Why Jamaica’s Global Brand is At Risk

usainbolt12In a global marketplace, nations are competing with each other for their share of the world’s consumers, capital, aid, tourists, students and investors. No nation is exempt from this obligation. Simon Anholt, the leading exponent of nation brand, so far, offers the most reasoned and authoritative explanation for this. He argues that the brand [of a nation] powerfully affects the way people inside and outside the place think about it, they way they behave towards it, and the way they respond to everything with regard to the place, for example, its products, sporting and cultural events, tourism and heritage attractions, investment and business potential.

Nations also face considerable scrutiny and have much more to lose from negative brand images. Indeed, international development aid, trade partnerships and investments are increasingly tied to concerns over human rights, crime and environmental protection. Jamaica should rightly and justifiably be concerned about its image. The Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, in her swearing-in speech in January 2012, argued inter alia, that it is imperative to “protect the good name of Jamaica at home and in the international community”. Jamaica, she stressed, must remain for all, a quality brand.

Assessing Jamaica’s Brand Quality

Yet, it is fair to say Jamaica has a rather contradictory and mottled international image. Research is yet to be done to scientifically gauge the strength of the Jamaican brand. Yet, based on anecdotal evidence  – on the positive side, the nation can speak to exports of products that have become globally known and recognised – Red Stripe Beer, Jamaica Rum, Jerk spice, Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee. Jamaica’s National dish, Ackee and Saltfish was ranked second by National Geographic among the tastiest national dish in the world. We can speak proudly of our tourism promotion – Jamaica as tourism mecca attracting some 3 million tourist visitors per year. And, of course, we can speak glowingly of Usain Bolt and our success in sport overall. But if we were to be truly honest, we would all speak of the issues and challenges that at times disrupt this otherwise positive perception of Brand Jamaica. We are not proud of this by any stretch and I hate to spread our dirty laundry in an international forum such as this. Yet, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s examine a few of the major issues Jamaica currently confronts.

 The Economy – Jamaica will finish 2012 with the slowest average growth rate of 1% since 2000 in the Americas, even behind disaster-stricken Haiti (The Economist, 2012). The national debt is akin to Greece’s – 140% of GDP. Over half of the national budget used to service national debt. Jamaica’s unemployment rate now stands at 14.3% as at April 2012 (Planning Institute of Jamaica, 2012). All major surveys suggest that a high perception of corruption.

 Homophobia – There is a widely held perception and purported in the global media that Jamaicans harbour a vicious intolerance for homosexuals and homosexuality. The perception is that openly gay people have to contend with a constant fear of violence (The Economist, 2009). Many Jamaicans see this as an exaggeration; yet the perception often meets reality. For example, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians and Gays (JFLAG) reports 33 cases of serious injuries from attacks on gays in an 18- month period. Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding tells BBC’s Stephen Sackur, in a HARD TALK interview that he will not tolerate gays in his Cabinet. This stance in the global media legitimised and confirmed not only the perception of intolerance, but that there was selective attention and allocation to human rights in Jamaica

The buggery laws remain in place. The punishment up to 10 years at hard labour. For gross Indecency – 2 years hard labour. The new Prime Minister Portia Simpson pledged in 2012 to review these laws but no move has yet been made. While the Church establishment in Jamaica supports the stance against homosexuality and expresses its disagreement with the practice, Jamaican entertainers seems to foster and promote a more vicious assault on homosexuals. Lyrics by popular entertainers often threaten death to gays. This is nowadays Lesson common, thanks to intervention from the government media regulatory board, Jamaica Broadcasting Commission. Reggae – known for its message of love and rebellion against oppression, at one point was at risk as its emissaries were banned abroad, and fined, accused of spreading hate.

Crime and Violence

But perhaps one of the most shattering image perception problems facing Jamaica is crime.  Jamaica is often ranked among the world’s most violent countries. Jamaicans are rightly concerned. In 2012, Jamaica’s intentional homicide rate was 52 per 100,000 – among the top tier in the world. This crime rate is characterised by multiple killings, rise in violent death of children, rise in rape as an attendant act to violent crimes; increased willingness of criminals to challenge the police. Gang warfare, involving youths/ boys, has resulted in significant loss of life, causes immense trauma and retards social and economic development of urban communities. Drug trafficking is a growing problem, as is political warfare.  Tribal/clan politics over time has resulted in politically divided communities and brutal gang violence.

On every major poll highlighting issues of social concern, crime and violence consistently ranks in the top tier, as the most pressing problem the nation faces. Crime and violence also occupies a lot of media headlines, both nationally and globally; and also social media commentary. Crime is thus problematic for us domestically, and has a deleterious impact on our global brand image we wish to project. Jamaica also suffers from serious social and economic inequalities. Divisive politics fosters a lack of consensus and a non-cohesive social order. Indeed, discussions with business leaders and civil society in 2012, as nation celebrates 50 years of Independence from Great Britain, revealed that unity is the biggest challenge to economic, social and political progress in Jamaica.

So Jamaica has what theorists call an unhealthy ecology featuring crime, a breakdown in the rule of law, violence and incivility across all sectors, anti-social behaviours among the youth – in short, crude and lewd behaviours characterise social life in Jamaica. These filter out via social media and online versions of traditional paper into the international community – concreting a negative perception of Jamaica. A profound shift in marketing strategy and government policy is required to alter domestic circumstances and thereby reconstruct the current pessimistic narrative on Jamaica.

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