Exclusively for Novinite, Maxim Behar shared his thoughts on the image and branding of Bulgaria. According to the world-renowned PR expert, a “Minister of Image” is the key to better promoting Bulgaria in front of the world

1. Mr. Behar, as a globally recognized PR expert and Honorary Consul General of the Republic of Seychelles in Bulgaria, you have a unique view on the image and branding of Bulgaria – both at home and abroad. How would you describe the current level of our country?

Quite disturbing and I would say surprisingly passive.

I don’t remember a quality campaign for the branding of Bulgaria since many years ago, the last attempts at successful promotion were practically twenty years ago. This makes us desperately uncompetitive and uninteresting.

A week ago, I chaired the annual meeting of the diplomatic corps with businesses and the government, and at it the Minister of Finance Asen Vassilev mentioned that Bulgaria spends about 50 million leva a year on the promotion of the country. I could not believe it. And we’re not talking about promoting only tourism, which everyone has so actively focused on. The “Bulgaria” brand must be worked on every day with a lot of energy, with a lot of creativity and a long-term vision, so that our country can be visible with all its advantages. Visible – mainly for investment and doing good business. If this happens, tour operators will be able to sell their packages to Bulgaria much more successfully, but they will also naturally invest in the promotion of the country and its services.

Twenty years ago, together with my good friend and partner, the former governor of Nevada Bob Miller, we held a series of international conferences, which we called “Bulgaria – Dream Area”. At that time, there was not a single five-star hotel, not even a newly built one, on the Bulgarian seashore, and I believe that these meetings were the most successful product for presenting Bulgaria not only as a tourist country, but also as a wonderful place to do business. Every year, hundreds of tour operators and businessmen, heads of world organizations, even a lot of journalists from television and influential publications came to Bulgaria…

Years later, I proposed to Kiril Petkov’s government to sell the slogan “Bulgaria – Dream Area”, which is my registered trademark, to the Bulgarian state for the sum of 1 euro. From Las Vegas, Governor Miller called me and he was very excited to support me and was sure this message would work beautifully for Bulgaria. No one responded to my offer. Bulgaria continues to be the only country in Europe probably without a slogan to present to the world and the so-called tourist “logo” does not speak to me at all, it is anything but a logo. I have proposed the same to the government of Academician Denkov now, I hope that some minister will come to this topic as well – how to better present Bulgaria to the world.

2. Since Bulgaria’s image and branding are at such a level, what do you think can be improved? Bulgaria finally has a relatively stable government and the development of a successful tourism policy in our country is possible. What advice would you give to politicians in this sector?

Advice can naturally be given to those who would accept it and devote themselves to – in my opinion – the most important task for Bulgaria right now.

That is the promotion of our country as a calm and safe place for investments, for life, for success. Of course, we know that not everything is perfect and now we are overwhelmed with political and other problems, but I assure you, there is hardly a country in the world where the same or almost the same problems are not in the media from morning to night. We are a little bit overdramatic with this suppression of our self-esteem and it’s probably also because for 50 years there has always been someone to suppress it for us.

The most important advice I can give, not only to politicians, is to look around and see the nice, modern and beautiful things in Bulgaria, and they are everywhere. And more – the most urgent task for any government is now to very actively start promoting Bulgaria around the world.

3. You have traveled all over the world and met many people of different nationalities, cultures and religions. What do foreigners think of us Bulgarians and our homeland? Is there something we are missing in Bulgaria’s branding that foreigners can tell us more about?

Foreign experts can hardly understand what Bulgaria really is. They can give a professional look from the outside, but a good presentation must be “born” here, by Bulgarian experts, of which there are quite a few and some a super creative.

You know, many people, including experts, believe that Bulgaria should very actively promote itself to the world with its natural sights and the services near them – sea beaches, mountains, ski resorts, spa tourism, restaurants and whatnot. I have always been, and will always be, against this approach, I consider it outdated and unnecessary. There are beaches, mountains, spa centers and ski slopes almost everywhere, quite often even more than the Bulgarian ones. What is unique here is… the People. Of course, I deliberately put a capital letter on this word. In Bulgaria, they are the greatest advantage – smart, intelligent, well-educated and ambitious. I am fully aware of how many people will immediately jump in and start proving me wrong. But they won’t have a single argument to prove it.

And something else. If we manage to present Bulgaria as a good place to invest and do business in, then tourism and many other things will go much better by themselves. For all these years, for example, we failed to announce to the world that we are the country with the lowest taxes in Europe, and if we had managed to deal with the indescribable bureaucracy, then everything would have been completely different and much more positive. But you know, it’s not too late, we have a chance to catch the last train. But it won’t be much for long, we just have to hurry and be very proactive.

4. The image and branding of a country is not only useful for tourism, but also extremely important for attracting foreign investment. How, in your opinion, can Bulgaria position itself better on this front?

There are many ways, some of them quite innovative. Personally, I don’t believe in TV advertising. It may have some role in presenting a country’s tourism, but social media is increasingly displacing it and becoming a major communication tool. It has this advantage that no media has ever had in all of history – it is measurable and can be directed to the right targets. And again – if we present our country as a calm and safe place, as it definitely is, tourism and investments will come by themselves. But we have to do it creatively, constantly, even aggressively, and always put people first.

5. In the last few years (and perhaps before that) Bulgaria seems to have acquired the image of an unstable Balkan country. How can we go about clearing this image? Perhaps we should re-target the goal of being a leader in the region, as we unsuccessfully tried in 2018 during the European Presidency?

I do not think that Bulgaria has the image of an unstable Balkan country. This has long been forgotten.

Rather, it seems that Western journalists, and through them the Western societies, generally perceive it as a rather vague, incomprehensible and slightly strange country among the new members of the European Union. And the lack of good communication is the main reason for this.

During the first Bulgarian EU presidency, apart from the fact that a hundred European officials and twenty prime ministers and presidents appeared in Sofia, practically nothing significant happened. And this is not an arbitrary and empty criticism, it’s just that we could have used these six months far more successfully, but assuming that we did not have a solid experience, we should already be preparing for the next presidency. We have absolutely no need, and we cannot be a leader in the region. We must put our “garden” in order, we must forget about our unnecessary ambitions and our historical complexes and we must start working hard for the presentation of Bulgaria abroad. And why not inside, in the country itself? There are some archaic and naive advertisements on television that tell us what high mountains and beautiful beaches we have, they show us some girls sweating profusely in a sauna, and at the same time we all know how to put order in the Bulgarian resorts and to improve the product so that vacationers do not want to leave them. Which often happens, by the way.

6. Your latest book “The Magic of Seychelles Cuisine & Stories from the “Paradise on Earth” came out recently. In it, you share your passion for Seychelles and its traditional Creole cuisine. Do you think that Bulgaria should “advertise” its cuisine and its culinary wonders more?

Cuisine and food are only part of the whole perception of a destination. Basically, three factors are important for a country to perform successfully – nature, cuisine and people. Naturally, when we return from an interesting destination, we look at the photos on our phones, share them on social media, and enjoy our tan in front of the mirror, but the taste of the local cuisine still lingers in our mouths. We remember it for too long and often look for cookbooks or advice online on how to cook something that made an impression on us. I am very proud of my Seychelles book, it is already on Amazon in English, and the sales in Bulgaria are phenomenal. In this way, I present a country that I love very much and which, by the way, has great success in its tourism advertising. Bulgarian cuisine is great and very original, there should be a huge interest in it, but – again – it is only part of what we should do for Bulgaria. And precisely in this case – I would say – far from a main goal.

7. In our series “Ambassador Talks“, our guests often mention the branding and image of Bulgaria. According to the ambassadors, Bulgaria has a lot to offer, but so far it has not been able to present itself to the world as an attractive destination and it needs to work a lot on this problem. Maybe our politicians should listen to the diplomats, what do you think?

Your diplomatic series is unique, I congratulate you for it. I don’t know any media in Bulgaria that pays such systematic and professional attention to the diplomatic representatives in Sofia and turns to them for a valuable opinion. For the most part, these are experienced, professional people who love the country in which they work in and their opinion is always well-wishing.

The more opinions, especially professional ones, the better. And it’s not just the ambassadors, not a day goes by that a business partner or just a friend from abroad doesn’t call me and ask me: “Max, what’s going on, why don’t we hear anything about Bulgaria? You have thousands of acquaintances, they know you, why don’t you say loudly and clearly in the country that there is a need for promotion, branding, recognition? Bulgaria must be talked about, every day, every hour!”

Well, how can I disagree with that…

And thinking about it all the time, or as they say, I easily come to the conclusion that a wagon train of institutions is spending money indiscriminately and passing the ball from one to another. I ask a minister about something related to the image of Bulgaria, and he tells me: “Ahhhh… ask this minister.” I go to “this minister”, he sends me to another one… This must be put to an end.

That is why I am more than convinced, right now, that the government should appoint a very experienced coordinator of the entire policy of promoting Bulgaria abroad, I would even call him “Minister of Image” or something similar. I proposed this idea 5 years ago through the “Manager” magazine, but the government did not respond to me at all. And in Bulgaria, there are many talented people who could do this, I will immediately list at least three if someone asks me. And it’s not about waste or unnecessary administration. With a small team of a few people and without any significant expenses, directly subordinate to the Prime Minister, these people must be responsible for everything done, or not done, in this area, and once every three months they must present a public account of what they did. This is a sure way to concretely move forward, to change, and to achieve success.

But it must happen now, even immediately, so that responsibilities are not blurred between different ministries and other institutions, and everyone to wash their hands of the other.