Nation Branding: Modernization vs. Dependency Theory

“Torn” by Artist Abel Tilahun

Turning a critical eye on the practice of nation branding, the modernization theory versus dependency theory debate takes on contemporary relevance. Proponents and practitioners of nation branding, i.e. Simon Anholt, argue that low-income countries can benefit from the application of branding techniques designed to streamline policy and image in order to attract investors, tourists, and the sale of country-of-origin exports (2004). This argument parallels modernization theory, as it proposes that the use of global systems of communication, as well as an embrace of the logic of capitalist marketing and neoliberal trade policies, is the best path towards development. Similarly, the “cui bono” critique of modernization theory can also be applied to nation branding. As Thussu (2006) states, modernization theory “was predicated on a definition of development that followed the model of Western industrialization and ‘modernization’, measured primarily by the rate of economic growth of output or Gross National Product (GNP). It failed to recognize that the creation of wealth on its own was insufficient:  the improvement of life for the majority of the populations depended on the equitable distribution of that wealth and its use for the public good” (p. 44).

In fact, as Thussu points out, growth in GNP among low income countries since the rise of modernization theory has in many cases been accompanied by growing income disparities (p. 44).

Nation branding proponents, in their embrace of neoliberal economic models, have largely evaded the question of how this model of economic development will benefit a wide spectrum of the public in low income countries as opposed to perpetuating these trends. Anholt took this critique head on, however, in his editorial “Is place branding a capitalist tool?” He states, “I would argue that considerations like these should form an essential part of the criteria by which any national branding strategy is judged, but they are not a reason why nation branding itself should not be practised…the alternative is allowing others to do the branding for you” (2006, p. 2). Ultimately, however, he evades the question of intra-national wealth disparities created by the promised fruits of nation branding, i.e. increased Federal Direct Investment, tourism, etc., by focusing for the rest of the piece on nation branding’s potential to break down international wealth disparities.

Structural imperialism is another valuable tool with which to analyze the constellations of benefactors of nation branding. Topping the list are nation branding consultants, primarily based in London (Aronczyk, 2013), and government and business elites in the nations being branded. To use Galtung’s terms, the primary benefactors are located within the “center of the center nation” and the “center of the periphery nation” (1971). Furthermore, by advising nations to brand themselves in ways that are “appealing” to wealthy Northern audiences, nation branding can be critiqued using dependency theory as yet another development method that positions the global South as permanently subservient to the North.

While all of this may be true, low income countries and many of their citizens are eager to build wealth as individuals and prominence for their nation on the world stage. In a world where structural inequality is the norm, both inter and intra-nationally, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine a development paradigm impervious to critique by one or more of these theories. As such, I do believe that nation branding offers valuable principles for low income nations to consider when navigating a global communication system tilted to their disadvantage, as they are often branded primarily in a negative light through “feudal” news flows (Galtung, 1971) and humanitarian organizations’ fundraising strategies.


Anholt, S. (2004). Brand New Justice: How Branding Places and Products Can Help the Developing World (Revised Edition.). Routledge.

Anholt, S. (2006). Is place branding a capitalist tool? Place Branding, 2(1), 1–4.

Aronczyk, M. (2013). Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity. Oxford University Press.

Galtung, J. (1971). A structural theory of imperialism. Journal of peace research, 81-117.

Thussu, D. K. (2006). Approaches to theorizing international communication. In International Communication: Continuity and Change (A Hodder Arnold Publication (2nd Edition., pp. 40–65). Bloomsbury Academic.


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