Autumn 2004

The floating signifier

Branding a nation may be just a matter of saying everything there is to say about nothing

Take the name given to me. John O’Reilly. Generic, shamrock-plated Irish. Part-named after a pair of iconic Johns, so to speak – Pope John XXIII and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Being Irish, like being any nationality, means to exist somewhere between the specific, me, and the general – green. I’m lapsed Irish but get a furtive sense of nationhood by drinking stout. I also respond to guys running around in green shirts. My sense of national identity, like many young Englishmen for example, is a ratio of colour and booze. Nationhood is about colour, graphics (the flag), and in my case alcohol (though that’s also about colour). When it comes to identity the biggest significant difference between a nation’s identity and a brand identity is time. It’s about longevity. And it is why people even now kill for a national brand – because of its history. Ireland is a country whose brand image has survived tragedy, terrorism and Michael Flatley.

Liechtenstein on the other hand is a tiny central European country, has a population of about 32,500, and ‘a bit of previous’ as they say. Banking is the mainstay of Liechtenstein’s economy, but in 2000, the OECD put the country on a blacklist due to suspicions about money-laundering. Laws have since been put in place to make the finance sector more transparent.

So consultancy Wolff Olins was hired to re-brand the entire country in time for its National Day, 15 August 2004. Government spokesperson Gerlinde Manz-Christ claims: ‘With this new brand, Liechtenstein as a small state, takes a progressive stance in Europe.’

The new deftly executed logotypes, symbols and motifs that represent the new Liechtenstein makes you just want to … eat it! The country has been rebranded as chocolate. I don’t know whether I’d stash my cash there, but I would put my trust in it to get me a bar of chocolate with 75 per cent cocoa. Swiss type is fine if all you want to attract are graphic designers with asymmetric haircuts. But if you want people with expensive tastes, wrapped in gold foil, you go with Swiss chocolate.

The crown motif is built from the shapes used to represent five different aspects of Liechtenstein, from its ‘Rootedness’ to its ‘Finance’ sector. The regal crown with its promise of tradition, sitting on the flat graphic landscapes, and stamps in the shape of Toblerone make Liechtenstein thoroughly edible. This re-brand goes way beyond re-establishing a level of trust. A nation-brand that makes you dream of chocolate is literally sensational.

Not far away from Liechtenstein lies Sealand. You might have come across Sealand as a child. I remembered it as the place where Teddy swam to after he was chased out of Toytown for conducting illegal gambling operations. But it turns out that Sealand is real. In as much as any utopia is real, because Sealand is linked the commercial utopia of cyberspace.

Sealand lies in the North Sea six miles off the coast of Suffolk, Britain. It is in fact a platform with a bunch of Internet servers that is legally offshore. It’s a new business nation. If casinos or porn are banned in your country of origin, Sealand is your port of call. Rent some server space and off you go. Sealand is what the French thinkers used to call ‘a floating signifier’. Meaningless in itself, its content depends upon its relationship to the other expressions around it. Which is what a brand is: a floating signifier.

And that, I guess, is why Meta Haven, a think tank that includes postgraduates at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht and Dutch designer Daniel van der Velden (see ‘File under ARCHIS’, Eye no. 45 vol. 12) has designed a ‘Jewel Box’ for Sealand. This is a series of logos, symbols, stamps and heraldry for a space that blurs the boundaries between the conceptual, the virtual and the real. Which is what a brand is.

Sealand really is a floating signifier. It’s on Roughs Tower, an anti-aircraft platform dating from Second World War that was claimed as a Sovereign Principality by Roy Bates in 1967. The platform at the time stood outside UK territorial waters. Even though the UK has since extended is territorial limit, it has never forced the issue. Bates printed currency (the Sealand dollar), stamps and passports, and named himself Prince Roy. His wife is Princess Joan.

Sealand as a nation, as a brand, is real insofar as it is legal. It is a curious 21st century form of reality, of what makes something real, have value. The MetaHaven project is a retroactive form of nation-building. Sealand is like a symptom in search of a past to make sense of it, and a future where it could be resolved. Its Union Jack flags connect the nation’s past with its virtual future as a keyword entry on Google. The ‘skull and crossbones’ alludes to its British past, when the country took its place on the world stage in the Elizabethan age as a great pirate nation. Roy Bates founded Radio Essex, a short-lived ‘pirate’ station, from 1965-66.

(There have been other, less fortunate associations, out of the Bates’s control. When Gianni Versace’s killer committed suicide, the owner of the boat he was hiding on was reported to be the holder of a Sealand passport. In 2000, the members of a Spanish crime syndicate were found to have used fake Sealand titles such as ‘ambassador’ and ‘minister’ and used false diplomatic number plates.)

Every nation, in a political philosophy stretching at least as far back as Plato’s Republic, is built on a ‘founding myth’, a birth story that everyone believes in whether they know its real or not. The coinage of MetaHaven’s identity project – what looks like bits of washer you might find on a North Sea platform – carries the image of Queen on it. No, not the Queen. Just Queen, Freddie Mercury. It’s as if any old Queen will do because ‘Queen’ itself is a floating signifier that means different things alongside Queen Elizabeth Windsor, or Queen Freddie.

The key logo for MetaHaven’s identity is pi. Not only does it visually allude to the platform – in mathematics, it’s a transcendental number, it’s irresolvable. Just like the Sealand identity. If Liechtenstein needs to be rooted, Sealand is about being rootless. That’s what makes the MetaHaven execution so good. They represent something and take it away.

It’s like a line in Chris Ashworth’s and Lewis Blackwell’s Soon: ‘A brand is nothing, wanting to be everything.’ Which reminded me of an old song, ‘In a manner of speaking’, by 1970s new wave band Tuxedomoon. It has recently been rebranded itself, in a bossa nova style, but the lyrics remind us what a brand communication has to do, and why it works in the invisible space between the individual and the universal, between empty enigma and visionary promise, Give me the words, That tell me nothing, O give me the words, Give me the words, That tell me everything.

Maybe that is the promise of all brands – corporate or country.

John O’Reilly, writer and editor, London

First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14, Autumn 2004

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.