Tchaikovsky. Chekhov. Dostoevsky. Rudolph Nureyev. These have been the cultural faces of Russia for decades. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the soft culture of Russia has been recast by the hard face of Putin.
“If Russia is considered a brand or trademark, then Putin has done enormous damage to the goodwill of the brand,” says trademark attorney Gene Winter of St. Onge Steward Johnston & Reens in Stamford, Connecticut. Thanks to Putin’s war, adds Winter, “The Russia brand suddenly has become synonymous and interchangeable with Putin.”
I visited Moscow between 2007–2010, when Western capitalists were scrambling to make connections inside the former Communist bloc. At that time, Putin was recasting Russia from a bloc of broken Communist countries to — if not capitalism, then an energetic new form of enterprise. Deals were being made. Range Rovers were covered in mud due to the surge of Moscow construction. People were smuggling iPhones, pimping Louis Vuitton bags in the new Four Seasons lobby and eating sushi at sense-surround restaurants pulsing in the Moscow night. The Russian people were friendly, compassionate and intelligent, and in meetings with legendary brands they seemed eager for a new future.
Since that time, the soft-spoken statesman Vladimir Putin has segued from prosperous industrialist to extreme potentate. German diplomat Thomas Bagger is quoted in The New York Times, describing Putin has someone who has “spun himself into a historical mythology…and thinking in categories of a 1,000-year empire. You cannot deter someone like that with sanctions.”
Nor can you deter them with cancel culture.
It would be good for Putin to take note that brand strategy has importance. After all, the difference between Peter “The Great” and Ivan “The Terrible” is a direct function of branding. Both Peter and Ivan usurped other territories during their reigns, the difference being that Ivan “conquered,” while Peter “united.”
Today in the Ukraine, history is being recorded in real time in the scrolls of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Putin’s bloody maneuver is taking place in front of an entire world. What we cannot unsee are images of people using smartphones, wearing Nikes and American Eagle tshirts, splattered with blood. Happy memories of the Bolshoi Ballet and “The Nutcracker Suite” are being replaced with shocking photos of pregnant women being stretchered from a bombed maternity hospital. A gutted theater with the word “children”. It is Putin, not the civilized world, who is cancelling Russia.
“I don’t see how Russia comes back to the modern world,” says Winter.
When President Biden declares, “this man cannot remain in power,” he is speaking from the vantage point of a moral world. When you bomb babies, you kill God.
I don’t usually point to the Jeff Bezos line, “Brand is what people say about you when you leave the room.” But in this case, it holds. The Russian people will have to live with whatever Putin leaves behind.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Patrick Hanlon, Author of Primal Branding
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