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September 26, 2013

We know Canada is cool, but does the rest of the world know?

by Melissa Nisbett, Communications Manager, Canadian Bureau for International Education 

As an intern working abroad in Geneva several years ago, I was invited to a reception at the Permanent Mission of Canada. It was my first time away from home for an extended period and I was excited to be rubbing shoulders with fellow interns, diplomats and researchers from all over the world.

At one point I looked down to see golden maple leaves carved into the floor. Though they were lovely, I immediately thought, “Is this the only image people see when they think of Canada?”

I believe it’s true, at least for a large segment of the world’s population. So much of Canada’s brand is tied up with physical imagery such as maple leaves, polar bears, and majestic landscapes. And though our soft power attributes are positive, with a focus on “friendliness,” “multicultural” and “diversity”, they are vague.

According to the FutureBrand survey in 2012, Canada ranks second in the world when it comes to reputation – in fact, we were first in both 2010 and 2011, this year outranked by Switzerland. Earlier this year, over 1600 international students surveyed by CBIE found that the majority are aware of Canada’s high quality education system and in fact chose a Canadian institution on this basis. These are both great accomplishments. But more has to be done to ensure we create concrete ideas of Canada so that it is a top of mind destination for international students and not a catch-all for warm and fuzzy ideals.

The idea of strengthening “Brand Canada” is not new. A recent Globe and Mail article, “How should we rebrand Canada on the world stage?”, asks four experts what steps Canada needs to take to become a top-of-mind country among a host of well-defined brands such as the USA, Australia, France, Germany and Great Britain.

In the Globe article, Tyler Brûlé, editor of Monocle and Wallpaper magazine, claims we need to “create a nation of ambassadors” by encouraging Canadians to learn and contribute while working  abroad and develop networks. He says “That’s how solid, meaningful national brands are built.” I agree with his views but suggest going a step further and finding ways to use influential thinkers educated in Canada and current international students to act as brand ambassadors – for example, by providing them with online platforms to share their stories to a worldwide audience.

As a writer I’ve always been drawn by the power of stories. People are naturally more attracted to stories of other people than by a “brand” narrative – human interest trumps a sales pitch any day. Listening to how Carleton University graduate Karim Rashid became a major player in the world of industrial design is inspiring. And it would be interesting to know how Malcolm Gladwell’s experiences studying history at Trinity College, University of Toronto, helped shape his thinking and led to the bestsellers Outliers and Tipping Point. Learning how an international student reflects on Canadian values and how it has benefited his or her studies and worldview is much more compelling than a lecture on Canada’s quality education system and lifestyle. If we want to enhance our profile as an education destination or research partner, we need to work with our international students, researchers, faculty and alumni to get their stories out to new audiences in Canada and abroad, via social media, video, presentations and print.

By sharing stories, we express the real Canada brand and leave maple leaves to their rightful place – beautiful and iconic, but a small part of what we truly are.

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