Words to play by: How national anthems in sport express identity and strengthen place branding
Victoria Pullen, consultant and copywriter at Paris-based branding and word design agency, JoosNabhan, explores how national anthems sung by fans during sport matches crystallise a sense of shared national unity and become a key element in forming a powerful place brand identity.
Sports are essential, community-building events, and more than just entertainment. Defending a team can create a real sense of identity amongst its fans, building on shared emotions and collective victories. These moments contribute to strengthen a nation’s place brand. This is especially the case during international events, when entire countries come together to support their athletes. Uniforms, flags and national anthems become key symbols for a nation or city’s place brand.
What’s in a symbol?
The national symbols used in sports competitions are essential to identify the teams. By appropriating these symbols for themselves, athletes become representatives of the nation, and are therefore expected to embody this shared identity. One symbol in particular stands out: the national anthem. Sung before matches, it is often a solemn moment, where the players and the supporters commune in their common pride for their country. It is an extremely powerful element, with music and lyrics that are meant to represent what a nation stands for. Using it before games crystallises the shared national unity that is already fostered by sports events. As such, the anthem has also become a symbol of an athlete’s perceived respect of the country they represent.
Singing is believing
The close link between sports teams and national identity explains why the use of anthems at sports events often echo ongoing debates around what it means to belong to a nation, and how to express that identity. In early 2021 for example, the Dallas Mavericks NBA team chose to stop playing the United States’ national anthem before games. This was motivated by the fact that an increasing number of players from the Mavericks felt that the anthem did not represent them, thereby questioning the role of this symbol in constructing a common identity. More generally, it coincided with a larger, nation-wide reflection on the significance of the anthem and the history of the country. The decision created enough controversy for the NBA to issue a statement in February 2021 requiring all teams to play the national anthem before games.
A similar event occurred in 2010, before the football World Cup, concerning the German team. Fans and observers debated the fact that some players were not singing the anthem before games. For some, this raised questions regarding their national pride and patriotism, and thus their capacity to represent the nation. At a time when the team was becoming increasingly diverse, the debate quickly moved towards larger issues of national identity and racism. This led to a PR effort from the team, where players were able to reassure the public of their patriotism, regardless of whether they sung the anthem or not.
Athletes singing their national anthem is so clearly seen as representative of national pride and identity that it can lead to embarrassing situations. Like when one patriotic English fan criticised the Spanish team on Twitter for never singing their national anthem during the Euro 2020 football competition – before being ridiculed online for not realising Spain is one of the few nations in the world whose anthem does not have lyrics.
May the best anthem win
Sport events can drive wider national conversations on the identity of a country by questioning the use of a national anthem. In some cases, they can also influence the symbol itself, shaping what a country considers its national anthem. This is the case for Scotland. Officially part of the United Kingdom, the national anthem of Scotland is technically “God Save the Queen” and was sung before football matches until the late 1970s. However, many Scottish supporters did not identify with the anthem, and the team needed to distinguish itself from the England team before matches between the two countries. As such, two contenders emerged to replace it: “Scotland the Brave” for football matches and “Flower of Scotland” for rugby matches. Today, “Flower of Scotland” is the most popular choice, with football matches switching to this anthem in 1993, and the Commonwealth Games changing from “Scotland the Brave” to “Flower of Scotland” in 2010.
The popularity of “Flower of Scotland” has spread beyond just sporting events though. It is considered by many to be the unofficial anthem for Scotland: in a 2006 poll, 41% of respondents chose it as the preferred option for the national anthem. There have even been petitions to the Scottish Parliament to make it the official anthem, although these have been rejected as the subject is not a political priority.
And yet, “Flower of Scotland” has not escaped criticism either. Some object to its slow tempo, but the main reproach pertains to its lyrics. It recounts a battle in which Scotland defeated England and established its status as an independent nation; and has been accused of being too aggressive and jingoistic. As such, these critics do not feel like the song accurately reflects the country. They believe Scotland needs a better anthem to cement their national identity. As “Flower of Scotland” is used increasingly at sporting events, and gains speed as the country’s unofficial anthem, the country still does not have an official anthem.
The words sung by players before international events have consequences beyond the world of sports. These events are a place where people come together to celebrate a shared identity, and they offer important occasions to question national symbols and their meaning. This is especially true for national anthems, and more specifically, the words they use. As is often the case, words are at the heart of building identity. Beyond sports, they define who we are and how we present ourselves. Which is why it is essential to choose the right ones.