It is time to polish our humanitarian brand in Canada

In an age of social media and intense global competition, “brand” has become more important than ever. While it was once the exclusive domain of consumer-focused companies, now individuals, organizations and nations alike have become acutely aware of the image they project and the benefits that come with successfully building brand equity.

Whatever you may be selling, branding is the alchemy that transforms a kernel of truth and a dash of exaggeration into gold.

Intellectually, we all understand that a certain toothpaste will not transform our social lives, but on a crowded shelf the brand that’s promoted will still be the one we reach for.

The same phenomenon applies to countries. Branding has become an important way to promote that same shelf appeal, to attract foreign capital, top talent, jobs and corporate offices and tourists. If you happen to have a jaunty red maple leaf as a national logo, all the better.

The Trudeau Liberals have been, since their election, exceptionally savvy about national and international branding. They shrewdly played to the deep-rooted belief among Canadian voters that we are a kinder, gentler and more moral society than many others. They championed environmental standards, they spoke fervently about human rights, they pronounced on the imperative for gender equality.

Not only that, they generously gave other countries pointers on how to hold themselves to that Canadian standard of conduct.

One of the most obvious examples of that moral brand extension came in August when Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland used Twitter — in Arabic – to support Saudi activists at odds with the ruling monarchy. As tensions grew, the Canadian ambassador was withdrawn. Public demands by the Saudis for an apology were made and rejected. And the Liberals burnished Canada’s brand as a plucky and high-minded nation that punched above its weight.

All that has come to the fore again, as the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Saudi journalist — and critic of the monarchy — has deepened. On Oct. 2, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to complete some routine paperwork. He has not been seen since.

The international concern about his fate and the outrage at the likelihood that he is a victim of dire retribution, has certainly vindicated Canada’s early stand against an increasingly bold autocracy.

But here’s where the varnish starts to chip: The values that underpin our national brand are not consistent with finger-wagging diplomacy and impassioned rhetoric about the importance of human rights.

Indeed, our own sense of our brand is at odds with reality — and with the perceptions of others. When the Canadian government — first the Conservatives and then the Liberals — agreed to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, they unequivocally forfeited the moral high ground. Sure, they were described first as “trucks” by former prime minister Stephen Harper and later as “jeeps” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but that deliberate trivialization only makes it worse. The Saudis know that perfectly well and, frankly, so does everyone else.

This is not going to be a one-time news story. Rather it is going to be an issue as Canada’s campaign to join the 2021 UN Security Council ramps up. The effort is already underway, skilfully led by Canada’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Marc-André Blanchard. Given our sense of own brand, Canada should be a strong contender. But remember what happened last time we tried for this prize. Portugal left us in their dust.

And now, we’re competing for a coveted spot with Norway and Ireland, two smaller and quieter countries with less brand equity but perhaps more authentic clout. For all our posturing, the reality is that Norway is a far more generous foreign aid donor (spending one percent of GDP compared with Canada’s 0.26 per cent) and Ireland has twice as many peacekeepers in the field as Canada.

Just another example of the complexities that middle powers face when trying to give life to their brand and their values in a big, old, complicated and cross pressured world.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Monday, October 15, 2018)