After decades of being thought of by tourists as a happy country devoted to Carnival and soccer, Brazil was officially awarded the 2014 World Cup by selling the world a different picture. “Ironically, soccer is not the image we want to add to the “Brazil brand,” says Michel Nicolau Netto, a professor in the Department of Sociology of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the University of Campinas (IFCH-Unicamp). “On the contrary, that is the old image, which survives only if redefined. The image we would like associated with Brazil is that of the mega-event, big business, excellence, upscale consumption, and so on.”
This different Brazil was not a new product designed for the World Cup but the central theme of the policy on the administration of symbols adopted for the 21st century by the Brazilian Tourism Institute, formerly known as the Brazilian Tourism Company (Embratur). The marketing strategy also includes relocating Brazil in the global tourism market, a policy inaugurated in 2003, when the newly-established Ministry of Tourism absorbed Embratur’s bureaucratic functions, leaving the task of promoting Brazil’s image abroad to Embratur.
Nicolau Netto has been studying that period since 2012, first in a post-doctoral paper and now with a research project. Both had FAPESP support. He plans to present the results of both studies in a book, after doing fieldwork in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Cuiabá, and New York and visiting tourism trade fairs in Madrid, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro.
“I found that since 2002 Embratur had been serving as a global travel agent that adopted various approaches in order to build an image of Brazil,” says Nicolau Netto. “In building that image, modernity and diversity is key.” The period was marked by a consensus among government agencies that a strategic plan needed to be developed to attract international attention to Brazil as a tourist destination. The question of image is much less “natural” than one might think. Nicolau Netto observes that the image of Rio de Janeiro associated with “beaches, sun, and happy people” is not even 50 years old. Early in the 20th century, Brazil was “sold” as a Brazilian Paris, with emphasis on the city’s downtown area.
The light-hearted and friendly image of Brazil was promoted by Embratur in the 1960s and 1970s to counter the damage caused overseas by the country’s association with the authoritarianism and violence of the military regime. Even the idea of sexual freedom, promoted by pictures of attractive and scantily clad women, a practice now universally abhorred because it suggests sexual tourism, served as counterpoint and, it was hoped, would soften the impression of institutional repression.
If at first the need to abandon certain elements (in the case of the appeal to sex) or to expand Brazil’s image was primarily political, in this century this need has also become economic. An attempt at “branding” (a term borrowed from business marketing to refer to the building of a brand) was launched. The strategies of diversifying and modernizing are not intended to attract a large number of visitors, but rather aimed at those tourists who will bring more money to Brazil.
The uninspiring image of a consumer of landscapes and pleasant weather is being supplemented by the notion of a consumer of a country—Brazil—that offers multiple cultural possibilities and world-class services. Advertising now depicts “active” tourists and consumers in shops, restaurants or on excursions. “We’re no longer talking about a tourism industry that does a good job receiving visitors, but one that generates value,” says Nicolau Netto.
“The focus is changing from local attractions, such as the ‘native’ who dances the samba or plays soccer, to the tourists themselves, now in the role of consumer,” the researcher goes on to say. In that scenario, “by conveying the image of modernity, Embratur, as administrator, associates itself not only with the expansion of the inventory of symbols, but also with the control over those symbols.” That was why Embratur contracted with Chias Marketing, a company from the Catalan region of Spain, to develop the Plano aquarela: Marketing turístico internacional do Brasil (The Watercolor Plan: Marketing Brazil to International Tourists), launched in 2005 and revised in 2007 and 2010. The document was based on extensive surveys of operators in the tourism industry in Brazil and abroad and an empirical base of 6,000 Brazilian and foreign tourists.
The official effort is also part of a more aggressive marketing strategy. In 2002, Embratur took part in 15 international tourism trade fairs; in 2006 it was present at 40, reports Nicolau Netto, citing figures supplied by Eduardo Sanovicz, president of Embratur from 2003 to 2007. Sanovicz confirms the study’s finding that an effort is being made to change Brazil’s image. It is supported by three pillars: emphasis on business and events, promotion of Brazilian cultural production (now including new elements such as ecotourism, events, and business deals) and the establishment of Convention Bureaus, regional organizations that bring together private travel agents and tour operators to support the activities of Embratur. “The idea was to abandon the concepts of the 1990s which, although understandable for the times, centered on water, sand, and palm trees, and focus instead on travel agents,” says Sanovicz, who is now president of the Brazilian Association of Airlines (ABEAR).
Now, “the priority elements to be associated with the location/brand are the ones related to its identity, which needs to be redefined using values that, while conveying the impression of uniqueness are also universally shared,” says Nicolau Netto. “Regardless of the legal structure of the official agencies, even when purely public—as Embratur is today—in operational matters they tend to be attuned to the private interests of the tourism business and headed by people who have spent their careers in the market,” he observes.
The marketing formula adopted leaves exoticism behind and invests in an “expanded image” of Brazil. Sanovicz cites figures to describe the success of the strategy: R$1.7 billion earned from tourism in 2003, and R$6 billion in 2013. “When you talk about a country’s brand, you are making it clear that the principal element that adds value to that brand is whatever can be perceived as being part of the identity of a destination. There is economic value to be gained by expanding the inventory of symbols,” says Nicolau Netto.
However, expanding the image of Brazil by incorporating aspects that were not previously publicized internationally runs the risk of eluding the control exercised by the agencies that are working on branding. This introduces the idea of “encapsulation,” which means clearly specifying both what one does and does not wish to sell. “The diversity we want is not just any kind of diversity, but diversity inspired by modernity,” says Nicolau Netto. The strategy is twofold: first, it seeks to increase the offer of tourist “products.” Attractions are no longer limited to traditional destinations such as Rio, Salvador, and Iguazu Falls. Second, we want to “increase the value of the tourist ‘product’.” Embratur records show that business and event tourists spend $280 a day, while leisure-oriented tourists spend $68.
Nicolau Netto says Embratur’s effort was sorely tested during the World Cup, when the attempt to modernize the image of Brazil was severely challenged by the devastating presence of the International Football Association (FIFA), and international sponsors. This resulted in a clash of symbols, in which the agents tried to impose their worldviews on the locals. “Although in principle there was no rupture between market and policies, the conflicts are obvious,” says Nicolau Netto. The images of the opening ceremony of the Cup, with dancing mulatas, coupled with the tactics employed by the announcers, rendered the activities of Embratur virtually invisible. “Unfortunately, Embratur had not been able to come up with promotional activities that would give the brand greater impact,” Sanovicz says.
The principal issue, which extends to the 2016 Summer Olympics, is that there are laws that guarantee the kind of trademark protection that translates into a ferocious competition between the image Embratur wants to promote and the sponsors of the athletic events. “Embratur is trying to impose a standard that is never fully achieved,” Nicolau Netto says. Shortly before the Cup, Adidas, an official sponsor of the worldwide event, brought out two t-shirts that referred to the old image that treated Brazilian women as sexual objects. The repercussion was so unfavorable that the company quickly took the shirts off the market.
Regional agencies and governments insist on retaining the outdated image of Brazil, the one the federal government is trying to combat. Nicolau Netto and Sanovicz agree that official efforts were strengthened by the plans adopted by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to change the way Brazil is viewed in the rest of the world, but Netto notes that during the Worker’s Party administration, Embratur was able to take advantage of marketing know-how already developed in earlier years. The researcher also emphasizes that major construction companies associated with the athletic events and other attractions were very interested in establishing an image of a “modern” Brazil.
In short, there is a conflict between two images of a country that is in transition. “We’ll find out which side the interests of the agents involved are on,” says Nicolau Netto.
The symbolic construction of space: Brazilian image in the context of sports mega-events (No. 2014/07029-7); Grant Mechanism Regular Line of Research Project Award; Principal Investigator Michel Nicolau Netto (Unicamp); Investment R$20,328.00 (FAPESP).