Costa Rica’s Brand Makeover: Inside an Ambitious Campaign to Integrate Image and Message

By Carolina Lopez

Costa Rica has arguably the strongest brand image of any country in Latin America when it comes to looking for a place to do business for U.S. businesses and investors. Since things are working out so well for this nation of 4.5 million people, why then focus on changing the image and tackling a full-on re-branding campaign?

We checked in with Jorge Sequeira Picado, General Manager at the Costa Rican Export Promotion Agency (PROCOMER) recently to learn more about a very ambitious, year-long rejuvenation and re-integration of the country brand which involves multiple private and public agencies – many of them directly tied to inward investment and export promotion.

A few years ago, Nearshore Americas sat down with one of the world’s leading country brand experts,  Simon Anholt, a government advisor that first coined the concept of ‘nation brand’.  During our conversation, Anholt spoke about the core concept behind the nation brand.

“Nation brand is an observation about the importance of national image in the modern world. If a country doesn’t like its image – and most countries don’t – then the only way to change, update, enhance or otherwise influence that image is through the things the country does, not by the thing it says.

And that is part of the central challenge faced by Picado and his associates: How to make the new brand shine on the worldwide stage.

Talent for Tourism

For the past five to ten years, Costa Rica has done a great job positioning itself as a choice tourist destination, Picado points out. But some question whether the country can accelerate its connection to technology and produce a clear and compelling reason global firms such as Intel, HP, Baxter and Infosys have opted to set up operations there.

“Costa Rica has positioned itself very well in the tourism sector, it represents a good example of public and private sector collaboration. But very few people know that Costa Rica has the most stable democracy in the region, one of the highest levels of education and health indicators. Our challenge is to take this image into a more global integrated view,” says Picado.

This year, Costa Rica saw a 17.6% increase in high-tech projects, going from $470.2 million in 2011 to $574.5 million in 2012. This resulted in over 8,200 new jobs created this year. With a record high for the third consecutive year in high-tech foreign investment, it is no wonder that Picado wants to amplify the brand message. Picado and his team have looked at exemplary nations outside the region, such as Australia and Singapore, and also countries closer to home –  like Mexico, Peru and Colombia. These countries have been used in a sense as benchmarks against Costa Rica’s own standing.

A Brand of its Own

Future Brand, a leading branding consultancy firm based in New York City, has been hired to assist in the branding process, and Picado is optimistic that by 2013 “ you can expect one same brand, one same look; a coherent message that really tells you what Costa Rica is really all about.”

Although figures show that foreign investment in Costa Rica is increasing, PROCOMER still faces serious challenges when it comes to creating one national brand. First and foremost is getting Costa Rican institutions, ministries and government organizations on board with the project. “It wasn’t easy to get everyone in, there was a persuasion process involved, but in order for this global nation brand to succeed, everyone must buy into it,” he explains.

Ministries and organizations concerned with domestic growth may be concerned that PROCOMER’s initiative might actually hinder domestic industries. Ranked at 122 of 183 in ease of doing business by the World Bank’s and International Finance Corporation annual report, foreign investors still face serious challenges when it comes to starting businesses in Costa Rica. Costa Rica ranks at 167 when it comes to protecting investors, a significant low ranking to a country so focused with promoting foreign investment.

Beyond Nation Brand

Picado remains optimistic that this new nation brand will become a new catalyst to ease investment and actually improve the business environment for domestic providers. In addition to become a call to attract investors – especially in BPO and IT outsourcing – Picado expects the results of the campaign will  provide a  uniquely competitive tool.

“We see it as a brand that looks upward for potential tourists, investors, business owners. Our goal is to have companies that want to have the privilege of using our nation brand will have to go through a licensing process,” says Picado. “Our main purpose is to start internally influencing the behavior of local businesses so they answer to higher standards of quality. We want to engage business owners in socially responsible and environmentally friendly practices – and having our nation brand will ensure this.”

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The licensing process for the new nation brand is still in the works, but for Jorge it is a smart investment for businesses. Products that have the nation brand are potentially more attractive to the socially-aware consumer. And although a primary goal is to modernize and globalize this small Central America country, the new branding will also bring new internal changes for the Costa Rica government – which has been previously criticized for being too bureaucratic – according to President Laura Chinchilla, in a Nearshore Americas interview in 2010.