Branding Strategies in Action – Colombia: From Pariah State to Progressive Economy

By Tom Buncle, Managing Director, Yellow Railroad (Nov 2010) – for abouTourism blog (Manolis Psarros)

Question: How do you change a country’s image from one of the world’s “bad boys” to somewhere people want to invest and visit?

Answer: You don’t do it overnight or through flash marketing. You do it by changing your behaviour, your infrastructure and your institutions; and then you tell people about the changes …. but not before you’ve changed the very fabric of your country. Then, and only then, can the brand kick in as a signal of the new nation. And to get the message across that you’ve changed, you need to focus ruthlessly on your core assets and values. Oh ….. and it can help to attract people’s attention if you’re a bit controversial.

Image Problem

Famous worldwide for cocaine, coffee and conflict, Colombia decided in the late 1990s/early 2000s that it had to change its world image.

Importantly it began with real substance. It underpinned its approach to change with some major investments in infrastructure and changes to the way it did business (in education, health, public infrastructure projects, safety and security, a new legal framework for businesses and a more favourable tax regime). This sent a signal to the world that Colombia was serious about doing business and changing the way the world saw it.

Tourism played an important part in this transformation too. Having introduced these major infrastructural changes, there was, inevitably, a lag between people’s perceptions of Colombia’s traumatic past and Colombia’s new reality as a safe, welcoming, culturally rich country with the second greatest biodiversity in the world.

Change Begins at Home

One of the first steps was to improve personal security throughout the country and tell people once internal routes had been “reclaimed” as safe. Part of Colombia’s strategy included developing domestic tourism (promoted through the campaign “Vive Colombia. Viaje por ella” = “Live Colombia. Travel all around it”). This was backed by a “Rutas seguras” (safe routes) programme featuring 2,234 “Vive Colombia Safe Routes” for tourism. This commitment to ensuring security throughout the country gave Colombians confidence to travel internally. The increased level of security led to foreign governments downgrading their security advisories in Colombia’s favour in its main tourism-generating markets, thereby helping to demonstrate to visitors that travel to Colombia was now safe.

Nurturing the Brand Essence and Removing Barriers

Colombia also introduced a National Climate Change Policy (CONPES) in partial recognition of the importance of its biodiversity for visitors. Investment was made in tourism infrastructure projects; and visa requirements were eased or eliminated for several countries.

With real changes in infrastructure and security in place, Colombia embarked on a communications campaign.

A nation brand identity (i.e. covering public diplomacy, business, culture and tourism, but with an emphasis on public diplomacy and business) was developed: “Colombia es passion”. This appeared to combine the warm heart of Colombians with the steam rising from a cup of Colombian coffee (one of its most important sources of export earnings along with tourism). More importantly, it was a strong clear, simple visual with a direct and catchy slogan.

Addressing Negative Perceptions Head-On

However, interestingly, the approach to developing tourism was even more direct and, for some people, quite controversial. Colombia decided that, in order to attract visitors, it could not hide from its past traumatic history. This was too widely known to sweep under the carpet. And any pretence at ignoring it was likely to be treated with suspicion. Colombia acknowledged that the greatest factor preventing people from visiting Colombia was fear for their personal safety. Colombia therefore decided to tackle this perception head-on (which was in effect now a misperception, as much had been done through government programmes, such as the “Rutas seguras” campaign and others, to address and reduce the security problems).

In a courageous attempt to turn a negative into a positive and overcome this damaging lag between people’s perceptions of a past Colombia and the new, reformed Colombia, Colombia decided to challenge people’s perception of risk. It turned the notion of risk on its head and challenged people to reconsider the true nature of the risk in a positive and mildly humorous way, under the campaign slogan, in the form of a logo, “Colombia, el riesgo es que te quieras quedar” (“Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay”):

This was a brave move. But clearly, it could only have achieved credibility and worked if it represented the truth: that Colombia really was much safer and that it was a sufficiently attractive tourism destination.

So, did it work?


Results, which combine both the overall national image for business and public diplomacy with tourism, suggest that it was extremely successful [1]:

  • Visitors doubled from 624,990 in 2003 to 22,012 in 2008
  • GDP grew by 332%  (2002 – 2007)
  • Exports rose 150% (2002 – 2007)
  • Unemployment dropped 29% (2002 – 2007)
  • Road mobility increased by 41% (2002 – 2007)
  • Hotel occupancy rose by 32% (2002 – 2007)
  • The confidence index of the Colombian population increased by 75% (2002 – 2007)
  • Foreign direct investment rose to 5% of GDP in 2007 ($US 8.65 bn)
  • Colombia climbed from 66th in 2007 to 53rd in 2008 in the “Doing Business” Index of 181 countries
  • Colombia was awarded the World Bank prize in 2007
  • Colombia’s target is to raise income per capita from $US 3,000 to $US 18,000 by 2032

Tourism’s role in changing Colombia’s fortunes has been widely recognised in the beginning of the 21st century:

“The contribution of tourism to the success of this national branding program is a model example of the important role played by tourism not only in social and economic development, but also in forging the image of a country.”[2]

Colombia is now firmly back on the world stage as country with which people can safely do business again, and as a vibrant tourism destination. Colombia stands as a clear example of the importance of underpinning any rebranding with substantive change, which has then to be powerfully communicated – first internally to residents and then externally to potential customers and visitors.

What Next?

This is a hard act to follow. But follow it Colombia must. Once Colombia has become widely perceived as having changed and truly joined the world league of attractive tourism destinations, the memory of its past on which Colombia’s “risk” narrative relies will eventually no longer sustain this clever strapline. The novelty phase will be over. A new and more positive narrative will be required to project Colombia’s brand essence.

Just like Croatia, whose success is likely soon to erode the currency of its fabulous strapline “The Way the Mediterranean Once Was”, as it too becomes congested and priced just like the rest of the Mediterranean, Colombia will soon face the challenge of  having to find a more apt way of differentiating itself from its neighbours.

But if the price of success is a new strapline, then that’s not a bad deal………….…… as long as Colombia remains true to its values and builds on its success to project its true brand essence, and doesn’t get side-tracked by mediocre ad agencies trying to replicate the cleverness of what was a wonderfully inspired, but nevertheless inevitably ephemeral, strapline

[1] United Nations World Tourism Organisation (2008) Colombia – Back on the Map of World Tourism, Madrid

[2] Ibid

Click here for PART ONE: Defining the Concepts & 9+1 Brand-Building Principles

Click here for PART TWO: Creating a Place Brand

Click here for PART THREE/A: Destination Branding Strategies in Action: New Zealand


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