Triggers and barriers in marketing Turkey to the world

Triggers and barriers in marketing Turkey to the world

“Rebranding Turkey,” was the main theme of my last article. I lamented how Turkey has been rebranded as a third world country, as developments over the course of 2016 had accelerated its slide toward that category.
“Being a third world country is not necessarily an impediment to successful branding,” said one acquaintance who until a few years ago was on the board of an international company whose regional headquarters was in Istanbul. “Take tourism for instance. Morocco is considered a third world country and it is still a good destination for tourists,” he said.

“What matters are triggers and barriers,” he added. Security has become the biggest barrier for Turkey. “Think of the barrier as car brake. As long as the hand brake is on, the car won’t go anywhere even if you push the accelerator pedal to the end.”

Indeed, security has become a huge barrier. Look at Turkish Airlines and the airports in Istanbul. Small private airplanes are no longer parking at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, which is on the Asian side of the city, since insurance prices have skyrocketed since the bomb attack on the airport in the last days of 2015. Small planes now fly to Athens to park and come to Istanbul to take back the passengers they dropped off. 

You can do damage control to a certain degree. You can try to say terrorism has hit many other places after the deadly attack at Atatürk Airport in June 2016, three months after a similar attack took place at an airport in Belgium. But you cannot ensure a sense of security and safety if there is a lynch attempt against a Turkish fashion designer on the apron of an airport by the employees of that airport. This even happened while that designer, Barbaros Şansal, was being escorted by police officers after a legal case was launched into his words uttered after the terror attack on Istanbul’s Reina nightclub on Jan. 1. 

Turkish Airlines cannot blame external powers or “Turkey’s enemies” – CIA, MOSSAD or the Gülenists - for the drop in the number of people visiting the country, when Şansal’s attackers, who said they were acting with nationalist feelings, were released. What happens if a technician employed on the apron attacks an American or European passenger, saying he was “acting on his nationalistic feelings” after listening to a speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accusing the West of helping terror organizations?

Ironically, all the triggers that helped Turkey fly high in the global market in the mid-2000s - safety, security, stability and predictability - have now become big barriers. In addition, a foreign policy that prioritized compromise and reconciliation over confrontation and conflict made Turkey a shining star in its region. The adoption of EU reforms that helped the consolidation of democracy, the rule of law and the market economy all also boosted Turkey’s image. All of this is now reversed. 

A pro-EU foreign policy had been a trigger helping Turkey, now an anti–EU foreign policy will be a barrier to rebranding Turkey. 

“When a brand exhausts the possibilities of renewing itself, it opts for the last resort of associating itself with a stronger brand ... Could that be the reason behind some of the AKP’s recent moves?” a friend of mine recently commented in reference to Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia. 

Considering the upcoming new U.S. presidency, which will be retreating from the Middle East, we could see a further tactical shift toward Russia by Turkey to reflect geopolitical regional realities. However, while Moscow is an important economic partner for Turkey, it cannot be a substitute for Europe. 

Perhaps some within the government are aware of this fact. How else can we explain the positive reaction shown by Turkey when the European Commission initiated at the end of 2016 the process of updating the Customs Union by asking for a negotiating mandate from the European Council? 

Negotiations on the issue are expected to start in the first half of 2017 and a renewed Customs Union could be a tremendous boost to the Turkish economy, with consequences going beyond the economic dimension. A successful conclusion of negotiations could help smooth the current bitter political atmosphere between Ankara and Brussels.

It all depends on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Once it was the biggest trigger helping Turkey; then it became the barrier hindering it. We will see whether it will continue to be that barrier.