Ukraine turns advertising into a weapon of war
When an October preview of Vogue cover story about Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska hit Twitter on July 26, reactions on social media were swift and polarized. Some critics said a photoshoot by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz for a fashion magazine was a “bad idea” and glamorous war.
Others greeted the magazine and the first lady of Ukraine for raising awareness of the suffering of Ukrainians, five months after Russia first invaded its neighboring country.
In the cover photo, Zelenska, 44, is pictured wearing a cream colored blouse with rolled up sleeves, black trousers and ballet flats. She sits on the steps of the Ukrainian parliament, leaning forward, her hands intertwined between her knees. Her makeup is minimal, her hair thrown casually as she looks directly at the camera. Within hours, Ukrainian women started using the hashtag #sit like a girl sharing photos of themselves in the same pose as a show of solidarity.
Zelenska’s Vogue profile, titled “A Portrait of Bravery” and written by journalist Rachel Donadio, is part of a broader communications strategy mounted by the Ukrainian government that aims to keep the world focused on the fight against country against Russian aggression. As part of this effort, Ukraine also launched a national branding campaign in April with the slogan “Bravery. To be Ukrainian.”
Like a communication researcherI studied how former communist countries like Ukraine used marketing strategies to restore their international reputation in the past two decades – a practice known as national branding.
Ukraine, however, is the first country to launch an official national brand campaign in the midst of war. For the first time, brand communication is a key part of a country’s response to a military invasion.
“We have no doubt that we will prevail.” As the war in Ukraine enters a critical new phase, the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, has emerged as a key player, a frontline diplomat and the face of her country’s emotional toll. https://t.co/DCXWYnzAsK pic.twitter.com/wcaY5IFGHf
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) July 26, 2022
Nation Branding and the End of Communism
The idea that nations can be marked appeared at the beginning of the 21st century. This type of work uses advertising, public relations and marketing techniques to enhance the international reputation of countries. Campaigns are often timed to coincide with major sporting, cultural or political events, such as the Olympic Games.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former communist countries of Eastern Europe were particularly keen to to rechristen and get an updated international picture.
When Estonian musicians won Eurovision in 2001, Estonia became the first post-Soviet country to hold this award. Subsequently, the country’s government hired an international advertising company to design a national brand for Estonia as it prepared to host Eurovision the following year.
Research has shown, however, that the branding efforts of former communist countries were not intended solely for international consumption. They also provided a new way of talking about national identities at home, and reinvent national values and objectives, via marketing terms.
But until 2022, no country had used national branding to wage war.
“Bravery is our mark”
Ukrainian executives Banda advertising agency first floated the idea of the Ukraine Bravery Campaign to the government shortly after the Russian invasion in February. Based in Kyiv and Los Angeles, the agency had worked before the war on government-sponsored campaigns, marketing Ukraine as a tourist and investment destination.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky endorsed the wartime branding campaign and publicly announced its launch on April 7, in a video address. “Bravery is our mark,” he said. “That’s what it means to be us. To be Ukrainians. To be brave.”
Over the following months, Banda produced numerous messages in formats ranging from billboards, posters and online videos to social media posts, t-shirts and stickers. A campaign website features downloadable logos and photographs and asks visitors to share the message of bravery and donate to Ukraine.
Some billboards feature images of brave, ordinary Ukrainians and soldiers. Other billboards are adorned with bold slogans in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag. They urge the public to “be brave like Ukraine” and say “brave lives forever”.
Inside Ukraine, the campaign messages appear on everything from juice bottles to 500 billboards in 21 cities. The campaign is also underway in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and 17 countries in Europe, including Germany, Spain and Sweden, according to Adage.
This massive communication effort is taking place at minimal cost to Ukraine. Banda donates its services and the Ukrainian government only pays the production costs. Media space, including high-profile billboards in Times Square and other major cities, has been given by several global media companies.
Branding as a weapon of war
Banda co-founder Pavel Vrzheshch said the campaign aims to boost the morale of Ukrainians as they continue to fight Russia. But the focus on bravery is also about Ukraine’s future, he says.
“The whole world admires Ukrainian bravery now, we need to solidify this notion and make it represent Ukraine forever,” Vrzheshch said in a media interview.
At its core, the campaign attempts to transform intangible value, such as bravery, into an asset that can be converted into real military, economic and moral support. In other words, it aims to cultivate positive public opinion in the West that will support further aid to Ukraine to help fight the war.
This way of using brand communication in a war is unprecedented in at least three respects.
First, rather than relying solely on diplomatic channels to seek international support, Ukraine is harnessing popular media and social media networks to speak directly to citizens of other countries. It gives ordinary people around the world a chance to show solidarity by donations or by sharing campaign messages and pressuring their government to support Ukraine.
An official brand campaign also allows Ukraine to extend the visibility of the war beyond media coverage. As the conflict continues, it is likely to fade from international media headlines. But billboards, social media posts, and the strategic use of entertainment publications like Vogue can keep it in front of the public.
Finally, the best brand messages connect consumers by inviting them to imagine better versions of themselves. Famous advertising slogans like “Just do it” from Nike or “Think different” from Apple illustrate this idea. The same goes for Ukraine’s call to people around the world to “Be brave like Ukraine”.
It is notoriously difficult to measure the effectiveness of national branding campaigns because brand advisors report. The process is long and expensive, and the results are often disputed.
The direct impact of the Brave Campaign may not be clear for months. It’s also unclear how long his message will continue to resonate. But it is clear that Ukraine is transforming national branding into a new propaganda weapon, suited to the era of consumer culture and constant media stimulation.
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