Why would a country choose to change its name? Historically, name changes have often followed regime changes, especially after decolonization. Ceylon became Sri Lanka after the departure of the Portuguese, and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe when the Belgians left. Sometimes the name was changed to align the exonym (the name used outside the location) with the endonym (the name used inside the location). Examples of this include the change from Persia to Iran and the Ivory Coast to Côte d’Ivoire. Likewise, a country’s name is also the brand it shows to the world; “France” conjures thoughts of croissants, vineyards, and the Eiffel Tower, for example. In the past decade, however, a number of countries have changed their names for one purpose: marketing.
The Kingdom of eSwatini is nestled into the eastern border of South Africa. It is one of the last remaining countries on earth with an absolute monarch, and it was previously known as Swaziland. King Mswati III changed the name of the country in 2018 for one reason: Swaziland was a remnant of colonial rule, the word being an amalgamation of Swati and English languages. The new fully Swati name “eSwatini” means “place of the Swazi.” However, in his explanation for the name change, King Mswati III said, “Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland.” The former governor of the Central Bank of eSwatini also remarked on the confusion, citing the French as particularly culpable. The name change was thus partially an attempt to create a distinct brand for the nation and to increase name recognition outside of the country. A unique identity is essential for attracting foreign attention—be it investment, journalism, or tourism. Being confused with another, more visited nation was not only hindering eSwatini’s attempts to gain prominence on the world stage, but also diminishing its funds, attention, and influence.
In 2022, the Turkish government, led by President Erdogan, changed the country’s exonym to Türkiye, replacing the Anglicized version of its name with its correct pronunciation. Some have argued that the renaming is part and parcel of Erdogan’s campaign to fuel nationalist sentiment, a reflection of his rhetoric and policies suppressing the Kurdish minority. And yet, marketing also seems to be a clear impetus in his decision. The Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), the state broadcaster, emphasized how the government was vexed that the name was shared with the animal, commonly associated with Christmas and Thanksgiving in the United States. They also disliked that the first Google search results of “Turkey” are a bird, and felt that the dictionary definition of “turkey” as “something that fails badly” and “a stupid or silly person” was unseemly. The TRT article explicitly connects the name change with rebranding, explaining that the government wanted the country’s name to encapsulate and export their own culture and heritage, not refer to a festive, flightless fowl. As only the exonym has been changed, it is evident that the government wants to convey to foreigners an image of a culturally-rich destination in an exotic location for tourists to visit.
In another example, the Netherlands formally dropped the synecdoche Holland from all official communication and promotional material in 2020. There are indeed regions in the country named North and South Holland, but this change has nothing to do with language or colonization: Holland has been used interchangeably with the Netherlands because it is the nation’s strongest economic area. The Dutch government is fully cognizant that their brand is encapsulated in their name and decided that the easiest route to change their reputation would be to change their name. The Dutch government spent 18 months working on a branding campaign to enhance its country’s image. This includes replacing the logo of the “Holland tulip” next to the word “Holland” with a stylized “NL” to be used by businesses, academia, and cultural and sports organizations. The Minister of Finance explained that they wanted one unambiguous logo by which the country could be recognized to help attract investors and talent. Holland is the most popular region for tourism in the Netherlands, perhaps even too much so: By 2030, the country could see 42 million tourists annually, outstripping its population nearly 2.5 times. The tourism board has stopped promoting the most famous attractions and began focusing instead on lesser-known sites in other regions of the country. In addition, younger tourists that are unfamiliar with the nation often associate the country with recreational drugs and the red-light district—a reputation that the government would like to do away with. “We are fully aware that internationally, a strong image of the Netherlands contributes to achieving political objectives, promoting trade, attracting talent, investment and tourists, and encouraging cultural and scientific exchange,” the head of public diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs remarked. Thus, the Netherlands is attempting to change its public brand in order to change the behavior of its consumers—tourists.
After changing their names, these countries must ensure that their new names are adopted and implemented. Domestic actors play a crucial role in exporting these new brands—eSwatini companies must also change their name, and Dutch institutions need to use the new logo to make the change recognizable. Additionally, international actors ought to adopt these changes, rendering rebranding dependent on the acceptance of the targeted audience; Eswatini is still labeled Swaziland on Google Maps, and Google autocorrects Türkiye to Turkey. Furthermore, changing the name of a nation is not without cost. A country must alter hundreds of administrative, promotional, and mundane details to align with the new name—from license plates and letterheads to official documentation and currency. While the Netherlands did not change its formal name—presenting fewer obstacles for adoption—its implementation is still spotty. Holland is shorter and more convenient than the clunky title “the Netherlands.” The Board of Tourism, however, has yet to change their website domain from “holland.com,” despite having changed their logo (which alone cost 200,000 euros). A small elephant hides in the corner: Only time will tell if these name changes prove effective. The worth of their steep price tags remains to be seen.