Sasha Baillie, advisor to the minister of economy and chair of the nation branding committee: "The nation branding process is not about packaging, but it's a question of bringing out the content"
Changing reputations: how the nation branding process came about
Sasha Baillie grew up in Luxembourg and is now advisor to the minister of economy and chairs the nation branding committee. Baillie is one of a number of personalities to be featured in the “Celebrating Luxembourg” series.
Martine Huberty: If you had to pick 3 important dates in your life, what would they be?
Sasha Baillie: I grew up in Luxembourg to British parents. I studied in Scotland because I had strong links there, but I realised that I was in fact a Luxembourger. It was also around that time that I decided to get Luxembourg citizenship.
As a diplomat, I took on a posting in Moscow. I entered a whole new world of economic diplomacy. Providing that public service support to companies was very enriching. It was a challenging environment to work and live in. Both my children were born in Russia. But being able to discover a different culture, a different way of thinking is very enriching.
The third moment was moving from the ministry of foreign affairs to the ministry of economy. It’s quite unusual to move between ministries. It means moving out of a comfort zone.
If you were not advisor to the minister or even a civil servant, what would you be?
An entrepreneur! If I was an entrepreneur, I would do something with a social purpose. I enjoy working for something that is beneficial to more than just one person and their financial interests alone. That is why I enjoy working for the public service, because you are able to share what you have to give. I think it would be very enjoyable to work in the private sector, where you have different means, more flexibility to get things done.
In what way has Luxembourg society changed over the past 20 years?
It’s changed tremendously. It’s always been open to many cultures, but it’s been much more embracing and appreciative of the different nationalities that are here. It has become a country in which it is so normal to hear all these different languages around you—that is quite exceptional. But it’s also a challenge to keep everybody together around that openness.
Why is the concept of nation branding important for Luxembourg?
Because for many years, Luxembourg, in its perception from abroad, has been reduced to one very strong area, which is the financial sector, but it has not managed to bring awareness to the different characteristics which make it a real country. What I think we’re managing to do is to put the focus on different aspects of the country and raise awareness and self-confidence in these areas. It’s about going into depth, into the substance, it’s not a question of packaging, but a question of bringing out the content.
Previously, Luxembourg was quite happy not to expose itself too much, with being small and being almost behind the scenes internationally.
I think we shouldn’t change that, being behind the scenes, being discreet is one of our characteristics. It’s about not being shy. It doesn’t mean you have to become pushy or egocentric in the way you communicate. It’s about raising your own awareness of what your strengths are and not feeling you have to apologise for being small, or for being a financial centre (which we don’t need to apologise for anyway).
Is Luxleaks one of the reasons why the nation branding process was put in motion?
No, we started that process well before specific scandals. It started in 2012 among a group of high officials in different ministries, where we sensed that we have a reputation problem. We saw it had to be addressed in a fundamental way, not just by making campaigns and promotional material, but by working on a proper strategy on how to promote and how to influence the reputation of the country on the basis of what it really is. It’s been a complex process. There will always be certain negative stories that come out in the press and that can do a lot of damage, but behind that, there has to be a firm base of substance that you can always build on. You cannot reduce a country to scandals.
Is the economic aspect in international diplomacy becoming ever more important?
I wouldn’t say that this process is run by the ministry of economy. It really is something we do hand in hand with the ministry of foreign affairs and other ministries. I had been director of European affairs at the time and took on the role as chair of the nation branding committee. In that committee, there was the Service information et presse, the ministry of finance, of economy, of tourism and the different agencies that do the promotional work.
A year later, I got hired by Etienne Schneider to join his cabinet, and kept the chair of the nation branding committee. In a way, it worked very well because we brought the economy and the nation branding process closer together. We have with Etienne Schneider and Francine Closener two members of the government who felt very strongly about the necessity of working on the reputation of the country.
I’ve been carrying out separate work by setting up a trade and investment steering committee, which focuses on promoting the Luxembourg economy. The trade and investment committee channels all the different economic actors, the chamber of commerce, FEDIL, Luxinnovation, the economy and the state ministry. We created a trade and investment board, chaired by the minister of economy.
Nation branding is everything about the country: it encompasses culture, society at large; whereas with economic promotion you’re looking at key sectors with all their complexity, be it biotechnology or space or infrastructure in general. These two processes are different, but have to be in line. They have to build on the same values so that there is coherence in the communication.
Looking at the Great Britain campaign, which has many economic supporters such as Jaguar, Burberry: which economic partners do you work with?
We have lots of strong Luxembourg companies abroad. One example is Paul Wurth: they are the top blast furnace constructors in the world. In Russia, they were very much an ambassador for us, because they had all the contacts to the Russian and ex-Soviet steel industry. We would organise metallurgy days with Paul Wurth and Arcelor Mittal at the embassy.
We might not have the diversity and the mass that big countries like the UK or France have, but we do have certain key sectors which we can really work together with when it comes to promoting the country abroad. SES is a very strong partner as well, so when it comes to space, we work hand in hand when it comes to increasing Luxembourg’s presence in parts of the world. They are flagship economic actors whom we work closely with.
If you speak to them, you will find that they appreciate the accessibility to decision-makers in Luxembourg, and the ease of understanding they get from the government decision-makers. In some embassies, we have also developed business clubs.
For the nation branding, we’re trying to set up a system, a network of so-called ambassadors who can be from other areas than the economy, as you mentioned with what you’re doing with “Celebrating Luxembourg”. Who are the key sports people that represent Luxembourg? What about in culture? There are people who are proud of being part of Luxembourg, but are not always connected. We haven’t really made much effort to connect them, and that is what we will try to do now in order to have mutually beneficial exchanges.
We’re currently working on the concept.
The nation branding process is not really a “branding” process. It’s a process of moving society forward. It’s not through one simple film or campaign that you will change the reputation of a country. We involve all these actors by creating ownership about Luxembourg at home, so that every one of us can convey those messages and stories abroad. So that’s a very long-term process, and the result is that the reputation can change.
In 2017 Maison Moderne and Nvision celebrate Luxembourg by profiling 100 people who contribute positively to the country’s international reputation and brand image. The series will culminate in a gala evening on 13 December at Luxembourg Congrès. If you know somebody who you think deserves to be on the 100 list, let us know: [email protected]