Fake country-of-origin products and the limits to place branding

DSCN1054 by Ares Kalandides Yesterday, a small, inconspicuous object caught my attention. It was a cup of yoghurt in the supermarket fridge. Blue and white, decorated with meanders, carrying the brand name “Elinas” (i.e. Greek as in ‘the person from Greece’) it was clearly recognizable as Greek yoghurt. The only problem is that it wasn’t, which was clearly stated on the package: “Greek style yoghurt, made in Germany”. Looking around I spotted a feta-like cheese called “Salakis” and a Halloumi (also with some Greek-sounding brand name). None of the above products were Greek, but were all manufactured in Germany. And whereas feta is a protected designation of origin product, Greek yoghurt and the Cypriot halloumi are not. I think that this example gives us some interesting information about place brands and I would like to share my thoughts with you. I understand place brand names as signs (in the semiological sense) loaded with meaning. They have denotations and connotations, they refer to real objects, but also to perceived qualities. Place branding, in my opinion is “the strategic approach to enhance distinctive positive associations with a place’s name, thus creating or maintaining a positive reputation” (s. interview here). Obviously there are associations (definitely distinctive and for some people at least positive) linking Greece to yoghurt, feta and halloumi. This is place brand at its best: using a place’s good reputation for certain produces to market both produce and place. So far, so good. But something has gone wrong along the way. The place brand ‘Greece’ is lending its reputation for certain dairy products to German producers. Obviously, Greece was not able to capitalize on its own brand (the only Greek dairy product I found in the supermarket fridge was the excellent Mevgal sheep milk yoguhrt). Once again I am convinced that we overestimate the power of place branding in economic development. Without strategic economic planning that will boost exports (inculding – but not limited to – distribution channels, negotiation strategies, quality controls, reliability, quantity, pricing and packaging) even the best place brand is useless. At least for the place itself. In the above example, a more advanced economy with strong ties in the international market was able to use somebody else’s place brand to its own advantage. This should become a lesson to all place branding fetishists.

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