A brand is a set of perceptions, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes (PEBAs) we hold about something. That something can be anything uniquely identifiable, such as a product, service, person, organization, event, group, or in this case, a country. In many ways, a brand is like a reputation. It takes a long time to build a good reputation, but it can be destroyed very quickly, often through a single act. Just consider Bill Cosby or Arthur Andersen LLP.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia emerged from the chaotic Yeltsin era to embrace many Western characteristics, including a passion for brands and a dynamic and opening economy. Russians now travel and vacation freely, and many non-Russians feel comfortable traveling to Russia for pleasure or business. That said, all was far from perfect. In recent years, Putin’s crackdown on political rivals and free media, as well as his support for the Syrian regime, for example, were troubling to many. Nevertheless, it seems to this observer that the broad perception of Russia was, on balance, neutral to only slightly negative. This is borne out in a survey across multiple Western countries where unfavorable ratings for Russia ranged between 50% (Italy) and 71% (UK) before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
All of that started to change on February 24.
As the images of war were broadcast live and 24/7 across traditional and social media channels, brand Russia and brand Putin began to merge—and plummet. The same opinion survey conducted a few weeks later now showed unfavorable ratings for Russia jumping by ten to twenty percentage points—astounding increases for the short time interval between interviews.
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While Putin’s imperialistic ambitions seem driven by creating respect for Russia (and Putin) across the globe, he clearly misjudged three things along the way that seem to be creating the opposite effect. First, he overestimated his own military’s capabilities. Second, he underestimated Ukraine’s will to fight back. And third, he underestimated the rest of the world’s resolve (notably minus China and India) to push back hard and united.
Post Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, Russia’s brand image now seems to keep company with the likes of Myanmar and North Korea. Being feared is different than being respected. While this may seem like a matter of semantics to an autocrat like Putin, it is a huge difference from a brand image perspective. Economic, social, and other benefits tend to be offered to respected countries and withheld from feared countries.
Even if Putin were trying to be the next Peter the Great, he’s just managing another Ivan the Terrible. Besides, dictatorships seem anachronistic in today’s world.
In the end, the Russian people stand before a momentous choice that needs to be made fairly soon: Choose a brand identity dictated by Putin and a cadre of oligarchs or embrace deep political change by installing leadership that builds a Russia that all Russians, as well as the rest of us, can be proud of. Not an easy choice, but, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.”
Ultimately only the Russian people can determine the brand image of their country. Either way, rebuilding brand Russia will take serious effort and time.
In the meantime, the brand image of Ukraine and its defiant and resilient president are, rightfully, soaring amid a humanitarian and economic catastrophe.