to tell more inspirational EU stories that illuminate our human commonalities in the dark times around us. Stories about our diversity as the source of cultural and creative richness, about our common cultural heritage, about the importance of human rights and the beautiful and savage-beating idea of the union of the nations.

Also, especially those stories about the directions to go to find the new, better ‘product’ of the Brand EU. Because, if we look at the world with even the modicum of realism and common sense, and despite its ideological confusion and bureaucratic blunders, Europe is still a rare, but the biggest, bright spot on the face of the planet. It is still, collectively, the closest to what we call a ‘civilized’ society. In many ways, it is our only hope to survive the hammer of the rampant neoliberalism taking us all to hell for the sakes of profit and the anvil of the rising techno-dystopian despotisms.

Sounds naive, right? Only because we are not serious – and not very skillful – about telling those stories. In that sense, the ambassador from the beginning of this article was right: we do need Europe, most of all, but it will be difficult to save it unless we also get the new Brand Europe.

Europe has run out of excuses. Everything it needs to change its ‘product’ and its image is already well known, tried and tested in the practice of brand management. Brands survive, evolve and thrive in a constant tornado of trends, technologies, lifestyles and geopolitical developments. Brands are masters of adaptation, creatures of myth and praxis, permanently reincarnating themselves through the evolution of their stories, perceptions, products and service. Many brands are older then the EU and, if this enlightened edifice doesn’t take itself seriously, they will outlive it.

Strategic silence is not the answer anymore. Brand Europe’s biggest danger is itself. It has to evolve, to ‘reframe’, to borrow from successful brands who have done the same and who endure. Brand EU needs professional brand management.

Or else…


Recommended additional resources:

(1). J.-B. Jeangène Vilmer, A. Escorcia, M. Guillaume, J. Herrera, ‘Information Manipulation: A Challenge for Our Democracies’, report by the Policy Planning Staff (CAPS) of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM) of the Ministry for the Armed Forces, Paris, August 2018.

Lazar Džamić is an Associate Professor at Business School Lausanne (BSL) and Lecturer at The School of Economics and Business in Ljubljana and Faculty for Media and Communications in Belgrade. He is a former Head of Brand Strategy for Google’s creative think-tank The ZOO in London and the initiator of ProBonoMundi, a platform for investigating ethical practices of the marketing industry. This is an enhanced version of a series of columns written from July to September 2019 for the Serbian current affairs weekly ‘Vreme’ (Time). All opinions expressed in this article, except quoted or referenced, are the author’s alone.


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