LEAH DAVCHEVA: BULGARIA IS A SPRING OF OPPORTUNITIES
Leah Davcheva met Milena Hristova, Editor of Novinite.com and the News
Q: The Branding Bulgaria project seeks to inform and guide the process of forging an enhanced international reputation for Bulgaria. Which in your opinion were its most successful events so far?
A: It depends on what we understand by success, because the process of the project was so organized that the first event leads on to the second, to the third and the effect is cumulative. One of the objectives of the project was to produce a strategy for creating the image of Bulgaria and until this moment the draft of the strategy is ready. In that respect all the events of the process have been leading to the production of that strategy.
The first event leading onto the strategy was a debate where fifty Bulgarians took part and they brainstormed ideas about the current image of Bulgaria. Then there was a slightly narrower, in terms of participation, event, which took place in November last year. It was successful in its own right because it was the first constructive step towards creating the image. Then we had another seminar in February where the strategy was looked upon from a different perspective. While the first seminar looked at the strategy and the image of Bulgaria from a "commercial perspective" - it became obvious that we can't talk about Bulgaria's image in spiritual terms only, it became obvious that Bulgaria's products, Bulgaria's brands needed to be sold. The second seminar looked at the strategy from a more social, civil society point of view.
After the strategy got produced we organized a roundtable discussion, where the aim was to pull down the strategy to pieces, to criticize it beyond recognition so that we can put the pieces together again and produce a better product. There we met with the approval of people, respected in our society and we also got criticism. Once a month the initiative group, which consists of twelve people, get together to discuss the next step of the project and outline the "how" of the achievement. I regard out participation in media also a successful event, since another aim of the project is to widen the social space where the issues relating to branding Bulgaria are discussed.
Q: You mentioned that at the roundtable you got criticism, along with approval. Which issued proved to be most debatable?
A: I think criticism will continue forever. So far the image of Bulgaria is being focused upon Bulgaria's past, heritage and natural beauty. These are still being seen through the prism of the nation, the national heritage. A central point in the strategy is to look at Bulgaria from the organizing concept of the territory. This was a point of criticism - why not the nation, the heroic past but the territory. We were also criticized for saying that we would like to construct the present image of Bulgaria through its people, through the younger generation. At the roundtable we had respected professors who are not at the age of thirty and they saw it kind of insulting.
We think it is of vital importance to stress the point that there are young people in Bulgaria who want to speak, have the drive to work. These could be people who work outside Bulgaria or people who have come back or are willing to work somewhere else. If pictures of grannies and old men, sitting in their donkey carts, could be a romantic image for tourists, I do not think they can attract investments. We conducted a survey among young people, up to the age of thirty-two, thirty-four. It became clear that older people working in their own little gardens and villages could be attractive not because we can read Bulgaria's backwardness, but Bulgaria's authenticity.
Q: Which are the "products" that Bulgaria can successfully sell abroad?
A: What we can sell abroad is something that everybody in Bulgaria has, namely the way we tolerate differences or - as newspapers would call it - the ethnic tolerance model. Although the media is full of racist language, I still think Bulgarians are tolerant towards the other. It takes very little for people in the streets to recognize racist language and react against it. Another thing is the stability idea. I took part in a focus group once, when somebody said that we, being reserved, restrained as individuals, may not turn us into very successful candidate for the European Union. This is an ideal feature of a member - our moderateness of character. We can also sell our endurance, our persistence, our ability to survive through various trials. The slogan of the strategy is "Take it easy", in the sense that there is something in life which is not money. And our worldview is also something we can sell, our feeling for friends.
Q: In his presentation at the First International Conference on Tourism in Bulgaria in January (www.bulgariantourism.com) Mr. Kevin Lewis, former Director of British Council Bulgaria, said this was the first time that people from different interest groups approached the subject in a coordinated way. What in you opinion is the new thing about this "exercise"?
A: I think Kevin meant two things. The project has been going on for eighteen months already and I have come across some jealousy on the part of different people. When somebody in Bulgaria approaches an issue it is as if they mark a territory. The fact that the British Council has started a project does not exclude other approaches to the issue, on the contrary - the more, the better. The issue of the brand of Bulgaria has been approached through hiring professional companies and commissioning Bulgaria's brand to them. I think this is one very justifiable approach because it takes professionals to construct a project. But the aims of our project are different - to construct a strategy and make it available to everybody who want to make use of it.
Q: How do you see the project's development till March 2003, when the project aims to be complete?
A: The strategy will be re-written, in fact it is being re-written now after the roundtable. In September we will start a process of setting up an NGO, which will take the strategy over from the British Council. We will present the strategy to the Prime Minister, to the President, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of European Affairs. During an event in February there will be a lecture, which will take the format of a story we want to tell about ourselves. It will be put on paper as well; it will come out as a booklet. This booklet will be spread everywhere where the British Council can reach outside Bulgaria.
Q: Do you think foreigners have certain prejudices, which stand in the way of Bulgaria's efforts to change its image?
A: Opinions differ and I know that because within the project a number of surveys were conducted. During one such informal survey the respondents were asked to put down phrases and words that marked ideas they connected with Bulgaria. Most of the associations were negative, related to our socialist past, our socialist - related architecture, mostly the concrete and the gray color, an association with the Soviet Union and also an association, related to our sexual life.
Q: In what sense...?
A: In the sense that people relate Bulgaria to doubtful sexual habits. I connect those with the name - though I cant' be 100% sure about this - since "bulgar" is related to vulgar. what came out during a Gallup survey was that the opinion leaders don't think that foreigners are prejudiced. They think that in their professional relationship with foreigners, foreigners treat them as equals and they take tem on the merit of the success of their work together. One of the conclusions of the strategy is that Bulgaria has very little image, Bulgaria is not known. It is better to start from something, which does not exist, rather than to counterbalance a bad image.
Q: What would you write on a slogan to the frame "Bulgaria - XXXXXXXXXX" if you were to describe the national imagery?
A: Bulgaria - a spring of opportunities.
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