From Coca To Coffee: Elon Professor Researches National Reputation of Colombia
Your friend mentions Colombia to you in a conversation; what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think of the lush jungles, vibrant culture and flourishing coffee production? Or do you think of cocaine, Pablo Escobar and cartels?
National reputation is a complex topic and one that is little understood. David Bockino, an associate professor in the communications school, has studied the complex and convoluted ideas behind national reputations for his upcoming book, focusing on the national reputation of Colombia.
Bockino began investigating the topic during the first half of 2017. He noticed a media disconnect surrounding Colombia while the country was negotiating a peace agreement with the FARC — a violent rebel group who had been at war with the Colombian government for close to five decades. Around this time, Netflix released Narcos, a series about Pablo Escobar — the notorious Colombian drug lord. As a media professor, he found the contrast between the two fascinating.
“Here is a country that wants to move on, is trying to move on, from its past while one of America’s biggest media companies is perpetuating a stereotype that they are actively trying to shed,” Bockino said.
Bockino began by exploring the media portrayal of Colombia for the past three decades. He found that he was able to put numbers to his hypothesis.
According to Bockino’s research, the word “drug,” or any derivation, appeared in a headline with “Colombia” more frequently than any other word from 1980 through 2013. Nearly 30 percent of the 1,320 headlines analyzed included the word drug or rebel, the second most frequent word.
“Only Venezuela came close to being so narrowly associated, with ‘oil’ appearing in a Venezuela headline at the same rate as ‘drug’ was with ‘Colombia.’ But Colombia had significantly more headlines overall,” Bockino said.
Bockino recognizes that part of this is due to the actual history of this country but still said that this is largely due to an implicit media bias. This bias is not a conscious attempt to wound the reputation of Colombia, it is due to Colombia’s history as a large exporter of cocaine.
“People associate it with drugs and it’s hard to change those people’s opinions,” Bockino said. “Once you have that down, that’s your brand and it’s hard to shake it — especially when it's exciting and exotic, even in the worst possible sense.”
Leah Cooper, a student attending Virginia Tech with a deep heritage in Colombia, agrees. She believes that the perpetuation of this drug-centered stereotype is due to a historically based, media perpetuated bias.
“I think that Colombia has many stereotypes that have definitely been perpetuated by the media,” said Cooper. “I think that's also the result of this sort of us versus them mentality and this demonizing of Colombia as the reason behind, or at least an enabler of, America’s huge drug problem.”
As his delve into national reputations deepened, Bockino realized that much of his ideas surrounding national reputations could be applied to the United States. Having heard of many recent surveys stating that America’s reputation was falling, Bockino took another look at these and found that most were made up of one question: What do you think of the United States; favorable or unfavorable? To Bockino, this simple question does not allow for the nuances of national reputations.
“I thought that is a poor way to measure national reputation, especially for a brand that’s 250 years old and has a lot of touch points around the world,” Bockino said. “Sure, you might hate Trump, but you’re still going to buy Nikes and watch the latest Thor movie.”
Through this, Bockino realized that national reputation does not simply evolve from media, but a complex blend of history, culture and the rhetoric surrounding the nation’s history.
However, nations are not stuck with these characterizations. As with commercial brands, there are consultants in the world of nation branding. The Council of Foreign Relations states that nation brand consultants apply brand management theory and hire public relations firms to launch sophisticated branding campaigns to attract foreign investment, facilitate trade or even improve the country’s global influence.
Simon Anholt, one of the foremost nation brand consultants, launched the Good Country Index in 2005. The idea is that nations will only focus on their internal image, rather than their external one; yet, globally, it is the external image and reputation that matters. The index ranks countries that do the most good for the world as a way of ranking national and global image.
Through this, a country can improve their national reputation through benefiting other countries. This can be through donations, taking in refugees, filing patents or even cultural exports such as music and film.
“There is only one global superpower: the public opinion of 7 billion people,” said Anholt, in an interview with The Guardian. “In this global age, anybody who has any power or responsibility over any group of people has [a] responsibility not only for them but also for all the other people on the planet. That might sound absurd, but to a degree, climate change has begun to teach us how to do that.”
In Anholt’s view, national reputation can be used to change individual behavior, causing people to think about how their personal choices reflect on their nation and how that will then affect the world. For Colombia, this may mean focusing on coffee production and cultural exports, rather than coca, with a 2017 UN deal helping the nation with this process. As Colombia was the world’s third largest producer of coffee in 2016, according to Statistica, the country’s coffee industry shows great promise to rise above coca. Cooper agrees with this sentiment.
“I think people already really associate Colombia with a successful coffee industry,” said Cooper. “Everyone I know who has gone to Colombia has absolutely loved it, that's what I think will slowly chip away at the stereotype and negative reputation. People actually seeing it for what it is and what it can be.”
While focusing more on coffee production may help Colombia’s international reputation, Candy Palma of the Carolina Coffee Roasting Company said that a country’s reputation has no bearing on where coffee roasters buy from.
“The reputation does not depend on the country, it’s how you work directly with the farmers and how you communicate what you’re looking for in terms of quality in each harvest,” Palma said.
Katie Carguilo, 2012 U.S. Barista Champion and West Coast quality analyst at Counter Culture Coffee, agreed that national reputation is not the main factor, but said that it still plays a role.
“We’ve been purchasing in Colombia for over a decade. There are areas in Colombia that we know are producing great coffee but we haven’t been able to visit due to the reputation of violence, like Nariño,” said Carguilo. “If we can’t talk with the farmers, then we can’t work with them. The only time we distance ourselves due to reputation is when farmers or organizations are anti-LGBTQ.”
While she has traveled to many Colombian coffee farms, Carguilo said that she’s never seen any farmers growing coca. She believes that the change from coca to coffee happened long ago.
“That conversation happened years ago. We’re in a position where the drug influence has been lifted enough so that people are comfortable moving away from that and to specialty coffee,” Carguilo said.
While the national reputation of Colombia may currently center around its drug-fueled history, the country’s brand is shifting to a cleaner image. According to The Telegraph, Colombia’s GDP grew more than any other Latin American country in 2014. Further, Columbia moved into the top 10 countries for the 2017 Country Brand Report Latin America by FutureBrand. Colombia is also number 66 out of 163 on the aforementioned
Good Countries list, scoring above other countries such as Lebanon and Guatemala. This shows that the country has dramatically furthered its global standing in the past few decades.
Bockino says that while his book may not help Colombia’s transformation, he hopes that it will cause people to think about their own nation’s brand and how their actions affect it.
“My No. 1 review that I can get is that was very entertaining and I learned a little something,” Bockino said.