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When it comes to marketing, sometimes what you think you're saying isn't what your audience hears.

Last week, The New Yorker magazine trumpeted the fact that all of the ads purchased in its edition coinciding with the G8 and G20 summits were taken out by Canadian organizations. There were tourism promotions, invitations for foreign investment, and boasts of clean energy industries. But readers flipping through the issue also received another unmistakable message between the lines. Out of almost 21 pages of ads, 18 of them - or 82 per cent - were paid for by various federal, provincial, and local government departments, which declared in their totality: Welcome to Canada, a place where it's impossible to get away from the government!

As Canada turns 143 years old today, it is grappling with one of the most modern questions: Namely, What is our brand?

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This is not just an academic issue. Over the past few years, the practice of place branding has proven to be catnip to countries around the world seeking a competitive edge. Italian industry and its government heavily market the country's high fashion and foods. Germany emphasizes its engineering prowess. The United States throws hundreds of millions of dollars and much political effort behind the export of its high-tech and entertainment industries. (Needless to say, the country no longer tries to export its financial sector with the muscle it once did.)

A few years ago, Agriculture Canada rolled out a program to brand domestically produced foodstuffs with maple leaf icons and the tagline, "Quality is in our nature." Other government agencies are exploring programs that could brand Canada and its products and services.

That's because brands enable entities - whether people, companies, or places - to create and then capture premiums. Brands allow the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. Countries with strong brands capture political, cultural, and economic premiums. When observers talk about Canada punching above its weight on the world stage, they're really talking about the country leveraging its political capital based on a brand.

One year ago today, Erin O'Keefe, Interbrand Canada's director of strategy and brand engagement, was working in the company's New York office when she took a few moments to ponder the difference between the Canadian and U.S. national holidays unfolding this weekend.

"The Fourth of July is about a revolution, the triumph of the individual," she noted earlier this week. July 1st, on the other hand, commemorates the decision to form a country out of four founding provinces. "Canadians celebrate a meeting. A union. It's an agreement about mutual goals over the individual."

And it's awfully hard to escape your DNA. The motto of "Peace, order, and good government," included in the Constitution Act of 1867, still retains a hold over every decision we make.

Until a couple of years ago, of course, Canada was widely ridiculed for the zealous regulation of its financial sector. But in a piquant illustration of how fashions can change overnight, our caution became our fame. Boring became sexy.

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Outside the banking industry, there may be no better illustration of the success bred by solidity than in our food exports. Over the past decade, studies commissioned by Agriculture Canada demonstrate that foreigners believe Canadian food to be highly desirable because of its safety and dependability.

From Singapore to Germany and Mexico, consumers may not often think of Canada, but when they do, the association tends to be positive. Those in Hong Kong are both very aware of Canada and Canadian products - owing to the fact that as much as 3 per cent of its population may hold Canadian passports - and predisposed to liking them.

"South Koreans think more highly of Canada than the United States and Australia, in terms of good reputation as a country, clean environment, trustworthy and likeable people," reads one Agriculture Canada summary that reflects a typical sentiment. In the United Kingdom, Canada scores second only to the host country on such measures as "trust in food system" and "ability to deliver on benefits." That's us: trustworthy and dependable.

Still, brands can be finicky things, especially in countries that flirt with chauvinism. "There are some markets, like in the U.S., where some companies don't want to identify themselves as Canadian, and that's fine, because it's a bonus for them if they can fly under the radar," notes Melissa Furkalo, a senior markets and trade officer who oversees the Ontario office of Agriculture Canada's Brand Canada program.

"Americans tend to have that 'Buy American' view, so they're more likely to buy something American. So if you're advertising yourself as Canadian, it might not always work to your advantage. It's better to be generic."

Which is why it's hard to find a Canadian flag on a BlackBerry package in any foreign territory.

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But as Canada explores more branding programs, it needs to keep in mind that it isn't always the best judge of what it says to the world. In the case of The New Yorker magazine, the medium - all those ads paid for by the government - may have overwhelmed the intended message that Canada is a place cutting-edge companies should consider investing in.

Sandy Shiffman of the brand consultancy Millward Brown suggests one solution. If Canada undertakes an external branding program, "We would be very wise to get a shop over the pond to study us and help us encapsulate what we stand for as a brand," she says. "It is like writing your own résumé. It can be difficult for us to do the brand positioning work."

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