Branding Ukraine: Lip-Synching a Happy Tune

20 December 2011, 16:18

Several international TV channels recently started rotating Euro 2012 promotional videos “High time to see Ukraine.” These minute-long videos invite viewers to come to an attractive and little-known Eastern European country, one with ideal, clean streets and populated by nice-looking, athletic people. This promotion is part of a new strategy to boost Ukraine's image abroad at the behest of last year’s Foreign Ministry initiative. Some top official decided the national image needed an urgent facelift and our Foreign Ministry has set out to attack this nigh-impossible task.


This must be at least the third attempt in post-Orange Ukraine to upgrade the nation’s image. The first was made in 2005 by Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk when his ministry’s tender committee, led by Volodymyr Makukha, invited bids from companies capable of organizing promotional campaigns abroad. Konglomerat, then an unknown company, was declared the winner. Before the competition, Konglomerat provided assessor services and did not even have a website or a profile on the PR market. Nevertheless, it received UAH 12.8 million from the state to brand Ukraine abroad. A scandal erupted; the contract was severed, but the money was never retrieved. Between signing and terminating the contract, Konglomerat somehow managed to hold Ukrainian Cinema Days at a Berlinale without the festival's organizers even knowing they were there. In 2007, the State Service for Tourism and Resorts attached to the Culture Ministry decided to promote the tourist brand “snowy winters” in our country under the slogan “Ukraine. For snowlovers.” Grand-Print Ukraine won the bid and received UAH 8 million to “make a breakthrough into European information markets.” Promo videos were released and shown on Euronews and National Geographic 80 times each. At least there was some real product, even though it came at a steep price. Over the years, Ukraine’s efforts to boost its image abroad have become infamous as a way to easily and quickly get away with embezzling millions from the state budget.

In 2010, the Foreign Ministry brought up the issue again. This time around, the much smaller sum of  $100,000 was allocated. But in September 2010, CFC Consulting was commissioned, bypassing the tender procedure, to develop and implement Ukraine’s branding strategy. It produced the slogan “Ukraine: Moving in the Fast Lane,” the cartoon characters Harniunia and Sprytko (later abandoned over protests from the public), more than 10 special promo events abroad and four information campaigns. The projects included setting up an information portal about Ukraine, turning it into a “center of contemporary art in Eastern Europe” and collecting one million signatures from EU citizens in support of Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. One information campaign, “Ukraine. Beautifully Yours,” is aimed at dispelling notions of Ukraine as a wonderful sex tourism destination and a country that exports its women. Pop singers like Tina Karol and Ani Lorak are to help shatter these stereotypes. Yet all of this is still in the planning stages. Meanwhile, CNN and BBC World broadcast the promo videos “Ukraine. All about U” for four months in 2011 (a total of 13,000 times). The campaign cost millions of dollars and was financed by the Foundation for Economic Reform in Ukraine, which attracts private funds. It was again carried out by CFC Consulting.

At the same time, the State Agency for Investments and Management of National Projects set out on a foreign tour to present Ukraine to the foreign business and political establishment as an attractive investment target. However, just a handful of people showed up for its presentation in London.

Harniunia and Sprytko


How successful are Ukraine’s branding efforts? Consider the current realities. First, the country already has a fixed and established image in Europe and the world. Very briefly, it may be defined this way: Ukraine is as a poor, divided and corrupt country with easily accessible women. The political opposition is behind bars, and the Orange Revolution was wasted. The specific formula and placement of emphasis are subject to variation, of course. Ukraine could have worked on its branding back in the 1990s or immediately after the Orange Revolution. Now it needs rebranding.

Communications experts say that even images of countries in the “axis of evil” can be fundamentally transformed if their political regimes are replaced. Compared to them, changing a post-Soviet country's image should be a cinch. However, in practice (re)branding requires a minimum set of prerequisites: at least one specific existing or rapidly emerging success story, the requisite infrastructure (tourism sector, highways and health care), and the full exercise of human intellectual potential and talent.

Does Ukraine have its own success story today in any sphere controlled by the state, from the economy to law enforcement? Or a developed infrastructure? Will it make a civilizational breakthrough after Euro 2012? These are rhetorical questions. The problem is also that Ukrainian politicians across the board have become accustomed, since the country regained independence, to separate their own image from that of their country. They have spent millions of dollars to pay foreign – mostly American and Russian – lobbyists.

They act on the belief that lobbyists, rather than the country’s brand in terms of potential, authority and quality, must be their pass to respected society and an argument for the reliability of their businesses and politics. Meanwhile, Washington insiders smile condescendingly at the efforts the Party of Regions and BYuT exert to buy images for themselves. Western lobbyists merely go through the motions of lobbying and care little about the end result they deliver. It is not their country, not their politicians and not their problem.


A network of national cultural institutions abroad, such as the Goethe-Institut or the Polish Institutes, may play a key role in promoting a country abroad. In other words, it is impossible to enhance one's image without a certain form of institutionalization. We need a permanent managerial and coordination framework for advancing our culture in the key capitals of the world. The competition for audience is too intense; the contemporary world is flooded with offers of everything. “If Ukrainian politicians spent at least part of the money that goes to lobbyists on cultural presentations of their country abroad, they would do something really useful for both their own image and that of the entire country,” says Nadia Diuk, Deputy Director of the National Endowment for Democracy, in a comment given to The Ukrainian Week. The money that landed on the accounts of American and European audit, legal and PR firms would have been enough to purchase a building for a Ukrainian cultural center in Washington and host numerous artistic events. Meanwhile, Ukraine still lacks its own institutions of this type abroad. Moreover, it has big problems with presentations at international artistic forums. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, if there is no convergence between the good image-building intentions of top officials and the quality and content of the country’s internal development in general, it is impossible in principle to change the way it is perceived by the world. Some Latin American dictatorships have spent millions to improve their image, but foreign countries just laugh at them. Now Europe strongly associates Ukraine with the Yulia Tymoshenko case. No video broadcast by CNN will change that, just like it is impossible to come up with a story that would eclipse political reprisals against the ex-premier. Stories like that are on the level of Pakistan and Myanmar.


The Ukrainian Weekasked several experts to comment on issues involved in boosting Ukraine's image and to assess the promotional videos that have been produced about the country. These videos are the only government-commissioned image-making tool that can be viewed as an accomplished fact.

Yuriy Shcherbak, extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of Ukraine

In themselves, the government's efforts to boost Ukraine's image by hiring PR firms to do the job are normal practice. There's nothing wrong with producing several nice videos. However, all these initiatives come to naught when other factors come into play, factors that are beyond the reach of the Foreign Ministry or PR companies. First, the actions of the president. Second, corruption. Ukraine cannot improve its image by definition, because thousands of foreign businessmen who come here are disappointed. Few of them get used to rampant graft and kickbacks. Everyone is perfectly aware what our country is. From this standpoint, these attempts are naïve. I know what Ukraine's brand can be even in the current, very difficult conditions – it is our art, our writers and music. But art is at the bottom of the ruling elite’s list of priorities. The state does not help publish Ukrainian literature abroad the way Poland and France do. And our tourism infrastructure is, of course, far from European standards.

Serhiy Gaiday, owner and director for strategic planning at, a social engineering company

Shaping Ukraine's image is the job of, above all, politicians and the national elites rather than people in PR. PR companies have to enter the process of image making at the second or third stage when the system itself has been changed. An image should bring money to Ukraine. And billboards across Europe will not show that we are really moving in the fast lane. Large investors do not trust advertisements. If Ukraine brings up the rear in terms of investment climate, you are simply wasting your time on advertisement. Second, the country's image has to help attract “small investors,” i.e., tourists. But before advertisement begins to work in Europe, you have to set up the entire infrastructure here. On their first visit here tourists will see horrible conditions all around, and you have no more image left. Third, the country's image has to benefit us when we travel abroad so that we would not be perceived as third-grade citizens. Personalities are the most efficient advertisement tool today. Saakashvili is a much more powerful image-making factor than videos about the beauties of Georgia which are not particularly different from those of Cyprus, Greece or Turkey. Videos about Ukraine are banal – every country has them. They are just a series of nice pictures. The only benefit from them is that they are a reminder our country exists.

Natalia Popovych, president, PGP Group

National advertisement campaigns work if they make countries stand out via promotional videos and help people identify these countries. When you watch Ukraine's promo videos, you are pleased to see your country represented on world channels, but inadvertently you are guessing: Is it Romania, Montenegro, Bulgaria or some other European country? Many decisions of the international audience regarding Ukraine are made online, and this channel is yet to be efficiently engaged by our state. A breakthrough in the country’s image policy will happen when it succeeds in positively surprising the world, as was the case with the Orange Revolution. No artificially created project or PR campaign can produce an effect like that.

Vasyl Miroshnychenko, partner, CFC Consulting (developer of Ukraine's branding strategy)

We suggest that certain information campaigns united by the slogan “Ukraine. Moving in the fast late” be realized in 4 to 5 years when Ukraine has improved on its main indices. If we look at Ukraine’s index of economic freedom or corruption, they have only dropped in the past two years. When an information campaign is not relevant and conflicts with reality, we suggest putting off its implementation. The “Ukraine. All about U” videos were aimed at attracting interest in Ukraine and its business and tourist opportunities. Except, perhaps, an ideally clean beach, I don't see anything in them that sets Ukraine apart. Moreover, the videos were produced by the BBC and CNN. This is how they saw and presented Ukraine.



When Malaysia gained independence from Great Britain in 1957, it seemed that future held nothing good in store for the country. Its GDP was equal to that of Honduras. It appeared to be the Asian country most likely to become engulfed in endless interethnic conflicts, because its population was made up of three large ethnic groups – Malaysians (50%), the Chinese (around 25%) and Indians (around 7%). Malaysia is situated between Singapore and Thailand. Tourist went to these two countries, stubbornly ignoring the poor, weakly developed ex-colony.

More than half a century later, Malaysia's GDP is five times that of Honduras, and nearly half the population is involved in the tourism sector in one way or another. In the 2000s, readers of the American magazine Global Traveler voted Malaysia “the best tourist destination in the world.” What is the secret of its success? First, it is the political will of the elites which were able to end corruption and carry out real reform, in particular by supporting private businesses. The country built contemporary infrastructure and the health care system and set up tax-free zones. Second, it is an ability to turn one's weaknesses into strengths. This country launched a global image-making campaign called “Malaysia — the true Asia.” The key idea is that if you want to feel and learn about the true Asia at one go, you should visit Malaysia, because representatives of Asia's greatest peoples live here side-by-side. Divisions in the country? No one ever mentions them.


When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s team came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, it decided to achieve a success story in a specific sector as soon as possible in order to win the trust of the population in carrying out further reform. They targeted the most painful sphere in the post-Soviet countries — law enforcement agencies. The patrol police were formed and staffed with completely new, young people. It replaced the degraded police, which provided a cover for criminal lords and preserved the instinct of “the regime’s watchdogs,” and the classically corrupt traffic police. At the same time, a fight was launched against infamous Georgian criminal lords. A new, glass-walled transparent building of the Interior Ministry was built along the highway leading from international Tbilisi Airport to downtown Tbilisi. New police departments were built across the country, also from transparent materials. The country gradually rid itself of old Soviet buildings and symbols. Streets in Georgian cities began to be patrolled by polite English-speaking policemen. Many other reforms were carried out later, but this one is what Georgian politicians call their first success story and the campaign which boosted the country’s image and transformed the way George is perceived abroad.


Unlike Malaysia or Georgia, Finland did not need a major rebranding of its image abroad nor did it have to create it from scratch over the past decade. Because of its high social standards and economic successes, it automatically received a share of positive coverage in the world. However, Nokia's home country is still thinking of ways to tell the world about its strengths. The 100 Social Innovations from Finland project by Illka Taipale, MD, is an interesting example. This booklet tells about Finland's experience and traditions in a variety of domains, but emphasis is placed on such things as building homes for the disadvantaged and tuition-free higher education.

South Korea

South Koreawas so concerned about its image abroad that it set up the Presidential Council to work on the national brand and drafted its own index of national branding as an alternative to existing indices. The Council consists of 47 members, including 11 top officials and 31 specialists and artists. The government allocated  $47 million to develop and improve the country's image abroad in 2011. South Koreans are troubled by lingering negative notions of their country which was at war with North Korea from 1948-87, and was associated with a military regime and political repression. They do not want their country to be remembered only for folklore and historical monuments. They want people to think of a high-tech contemporary nation. In 2002, they began to use the “Korea, sparkling” slogan and logo. In 2007, another one was added – “Dynamic Korea.” They also plan to carry out the Campus Asia program which will encourage talented young scientists from neighboring countries to come and work in South Korea. Special scholarships (Global Korea Scholarship) will be offered to foreign students, and 3,000 volunteers will be sent abroad. And this is just a part of Korea's complete image-making agenda.


In the early 1990s, Poland's starting position in terms of image making was not much different from Ukraine’s. Today the difference is striking. Our western neighbor set up 22 Polish Institutes across the world. They represent and promote its culture and forge international contacts. The staff of each of these institutions include 6 to 8 people. At the same time, Poland introduced a number of international scholarships, such as Gaude Polonia, and intercultural projects for NGOs. It has also used (re)branding technologies. When Poland was about to be accepted into the EU in 2004, citizens of “old” Europe feared a flood of labor migrants from this poorer Eastern European country would follow. The Poles put up billboards in other European countries showing a plumber and the caption: “I’m staying in Poland. Come visit me.”

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