MONTREAL — Canada was picked No. 1 in a global survey of countries with the most favourable brand, thanks to a boost from the Vancouver Olympics.
A strategy to put the country on the top podium was actually devised years before the Winter Games.
It involved having a Bollywood star carry the Olympic Torch; bringing an NBC sports reporter to Churchill, Man., to watch polar bears; and taking foreign journalists on wine tours.
Canada has climbed steadily over the last few years, from a 12th-place ranking in the same survey just four years ago. After reaching the No. 2 spot the last couple of years, it finally overtook the United States this year.
The Country Brand Index — which assessed 102 countries — is compiled by FutureBrand, a New York-based global consulting firm. It conducted a survey of 3,400 business and leisure travellers across five continents.
Rob Moore, the federal minister for small business and tourism, called it “an incredible achievement.”
“The world came to Canada for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games earlier this year. We showed the world the dynamic and diverse nature of our country,” he said in a statement.
But another survey — the Nation Brands Index 2010 — says the United States continues to have the world’s most valuable country brand. It also held the number one position in 2009.
On that other survey Canada placed sixth, moving up to the spot that belonged to Italy in 2009.
The Nation Brands Index measures the global image of 50 countries.
But delight over Friday’s news had the head of the Canadian Tourism Commission talking about how Vancouver provided an opportunity to help lift Canada’s image on the world stage.
Michele McKenzie says Canada has always had a reputation as a nice, big country with lots of natural beauty — but nature alone isn’t enough to attract tourists.
“People don’t travel just to visit geography and visit scenery,” the head of the Crown corporation said Friday.
“They want to understand what they would do if they went to a destination.”
So, six years ago, tourism officials went to work and relaunched the revitalized brand: “Canada, Keep Exploring.”
The goal was to make Canada a more exciting place to visit.
That meant promoting wine tours in the Niagara region of Ontario; Toronto’s film festival and dining experiences; dog-sledding in the North and polar-bear watching in Manitoba.
“We had Mary Carillo from NBC in Churchill doing polar-bear watching in November and she also ran with the (Olympic) torch,” McKenzie said.
Then, when NBC was doing their Olympic coverage, they showed her experience in Churchill, which had been pre-taped.
“There was so much interest in the U.S. that every website of anyone that carried polar-bear watching in Manitoba crashed,” McKenzie noted.
It wasn’t just the broadcast media in the U.S., but the world media were also targeted — including India, a country where there’s little interest in the Winter Olympics.
“We wanted to figure out how we could use the opportunities of being on the world stage to leverage coverage in India. So we invited Akshay Kumar, a Bollywood star, to Toronto to run with the torch,” McKenzie said.
She says Kumar then went back home and talked about the great time he had in Toronto and what a fantastic city it is.
McKenzie says Canada is the first country to have ever taken that approach with the Olympic torch.
But she also admits that Canada was, more broadly, following Australia’s example of using the 2000 Summer Olympics as leverage on the world stage.
Before 2000, she says, the world’s image of Australia was mostly confined to the Sydney Opera House, beaches and aborigines.
The Olympics apparently helped change that. She says Australian counterparts maintain they advanced their tourism brand by 10 years because of the Olympics.
“(It) created a lot more demand for Australia as a tourism destination because all of a sudden the world knew a lot more about the kind of experiences you can have,” she added.
China used a different approach.
The 2008 Olympics in Beijing were like a coming-out party to project the country’s growing clout, McKenzie says, but didn’t do much to promote tourism.
“The type of experiences that journalists were having in China were not experiences that the general public could buy,” she added.