Created as a citizen initiative by a group of smart Colombian marketers, a simple idea aims to harness patriotic sentiment among social media users to correct a common spelling error, and promote the Colombian country brand in the process.
People unfamiliar with Colombia tend to confuse the Andean country’s name, both in spelling and pronunciation, with Columbia, the name of a university, a Canadian province, and a sportswear brand. High-profile spelling offenders include Starbucks, Disney, and even the CIA. Patriotic Colombians, and others who love the country, were becoming increasingly frustrated with these constant mistakes. After all, having one’s entire national identity reduced to the level of a sportswear brand IS rather discouraging.
So the social media campaign ‘it’s Colombia, NOT Columbia’, started with a serious mission: to educate the world on the correct way to spell their country’s name. The campaign, launched on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, asks supporters to photograph themselves wearing specially designed T-shirts bearing the simple catchphrase ‘It’s Colombia, NOT Columbia’, then post the photos to the campaign’s social media channels. In addition to this, the campaign organisers gather examples of misspellings from around the world and post them to the social channels, complete with witty comments gently chastising the individual/group/organisation responsible for the error.
The campaign’s Facebook page is now nearing 20,000 fans since it was launched on February 7 this year. The managers of this campaign certainly know how to make a campaign go viral. Either that, or this sentiment reflects popular opinion and has given people an outlet to express feelings they’ve been harbouring for a long time.
Timeline of ‘It’s Colombia, NOT Columbia’ Facebook Page.
Starbucks: nicely named and shamed.
Campaign creator, Carlos Pardo, hopes to ‘prove that social media is the most important tool in changing the perceptions of a country.’
But how does Colombia traditionally fare in the nation branding stakes?
Not amazingly well so far.
According to Bloom Consulting’s most recent country brand index, the Colombian economy and perceptions of Colombia as a tourist destination are still poor, lagging far behind neighbouring countries. Despite its stunning scenery and fascinating culture, potential tourists still commonly view Colombia as an unsafe place to visit, suffering as it does from a long legacy of guerilla warfare, infamous drug gangs and frequent kidnappings. However, this perception is perhaps starting to shift, albeit slowly. Colombia’s second city Medellín was once considered one of the world’s most dangerous cities. But in spring 2013 Urban Land Institute voted it the world’s most innovative, beating Tel Aviv and New York to the title. That accolade may help attract foreign investment, but ordinary tourists are still likely to shy away from a place perceived as risky.
It’s unlikely the ‘It’s Colombia…’ campaign in itself can change people’s perceptions of Colombia. But what it can do is raise awareness of the country in people’s minds, sparking their curiosity and desire to find out more. When they decide to visit, they will hopefully find that Colombia defies common negative perceptions. If the country makes a good impression, then many travellers will spread the word to their networks using social media. This will eventually cause a gradual shift in perceptions, but it will be a long process. At this early stage visiting Colombia is more likely to appeal to more adventurous travellers, rather than the ordinary tourist.
But the ‘It’s Colombia…’ grassroots campaign didn’t come into being simply because some ordinary Colombians were outraged by the world’s spelling mistakes. The Colombian government has been working for some time on improving the less positive aspects of their country, and also on promotional strategies to communicate the changes to the rest of the world. Spurred by the government’s own PR efforts, the citizen campaign was born.
So what exactly have the Colombian government been doing to promote their country to the outside world?
In a recent interview, Daniel Reyes, Communications Chief at Marca Pais Colombia, the national country-branding agency, talked in more detail about the government’s efforts to bring Colombia into the country branding big leagues.
Daniel Reyes pointed out, “Social media has allowed us to deliver a coherent message about Colombia that is very difficult to achieve in other media. We try to give our social media followers, who number almost one million across all our social channels, an integral image of the country by posting content on four main categories, based on Colombia’s international offer on culture, tourism, exports and investment opportunities.”
The official country branding campaign, titled ‘The Answer is Colombia’, launched with a bold and innovative event held in the middle of New York’s Times Square. The aim was to put six authentic all-expenses-paid Colombian travel experiences up for auction among the crowds of tourists passing every day through the square.
Six Colombian Experiences:
A giant interactive billboard in Times Square showed captivating images from all the six experiences, which ranged from walking the Coffee Route to seeing humpback whales in the Pacific. The auction took place every afternoon for one week, with the comedian Craig Baldo hosting the event on stage and urging people to place their votes. Voters did so by using a mobile app (available to download either via a regular link or by scanning the QR code on the billboard) to connect to Brand Colombia’s official social media profiles, then inviting all their friends to vote. The person who gets the most votes within 30 minutes would win an all expenses paid trip to live the Colombian experience that was up for auction that day.
In terms of country branding, the campaign’s overall goal is to have the international community acknowledge Colombia as a ‘mega-diverse’ country with a lot to offer, but especially in terms of the talent of its people. In the words of Daniel Reyes, ‘we have overcome some very tough obstacles on the road to prosperity, and that has made us excellent at solving problems. We have that experience to share with the world. Colombia is a solution country.’
One could agree that Colombia’s innovative approach to country branding and to using digital has already given the world a good glimpse of their capacity for solving problems.
Colombia still faces many challenges in terms of security, even though the situation has improved greatly. The government is currently undertaking peace talks with the FARC (the guerilla organisation blamed for much of the conflict in Colombia). The result of those talks will determine a great deal about the country’s future. From a branding perspective, Colombia aims to continue telling the world about the progress the country is making in every area, not denying the problems, but focusing more on the solutions.