Signs and Signification in Nigeria’s Re/branding Discourse: A Preliminary Report


This preliminary report encapsulates explorations of the semiosis of nation branding with particular reference to the Nigerian experience. With the rise in the global tide of place branding which is almost always driven by forces of international relations, the discourse of nation branding brims with generic signification that the semiotician could engage to understand and characterise the sub-genre of nation branding in international relations. In this regard, this piece is a preliminary report on a proposed project in the domain of semiosis and nation branding. It aims to explore the signifiers deployed in the Nigerian practice of nation branding against the backdrop of tackling the country’s brand eroders.


Adeyemi Adegoju
Adeyemi Adegoju

In marketing communications practice, branding is a process of conferring specific attributes on a commodity with the aim of making it attractive and generating interest in it. In this sense, branding aims at fulfilling the AIDA principle of advertising which is: ‘create Awareness, generate Interest, cause Desire and stimulate Action’. Although brand has been traditionally associated with products and services, global companies and corporations, marketing and communication consultants have also argued that there could also be a country brand given that nations are not simply territories or places but also images, reputations and stereotypes. Every country has a unique name and image in the mind of people both inside and outside the country, suggesting that a nation does have brands. According to Fan (2009: 6), ‘nation branding is a process by which a nation’s image can be created, monitored, evaluated and proactively managed in order to improve or enhance the country’s reputation among a target international audience’.

Szondi (2008) observes that countries have always branded and re-branded themselves in the course of history and, therefore, nation branding is not a novel concept but simply a new term for image management. Kaneva (2011: 122) corroborates Szondi’s (2008) position: ‘[…] nations have always managed their images, although they may not have called this “branding,” and hence the current turn to brand is a logical continuation of a long-standing process’. Fanning (2011: 23) wraps up these views, saying:

People have always had ideas, impressions, opinions and associations about other countries, therefore the concept of a nation brand image is an ancient one, but the subject has attracted increasing importance in recent years as globalisation has made the world more interdependent and all nations are in competition for investment, tourists, exports and talent of all kinds.

In fact, Kaneva (2007) argues that nation branding is conceptualised as a field of struggle where discourses of nationhood and market globalisation come into contact and are mutually reconfigured. Of course, with increased advancements in ICTs and innovations brought to the scene by marketing and communication/public relations practitioners, the practice of managing the image of countries has been redefined and refocused across the world. Mihailovich (2006: 230) comments:

Place branding is relevant because consumers and investors continue to rely heavily on country images in making their economic decisions. Effective place branding not only serves to reinforce positive images but also helps fight negative ones by shaping new images and associations. Branding has become a central tool in country competitiveness, where having a bad reputation or none at all seriously affects a country’s ability to compete. Thus effective country branding can give a competitive advantage in world markets and open up many opportunities for developing countries.

The discourse that is born out of the ‘sorting of information for image competitiveness and ideological purposes’ has arguably been characterised as the ‘branding’ of nations. This project focuses on Nigeria’s image-laundering project as a diplomatic-cum-propagandistic response to perceived misrepresentations of Nigeria and her citizens in the international community, following which the country’s national identity and the citizens’ representation in the international community are largely suspect.

Brief Literature Review

Branding of nations constitutes an evolving genre in international relations and it has largely become a new field both in academia and consulting. While consulting agencies come up with brand strategies and identities to project the uniqueness of nations in a competitive world, scholars from the disciplines of marketing, consumer research and communication have been concerned with evaluating the challenges and the effectiveness of the strategies of branding nations across the world. For instance, countries across North America, Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa have bought into the global phenomenon of branding nations. Accordingly, scholars have equally turned their research focus in that direction in a bid to investigate this evolving genre in international discourse and scholarship.

In respect of studies carried out on branding of non-African countries, some scholars have made appreciable efforts. Dinnie and Fola (2009) work on the branding of Cyprus. Applying a stakeholder identification perspective, the researchers harp on the need to identify and invite certain stakeholder groups in an inclusive overall nation branding strategy for Cyprus. Martinez (2010) tests the factors presented in Anholt’s hexagon model and analyses how different organisations affect and promote the commercial image of Spain in Sweden. Metha-Karia (2011) in another study focuses on ‘Brand India’ – post-colonial India’s attempt to imagine the nation and its people through the discourse of branding. Using a post-colonial framework, Metha-Karia (2011) shows that when the practice of nation branding is applied to a post-colonial nation, it works to inscribe the colonial legacy and reaffirm colonial power relations.

Huang (2011) examines how popular culture helps to polish the image of a nation and thus strengthens its economic competitiveness in the global market, focusing on the fondness for all things Japanese and Korean in East Asia market. Browning (2011) also examines the notion of branding as it relates to identity in international relations, using the practice of nation branding in Finland as a case study. Browning’s (2011) study suggests that branding strategies are also to some extent illustrative of the extent to which logics of globalisation entail very different ways of relating identity to otherness in comparison to more  traditional geopolitical and territorialised ways of locating the self in global politics.

At the African front, South Africa’s effort at nation branding has attracted the attention of some scholars. Freemantle (2007) assesses what perceptions a sample population of Dutch students in Amsterdam has of South Africa from a broad range of social, political and cultural indicators. In so doing, Freemantle (2007) evaluates some historical and contemporary challenges faced by ‘Brand South Africa’, most of which are linked to the fundamental need for consistency in the promotion of the nation’s identity. In a similar study, Murai (2011) applies critical discourse analysis to brand South African domestic advertisements with the aim of identifying what discourses are mobilised in constructing South African national identity in the context of globalisation and country branding. Akotia et al (2011), emphasising country branding as a social construction, carry out a research which presents a conceptual branding model for Ghana based on the identity brand management approach.

As the practice of nation branding in non-African and African countries has engendered scholarly works, so also has the Nigerian practice of nation branding attracted stimulating scholarly works. A leading scholar in this respect is Uche Uworah whose works (2006 and 2009) and other feature articles have reviewed Nigeria’s image-laundering project in respect of the challenges and prospects. Dienye and Morrison (2011) assess the Nigerian rebranding project and argue for appropriate and effective measures of transmitting the desired values that will transform the society to be introduced in Nigeria’s educational policies and curricula.

Egwemi (2011) examines the rebranding effort and recommends, among other things, that beyond sloganeering, the Nigerian government needs to address the issues that gave rise to the image crisis in the first place. Similarly, (Edun (2011) assesses the imagery laundering project and observes that it has not achieved the desired results, recommending that unless the right things are done, the energy and resources committed to the rebranding project will be in vain. In this sense, Idjakpo and Oladipupo (2011) apply Nietzsche’s Transvaluation approach which is centred on the slave and master morality to underline the fact that until both the leaders and followers are well informed on the need to be self-conscious and tread the path of self-actualisation, the re-branding effort will be a mirage. For Agba et al (2009), the success of the re-branding project is dependent on how well the government tackles the inherent problems of poverty and food insecurity in the country.

Statement of Research Problem

Having highlighted the foci of the studies in 1.3 above, particularly the ones that touch on the image-laundering project in Nigeria, I have come to realise that none of them accounts for the negotiation of meaning that characterises the struggle for control of discourses in national identity re/reconstruction. This lacuna is without prejudice to the fact the discourse of re/constructing national identity/pride constitutes an evolving genre replete with pressing social, historical and political issues with characteristic rhetorical style that should be of interest to the discourse analyst. It is against this backdrop that the research attempts to explore the rhetorical style embodied in the discourse of the Nigeria’s re/branding campaign discourse. It tries to relate the signifying systems to their discourse functions, primarily as a defensive weapon against the perceived offensive attack of the international (Western) media on Nigeria and as a reformist tool to re-orientate Nigerians in the Diaspora and those at home.  My pre-occupation with discourse analysis in this research is in tandem with Michel Foucault’s contribution to discourse analysis, as pointed out by Poynter (2011: 30):

Michel Foucault’s contribution to Discourse Analysis took the focus of investigation away from individuals and looked at discourse at the social and historical level. Foucault takes a distinctly post-structuralist approach to discourse, arguing that all meaning is created by discourse, that without discourse a thing does not have meaning, and that a regime of truth exists at any period in time and that the regime defines what can and what cannot be said.

It is in line with Poynter’s (2011) argument that discourse analysis can unlock a deeper understanding of human society, especially to fuel brand strategies, and that researchers need to move beyond a simple intuitive knowledge of ‘what words do’ to a more systematic and powerful utilisation of discourse that I am motivated to explore the discourse of re/branding Nigeria.

Theoretical Framework

It is the view of Hodge and Kress (1988: viii) that ‘[…] meaning is produced and reproduced under specific social conditions, through specific material, forms and agencies. It exists in relations to concrete subjects and objects, and is inexplicable except in terms of this set of relationships’. Given the interplay of these variables and the deployment of multimodal communication – communication through various and multiple modes and resources – this study adopts the theoretical framework of multimodal social semiotic analysis to account for the complex interactions of multiple signs, within different semiotic resources such as (spoken and written) language, (static and moving) image, gesture, sounds, music and displayed art which serve as meaning-making devices in the discourse of re/branding Nigeria.

In line with O’Halloran et al’s (2009) challenge that ‘[t]he modern scholar of multimodal texts and artefacts must cope with multiple modes of communication, as well as multiple theoretical perspectives upon which to draw in the study of human meaning-making systems’, I adopt Constantinou’s (2005) two major approaches to multimodality. The first approach remains faithful to multimodality in Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and to its ‘systemic goals’. In this regard, O’Halloran (2008) introduces a strand of the Systemic Functional Linguistics which she calls Systemic Functional-Multimodal Discourse Analysis (SF-MDA). O’Halloran (2008: 445) argues: ‘The examination of linguistic and visual forms of semiosis and the nature of cross-semiotic mappings suggest that SF-MDA extends beyond established SF approaches which were largely developed for modelling discourse and grammatical systems in language’. O’Halloran’s (2008) view corroborates Halliday’s (1985: 4) earlier claim that there are ‘other ways of meanings, other than through language […] there are many other modes of meaning in any culture, which are outside the realm of language’. Therefore, O’Halloran’s (2008) Systemic Functional-Multimodal Discourse Analysis (SF-MDA) would be a useful model for accounting for the language and visuals of the discourse of branding Nigeria’s image.

The second approach as proposed by Constantinou (2005) is less bound to the systemic origins of multimodality and appears to derive its motivation from a critical inclination towards mediated representations of (often current/topical) discourses of interest. However, Constantinou (2005) quickly hints at the fact that this approach often deploys the same or similar analytical tools that can be found in SFL-oriented research, but utilises them mainly as a means of examining the ‘truth-effects’ of the representation under scrutiny. This approach takes us, therefore, to the tools of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). According to Weiss & Wodak (2003), CDA takes a particular interest in the relationship between language and power, positing that in texts, discursive differences are negotiated and governed by differences in power which are in part encoded in and determined by discourse and genre. Therefore, texts are often sites of struggle in that they show traces of differing discourses and ideologies contending and struggling for dominance.

This view is corroborated by Mayr (2008: 10) who contends that CDA is concerned with ‘exposing the often hidden ideologies that are reflected, reinforced and constructed in everyday and institutional discourse’. Thus, in trying to account for the meaning making features of the discourse of re/branding Nigeria, I try to cut the figure of the discourse analyst as expressed by Tonkiss (1998: 259) quoted in Rose (2001: 160), saying: ‘[…] the discourse analyst seeks to open up statements to challenge, interrogate taken-for-granted meanings, and disturb easy claims to objectivity in the texts they are reading’.

Concluding Remarks

This preliminary report is an attempt by a discourse analyst with a multimodal orientation to attempt a critical study of the practice of nation branding in a developing country like Nigeria. Although it is modestly presented as a case study applied to Nigeria, by the time the book project is completed and published, it would have wider implications (and potential applications) which will be very significant for political science and social semiotics in general.


I appreciate the funding provided by the Alexander von Humboldt (AvH) Foundation for the Georg Forster Postdoctoral Fellowship Award for Experienced Researchers that I enjoy now at Englisches Seminar, University of Freiburg, Germany, to complete this book project.



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