A senior Czech government minister recently asked me “What do you think the Czech brand is?”. I’ve developed a reputation over the years for telling it like it is and I didn’t see any reason to deviate, so my reply was that I didn’t think it was defined and that this in itself was a severe obstacle to the development of the nation. You’ll maybe know from my past rants that I find the subject of national branding fascinating, but the question is particularly relevant because, right now, there is a debate going on between Czechs and Slovaks over a proposal to bring back the combined trading brand “Made in Czechoslovakia”.
When the then one nation was liberated in 1989 the Czechs and Slovaks were quick to proclaim their differences and by 1993 they had become two discrete entities. There might be a point to this if either of them had the capability of building a national identity or brand, but twenty-five years after the Communists left town neither nation has achieved the focus required to make much of a mark on the world’s political or commercial map.
Both these countries boast numerous assets. They were always smart people and this is evidently re-emerging in some of the start-ups and innovations I saw during my last visit. However, someone once told me that this nation (as Czechoslovakia was), being at the intersection of so many trading routes, represents the most invaded real estate in Europe and from what I have seen over my past fifteen years of working there, history is repeating itself. This time though the conquering army is one of global corporations and with no recent history of professional politicians and a total absence of really good leadership the country has, once again, rolled over and, with no clear direction, the nation has allowed global corporations to write their own rules. Meanwhile, intimidated by the bravado of high-flying corporate executives, Czech politicians and civil servants have let them get on with it. So, now the corporates call the shots. There is no national identity, no national brand and the Czech people have done what they have always done – just accepted it. The trouble is there’s no future in this. The Czech and Slovak Republics have become Western franchises and as I write this there doesn’t appear to be any alternative on the table.
Surely this is what government is for? I’m not saying that there isn’t general acknowledgement among politicians of the problem. Indeed there are a few government-led initiatives running right now, but they are limited and restricted by the inter-departmental bickering and siloing that has become the hallmark of Czech politics. As result the initiative has been taken (again) by independent commercial organisations and a very interesting accelerator, JIC, in the Czech second city, Brno who are trying to put Czech business (at least) on the map. However, its all a bit paltry, given the size of the problem and it still doesn’t address the greater need for a national brand, which, if solved, would also make their job easier.
In the First Republic era Czechoslovaks probably came the closest they have ever been to being a proud nation. Their products had a good reputation and were exported certainly to the East and to a lesser extent Westwards and the stamp “Made in Czechoslovakia” came to mean something. The nucleus of this current branding debate resides in the belief that this old badge still holds sway in some parts. As far as I can see this is still just speculation, and even if it is true I suspect that the residual value isn’t great, but given that both nations have failed comprehensively to develop their own national brands and don’t appear to be close to actually getting down to replacing it with anything, it seems reasonable to consider reviving the only potential brand asset in the box. The Czechs on balance seem to be up for this, however, it seems there are sufficient amateur politicians on both sides of the border to mount objections and we’re back to the inertia that typifies development (or the lack of it) in this region of Europe.
Personally I think that the Czechs have sufficient assets to establish a clear and potent national brand of their own that will play a significant part both internally and externally in the future growth of the nation. There’s nothing like a strong national brand to get the people pulling in the right direction and once that happens the world is your oyster. It would help the Czechs achieve the consistency required to pull this off if they could keep a political party in power for longer than a few months and stop the incessant internal bickering, self-interest and obstinacy, but the recently appointed government appears to be making the most sense I’ve heard from any Czech government so far. If the remaining politicians and the people in general can demonstrate the maturity to put national interests above their own and let them get on with it, there’s a chance the Czech Republic might be able to move it forward. However, here is still a long way to go and I think its going to take an outside influence(r) to make real ground on this. This is a nation that has watched opportunities pass by with the regularity of a Prague tram for a quarter of a century already, so they will have to be uncharacteristically efficient and determined to pull it off.
September 18, 2014