Unpacking the connection between soft power and nation branding

There is an undeniable link between soft power and nation branding. Nation branding aims to create a positive reputation to attract tourism, talent, and investment. Contrastingly, soft power looks externally and at how you can wield culture and governance to influence the actions of other international players. However, at its heart, it’s an approach that’s likewise built on reputation. So, if soft power is the ability of a place to influence the behaviour or actions of other actors in the international arena, what role does place branding have in generating and promoting soft power for your place?

What is the link between soft power and nation branding?

Brand Finance release an annual Global Soft Power Index benchmarking how different countries are performing against key pillars of soft power. The latest edition shows the USA, the UK, Germany, Japan, and China taking the top five places respectively, with France, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, and the UAE rounding out the remainder of the list. It’s interesting to see how many of these countries also perform highly on a number of different country brand rankings.

Table showing the comparative rankings between the top ten countries on the Global Soft Power Index 2023 and their position across four other ranking – Brand Finance’s Nation Brand Ranking 2023, the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index 2022, and the Bloom Consulting Country Brand Ranking Trade and Tourism editions 22-23. 

Of the top ten countries in the 2023 Global Soft Power Index, eight appear at the top of Brand Finance’s Nation Brand Ranking and in the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index. Six are represented in Bloom Consulting’s Country Brand Rankings for Tourism and Trade, with eight appearing at the top of at least one of the editions. In total, nine of the top ten countries on Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index rank in the top ten of at least one other ranking, and four of these countries [the USA, the UK, Germany, and France] hold a top-ten position across all five rankings, and eight rank at the top of at least three.

These rankings prioritise different aspects of a nation brand. Brand Finance’s Nation Brand Ranking tracks the brand value, while the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index examines the global perceptions of a nation’s identity, and the Bloom Consulting Ranking looks specifically to how perceptions are impacting the flow of tourism and trade to a country. Together, they demonstrate a clear correlation between your soft power and the performance of your nation brand.

Read our ultimate guide to place brand rankings here.


How can nation brands contribute to soft power?

Strong soft power positively impacts the performance of nation brands. But what can nation brand teams do to support their international soft power performance? We reached out to a select group of nation brand leaders from our CNP Advisory Group to get their insight on the matter.

“A successful and positive reputation within the international community significantly impacts the behaviour of others, especially when the country’s narrative or storytelling is grounded in authenticity and verifiability,” shared Adriana Acosta Rivas, Country Brand Director of PROCOMER, Costa Rica’s nation brand organisation. “Becoming a nation that accomplishes this vital goal is akin to checking off a crucial item on a collective bucket list, leading to enhanced wellbeing across various sectors, including tourism, exports, and investment.”

For David Downs, CEO of New Zealand Story, one of the roles of the nation brand is to plug the gaps in their soft power perceptions. “We are exploring the interplay between soft power, place branding, and good quality qualitative research,” David told us. One example he highlighted was that research shows that New Zealand isn’t often associated with science and technology, despite their vibrant tech sector and being a significant player in the space sector. “This tells us that our place branding work needs to showcase the tech sector more, and luckily, we have cool content in the space sector we can hero. In addition, our diplomatic efforts (e.g. with other nations active in space) can draw on this place branding approach too.”

Having an intentional approach to place branding can help to solidify your soft power across the pillars that are most integral to your strategies and vice versa. According to Sirpa Tsimal, Director of Global Marketing for Switzerland Global Enterprise, “Switzerland’s application of soft power – drawing upon its reputation for legal certainty and high-quality, emphasis on education and innovation, and an investor-friendly regulatory framework, has been instrumental in promoting foreign investment, fostering long-term economic growth, and portraying itself as a stable, secure, and reliable destination.”

Finally, Sithembile Ntombela, Acting CEO of Brand South Africa, talked about how they work to translate soft power into economic value for their citizens. “Central to our city and place branding is our rich cultural heritage and the warm hospitality of our diverse people with their multiculturalism that has endeared us as a nation to many people across the world,” Sithembile shared, before continuing to explain that, like nation branding, harnessing a country’s soft power assets takes time and investment of resources.

Nation branding as a framework for international relations

Finally, when used correctly, a nation brand provides a framework for the broader international relations of your country. Brand Estonia, for example, won our 2022 Place Brand of the Year award for seamlessly integrating a new pillar of ‘democratic values’ into their nation brand strategy in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This pillar sits alongside Estonia’s initial three core messages of digital society, clean environment, and independent mind.

Including this as one of the values underpinning their strategic storytelling allows the country to have a unified and clear position in international media, whether that’s due to nation branding activity or the result of the country’s everyday actions. The Estonian Ambassador for London, Ambassador Viljar Lubi, will be delivering our opening keynote at City Nation Place Global this November, where he’ll be looking at how a strong nation brand provides the foundation for Estonia’s international relations and public diplomacy. You can find out more about the CNP Global conference and how to join us here.

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