Nadia Kaneva usually starts the first day of her graduate-level Brands and Identities class with a simple exercise. She asks her students to write down the names of people they’ve interacted with so far that day. Then she asks them to list the names of brands they’ve encountered.
“I could think of like 50 brands that I’d interacted with, and only about five or six humans that I’d spoken with that day,” says Emily Williams, a strategic communication master’s candidate who has taken several of Kaneva’s classes. “It really starts us off thinking critically about how brands and branding shape us, and about what it means to live in a branded culture.”
Kaneva, an assistant professor of media, film and journalism studies in the Divisions of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, developed the Brands and Identities class for that very reason.
“We have to get [students] to think about brands and branding in critical ways,” she says. “Not just give them the tools they’ll need to succeed, but also teach them the right way to use them to a desired end.”
The impact of brands and marketing — not just the power to influence buying decisions, but also deeper implications related to identity, perception and influencing social change — is at the core of Kaneva’s research and teaching, especially as it relates to nation building.
Kaneva recently edited a book on the subject titled Branding Post-Communist Nations: Marketizing National Identities in the “New” Europe (Routledge, 2011). It’s a topic that’s close to her heart.
Kaneva grew up in Bulgaria under communist rule. She completed a degree in journalism at a Bulgarian college and worked for a local ad agency, where she was inspired by the sense of limitless possibility that pervaded her country in the years following the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union.
“Everything was changing in Europe in the mid-’90s,” she says. “There were all of these new opportunities that we hadn’t even imagined or heard of just a few years ago. We were just so innocent about capitalism and how it works and what it would mean.”
Kaneva came to the United States in 1997 to pursue a master’s degree in advertising at Syracuse University, and she took a job with a small ad agency in New York following graduation. The experience opened her eyes to the competitive nature of the business.
“I was pretty naive about [the ad world]. I had these notions about writing quirky copy and coming up with fun ideas,” she says. “I hadn’t put two and two together and realized that it was about selling things and making money.”
Although she felt “burnt out and disillusioned” by the advertising industry by the end of her three-year stint at the agency, she still was inspired by the sociological influence that marketing and branding wield in modern society. She came to Colorado to pursue a PhD in media studies at the University of Colorado, where she focused her studies on consumerism in former communist countries.
During a summer research trip to Bulgaria, she interviewed journalists who contributed to lifestyle magazines about how they viewed their role in teaching readers about capitalism. While gathering data, she began to notice disparities between how her country marketed itself to the outside world and the everyday realities for many of its citizens.
“Here I was having a conversation about the ‘good life’ at an outdoor café in the center of Sofia, and there’s a little child no more than 10 years old begging on the corner,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why is money being spent on advertising instead of fixing the problems?’”
Investing in outside marketing and branding efforts is advantageous for any state or nation, particularly for former communist countries hoping to attract more tourists and foreign investment dollars. A more favorable image also can help the chances of Eastern European countries seeking membership in the European Union.
The problem, according to Kaneva, is that the work often is contracted to private companies that “fly in for a week or two, have a series of meetings with marketing professionals and then based on that formulate their recommendations for a campaign,” she says. The campaigns “signal to the West that these countries are ready to be a part of the market and of a global society, but certain things are invariably left out or ignored, such as culture, historical traditions, local flavor and even language.”
Call it a form of global whitewashing. Through her research, Kaneva hopes to highlight campaigns and best-practice initiatives that accurately portray cultural identities while successfully marketing countries to the wider world. It’s this sort of mindful marketing she hopes her students will carry into their careers, as well.
Says Kaneva: “Our hope is that when our students enter the professional world, they will bring with them a certain cultural and ethical awareness about how this type of communication can be used for positive impacts.”