Does the EU need a New Story?

Speech delivered at the Civil Society Media Seminar 2013

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Let me just pinpoint various elements that could be interesting for these two days of seminar and directly start by identifying a number of counter-productive trends, which you may currently find in EU communication campaigns:

  1. Firstly, an ever-discussed issue: the wide range of enunciators. Too many institutional actors are currently speaking in the name of the EU. Considering that this aspect will surely be discussed in depth during our seminar, I will just keep it there for now.
  2. Then, what I call the “nice” or “funny institution” stance – you will find that several campaigns for European Commission DGs are trying to be humorous. Remember that what makes people laugh in EU offices or PR Agencies may not do the job in all EU Member States. What generally happens with these sometimes-successful campaigns (if they don’t backfire) is that the joke remains but the enunciator disappears.
  3. Thirdly, “EU storytelling”: a fashionable concept among communicators. A trend which makes you think that Europe needs to be constantly “re-invented”. The EU still being interpreted as a new construct whose « identity » needs to be permanently redefined. “The quest for a new EU narrative »? This is nothing else but a case of improper and oblivious storytelling  – yes communication is about developing stories but storytelling should not forget history telling. EU storytellers thereby rarely refer to our common historical ground. It is rarely said that the EU is one of many political forms taken by our continent; that along the past centuries, other institutions have included almost all European territories (the Holy Roman Empire, a multi-national and complex union of territories in Central Europe existing from 962 to 1806 or the Napoleonic Empire – just to name two [1]). Keeping this in mind (and in our communication) would perhaps help developing (and rediscovering) a much deeper identity than just identifying with a flag or a single currency. Moreover, you cannot « manufacture » a supranational brand by choosing a set of universal and therefore impersonal thoughts or values (« democracy », « human rights », « tolerance » or even « free trade ») and proclaiming through various campaigns that they stand for a new foundation of a continental identity. You need to be more explicit. Hence, Europe does not need a new artificial identity, as it would be the case for a recently founded commercial company. On the contrary, the EU is actually overloaded with identities and stories. Communicators thus don’t need to (re-)invent, but to understand and take into account / articulate the territorial and cultural identities in order to reconnect with citizens’ real lives.

In case you do not wish to communicate the big picture, be specific: the European Union finances many projects across Europe. Most of these projects offer all the ingredients to make a powerful story: interesting characters as well as an authentic local context and even some drama.

Branding the EU?

Should the EU nevertheless develop a full-fledged branding strategy [2]? What would be the goal? National rivalry and competition between 28 member states is of course a real concern when hoping to create a supranational brand. It is indeed an enormous challenge to look for commonalities while at the same time not losing distinctness. Presently, with « competitive nation brands » and regionalism flourishing, is there still room for an EU Brand? Is it really « Europe against Fatherlands » as one French writer once said [3]? Likewise, one might witness some fatalism with regard to what some have called the “No Demos Theory” [4] or highlighting the lack of European Public Sphere. To address the later issue, there have been attempts to develop a genuine European media, but with little success so far. One might nevertheless reflect on the reasons why Media channels such as Euronews are only relevant to gym clubs. On the other hand, there may be some lessons learned from the Eurovision song contest, still very popular.

To conclude: the EU as Lovemark?

Let me quickly explain:  the term « Lovemarks » refers to – one might say – another fashionable marketing concept. The idea was first publicized in a book written by Kevin Roberts, CEO of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Roberts considers that “love” has the potential to rescue brands. He thereby suggested three key ingredients to create Lovemarks: mystery, sensuality and intimacy. Three elements which, without requiring to fully refer to another commercial metaphor, may yet offer some potential.

  1. Mystery: great stories – and we already pointed out that the EU has plenty. Stories of the present and the future, but also of past, tapping into dreams and myths;
  2. Sensuality: sounds, smells and tastes. Just one suggestion here: food – one of Europe’s greatest assets;
  3. Intimacy, meaning: commitment, empathy and passion. This is of course the most difficult ingredient to find. Yet commitment, empathy and passion are mostly embodied by individuals; great opinion leaders. You may find them (or not) in politics and civil society in general. Their personal story may trigger commitment, not logos or slogans. Find these Europeans and perhaps give them the floor.

Nicolas Baygert

Visiting professor at IHECS (Brussels school for journalism and communication),

PhD student, UCL – Paris IV-Sorbonne (Celsa),

Columnist for Le Vif/L’Express & Le Plus (Le Nouvel Observateur)

[1] David Engels, Le Déclin. La crise de l’Union Européenne et la chute de la République romaine. Analogies historiques. Paris : Editions du Toucan, 2012.

[2] Lidija Globokar, The European Union: To Brand or Not to Brand?, PlacesBrands, 15 August, 2013.

[3] ‪Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, L’Europe contre les patries, Paris : Gallimard, 1931.

[4] Joseph Weiler, Demos, Telos, Ethos and the Maastricht Decision, European Law Journal, 219, 1995.

[5] Kevin Robert,  Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands, New York : PowerHouse Books, 2005.

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