Manley on Johnson and Gentles-Peart, 'Brand Jamaica: Reimagining a National Image and Identity'

Author: 
Hume Johnson, Kamille Gentles-Peart, eds.
Reviewer: 
Elizabeth Manley

Hume Johnson, Kamille Gentles-Peart, eds. Brand Jamaica: Reimagining a National Image and Identity. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. 252 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0056-3.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Manley (Xavier University of Louisiana) Published on H-LatAm (January, 2021) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55776

In this collection of essays on the multiple aspects of Jamaica’s “national branding project,” editors Hume Johnson and Kamille Gentles-Peart provide a broad and useful analytical framework, as well as a diverse and multidisciplinary set of approaches, to understanding the ways Jamaica’s cultural products are both deployed for particular kinds of image making and received by a global audience (p. xii). While branding as an intellectual topic fits most squarely within business and media studies milieus, the editors and contributors demonstrate its value, particularly for nations highly dependent on the viability of a national brand for tourism, in a much larger humanistic sense. Specifically, the essays probe the more “problematic aspects” of branding, ranging from the ways tourism officials selectively choose certain aspects of Jamaica to sell the nation to the world, to the negative impacts of homophobia and violence on the brand, and finally to the failures to protect intellectual property as the Jamaica brand spirals out through globalization.

In their definition of “nation branding,” the editors are careful to explain the difference between image and branding, the latter being a “strategic tool adopted by many countries ... to manage and build positive reputations in order to gain competitive and economic advantage” while the former is the “sum total of all mental associations about a nation in the mind of international (and local) stakeholders” (p. xiii). Relying on the scholarship of policy analyst Simon Anholt, who is credited with coining the term “nation branding,” the essays focus predominately on contemporary realities rather than on the historical accretion of nation image and reputation. They do recognize the import of such contributions and signal awareness of the critiques of nation branding, including its incompatibility with an inclusive understanding of national identity, its generally singular narrative construct, and its embeddedness in neocolonial global power imbalances.

One of the central questions guiding these essays is expressed starkly in the final chapter: “should not Jamaica and its people to a larger degree benefit economically and wield influence over how the Jamaican flag and other cultural symbols are appropriated and portrayed?” (p. 151). As most of the contained essays argue, Jamaica has benefited in many ways from its branding as a “sun, sea, and sand” tourism destination and as the unique birthplace of reggae, Bob Marley, and sports phenoms like Usain Bolt. Yet it is widely understood that tourism tends to benefit only a small sector of the population and that such lodestars of cultural character are hardly inclusive of a diverse Jamaican national identity. Contributing authors interrogate what Johnson calls the “dialectic tension” inherent to the Jamaica brand (p. 3). While for some this tension revolves around the frictions between positive and negative imagery of the nation, for others it centers on the contradictions between “staged authenticity” and lived experience or between productive and “tarnished” deployments of national symbolism (pp. 93, 148). In a number of the essays, authors offer suggestions for how officials might think about expanding the Jamaican brand to include more accurate representation of its citizenry, protecting the intellectual property rights and better controlling the national narrative, or creating stronger protections for marginalized groups in an effort to remove the stigmas attached to the nation’s brand.

The six essays that comprise the book cover general branding concepts, specific approaches by Jamaica’s tourism board, the everyday impact of branding on the lived experiences of women in the diaspora, negative impacts on the Jamaican brand, literature and branding, city brands, and questions of intellectual property and the nation’s symbolic narrative. As the editor’s point out, these case studies “draw on a variety of approaches” from “cultural studies, postcolonial studies, political science, and literary analysis” (p. xxix). Given their relative diversity, readers may engage with the essays to differing degrees, dependent on their interest in and use of the concept of nation branding. Still, for those working on the contemporary Caribbean and/or places reliant on tourism and cultural production, this collection provides thoughtful contributions to and beyond literary analysis, cultural studies and critical theory, and communications and media studies.

In the first chapter, co-editor Johnson provides an even deeper framing of the concepts of branding through a discussion of the inherent tensions in such a project, probing beyond “sun, sea, sand,” sports, and reggae to reveal the contradictory “dangerous paradise” label that often plagues Jamaica (p. 12). Nickesia Gordon then demonstrates, in the second chapter, some of the ways the paradise element of this label were built through the Jamaica Tourist Board across the second half of the twentieth century by using a “critical textual analysis” of tourism commercials. In the third chapter, co-editor Gentles-Peart looks at the “impact of discourses of paradise” on the lives of Jamaican women in the diaspora, arguing that these narrative imaginings have powerful repercussions in the stereotypes they construct for Jamaican women abroad (p. 52).

The idea that paradise, as an escape from modernity, drives tourism narratives is far from a harmless story; it is, in fact, often a purposeful perversion of Jamaican realities. Anna Kasafi Perkins argues that a “rival brand image” competes for dominance in “Brand Jamaica” and that the violence, human rights violations, and homophobia present in the country ripple outward through official and unofficial protest actions (p. 76). However, it is possible to see beyond this dichotomous framing of the national image, as Laëtitia Saint-Loubert argues in her chapter on Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Her analysis of the 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning book and its French and Spanish translations highlights the contradictions inherent in the “staged authenticity” of nation branding and offers possibilities for a renegotiation and nuancing of Brand Jamaica (p. 93).

In the final two chapters, Johnson and Steffen Mussche-Johansen offer thoughts on improving Jamaica’s branding project. In a chapter focused on Kingston, Johnson argues that little effort has been exerted to explicitly craft a positive image for the nation’s capital city, despite its geographic and symbolic importance in the larger branding project. She argues for a deliberate campaign to construct the capital city as a creative hub, drawing on its existing known strengths and highlighting others that have gone unremarked. Finally, Johnson and Mussche-Johansen tackle the complications of intellectual property rights and the need for Jamaica to construct legal protections of its own brand elements. Arguing for a need to reclaim the symbols that most stand in for Jamaica, they push for a “proactive identity politics” that protects the nation’s moral right to “narrate its own discourse” (p. 155).

Johnson and Gentles-Peart conclude the collection with several broad recommendations. First, they argue that Jamaican officials need to “foster, nurture, and project” a brand for the nation that is “commensurate with the complexity and richness of the island” and moves beyond the immediate needs of destination tourism (p. 168). Second, they assert that the “destabilizing impacts” of “deficits in governance,” including crime, corruption, and human rights abuses, must be addressed in order to prevent their negative impacts on the country’s international reputation and create a more robust civil society that will bolster it (p. 170). Finally, they offer suggestions for further research, which could and should be applied to any country or region of study that depends on national branding—and its many contradictions and complications—in the way that Jamaica does. In sum, the collection provides much to recommend it across a number of thematic and disciplinary foci, particularly in a moment in which reimaging the nation will become paramount in the post-COVID tourism landscape.

Citation: Elizabeth Manley. Review of Johnson, Hume; Gentles-Peart, Kamille, eds., Brand Jamaica: Reimagining a National Image and Identity. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55776

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