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Why Some Consider ‘Brand Jamaica’ a Problematic Idea

Illustration representing Usain Bolt reconstructed from parts and fragments of a Gatorade bottle; image by Charis Tsevis, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Illustration representing Usain Bolt reconstructed from parts and fragments of a Gatorade bottle; image by Charis Tsevis, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Of all the islands in the Caribbean archipelago, Jamaica is probably the one that is the most effectively branded, Rihanna and Barbados notwithstanding. Think sun, sand, sea and, well…spliffs…and you think Jamaica. Reggae and dancehall music? Jamaica. Fastest man on earth? Jamaica.

Interesting then, that the island has chosen not to rest on its laurels; rather, it is striving to reinvent itself via the first ever Brand Jamaica Symposium, which was held in July at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus.

The conference, aptly called ‘Re-Imagine Jamaica: Unlimited Possibilities’, was hosted by The Re:Imagine Jamaica Project, a branding think tank organised by two academics from the Jamaican diaspora — Hume Johnson, who is an assistant professor of public relations at Roger Williams University in the United States; and Kamille Gentles-Peart, an associate professor at the same university. In association with the Centre for Leadership and Governance at the University of the West Indies, the project brings together professionals from a wide cross section of relevant industries to discuss the factors that have an impact on the country's international image, all in an effort “to promote and protect Brand Jamaica”.

According to Dr. Johnson:

However, Jamaica-based Annie Paul, who blogs at Active Voice, explained why the concept of branding can be so fraught in a country of this nature:

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. […]

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.

Paul referred to the very first paper presented at the conference, ‘Back to the Brand: Inequality and Alienation through “Brand Jamaica”’, noting that it “amply critiqued the concept, signaling presenters Moji Anderson and Erin McLeod’s profound disagreement with the idea of ‘nation branding.’”

Even the conference's keynote speaker, Samantha North, was wary of the term, saying on Twitter that “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.”

Paul also wrote that “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.

In a follow-up post on the issue, Paul wondered whether there was any room for the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall in the new Brand Jamaica, considering the fact that the organisers wanted to achieve a “more nuanced, complex narrative about the country”.

To do that, however, Paul suggested that the country has to overcome a few of its hangups:

One thing I do know is that […] Jamaica […] — the scornfully prideful, insouciantly indifferent, self-destructive country — is one that no amount of shallow ‘rebranding’ can redeem. It would be a hard sell. Part of the exercise of building a new identity for Jamaica will have to involve a radical shift in attitude and world-view. There is no one more equipped to help with this than Stuart Hall — he may be gone but he has left behind archives of new knowledge that students all over the world eagerly consume. We should too. His work on representation, the power of the image, stereotypes and how to dismantle them are directly related to the discussions on branding. But the most important thing about Stuart Hall as a symbol of what Jamaican intellection can and should be is the example he sets for Caribbean youth of a Jamaican operating at the top of his game not in athletics, not in music but in the virtually impenetrable world of high theory.

When Twitter users employ the hashtag #BrandJamaica, their focus seems to be on creative industries, sport, music and language — things the island is already known for — but perhaps looking at them through a Stuart Hall lens may reveal a deeper experience of what Jamaica truly represents. One Facebook user even quipped that other countries are the ones profiting from the Jamaican brand:

Its seems like only China is really benefitting from ‪#‎BRANDJAMAICA‬…..our government is so quick to imposed all kind of unnecessary tax on our people…but they don't want to take the necessary step to recovery money from those giant and bullies who seek to exploit our blessed land….‪#‎ratinnaparliament‬

The timing may be perfect for a re-examination of Jamaican identity.

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