יום רביעי, 26 ביוני 2019

How to sell a country: the booming business of nation branding

These days, every place in the world wants to market its unique identity – and an industry has sprung up to help put them on the map.

Lipetsk is already on the map: right there, on page 23 of the Collins World Atlas, a region of 1.2 million people, dead south from Moscow and not far from the border with Ukraine. But it’s not really on the map: it doesn’t feature in the slim mental atlas most of us carry in our heads; no one we know takes holidays there, and it doesn’t appear in our newspapers. Even in Russia, people may fail to place it. In September, when Natasha Grand was passing through Moscow on her way back from Lipetsk, she told a Russian acquaintance where she’d been. “I don’t even know where Lipetsk is”, he replied, only partly in jest. Some Russians confuse it with Vitebsk, which is in Belarus.

This is why Natasha Grand was going to Lipetsk, though: to define its brand, to mould its image, to put it on the metaphorical map. Natasha and her husband, Alex, are the founders of a London firm called Institute for Identity (Instid for short), which works with the governments of cities, regions and nations. Instid develops strategies to brand places, and although a part of this involves burnishing tourism – coining a tagline, say, or producing a suite of logos for travel literature –the Grands are after deeper rewards. They believe they can fix upon, and excavate, a place’s very identity – or at least an identity, something that can guide a government in figuring out how to rise in the esteem of its neighbours, how to allocate its resources, how best to compose the face it presents to the world.

In the 21st century, nation branding has grown to be busy business, and its practitioners take great pains to emphasise that what they do is different from the more straightforward marketing and advertising work that came before them. A particularly skilled copywriter sold Moses on Israel by calling it “The Promised Land”; Erik the Red named a large block of ice “Greenland” in the hope of tempting more settlers there; Milton Glaser slapped “I ❤ NY” upon a trillion T-shirts; a Las Vegas ad agency cooked up “What happens here, stays here”, the allure of sin encapsulated. To the Grands, this is all mere sloganeering. They regard their line of work as a kind of psychology: counselling for countries, therapy for towns. Look inward, discover yourself, find your place in the world.

The Grands have made a speciality of what might be seen as hard cases: cities and regions across the former Soviet Union. Their client in Lipetsk, the department of tourism and culture, occupies the fifth floor of a dreary building in the region’s administrative centre, a city also called Lipetsk. The head of the department is Vadim Volkov, a man with a square face and a rectilinear torso, who confessed to the Grands that he has a complicated relationship with Lipetsk. He’s from here, from a town called Gryazi – literally, “Dirt” – and said that he loves the region but doesn’t like it. He lived in the US once, working as a restaurant chef in Minnesota, but in his two years there, he never managed to adjust to the time difference, so he came home. He’s reluctant to go to most other places; when his wife took him on an 11-day vacation to Rhodes, he left after four days. “I didn’t know what to do there!” he told me. That’s how much he wants to be in Lipetsk.

At the same time, Volkov thought, Lipetsk needs change. Earlier this year, when his tourism officials were developing a range of representative souvenirs, they found they lacked any coherent image for their region. Lipetsk needs direction, a sense of purpose, Volkov told the Grands. Really, he wished it was more like Voronezh – a bigger city in a neighbouring region, the kind of place people instantly recognise. In English, Volkov imagined a conversation that one of his compatriots might have overseas.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Lipetsk.”


“A city near Voronezh.”

“Ohhhhh, I know Voronezh!”

The Grands took notes.

Governments are increasingly avid for advisers like Instid. The question of what makes a nation a nation has been forever fraught. Even so, it is inescapable. Every modern nation-state has built itself around some perceived essence, some identity regarded as unique, even if it’s a mixture of truth and lies, elisions and exaggerations.

But since the 1990s, and through the years of Peak Davos, the high sermons of globalisation have worn away this idea – insisting that countries were just shop stalls in a planetwide marketplace, not romantic distillations of some irreducible national spirit. They could be treated, and so ought to behave, like corporations. In an era when money, influence and people could flow anywhere, countries that aspired to be a destination for these energies had to sell themselves hard. A nation’s identity, for perhaps the first time, had to pull the rest of the world in, rather than bind the nation against the rest of the world.

More recently, the results of globalisation – the nature of immigration, the fluidity of capital – have jolted countries’ long-held beliefs of what they are, and confused the idea of what a nation state is meant to be. Like teenagers entering a new school, regions and countries – from Lipetsk to the US – feel compelled to assay their identity, change it up, build it out. What drove Brexit, after all, if not the anger that some genuine British identity – remembered or misremembered – was being drowned within the shallow waters of the European Union?

One consequence of these identity crises has been a reactionary growth of blood-and-soil populism, and another has been the rise of nation-branding. The two are mirror images of a sort: one construes national identity as changeless, its rediscovery a prelude to renewed greatness; the other sees it as a product to be clarified and marketed. But both seek, in different ways, to regain or construct a more distinctive version of a country’s self. The appetite for calling in experts to manage and project national identity has only grown: Simon Anholt, the first pioneer of this field, has worked with more than 50 governments in the past 20 years. The academic journal Anholt founded, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, is now 13 years old. The International Place Branding Association was formed in 2015; its second annual conference will be held over three days this December in Swansea.

In the former USSR, the Grands have found themselves consulting with cities, regions and countries trying to shuck their Soviet past, but unsure of how to position themselves for the future. Partly for this reason – and partly because Natasha and Alex came to London, respectively, from Belarus and Russia – the Grands have worked on campaigns for Moscow, Minsk and Yerevan, and for Bashkortostan and Primorsky Krai. Vadim Volkov, Lipetsk’s tourism chief, had been impressed with the work Instid had done for the Republic of Tatarstan, right next door to Bashkortostan. He wanted something similar for Lipetsk: a tender was issued, six companies applied, and Instid had the winning bid. This September, the Grands – along with a researcher and a graphic designer – made their first official trip to Lipetsk, to begin the process of discovering the region’s character, and figuring out how to narrate it back to the people who live there.

The term “nation brands” first appeared in articles by Simon Anholt in 1998. Anholt had worked in advertising, at McCann Erickson and then for his own copywriting firm, and his initial observations connected flourishing corporate brands to their nations of origin. As he observed, most successful brands came from countries that were successful brands in their own right. In the Journal of Brand Management, in 1998, he pointed out that the British electronics retailer Dixons “launched its own consumer electronics brand in 1982 under the mock-Japanese name Saisho, because it rightly believed that a British electronics brand would carry little credibility”. Anholt saw no reason why nations, like companies, couldn’t modify the way they were seen. “Countries like Brazil,” he wrote, “have a real chance to join the first world ‘club’ of global brand producers in the 21st century.”

Anholt’s first project to shape a nation’s brand, around the turn of the millennium, came from the Croatian government, when it began attempting to join the European Union. At the time, Croatia worried that the world still associated it with the murderous conflicts in the Balkans the previous decade. Now Croatia wanted to be known as a democratic state with a market economy and a chic Mediterranean vibe.

Through the 2000s, the industry grew quickly. Wally Olins, the late communications maven whose agency worked with Volkswagen, GE and Orange, branched into place branding in the late 1990s. Olins saw the artificial construction of a national identity as a form of “social engineering” – and he thought his set of wrenches and spanners could tune the machinery of a country’s brand as easily as a company’s. “People are people … and that means they can be motivated and inspired and manipulated in the same ways, using the same techniques,” he wrote in 2002. A handful of companies focused specifically on nation-branding, while many others – PR firms, marketing agencies, management consultancies, design gurus – shuffled this new card into their deck of services. To formulate a country’s image, a firm might win a contract worth anywhere from half a million to several million dollars; cities and regions pay proportionately less.

Nations couldn’t get enough of these branding services. Within the hothouse of what became known as the Washington consensus – the idea that developing countries needed only to hand themselves over to the market to secure growth – nations thirsted for foreign investment, so they hustled to make themselves attractive. Keen to be seen as stable and prosperous, the former Soviet republic of Georgia ran ad campaigns in which it measured itself, on metrics such as the history of its viniculture or its smooth bureaucracy, against France or Australia. “And the winner is … ” each campaign concluded, “GEORGIA.” (One ad, confusingly, compared the country to the US state of Georgia.) Germany decided it was “The Land of Ideas”. Jamaica sang out to potential entrepreneurs who were looking for a bold and creative home. When Muammar Gaddafi hired the Monitor Group, a consulting firm, to polish Libya’s brand in 2004, they concluded that the country’s biggest problem was “a deficit of positive public relations”. In a 200-page vision document, Monitor set out a plan for turning Libya into a competitive, egalitarian leader of its region by 2019. Gaddafi was deposed, chased and shot dead by rebels in 2011 – only eight years before he was scheduled to become “a more constructive world citizen”.

Inevitably, countries demand a bespoke logo. “At least with Paraguay, we managed to do without a tagline,” said Jose Torres, the CEO of Bloom Consulting, a nation-branding agency in Madrid. Paraguay’s government, fretting that the country was regarded as a waystation for smugglers and that its economic resilience was being overlooked, hired Bloom last year to renovate its image. Bloom’s five-year strategy included policy recommendations that would light Paraguay up as “an economically fertile country”, but Torres also had to commission an emblem for this endeavour: an open flower, composed of green and blue squares, next to the country’s name in lowercase type. “I always want to tell them: ‘It’s not about the logo!’” he said in mock despair.

Often, countries and cities come to Bloom with specific ideas of what they desire. Paraguay was clear that it wanted to lift its exports and attract more investment. Some governments are after more tourists; others want to appeal to talented workers or students. These are such substantial pies that even a sliver of a slice is well worth seeking. Global flows of foreign direct investment rose from $865bn in 1999 to $1.52tn in 2016. Last year, the tourism sector contributed $7.6tn to the world’s GDP, and it supported 1 in 11 jobs in the global economy. In 2025, tourists will generate $11.4tn, just by booking flights and hotel rooms, drinking aperol spritzes at sidewalk cafes, buying theatre tickets and emergency sunscreen and salt-and-pepper shakers with “A Present from Blackpool” embossed on them.

Even the more abstract aims of place branding have material benefits. Robert Govers, an Antwerp-based scholar who edits the journal Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, related the example of The Hague, the Dutch city that was picked in 1945 to be the home of the International Court of Justice. This association with peace and security was, in a way, implanted by the UN, so a decade ago, The Hague decided simply to roll with it.

“Since then, they’ve done all kinds of stuff to reconfirm their positioning as the city of peace and justice,” Govers, who advised the city on its strategy, said. The Hague’s annual calendar of events is structured to raise funds for a different nonprofit organisation every year. Since 2014, the city has laid on a “Just Peace” festival in September. The Hague’s officials actively solicit organisations to move into their city: the International Criminal Court obtained its first permanent premises there two years ago. Even the rudimentary local startup scene was gently swivelled towards online security.

Utterly by plan, it is now the case that, if you’re putting together any sort of convention or event around the theme of justice or security, you won’t think far beyond The Hague as a destination. Last year, this city of half a million hosted 135 international conferences, a 50% increase from 2015; on average, a conference lasted four days and drew 279 visitors, each of whom spent €1,200 during their visit.

Commercial motives aside, the frenzy for place-branding betrays deeper perplexities. Every country, region and city now finds that it has to be a competitor in the vast, loud souk that is the world’s economy. Some places have never properly played this role before; others have played it so long that they’re unused to being challenged. To be noticed, a place must be distinctive, must appear unique. But this is tricky to achieve when a single, anodyne culture – the culture of the same global market – is flooding the ground everywhere. The global economy has proven that it can be profoundly nasty, and the migration of labour, both departures and arrivals, can alter the texture of a place, unspinning presumptions about its collective identity.

All of this has activated a sense of insecurity, and supplied excuses for varying kinds of nationalisms. The electoral victories of demagogues, the rifts in political opinion, the longings to split away from multilateral blocs, the popular revolts – they’ve all been mustered by people capitalising on the new uncertainties of nationhood.

Natasha Grand’s work requires heroic volumes of conversation, so it’s fortunate that she’s very good at it. She has the rare gift of being interesting when she talks and interested when she listens. In Lipetsk, during the interview with Volkov, she would wait until she was sure that he had wound down an answer, let a couple of silent beats pass just to be doubly certain, and only then pose her next question.

Grand’s life has been divided neatly between Belarus and Britain. She grew up in Minsk in a time of wild transitions, and was 13 during the disassembly of the Soviet Union, which set Belarus afloat as a sovereign nation. “I remember my parents being excited, this immense sense of something big and historic happening,” she said. Around her, she heard people speak of how, centuries before Belarus joined the USSR, their country had looked westwards, involved itself in the affairs of Europe; now there was a chance to revive that relationship.

Matters took another course. In its first election, in 1994, Belarus voted into the presidency a former apparatchik named Alexander Lukashenko, who has contrived to remain in power ever since. The feeling in Belarus after Lukashenko was elected, Grand said, was comparable to the feeling in America after Donald Trump’s election win. When Lukashenko’s victory was announced over the radio, Grand and her family were driving back to Minsk from the countryside. “My dad immediately stopped the car on the shoulder, and we just sat there, for maybe five or 10 minutes, saying nothing. Just letting it sink in, wondering what it meant.”
Minsk, capital of Belarus. Photograph: Ryhor Bruyeu/Getty Images/iStockphoto

That many people in Belarus were not quite prepared to forge unafraid into a post-Soviet future became evident in other ways. Upon independence, Belarus had declared its long-suppressed Belarusian to be the republic’s official language, but it had become so unfamiliar that a backlash ensued. A referendum found that 87% of voters wanted Russian to be on par with Belarusian; the same proportion endorsed a fresh state emblem, similar to the one of Soviet Belarus. The Pahonia, an old Belarusian symbol featuring a knight on a horse, was dropped after four years as the country’s emblem. At the time, Grand was studying diplomacy, and her university was next to a government building. One day she saw the emblems on the building’s pediment being swapped – the Pahonia descending and the neo-Soviet symbol rising. Grand and her classmates watched in silence. One of her friends cried.

These dilemmas of identity left their mark on Grand. It wasn’t that the nation’s mood just flipped, but that she had been unaware of what that mood really was. At the London School of Economics, she tried to explain in her doctoral dissertation, to herself at least, why Belarus chose to hold on to tethers from its Soviet past. “My adviser told me: ‘You wrote your PhD in anger.’” For a few years, she worked as a political risk analyst, evaluating uncertainty and markets in countries where companies wanted to invest. Then, at a seminar, she met Alex, who had been a lawyer for sports federations in Moscow before coming to Britain to do his MBA. “We were always talking about these kinds of things: How do people belong? Why do they belong? How are countries perceived?” she said. “I was more interested in within: Why do people feel they want to belong to a state? He was interested in how countries are projected outwards.” In 2008, the couple registered Instid, and not long after, accepted their first mission: to brand Minsk, her own home town.

On his first day in Lipetsk, Alex Grand saw a man wearing broken black brogues and a blue-and-black tracksuit, sitting on the stoop of a neglected building. The man asked for a cigarette, which Alex didn’t have. Then Alex asked him what there was to see in Lipetsk.

“Nothing,” the man replied glumly.

The city of Lipetsk, half a million people clustered in the middle of an infinitude of farmland, is a dour, half-hearted place. Its Soviet-era apartment blocks are flaking and ill-kempt; the newer towers come styled in generic “urban shab”, with flimsy sliding windows and mean balconies, their hulls crusted with air-conditioners and satellite dishes. Its roundabouts and verges have flowerbeds, but they’re indifferently maintained. The famous fountains of Verkhniy Park are indeed splendid, but Nizhniy Park, nearby, is patched with weeds. For a small city, Lipetsk conveys a sense of sprawl – of large vacant and unlit spaces right within its urban limits.

Just outside the city, a stone column announces the date of its foundation: 1703, when Peter the Great ordered an iron foundry to be built near a deposit of ore. The modern descendant of that factory is a group called Novolipetsk Steel, established in 1931 – the world’s most profitable steelmaker until not so long ago, and still Russia’s biggest, employing 29,000 people in its home plant in Lipetsk. In the absence of anything else, the steel mill seems to hold the region together. Lipetsk Oblast, the regional administrative unit, was created by fiat in 1954, when chunks of five other oblasts were glued into one. The relative newness of this patchwork vexes the region’s authorities, who think Lipetsk Oblast needs a unifying identity. There’s still no way, Vadim Volkov said, that you can talk to someone and figure out, “This is a Lipetsk person.”
Natasha Grand speaking at the City Branding Forum in Uryupinsk in Russia’s Volgograd region in 2015. Photograph: Instid

In pursuit of a place’s identity, the Grands combine several different trades and vocations. At their most casual, they resemble unusually diligent tourists. In Lipetsk Oblast, the team visited half a dozen towns in as many days, where they sought out both the well-known – the sky-blue, golden-domed cathedral in Zadonsk – and the unknown – in Chaplygin, a cheese-making workshop; in Yelets, a museum in the house of the Soviet composer Tikhon Khrennikov; in the middle of nowhere, a small falcon reserve. They never missed a museum. They ate carefully, selecting restaurants and dishes with local flavours. They photographed statues and town squares and graffiti. Their attentions were ready to squeeze the juices of cultural meaning out of everything they saw, lending them the air of semioticians on holiday. They scanned Lipetsk with intent: the architecture, the designs on the menus, the art in the galleries. “Even that hairstyle is telling, in a way,” Natasha Grand whispered once, nudging me to look at a woman with a Reba McEntire do. The woman was a member of the staff at the Lipetsk airport; it had been 15 seconds since we got off our plane.

The days were filled with conversation. The Grands set up interviews that can run for hours. They talked to government officials, of course, but they also met historians, museum curators, restaurateurs, photographers and artists. One evening, they spent 30 minutes talking to a woman who made lace. Another afternoon, the team dropped into the Lipetsk State Technical University, where a class of 15 students spoke about their region and how they wanted, by and large, to leave. There’s very little to do in Lipetsk, they explained. St Petersburg, one of them said – now there’s a city.

At the university, Alex popped a series of word-association questions. “Tell me the first thing that comes into your mind when I say: Lipetsk? Moscow? London? Putin?” The Grands have a plump bank of such questions, deploying them like crafty psychoanalysts. If your city were a car, what kind of car would it be? If it were a man, what kind of job would he have? What’s your favourite Lipetsk joke? In the tourism department’s office, Alex Grand took out a blank leaf of paper and asked Volkov to sketch a house. Volkov was flabbergasted. “Don’t conduct some experiment on me!” he said, and pushed the paper back across the table. “You can draw it yourself. It’s a rectangle with a roof on top.”

Lipetsk proved tough going. Not many of the Grands’ interviewees were inclined to reflection. A local historian admitted it: “Lipetsk has a vague, unstable face.” The old markers of identity – the church, the steelworks – had faded from people’s lives, and nothing had sprouted to replace them. Sometimes it felt as if even Lipetsk’s residents didn’t quite know what to make of their region. The Grands discovered that in 2008, when the Scorpions came here on tour, they played to a feeble audience; most people skipped the gig, thinking it was a cover band, sure that the real Scorpions would absolutely never come to Lipetsk.

Of all their projects, the Grands are proudest of Tatarstan, which has bolstered their reputation among the people who run Russia’s regional governments. The government of Tatarstan, a republic of around 4 million people in south-western Russia, was convinced it wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved, either in Moscow or overseas. In 2013, they hatched a plan to promote the region’s heritage.

When Instid was hired, the government merely wanted a thick book, with glossy photos and text about the artefacts in Tatarstan’s museums. The Grands expanded this meagre vision. They reached into the period of the Bulgar kings, who ruled this region between the seventh and 13th centuries, and distilled a set of attitudes and values that had persisted into modern-day Tatarstan. The people were perfectionists, the Grands decided. They honed their skills and craftsmanship continuously, they were competitive, and valued pragmatism; they also bore a sense of loss about their past, and they prized the material over the spiritual or the intangible.

An image from Instid’s ‘Visit Tartarstan’ campaign

The products of such study – lessons from medieval history, or patter about “mastery,” “decisiveness” and “speed” – can seem amorphous, or even concocted. But they lent structure to some of Tatarstan’s initiatives, Alex Grand said. Schools and universities folded these cues into their syllabuses; architects based blueprints on them. In their annual reports, government officials took to naming sections after the values the campaign celebrated. The tourism sector, which was never encouraged as warmly as industry, received a dose of state enthusiasm: its own ministry, more funds, better training. Even a privately owned truck manufacturer, Kamaz, borrowed Instid’s language of Tatarstani robustness to describe its products. For the Grands, Tatarstan showed what their work on identity could do: shape a government’s budgets and priorities, seep into the consciousness of a populace.

At the heart of the campaign was also Tatarstan’s intense faith in the old-fashioned potency of a national identity. The region’s Tatars, around 55% of the population, are Muslim; its Slavs, making up 40%, are Orthodox Christian. The two communities have been like oil and water, an official told Alex Grand – tolerant but rarely mixing. But an uneasiness had crept in. The year the campaign began, a series of arson attacks targeted churches across the region. One young imam confided to Instid that he was worried about radicalisation – about how local preachers were going to the Middle East and returning with a sterner style of Islam. Tatarstan’s leaders wanted not just to shine an identity outwards, but also to impress it inwards, to stave off potentially dangerous religious and ethnic ruptures. It was the most ambitious form of national myth-making, and the riskiest: to remind people of, or perhaps even to explain to them for the first time, what united them and why they belonged together.

The metabolism of a country is longer and slower than that of a product or a company, so it’s still too early to say if any of these top-down reorientations of identity have stuck in a meaningful way. Fiascos show themselves quickly, though. “Most nation-branding strategies fail, and they fail miserably,” Jose Torres said. “They fail because, mainly, governments don’t have the capabilities to manage these strategies.” The calculations of politics enter into it, or a newly elected government rolls back its predecessor’s ideas, or the venture relies on superficial advertising. Citizens may not feel a connection to a campaign, or may even rebel against it. Robert Govers recalled how, when The Hague sold itself as the city of peace and justice, tourist agencies grew incensed at how the brand left no room for the area’s beautiful beaches. Even so, The Hague is the rare case where a strategy gained its limited objective, and that was possible because the city worked with its already strong image. Otherwise, Govers said, “I haven’t seen many examples where nation-branding has been very successful.”

But if it hasn’t been successful, I asked, why continue to do it?

Because it’s a young field, Govers said, and there’s still room to perform better. “It’s a huge, huge challenge. But we still have to do it, because it’s important.”

Simon Anholt, who blazed the field’s first trails, reserves fierce criticism for the work of most of the actors on this stage: the PR firms and ad agencies for whom a country is the same species of client as Coca-Cola. In the late 1990s, Anholt used to frame place brands in the way advertiser or a corporate marketer would. He once told the New York Times: “Marketing is at the heart of what makes rich countries rich.” Now, though, he scorns marketing. His later work focuses very little on communication and branding, and much more on the abstract business of a country’s positive influence upon the world. He gave me the example of Mexico, whose president, Felipe Calderón, enlisted Anholt as a strategist in 2010.

Anholt visited Mexico several times, and much as the Grands did in Lipetsk, he interviewed historians, filmmakers, journalists and academics. Mexico suffered from a malaise of low self-esteem, he concluded. “It’s spent the last 300 years looking inwards, trying to build a society, to create itself, all while living next door to the most powerful nation on earth.” The world regarded Mexico as a victim – of the drug trade, of natural disasters, of poverty – but Anholt found that the country had, in the past, demonstrated spirit and enterprise. “If you speak to anyone at the WHO, they’ll say the gold standard for managing pandemics is how Mexico managed the swine flu outbreak [in 2009],” Anholt said. He advised the government to “show gentle leadership on things” – in the field of climate change, for instance, by hosting more summits like the Cancún conference of November 2010, by persuading other nations to see global warming as a shared and urgent problem, by speaking its mind more loudly and confidently.
Alex Grand on a research trip to Irkutsk in Siberia. Photograph: Instid

This can sound like generic counsel – “Just do governance well” – and Anholt would agree. Countries need to fix the way they run if their reputation is to shift. A well-regarded country, Anholt thinks, does as much for humanity at large as for its own people. The thought prompted him to launch the Good Country index, which ranks states by the “good” they do for the world. (Sweden is currently first, although some of the metrics lend themselves to argument. In assessing a country’s cultural contribution – a subcategory in which Belgium ranks first – the index subtracts points for overdue payments to Unesco”.)

Indices aside, Anholt bemoans the neoliberal “marketisation of everything” and its consequence, “that countries have to perform as if they were nothing much more than products in a marketplace”. He sounds as if he regrets coining “nation brand”, because he has watched it become “nation branding”: cynical acts of spin, void of any real reforms. “The upsetting thing about this lie called nation-branding,” he said, “is that it encourages so many countries, who really can’t afford it, to blow wicked amounts of money on futile propaganda programmes, and the only people who benefit are these beastly PR agencies.”

The word “propaganda” is not misplaced. Restless preoccupations with national identity or ties to the land have often been prologues to periods of oppression; if a country keeps defining how people belong, it also defines how people do not belong. “Diversity and debate are the lifeblood of liberty. And they are the enemies of branding,” Naomi Klein wrote in 2002, after the American government hired a Madison Avenue executive to spruce up Brand USA overseas. “Unlike strong brands, which are predictable and disciplined, democracy is messy and fractious, if not outright rebellious,” she wrote; the task of gussying up a nation brand “is not only futile but dangerous”.

The direction in which nation branding work tends to flow is problematic as well. Agencies in New York, Madrid, London and Paris dispense advice to governments in Asia, Africa, eastern Europe and Latin America on how best to present themselves – a configuration that can veer easily into cultural imperialism. This imbalance sets up pitfalls for practitioner and client alike. In Lipetsk, Natasha Grand phoned a tour operator to ask how business was going. When he learned that she wasn’t from Russia, the operator snapped: “Why should I tell you anything? Maybe you’re a spy.”

The very notion of a national or regional character – that the people of India and Pakistan, or of Lipetsk and Voronezh, are somehow different, although the borders separating them are just decades old – is endlessly thorny. But the impulse of authorities – churches, kings, governments – to define and manipulate such a character is hardly new. A nation, the philosopher Ernest Renan said in 1882, is “a great solidarity”, and its existence “a daily plebiscite.” It needs to remember – and to forget – things about itself, and we tend to ignore how constant and commonplace this process is. Benedict Anderson, the political scientist, saw this making and remaking as an act of the imagination. The elite classes have been imagining nations into existence ever since the marriage of capitalism to the printing press, he believed, and the communication of identity mattered just as much as the conception of it. This once happened through newspapers and books. Now it happens, at a much more frantic pace, on the banner ads of web pages, at global summits, at investment roadshows, and as product placements in the movies. The exercise is natural or artificial only insofar as the nation state itself is natural or artificial.

At the fount of these flurries of apprehension about identity is the political fear that the nation is being displaced from its position as the most vital unit in world affairs. So much points to this. Trump won his election by stoking the paranoia that America, once supposedly great, had become subservient to transnational interests. Governments struggle to cope with the borderless nature of things that might once have been within their jurisdiction: corporations, taxes, the internet and the media, crime, political influence. Even the eagerness to hire brand experts is, in a way, a reaction to this perceived threat of irrelevance – an attempt by nations and regions to regroup, to define themselves anew. An attempt to insist that they still matter.

Halfway through her stay in Lipetsk, Natasha Grand drove up into the north of the region, to a village that was once called Astapovo. In 1910, the novelist Lev Tolstoy died here. After arguing with his wife, Tolstoy sneaked out of their home, in the adjoining region of Tula, and boarded a train. His third-class carriage was draughty and smoky, so he fell ill and was forced to alight at Astapovo. A doctor put him to bed in the stationmaster’s house, where his chills flared into pneumonia. Reporters and medical specialists streamed into the village, and Tolstoy’s family arrived, but he only lived a week in Astapovo before passing away.

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The railway station’s clock now stands deliberately frozen: 6.05am, his time of death. The stationmaster’s house is a museum, and Tolstoy’s sickroom preserved just as it was in 1910: a small cot in a corner, one chair at its foot, even an outline of the great man’s head, with its bulbous nose and frayed tussocks of beard, traced on the wallpaper by the bed. Tolstoy might easily have made peace with his wife, or he might have taken another train, or he might have sickened later in his journey and disembarked elsewhere. That he wound up in Astapovo and died here was happenstance – like all forms of national character, all origin stories. But Astapovo wrapped itself around this accident of history, trying to cling to its moment of supreme importance. In 1932, the village changed its name. On the map, it is now called Lev Tolstoy.

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