COVID-19, leadership, and the impact on nation branding

International relations are at a crossroad. The Brexit deal between the EU & Great Britain came into effect at the close of 2020. Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the US president on January 20th - just days after pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. Governance of COVID-19 continues to re-shape the global political landscape.

With so much upheaval comes an intense international scrutiny on how countries are managing their reputations.

The impact of leaders on nation brands

Despite international criticism of Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, both countries continued to rank well. In the 2020 Brand Finance Nation Brands Index, the USA and Great Britain retained their positions from 2019 (first and fifth respectively). In the 2020 Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index, while the USA dropped from 6th to 10th, “the United Kingdom moves to second place, its best performance ever recorded.”

In the scheme of a nation’s lifetime, a political leader’s term is a drop in the ocean. What can four or even ten years of elected power do against centuries of established perceptions? While it feels in the here-and-now that a single leader has the potential to make or break a country’s reputation, the reality is far more complex than that. For many people, changes in political leadership are unlikely to deter them from a long-held desire to visit a particular country, and given the length of time it takes to select the right site for a new business, investment decisions tend to be similarly unaffected. For example, while the Pew Research Centre found that 64% of their international respondents had zero confidence in Trump as a leader, perceptions of the US more broadly remained generally positive..

However, for perhaps the first time, nations around the world have been forced to deal with the same crisis concurrently. Certainly, it feels like nation brand indexes have never before had the opportunity to evaluate the performance against a common challenge in such a way before. New research from Bloom Consulting suggests that – at least in the short-term – 68% of people have changed their perceptions of a country during COVID-19. 95% of those changes in perception were related to public governance.

Source: Bloom Consulting's 2020 research, 'COVID-19 & the impact on nation brands'

Given this, it will be interesting to see if the actions of our leaders make a more pronounced impact on long-term perceptions of our countries.

So what’s the short-term impact?

While it’s certainly unclear what the long-term repercussions will be, the short-term impact of unrest is clear - particularly within the tourism industry. Trump’s election, for example, coincided with a 4% drop in international tourism to the US, which given the upward rising trend in international travel at the time, was suggested by many to be causational. “When people travel, they’re looking for a pleasant emotional experience,” stated Vincent Wolfington, the former chair of the World Travel & Tourism Council, at the time. “The perception is it’s probably too much trouble at this point in time to visit the US.”

More recently, during the protests in Hong Kong, tourist arrivals to the city in August 2019 dropped by almost 40% when compared to the previous year. As Skift reported, “that’s the biggest year-on-year decrease in visitor numbers since May 2003, when arrivals sank almost 70% in the midst of the [SARS] outbreak.”

In times of crisis, the leader of a nation becomes the face of their country’s response. Countries whose leaders have shown themselves to be clear, confident, and flexible in their approach will likely leave a more positive impression than those who were too slow or ineffective in their reactions. As people look to book holidays in the nearish future, being confident in their safety will be key for many. And a government which has shown clear evidence of their flexibility and support of the private sector may help contribute to investment decisions.

Looking longer-term: Leaders and the nation’s soft power

With Biden’s inauguration nearing, the world will be looking to see if the new President will continue to retreat from Trump’s America First isolationism or not. Certainly from a quick scan through media headlines, it seems that many Americans are keen to see America step into the role of world leader once more.

But are these the values that we should wish for in a leader? If we’re looking for national leaders who have a positive impact on their nation brand, are we looking for ‘leadership,’ or do we need people who are prepared to collaborate on the world stage as equals?

In a recent article for the New York Times, Peter Beinart shared his outlook on US ‘foreign policy', stating that:

“It’s not true that international cooperation collapses without America calling the shots[.] This summer, after the Trump administration threatened to leave the World Health Organization, France and Germany promised to increase their contributions.

“The point isn’t that American participation in common global efforts is unnecessary. To the contrary — it’s vital. But most of the time, America best serves these efforts less by dictating the rules than by agreeing to them.”

On the launch of the 2020 Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index, founder Simon Anholt suggested that the findings demonstrated that domestic factors are less important in shaping a nation brand. What people do care about Is the good that a country is trying to do. With soft power intrinsically tied up in public health at the moment, it will be interesting to see what the long-term ramifications are of effective – or ineffective – strategies during COVID-19, particularly as the vaccine roll out begins.

Related reading

The politics of space, culture, and placemaking for post-COVID place branding

The true damage of COVID-19 to nation brands

Three critical factors for the new era of destination branding

Crisis management of COVID-19: the impact on nation brands

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