Can Mexico re-brand itself?
By Len Freeman
Drug-related violence in the resort of Acapulco has driven tourists
away and put armed police and soldiers on the streets
Can you re-brand a country in the same way you might re-brand a
packet of soap powder?
Some in Mexico are hoping you can after the intensive media coverage
of drug cartels, violence, murder and kidnappings in the country.
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon has called in a British expert on
country branding for advice, and the country's tourism industry is
now headed by a man who has worked for some of the biggest consumer
brands in the world.
More than 47,500 people have been killed since 2006 in drug-related
incidents, with the numbers of tourists and investors going to Mexico
well down as a result.
Simon Anholt is an expert on the branding of countries. He thinks
Mexico's image problems go much deeper than the negative reports of
The first thing you have got to do without any shadow of doubt is
fix the product.
"The psychological diagnosis is extremely low self-esteem," he said.
"Mexico has been trying for nearly 300 years to emerge in some way in
the mighty shadow of the United States, and partly as a result of
that it has simply never bothered to present itself to the rest of
Mr Anholt has advised the governments of more than 40 countries on
questions of national identity, reputation, trade, tourism and
He produced a detailed report on Mexico's image for the president
which concluded that Mexico had "an already weak and in some cases
badly flawed reputation" which was "undergoing a further downward
Much of the report was based on the 2010 Anholt-GfK Roper Nation
Brands Index, which ranked Mexico 31st out of 50 countries by public
perception. The US came top at number one.
Nearly 20,000 people in 20 countries are questioned each year for the
poll. Respondents are asked more than 40 questions about their
perceptions of the 50 countries.
Mexico got some of its best rankings from other Latin American
countries but its US neighbour ranked it very close to the bottom at
Most respondents in the 20 countries polled regarded Mexico as less
beautiful than Finland, having no more cultural heritage than
Scotland, less attractive as a tourist destination than Belgium and
virtually on a par with the United States for being rich in historic
One man hoping to transform Mexico's image is Gerardo Llanes, who
took up the post of executive director for marketing at the Mexico
Tourism Board a year ago.
Tourist numbers are increasing after a new PR campaign
He has previously worked for some of the world's biggest brands,
including Kellogg's and Coca Cola, and is credited with launching
Diet Coke in Mexico.
One of his first priorities was to tackle the falling numbers of
tourists from the United States and Canada - countries which Mexico
is most dependent on for visitors.
His campaign aimed at North America shows Americans, filmed by hidden
cameras in taxis, talking about their holidays in Mexico.
"That has built the credibility of our message because it is not me
or Mexico's tourism board talking to you - it is real Americans
telling their real stories about their vacations."
But he acknowledged that PR alone would not solve the image problem.
Mexico's problems are tied up with the international demand for drugs
and a need for social reform at home.
"We need more social equality so that people who might be thinking of
becoming bad guys might not think about it because they can have
There are signs the PR campaign is working.
Although tourist numbers are dramatically down in Acapulco , which
has seen some of the worst of the violence, other areas are seeing a
revival. December 2011 showed an overall 10% increase on the previous
PR is fine for promoting tourism, Mr Anholt argues, but it won't
change a country's image.
Gerardo Llanes: Social reform is needed
"If you are talking about the overall reputation of the country,
that's not subject to marketing because it is not a product for sale.
"There is no point in standing around moaning about Mexico's image
when hundreds, thousands of people are being killed each year.
"It is not Mexico's fault, if it is anybody's fault it is America's
fault, but they have still got to fix it."
President Calderon has himself pointed the finger at the United States.
He has said the problem of drugs trafficking stems from the fact that
Mexico's neighbour - the US - is the largest consumer of drugs in the
And many of the guns used by the drug gangs are being smuggled in
from the US.
Two independent US reports have recently highlighted the scale of the
problem. One by the US state department estimated that as much as 90%
of all cocaine consumed in the US came via Mexico.
A second report by the US Senate, Halting US Firearms Trafficking to
Mexico, suggested that some 70% of firearms recovered from Mexican
crime scenes in 2009 and 2010 and submitted for tracing came from the
More than 50,000 troops and federal police in Mexico are now actively
involved in the fight against the cartels.
Mr Anholt said one way for Mexico to boost its image would be to find
new, imaginative and effective ways of tackling the drugs problem.
The country could demonstrate international leadership by offering
solutions to other problems too such as climate change, poverty and
"Then people will start looking to Mexico as a place that is not a
victim of its problems but a leader in resolving those problems and
then the change begins to happen," he said.