Can place branding save the world?

Written by Simon Anholt, Founder of the Good Country Index, and Author of The Good Country Equation

Why place branding doesn't work

When I first started writing about an idea I called “nation brand” back in the 1990s, I meant something very simple: that places have images, and those images are crucial to their progress and prosperity in a globalised world.

Countries with powerful and positive images trade at a premium; countries with weak or negative images trade at a discount. It sounds so obvious to say this today, but in 1998 the idea caused quite a stir. Pretty soon, marketing and PR companies – as well as some governments – were all talking about “nation branding”, but this is a term which sounds more like a promise than an observation: if a place doesn’t like the image it has, they seemed to be saying, we can upgrade, enhance or alter it through the magic of marketing communications.

This meaning has stuck, perhaps because so many people want  it to be true, and today the vast majority of “place branding” activity is simply conventional marketing promotion applied to the public sector: places buying media to tell the world how wonderful they are.

The only problem is that it doesn’t work. Advertising, PR and marketing communications work perfectly well for promoting products and services (and of course that includes tourism, events, culture and investment promotion), but all the evidence shows that these techniques have zero impact on the overall image of the city, nation or place. In the 15 years that I’ve been running the Anholt Nation Brands Index (now the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index), I have never detected any correlation between the image of any country and the amount of money it spends on “branding” itself.

So what does work?

In 2012, I conducted an extensive analysis of the more than one billion datapoints that the Nation Brands Index had accumulated, to try and answer one simple question: why do people admire some countries more than others?

The answer was surprising. Although the expected factors were all there – the country’s perceived aesthetic appeal, its relevance to the respondent, its ‘hard power’ and its level of technological development – it turned out that the best overall predictor of a high ranking in the Nation Brands Index was something quite different: the perception that the country acts  responsibly in the international community: that it contributes to humanity and the planet, to the world outside its own borders.

To put it more simply, if a country wants to do well, it must do good. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because corporations reached exactly the same conclusion more than twenty years ago. Today, all corporations know that brand preference and brand loyalty don’t come just from making good products and selling them at the right price: they come from the knowledge that the company behind the brand is a responsible member of the societies in which it operates.

But I’m certainly not talking about altruism or self-sacrifice, and this is about so much more than rich countries giving money to poor countries. The kind of behaviour that really produces a better national image is enlightened self-interest of the purest kind. In fact, the policies, projects and behaviours that earn countries and cities a better reputation needn’t be expensive or politically risky. If done properly, working more internationally and more collaboratively actually results in better domestic  policy, and because it produces a better national image, it also produces higher foreign revenues: not in some distant future, but in real time.

The fact that there is a more than 85% correlation between a nation’s net contribution to humanity and the planet (as measured in my other annual study, The Good Country Index) and its international image (as measured in the Nation Brands Index), is one of several indications that for places as well as businesses, “doing well and doing good” really are one and the same thing.

The Good Country Equation

This simple formula is the core theme of my new book, The Good Country Equation – How we  can Repair the World in One Generation, which was published this month. It’s the story of how this theory emerged, and how we can use it to make the world work better right now, whilst at the same time improving the images of our cities, regions and nations. I hope that The Good Country Equation will also help cities, nations and other places around the world to put the idea of “branding” firmly in its correct context. It’s not about bragging, and it’s not about promotion: it’s about finding your place in the world and making that real.

And the benefits are so much greater than most people believe. Not only can the right approach earn any country or city the respect and admiration of the world’s population, no matter how small or large, weak or powerful, rich or poor that place might be. It can also provide its government and citizens with the pride and satisfaction of knowing that they’ve done so much more than simply brag about their services and attractions: they have actually helped make the world work better.

Part autobiographical travelogue, part place branding treatise, ‘The Good Country Equation’ follows Simon Anholt's career over 20  years of advising Presidents, Prime Ministers, and monarchs of 56 countries, and it shares some of the funny, dangerous, and touching experiences he had along the way.

Buy ‘The Good Country Equation’ here to save 30% off the e-book.

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Two countries that prove nation branding works

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.