Jordi Arrufat | The Lithuania Tribune
Šarūnas Jasikevičius announced in late July that he is going to play for Barça basketball club next season. Four months ago, the Lithuanian distribution chain Maxima purchased the fourth largest supermarket chain in Spain. This means that they will be present in southern Spain and the Canary Islands, thereby commencing business activities for the first time outside of the Baltic states and Bulgaria.
What do these news items have in common? Apparently nothing. But, believe it or not, both are positive news for Lithuania as they improve the perception of Lithuania in Spain, thus fostering Brand Lithuania abroad.
The importance of nation branding has increased in recent years. It has become a subject of interest for marketing and public relations experts, political scientists and diplomats all around the world. It is about projecting a positive image of a given country, territory or foreign city towards foreign public opinion in order to increase the amount of incoming tourists, foreign investments and exports. It is important that the promotional plans carried out correspond to reality, that is to say without manipulation No less important is appointing an organization, institution or company to manage the country brand because, if the government neglects to do so, the country as a whole will project its brand arbitrarily through, for example, its diaspora, its athletes, or artists as well as companies and private brands Such branding might not match that which the government desires.
Spain is an interesting place to bring nation branding actions to because, despite their economic problems, it is the fourth favourite tourist destination in the world having hosted 56 million visitors in 2011 Everything seems to indicate that it will continue to be a Western European tourist favourite in the short and medium terms despite rising airfares and geopolitical instability in other parts of the Mediterranean. One also shouldn’t forget the passion their best known sport teams, Barça and Real Madrid, inspire around the world.
To examine what is known about Lithuania in Spain and how this perception has evolved over the past few years, I will talk about the four following issues’ the diaspora, what is said in the Spanish press about Lithuania, the actions of Lithuanian companies in Spain, and governmental actions aimed at Spanish public opinion.
The first contact that most residents in Spain had with Lithuania was in the late 90′s when immigration from Lithuania to Spain grew exponentially in parallel with Spain’s economic growth. The majority of these Lithuanians settled in coastal areas of the country, such as in the Mediterranean strip running from Barcelona down to Almeria with the region of Valencia standing at the center. At the time this area offered many construction related jobs and, both then and now, many jobs in agriculture as well. Currently there are around 15,000 Lithuanians living in Spain, much more than in other bigger European countries such as France or Italy, and they are still coming despite the economic downturn. As recently as 2011, 1231 Lithuanians settled in Spain, according to the Spanish Institute of Statistics (INE), but it is unknown how many have left.
Most Lithuanian citizens living in Spain are regarded as being disciplined workers and, in some cases, renowned for their skills. However, in parallel with the increasing diaspora, some criminal activities have been perpetrated by Lithuanian citizens.
Despite the overall negative image generated by the actions of a few, it must be said that the joint initiatives undertaken in recent years by Spanish and Lithuanian police has significantly reduced criminal behaviour among Lithuanian nationals in Spain.
Nevertheless, in spite of years of amicable coexistence between Lithuanians and Spaniards, some clichés remain in the minds of most Spaniards. For instance, it is believed that Lithuanians, due to the geographical location of their country in Europe, are fluent Russian speakers. This is not always the case, especially among younger generations.
As for statements about Lithuania in the Spanish press, a quick look at Google News shows that in roughly in 90% of cases Lithuania is mentioned in sport related news items. Sabonis left a strong impression when he played for Real Madrid, Jasikevičius did the same while playing for Barça. Many other players left a similarly good impression,, helping to link Lithuania in the many mindsas a source country of great basketball players, even though Spain’s passion for this sport is not as strong as in Lithuania or other countries like the United States and Turkey. The strong link between basketball and Lithuania is not in itself a guarantee of a good overall reputation, in the same way that the latest success of Spain’s soccer team is not going to solve Spain’s economics problems alone. However, it is clear that it might help people to find a light at the end of the tunnel if stories of economic problems are accompanied by positive news items like a win in soccer.
It is not easy to find non-sport related items in the Spanish press when talking about Lithuania. In early 2012 the Spanish financial press highlighted the purchase of the supermarket chains Supersol and CashDiplo by Maxima. The previous year saw the Spanish press, just like much of world press , report on the video in which Artūras Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, can be seen driving a tank over a car which was illegally parked This had a huge impact on almost all media, some of whom then linked Vilnius with the green values shared by other cities further west in Europe.
But lately there has been other news that was not so well received, such as the homophobic bills which debated in the Seimas in late 2010 and early 2011. Spain has some of the most progressive laws on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues in Europe. LGBT lobbies have a large influence on the public and most Spaniards display tolerant attitudes on these matters.
In short, it is very difficult to appear in the Spanish press on topics other than sports, but Lithuania succeeds occasionally. This occurs not so much with regards to diaspora related issueslike in the past, but with controversial decisions of the Lithuanian parliament or due to such actions, as previously mentioned, of the mayor of Vilnius.
As for the actions of Lithuanian companies this is certainly one of the areas in which Lithuania has to work harder, mainly because not many large Lithuanian multinational corporations are known abroad. Maxima’s risky operation in Southern Spain and the Canary Islands may mark a turning point but we might wonder to what extent the purchase of these supermarket chains may help Lithuania’s global reputation if, as it seems, Supersol and Cashdiplo are going to keep their trademark.
An interesting marketing exercise arose with the opening of a Švyturys Tavern in Madrid’s historic city center a few years ago. Unfortunately, this bar, where Lithuanian beer and cider were served, closed down two years ago. It was the individual initiative of a Spanish distributor without, apparently, being backed in terms of image and marketing by the famous Lithuanian beer company. Otherwise, quite probably, Švyturys beer would not have been served in a setting with dry-cured Spanish ham hanging from the ceiling. In any case, it was nice to find the famous ”Lighthouse” Baltic beer in the heart of the Spanish capital It surely made a tremendous impression on locals and tourists alike.
Finally, a brief mention of actions performed by Lithuanian diplomacy in Spain, an area where some interesting steps have been taken but certainly more could be done. At present the scope of the Embassy of Lithuania in Spain is limited, so their cultural activities, a source of highly valued public diplomacy, are few and far between. However, I should point out that the Embassy has had a Facebook page since March 2011 where they post news about Lithuania in Spanish a positive development enabling dialogue with followers.
To sum up, progress has been made, Lithuania is no longer seen as a grey corner of the Soviet Union like it was 20 years ago. The country has a great basketball team, an embassy in Madrid with no fear of engaging in dialogue through social networks, thereby giving the country a fresh and modern image It has an integrated diaspora within Spanish society, and the mayor of its capital city has huge potential. Now all Lithuania needs is to come up with a unified and appealing message while simultaneously increasing the cultural projection of the country.
I would like to thank Ieva Čekuolyte, President of the Lithuanian Association in Spain, for the help she gave me in writing this article.
Jordi Arrufat is a public diplomacy advisor who works for Generalitat de Catalunya (Catalan Government). His views on the subjects he writes about in The Lithuania Tribune are his own and do not reflect the Catalan Government’s position. He has travelled extensively throughout Lithuania and the Baltic region. He holds a BA in Political Science and a MSc. in International Business Management.