When Serbia hosted the 14th annual Exit music festival this weekend, a record number of revelers turned out. In a medieval mountain fortress on the Danube river, 200,000 music fans fist-pumped to Snoop Dogg, David Guetta, and Fatboy Slim, celebrating Serbia’s best party in over two decades.
They could just as well have been celebrating their own country’s comeback; at the other side of the festival, that’s exactly what their peers were planning. In a meeting hall in Novi Sad, hundreds of students, professionals, and foreign experts gathered to brainstorm about the rebranding of Serbia. They, along with their government and most of their countrymen, want to change its reputation to be more culture and nightlife, less war crimes and corruption.
The discussion in this serious pocket of a raucous festival was sponsored by Rebrand Serbia, an Exit-borne initiative that aims to pull Serbia out from its post-war rut, mending an image based on its aggressive role in the breakup of Yugoslavia so that it can be recognized as a tourist destination and attract the visitors and foreign cash that the country so needs — and that rival Croatia already has.
Rebrand Serbia‘s organizer, Ivan Petrović, said the initiative grew out of observations of Exit attendees’ shock at how different Serbia was from the late-1990s war zone they remembered from TV. “The Exit team was sick and tired of explaining to people from abroad that there is no war in present Serbia and actually it is a very cool place to be, with warm, super-friendly people,” Petrović said.
Until it saw huge success this year, the Exit festival’s career had mirrored the struggle and scrambling recovery of Serbia itself. Crippled by sanctions after the Yugoslav wars, robbed by an endless series of corrupt politicians, and stymied in EU accession attempts by its own political stubbornness, Serbia’s had a bad last couple of decades. A inefficient government and depressed economy have made it hard for the country to make any progress in improving its war-era reputation.
“Serbians are uncomfortable with the way they’re perceived in the world,” said Jeremy Hildreth, a place branding consultant who spoke at the conference, “and there’s a kind of fixation on their image.”
His advice to them was, in part, to relax a bit. “It takes a while,” Hildreth said. “When there was a war or something that gave people legitimate grounds for being suspicious of you, there are not many shortcuts to a better reputation except maintaining a good reality over many years.”
Except for that reality to become known, Serbia needs visitors; hence Rebranding Serbia’s focus on the festival as a catalyst for more tourism. Some current government and private-sector efforts dovetail with that mission. An airline reshuffle will mean more international flights in and out of Serbia, after Etihad Airways bought a large stake in the former Serbian national carrier, Jat Airways, which then announced a codeshare with Air Berlin. The new partners are considering rebranding the line as Air Serbia, in a reflection of the country’s desire to associate its name with travel.
Though its gone largely untapped so far, Serbia has plenty of material to use in tourism promotion. Political columnist Ana Marija Popovic, who attended the conference, enumerated the country’s selling points. “The first thing about Serbia is value for money,” she said. “Compared to Western Europe we have good quality for lower prices. The second thing is the eclectic style of the country. Its something between east and west, and Belgrade is the melding point of many civilizations.”
But the branding efforts must remain focused, said Hildreth. He is a fan of pursuing the comparison of Belgrade to Barcelona, although “The Berlin of the Balkans” is also a popular slogan among Belgrade evangelists. Either way, the strategists agree that branding should focus on the city’s party scene. “It’s primarily due to the vibrancy of the culture and nightlife in Belgrade that Serbia consistently outperforms expectations,” said Hildreth.
The birth of Rebrand Serbia signals an attempt to turn those expectations around, and the success of Exit is an encouraging first step. “The best thing we can do for the image of Serbia is to attract more people,” as Exit’s Petrović said.
“We could never brand Serbia as a country full of serious people, disciplined without major problems with corruption, because that is not true,” he said. “But we can brand it as a destination with warm-hearted people, great food and Rakia [liquor], where you can have great fun at top world festivals and city break destinations.”