Soft power superpowers: learnings from the Brand Finance Global Soft Power Index

Brand Finance unveiled their Global Soft Power Index at a Summit in London on February 25th, in front of an audience of over 400 international diplomats.  We’re delighted to bring you some of the top-line results, and a report on the informative discussion but first, perhaps it’s worth taking a minute to define what is meant by soft power.

Ban Ki-moon, 8th Secretary-General of the UN quoted Harvard professor Joseph Nye’s 1980 definition in his keynote address, soft power is “the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction…. the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.” His Excellency went on to explain that this is fundamentally different from hard power, “which is defined by attempts to coerce others through military and/or political and economic means."  

Brand Finance interviewed over 55,000 people from 100 countries in order to rank the perceptions of 60 nations. It invited the global public and just over 1000 specialist experts to rank these 60 nations against seven pillars of soft power: business and trade; governance; international relations; culture and heritage; media and communication; education and science; and people and values. 

Soft power superpowers

Taking first place on the index and described as a “Soft Power Superpower” is the USA. Whilst the Trump effect is felt in a lower score than average for reputation and governance, and a very low 44th position for its relations with other countries [“America First’], its dominance on this new index is testament to the fact that soft power is so much more than a perception of government policies.  The USA scored the highest for familiarity and influence, for media and communications, for education and science, for art and entertainment, and for sports.

Top 10 Soft Power Nations from the Brand Finance Soft Power Index

Germany takes second place on the Index, reaping the reward for decades of focusing on soft power influence over military deployments.  The global public recognise Germany as superbly well-governed, scoring it highest for a strong and stable economy and highly for business and trade.

The Great British media is still obsessed by Brexit and the impact this may have on global perceptions, yet the UK still achieves third position in this new index of soft power. At the City Nation Place UK conference in 2019, Conrad Bird – then director of the GREAT Britain campaign – urged the audience of place leaders and marketers to believe in the positive impact of the nation’s soft power and this survey proves him right. The UK achieves a consistent performance across all metrics. An unrivalled asset for the UK’s soft power is the Royal Family: Brand Finance estimates that it contributes $2.4bn to the economy, not least for upholding the values of the Commonwealth.

The highest-ranking nation is Asia is Japan, which also takes fourth place globally. Japan has the third largest global economy and has the second highest spend on research and development. It takes second place in the education and science pillar and first place for business and trade, reaping the benefits of the strong Japanese business brands impacting on the world stage.

Top trends in soft power

Clearly there is a common correlation between the size and strength of a nation’s economy and its ability to wield soft power.  Over the past few decades, the world has seen a new balance of economic power and this Index sees further challenges to the western liberal soft power status quo. China and Russia take 5th and 10th place respectively. China has invested heavily in soft power – through FDI and cultural expansion, particularly in Africa. However, as spending increases, so do concerns around China’s economic dominance – for example, divided global opinion on the benefits of working with Huawei. 

The nations of the liberal West are still the highest performers on the Global Soft Power Index. As the proponents of nation brand strategies that are based on values and on actions that can be seen to benefit the world, we are not surprised to see that the Nordic nations have a soft power rating on this Index that outranks their economic power.  The Nordics [including Sweden, home to Greta Thunberg] are scored highly by the global public for policies on climate action.  Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland are all in the top 10 nations for reputation and governance, but lag behind on influence. Another nation ranked highly for the “good” it does the world is Canada – seen as the world’s most general nation, 2nd for friendliness, 3rd for tolerance, with an international relations policy seen to help countries in need [2nd], and a foreign policy that maintains good relations with other nations [3rd]. However, Canada lacks the influence of the USA and so ranks 7th on the overall Index.

This detailed analysis of soft power confirms the benefits of a strong tourism economy.  A nation’s familiarity is another key driver – tourism is a key driver of familiarity.  Spain and Italy, both with economies very dependent on tourism, are placed in the top 10 with high scores for their friendly cultures and great cuisine. Egypt and Greece are ranked high for their rich heritage.  In Asia, Thailand has benefitted greatly from the growth in tourism – whilst 32nd in the overall Index, it scored 17th for familiarity, above its ASEAN neighbours.

Key lessons from the Summit

So how did the panel of speakers – including diplomats, sports leaders, and broadcasters – respond to the Index and what insights did they provide on how a nation can build its soft power?  Unsurprisingly perhaps, the five key takeaways from the discussion resonate with the key drivers of effective place brands and place marketing strategies which we see discussed at City Nation Place conferences...

  • You need to take the long-term view.  “Relationships take time, you have to invest in them” said Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of The British Council.
  • Understand your audiences.  Paul Brummell CMG, head of soft power and external affairs with the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, said, “Your attractiveness depends on the recipient”.  Soft power is about earning trust – not buying it.
  • However, you can’t just say what your audience wants to hear – as Professor Richard Sambrook, Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University and former Director of Global News at the BBC said, “It needs to be rooted in the trust, but there needs to be a strategic overview of what you want to achieve… a lot of soft power these days is overly fragmented”.
  • The digitisation of our world and our communications has had as much impact on soft power as on place branding and marketing. Dr Maleeha Lodhi, former permanent representative and Ambasador to the UN for the Pakistan Government talked about the need for foreign policy and diplomacy to be increasingly nimble.  Professor Sambrook referenced the “new arena of malevolent soft power” that the digital world has enabled and all speakers spoke of the challenges that this is creating.
  • Collaboration is key. Dr Maleeha Lodhi said, “soft power matters more not least because no country however powerful or liked can achieve outcomes on its own, you have to collaborate.” She went on to say, “at a time of global flux, formal alliances are less important than the networks of support that countries build, you seek to build coalitions with like-minded countries on one set of issues, and with a different network on different issues”.

His Excellency Ban Ki-moon, as a former Secretary General of the UN, unsurprisingly placed the biggest emphasis on collaboration in his keynote address.  He stressed his belief, and the findings of this survey, that embracing multilateralism is in itself a projection of soft power.  The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide an essential focus for the world and a soft power tool for all nations, “Soft power transcends borders, builds bridges, and brings the world together through dialogue and mutual understanding”.

Further reading:

Has the pandemic killed soft power?

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

The roadmap for sustainable recovery

Hall of fame: Best place branding and marketing campaigns

The place branding bookshelf

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