Brand Jamaica: beyond sun, sand and sea
How to position the nation in a globalising world is a crucial imperative for Jamaica. With the thawing of relations between our neighbour Cuba and the United States, and the anticipated rise in tourists and investors to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island, the question of who we are, as well as how to express and promote Jamaican identity on the global stage, has returned to the public agenda.
The prevailing construct of Jamaica's national brand is itself ideologically flawed, predicated on existing exoticised discourses about the Caribbean and other countries of the global South. Tourism branding and promotion in Jamaica reproduce these discourses with problem-atic consequences for determining and achieving consensus on national identity.
At present, the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) is responsible for disseminating the key idea of Jamaica to the world. Tourism constitutes the most vital sector of the Jamaican economy, and consequently, is the way people outside Jamaica know about and conceive of the country.
The Jamaican Government, through its tourism agency, has engaged in a sophisticated campaign of branding the country as merely a 'tourism destination'. A textual analysis of seven major Jamaican destination tourism marketing and promotion ad campaigns since 1960 - namely, 'Come to Jamaica' (1960-1963), 'Come Back to Jamaica' (1963-1975), 'Discover Jamaica - We are More Than a Beach' (1975-1984), 'Make It Jamaica Again' (1984-1994), 'One Love' (1994-2003), 'Once You Go You Know' (2003-2013) and the recent 'Jamaica - Get All Right' (2013-present) - reveal a marketing focus largely on the aesthetics and recreational aspects of Jamaica.
A Borrowed Identity
The 'official' expression of Jamaican identity endorsed by the Government, and upon which it has relied since Independence in 1962, is an exotic island paradise of beautiful beaches, tropical weather, friendly, laid-back people, and reggae providing a musical backdrop. This ready-made Jamaican identity was manufactured through ideology and global mediated discourses which feature the islands of the Caribbean as exotic places to vacation; as paradise where the so-called natives are not only laid-back, but seen to be poor, undereducated and underemployed. It is a familiar but largely borrowed identity.
This hegemonic interpretation of Jamaica is based on sundry representational discourses about the Third World - countries whose collective histories have been linked to, if not dominated by, the ravages of slavery and colonisation, violence and underdevelopment.
A glaring example of this identity dilemma occurred in 2013 when German car manufacturer Volkswagen's Super Bowl commercial featured a white office worker simulating the Jamaican Patois accent, and encouraging his colleagues - who were in a busy office meeting - to be happy, to 'just chill out' - 'no worries, man; everyting will be all right'.
A firestorm of commentary ensued on social and traditional media, with many pundits blasting the commercial as 'racist' and 'off-putting' for its attempt to portray blacks, in general, and the Jamaican people, in particular, as happy-go-lucky.
The Jamaican Government, nevertheless, endorsed the commercial as an accurate depiction of Jamaica's people and culture. The country's tourism minister and opposition spokesman, for example, hailed the ad as a "perfect illustration of Jamaican culture's global reach, and our uncharacteristic penchant to be happy even in challenging situations" as well as "the tremendous appeal of Brand Jamaica and its hospitable people have globally" (Huffington Post, 2013).
The Government of Jamaica was seemingly gratified with the country's Patois language being recognised and employed in an advertisement by a respected foreign manufacturer. Calling its new 2013 campaign 'JAMAICA - Get All Right', the Jamaican tourism authorities declared: "Jamaica is more than a just a holiday destination, it's a feeling; it's an experience. ... Jamaica is where people come to find positivity, a force making the world feel more all right through its rhythm, energy and spirit. Capturing that essence and bringing it to life is what comes through in our new brand and campaign identity." (Jamaica Observer, 2013).
The Government, in other words, unapologetically assumed all aspects of Volkswagen's discursive construction of the country and declined to challenge its subjective limitations or its political and cultural implications. While a sense of humour and cheerful attitude are fundamentally Jamaican, and does help citizens to cope during difficult times, existing global narratives on Jamaica such as those are incomplete.
The fact is that Jamaica has struggled to define itself in the world and has appropriated a brand that was constructed elsewhere. The process of establishing a coherent, more complex, authentic expression of Jamaican identity, therefore, remains at large.
The sun, sand and sea metaphor is what the consumers want, the junior minister of tourism declared in a Facebook discussion recently, and future promotion models will retain the sun and sea as JTB's core offering. Since 1963, Jamaican authorities have fed into, reproduced and reflected back to the world an exoticised island paradise, and a narrative that essentially declares 'come to Jamaica where there is no problem, mon and feel all right' as the singular narrative and expression of Jamaica's national identity. This imported and flawed national identity has endured far beyond its usefulness.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie writes of the dangers of telling a single story about a people and a place. A single story, she asserts, creates stereotypes. It's not that stereotypes are untrue, but that they are incomplete. Stereotypes make one story the only story. Single stories not only, flatten one's experience of that place, but also overlook multiple other stories that help to form that place and people. This distancing of modern Jamaica from its history and culture is problematic for Brand Jamaica.
Nation Brand in Transition
A revitalised Jamaican self-image ought to be based on its global claim to fame, the way the nation has made its mark on the world stage. This is a key element for a reimagined national identity, and crucially important in understanding how Jamaican citizens see their country or wish for their country to be perceived.
In this reimagined Jamaica, we must embrace and speak of the significance of the arts and creative industries, restoring pride in the nation's history, its heroes, traditions and rituals, achieving consensus on certain norms and values which should guide the society, and a reconnection to the symbolic culture by all sectors of the society in order to construct, emphasise and communicate a strong Jamaican identity in the world.
Like many nation brands, Jamaica's national image is in transition, and is still working to fully embrace its potential. It is important for Jamaica to evolve and continue to promote its symbols alongside the evolution of its people, products, society and culture. It's the nations that embrace and adapt to dynamic changes in their culture that are most competitive and most able to take advantage of trade, investment, tourism and other international opportunities.
Brand Jamaica remains strong and formidable, but troubled. It has untapped potential, but must take advantage of this historical moment. It must seek to keep pace with its own desire for global relevance.
- Dr Hume Johnson is chairperson of the nation brand initiative, The Re:Imagine Jamaica Project, and the inaugural Brand Jamaica symposium, July 16-17. She is also professor of public relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.