“New” May 19th and the Turkish brand

After the Turkish government’s most recent attempts to redesign national commemoration day celebrations, and some encouragements from several colleagues, I decided to revisit an article I wrote on the ethics of place branding last year, entitled  “Thinking about Place Branding: Ethics of Concept“. I did so conceptually in Place Management and Branding blog.

I want to expand on the Turkish experience and my concerns about the “ethics” (as well as viability) of Turkey’s brand in this post.

Erdogan with his party's youth branch (From HDN)

Erdogan with his party’s youth branch (From HDN)

In  my article, I basically argued that:

– Ethics in place branding is contextual. The framework I propose is for “thinking about place branding”. Be aware of the social context you operate in.

– Place branding is political. Power and legitimacy are important concerns. It is not a construction or a promotion project! Place branding is a great demonstration of power!

– Place branding is “social” and “communicative”. Place branding is about norm production, it has the potential to change a place’s identity.

Overall, I say we should be thinking about (i) legitimacy (of the actors to brand/rebrand places), (ii) inclusion (of relevant and interested stakeholders), and (iii) consistency (of norms and values used in domestic and external consumption).

Police Academy, May 19, 2010

Introducing a new tradition for national commemoration days aims to change the context, and create new norms through exerting political power. It does mark a point where Turkey is trying to come up with a new brand identity. However, I have serious concerns about the “ethics” of this practice (and its efficacy).

In the “old” tradition, these days were celebrated in stadiums with parades. Now, stadium celebrations are only limited to the capital city. Erdogan, PM of Turkey, says that “Now May 19 is a real festival. Older celebrations used to recall those of iron curtain countries. May 19 is now a symbol of change and transformation”. Pro-government media also praised the celebrations as being the first civilian festival. Yet, the controversy did not end there.

Erdogan sees May 19th as a ‘battleground’. He continued hos remarks by saying “No one can dare to give a lesson to us, to the (AKP’s) youth on April 23, May 19 and October 29. To the contrary those who want to understand the spirit of these days should come here and learn from this youth. Turkey no longer belongs to a group of elitists or certain groups,” and “We have been treated as if we were foreigners, second-class citizens for decades. Years have passed but today I am openly saying that we are in rampancy”.

1) Legitimacy: As I tried to argue in my article, place branding is necessary only when there is a disagreement on the place’s brand identity. Creating a place brand identity is a regulative attempt, but should be communicative in its essence. Interested parties should be included in a Habermasian negotiation process. Yet, AKP’s and Erdogan’s attempts are based on a priori political power. I highly doubt such a political power makes AKP a legitimate actor in defining Turkish identity (as I tried to argue here after the 2011 elections).

2) Inclusion: This decision was carried unilaterally. With the growing politicization of media sources in Turkey (or with pretty much all media networks being controlled by pro-government groups), it is not possible to see any criticism of this “new” tradition.

3) Consistency: The message AKP is trying to communicate with this new tradition is the move towards a more civilian, liberal, democratic society where these commemoration days belong to the entire nation, rather than certain segments of the country. But, the change is also carried out as a reaction to former state-elites (most of whom are in prison because of highly questionable court cases). “Sorry about that! But elitists should know that we are in this country and are first-class citizens” says Erdogan, and defends the new tradition saying that “This policy is not for dividing the country or formatting generations. To the contrary we want to provide more freedom, but elitists and despotic intellectuals cannot understand this.”

In short,

– This “civilian” move in Turkey’s brand image is (at best) ethically questionable.

– Given the lack of legitimacy and inclusion, the only way to ensure its continuation is through a priori legal-bureaucratic power.

– The lack of consistency is likely to affect the efficacy of this move, as segments of domestic and external audiences are not sure whether the move is a “civilian” or a “conservative” move.

I stand by my earlier conviction where I said Erdogan and AKP are the biggest obstacles for effective use of Turkish soft power. The inconsistency, the “us vs. them” rhetoric, and the constant revenge seeking behavior (please see Erdogan vs. Turkish theater for another example) are likely to decrease Turkey’s persuasive power towards external audiences, and will keep alienating internal audiences.


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