To Brand or Not to Brand Jamaica…

Some remarks on the recently held Brand Jamaica Symposium, the first of a series of three posts looking at predicaments facing Jamaica and Jamaicans.

Hume Johnson, Moji Anderson and Erin McLeod
Hume Johnson, Moji Anderson and Erin McLeod
In the middle of July there was a good little conference on re-imagining Jamaica organized by two academics from the Jamaican diaspora, Hume Johnson (Assistant Professor of Public Relations, Roger Williams University, USA) and Kamille Gentles-Peart (Associate Professor, Roger Williams University, USA). Held on the campus of the University of the West Indies, Mona, the conference rose above the rather mercantile ambitions suggested by its subtitle, “Brand Jamaica Symposium 2015”.

The conference call for papers was by no means crudely reductive allowing space for a broad range  of responses. According to chair Hume Johnson:

It is important to begin a process of taking stock of the quality of the nation’s global brand and image, both the areas which are positive and can be leveraged for our economic benefit and political and social advantage as well as the aspects that threaten our good name.

Our aim is to advocate for a re-imagining and repositioning of the Jamaican brand, the creation of a more complex narrative beyond sun, sand and sea, one that projects a more positive and complete image of the country centred on its people, culture and heritage.

For many of us the discourse of branding is problematic, doubly so when it’s related to countries like Jamaica with its history of slavery, of human beings treated as property whose abject ‘thinghood’ was burnt into their flesh with branding irons—probably one of the earliest articulations of the branding discourse–to literally mark on the bodies of slaves the symbols or logos of the plantation owner they belonged to. The very first paper, “Back to the Brand: Inequality and Alienation through ‘Brand Jamaica’” amply critiqued the concept, signaling presenters Moji Anderson and Erin McLeod’s profound disagreement with the idea of ‘nation branding.’

It’s a matter of some irony that despite this history of inhumane servitude the nation state of Jamaica would develop in the 21st century into a country that fetishizes brands and branding. Only a few days before the conference an economist named Dennis Jones noted the Jamaican predilection for logos and corporate branding.

I was especially struck today by a picture of two top executives [JPS] wearing business suits with the company logo embroidered on them–not just the snazzy polo shirts, or the neat cotton shirts with the brand on the pocket or lapel or collar.

Grace Kennedy and their top executive, Don Wehby, often hit the eye with their branded clothes.

I gladly admit to knowing nothing about why this [love for branding] is so strong in Jamaica. It goes even to public service agencies, like government ministries. So, it’s deep in our economic culture.

A rather horrifying thought is that perhaps thinghood is so deeply rooted in our culture that we gravitate effortlessly towards the corporate and corporatization. The phenomenon of uniforms in Jamaican offices is also worth noting. There seems to be an ardent desire for incorporation, a longing to belong, to have a rightful place, and then having been incorporated, to brandish that affiliation for everyone to see. Are we invisible unless we have a logo to claim? Is this why some Jamaicans are anxious to brand their country and re-tool its image away from the stereotypes it currently conjures in the minds of non-Jamaicans?

The commodity fetish (a la Anne McClintock) is an inevitable feature of the ‘commodity culture’ we inhabit. However it’s one thing for the wo/man on the street to be subsumed by the mercantilist ethos of our times but should our policy-makers, politicians, technocrats and academics not adopt a more nuanced view of things?

Samantha North, the place specialist who gave the keynote lecture is herself wary of the term ‘nation branding’. “Personally I don’t even like to use the term ‘brand’ but it is sort of entrenched in the industry now …I think identity is a better word, more descriptive and I hope that it can come into our lexicon,” said North in a radio interview after the conference. On Twitter she expanded further: “The term #nationbrand trivialises the entire thing & gives a false idea of our true aims. This is NOT about marketing.  Perhaps a new term is needed, as I mentioned last night in my keynote. Identity is a good one. #BrandJamaica = Jamaican identity.”

Despite the negatives associated with the concept of branding the conference itself produced a number of spirited panels and discussions. From the simplistic appeal of the President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association for self-censorship (in effect complaining that Jamaicans had tweeted too much about the Chik-V outbreak here last year scaring tourists away in the process—one couldn’t help wondering–would she rather they had come here and succumbed to the epidemic? How would that have enhanced Jamaica’s image?) to the Executive Director of the Broadcasting Commission, Cordel Green’s observation that there is nothing at Jamaica’s airports to announce to tourists their arrival in Reggae country to Anna Perkins’ paper on the economic costs of homophobia the conference was rich and diverse.  Alana Osbourne, a PhD. Student from the University of Amsterdam spoke on Aestheticizing Poverty and Violence in Trench Town, Jamaica. For a full list of speakers and topics go here.

Investment guru, Michael McMorris discussing foriegn direct investment and whether Jamaican can get it right.
Investment guru, Michael McMorris discussing foriegn direct investment and whether Jamaican can get it right.

Not only was there plenty of food for thought, there was also food and drink on the house at this well-organized and free-to-the-public event. Unsurprisingly audiences were robust and participated vigorously in the debates and discussions some of which is captured in the tweets presented at the end of this post. The consensus was that as North said, quoting Obama, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig.” Jamaica has a serious image problem which cannot simply be erased or reversed by a few well-funded public relations campaigns.

Jamaica’s negatives—its crime, its violence, its homophobia, its lack of economic growth–are liabilities that will have to be eliminated or reduced before Jamaica’s many assets can be effectively leveraged, or used to burnish its image.

The Re-imagine Jamaica conference was put on in partnership with the University of the West Indies’ Centre for Leadership and Governance (CLG), a good collaboration between the diaspora and yard.

This post is the first in an interconnected series I want to write. Hopefully the next one will be available tomorrow. That’s the plan anyway 🙂

#brandjamaica symposium. Listening to Moji Anderson &@touchofallright: Brand Jamaica continues the commodification#blackbodies @anniepaul
@touchofallright and Moji Anderson: #branjamaica: living our lives thru the eyes of others @anniepaul
Hume Johnson talks about traditional identity of Jamaica as being imported and then reproduced not emerging from the people.#brandjamaica
Hume Johnson our people can no longer be at the periphery in articulating our identity they must be at the center. #brandjamaica
@cordelgreen – There is nothing on arrival in Jamaica that suggests that #Jamaica is reggae country #BrandJamaicaSymposium#reimagineJamaica
Head of Jamaica Hotel & Tourism Assn suggested J’cans shouldn’t express criticism of the govt or society on social media. Yup. That’s right.
-brandishes hands wildly- ‘You are all brand ambassadors! YOU are#BrandJamaica! BE THE BRAND! FEEL THE BRAND!’ …
This concept of #brandjamaica is THE most comical thing in the world to me
Alana Osbourne talking: aestheticizing poverty and violence in#trenchtown #jamaica currently at #BrandJamaicaSymposium2015
#BrandJamaica is a sham. Top hotels run by Spanish who outsource labour. Coffee owned by Japan, Grace Foods produced and packages outside
LMAO let’s not forget them complaining about how theres a brain drain w/o offering us options to live in a dignified manner??#BrandJamaica
Jamaica is just a large timeshare and Jamaicans exist in the helpers quarters to serve when needed. #BrandJamaica
RT @nnboogie #BrandJamaica is a country that almost killed Bob Marley over a friggin peace concert but now blast his music at the airport
@BigBlackBarry marketing #brandjamaica not our savior. we need to produce/market world class products & services. #whatworks
Real change necessary, not enough to put lipstick on pig was one of Samantha North’s messages #ReimagineJamaica #BrandJamaica

Lol one minute they're turning their nose up at dancehall, next min they want to capitalise on it #BrandJamaica

Lol one minute they’re turning their nose up at dancehall, next min they want to capitalise on it #BrandJamaica
The responses to #BrandJamaica support what I’ve thought for some time: that the term ‘brand’ is totally misleading.
The term #nationbrand trivialises the entire thing & gives a false idea of our true aims. This is NOT about marketing. #BrandJamaica
Perhaps a new term is needed, as I mentioned last night in my keynote. Identity is a good one. #BrandJamaica = Jamaican identity.
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