On a sunny Sunday afternoon last summer, we were cycling through a rather run-down district of Berlin and turned a corner to find ourselves confronted by Stonehenge.
Just a few days later, we had a similarly uncanny experience in Paris. We emerged from the métro into a Paris street to find a huge image of a gorgeous Highland landscape. Framed by the hills on either side of Loch Shiel, it showed lovely Glenfinnan viaduct curving serenely around the head of the loch.
This was Britain in its Olympic year, boldly proclaiming its merits to the wider world. Wraparound advertising on Berlin buses (ruining the view from inside the bus, it must be said) and huge billboards on Paris streets reminded passers-by of all that is great about Great Britain. In the ensuing weeks, we saw Stonehenge by the Brandenburg Gate, Corpus Christi College next to the Reichstag and St Michael’s Mount stuck in a traffic jam on Unter den Linden. Images of Britain were catapulted into the heart of Berlin’s streetscapes. It was however a very partial view of the island.
Countries spend huge amounts of money creating a national brand and then promoting that brand to tempt tourists. This has not always been exclusively a matter of attracting foreign visitors. In America, scenery had already been identified in the early 20th century as an economic asset and the earliest initiatives were aimed fair and square at the home market. The See America First campaign encouraged scenic patriotism by ushering thousands of visitors to the national parks of the American West. Nature thus became part of American nature.
Europeans were generally slower to latch onto the idea of very purposefully branding places — although there were early initiatives that encouraged citizens to focus on their home country in much the way that Americans were later encouraged to See America First.