Guest Post: "Brand America" back on top

By Simon Anholt

America has just become, according to my research, the world's most admired country.

Since 2005, I've been running a survey called the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index (NBI), which measures international perceptions of 50 countries. Each year, around 20,000 people in 20 countries are asked to record their perceptions of each country's government and its domestic and foreign policies on human rights, the environment, and international peace and security; of the people of each country, their talents, education, skills and their kindess to strangers; of each country's cultural heritage and popular culture; about the quality and attractiveness of the products and services it produces; of the landscape and climate and tourist appeal of each country; of the economic and educational opportunities each country offers its own population and to immigrants. The NBI has been conducted fourteen times, and now consists of over a billion data points recording "how the world sees the world". A parallel study, the Anholt-GfK Roper City Brands Index, performs a similar analysis of 50 cities (the 2008 topline results of both surveys can be queried interactively at www.simonanholt.com/research).

I launched the NBI because public perceptions of countries are, whether we like it or not, critically important to the progress and prosperity of those countries. I sometimes call these studies the "Index of Ignorance": what people believe about other places may be biased, utterly misconceived, weirdly distorted, unfairly negative, sometimes undeservedly positive, often outdated and always ludicrously simplified, but that doesn't mean we can ignore them. Countries with a powerful and positive image find that attracting tourists, investors, donors, talented individuals and the respect and attention of international media and foreign governments, as well as exporting their own products, services, ideas, culture and people, is a relatively simple and relatively cheap process. Countries with weak or negative images find that all of these transactions are more difficult and more expensive.

Yet, despite the importance of perceptions in a globalised world, they had never been systematically measured. There were hundreds of surveys measuring "reality" - productivity, tourist arrivals, investment inflows, competitiveness, literacy, life expectancy, exports, trade balances, transparency, GDP and GNI - but nothing to indicate what people actually believed, and thus no way of measuring the crucial gaps between reality and perception.

I also wanted to test a favourite hypothesis of mine that national images are extremely stable: that people, on the whole, are reluctant to change their minds about other countries, partly because they don't think about them very much or very deeply, and partly because these images are often deeply ingrained in the culture of the population that holds them: Chinese views of Japan, for example, are really part of the Chinese culture, and vice-versa. The survey has proved this abundantly: hardly any country's image has altered by more than 1% or 2% per year since I launched it, notwithstanding political and economic upheaval, terrorist attacks and natural disasters (not to mention a number of ruinously expensive publicity campaigns optimistically designed to "brand" certain countries).

There have only been two exceptions to this remarkable inertia. The first was when Denmark's image collapsed in the predominantly Muslim countries in the NBI, following the publication in 2006 of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. In Egypt, for example, Denmark had typically been ranked around fifteenth overall, with a high ranking of seventh for its governance: following the publication of the cartoons, both its governance and overall rankings dropped to 35th out of the 39 countries then included in the study. It has still not recovered its prestige today.

My conclusion was that relevance is a more significant factor in national image than mere profile. Major events that take place in other countries may make the international news, but they won't strike people in other countries as especially relevant to their own lives, and consequently won't affect their deeply-rooted beliefs about that country. The cartoons were different because they were perceived as relevant: many Muslims felt that "Denmark" had deliberately reached out to offend them, and their views of that country were utterly changed as a consequence.

The second exception has emerged within the last few days as the 2009 NBI results have been collated, and I'm still in shock: America, which has languished at around seventh place since the survey was launched, has suddenly shot up to first place overall - and not just in the perceptions one or two countries. This is its average rank amongst all the twenty countries polled: for a sample representing some 60% of the world's population and 77% of its economy, America is suddenly the most admired country on earth.

It's a result which a month ago I would have cheerfully described as impossible. Indeed, I publicly told the government of South Korea that its own President's highly publicised intention to raise his country's ranking from 33rd to 15th in the Nation Brands Index within ten years was a stark impossibility. I rather think it still is for South Korea - which as yet has managed to prove little relevance to ordinary people in most countries beyond its immediate neighbourhood, and still appears to be conflated by many people in my survey with its northern namesake - but America has shown that sudden and dramatic changes in national image are within the bounds of possibility.

My only explanation for this extraordinary reversal in the fortunes of 'Brand America' is that First is America's natural position, and, like most nations and their images, it is tied to this position by a piece of very strong prejudicial elastic. It just happens that since 2005 (and no doubt before), a particularly dark phase of America's international relations has held it in an unnaturally low position. The arrival of President Obama - or, more accurately, the American electorate's decision to elect President Obama - served to release that strong elastic, and the USA has simply snapped back into its accustomed position as the world's most admired country. (Interestingly, since the survey was launched, it has never departed from that position in the eyes of the Muslim respondents in the NBI).

Looking more closely at the data, it's clear that much of the uplift comes as much from improved international opinions of the American people themselves as from improved opinions of their government. After the re-election of George W. Bush, I began to record falling scores not just for U.S. foreign policy, but also for the American people, American culture, American products and even - by a delightfully illogical extension - the American landscape. Now, however, we appear to judge that the American people have redeemed themselves by electing the right president. Even America's countryside and cityscapes, it seems, are fully restored to their former beauty and grandeur in the eyes of the world.

Clearly, President Obama's Nobel Prize represents an accurate expression of international views of the man and his role in the world. It is a cri de coeur for a more moral and wiser form of international relations, which happens to come from Europe, but judging by the results of my survey, could have come from just about anywhere on earth.

Many have voiced the opinion that the prize is premature since Obama hasn't achieved anything yet. My survey suggests quite otherwise: the mere presence of this man has restored America to a position of power and influence - if influence and power have anything to do with credibility - that, demonstrably, no amount of political, economic or military power was capable of achieving. It is a remarkable, unprecedented and utterly necessary achievement if America is to wield any moral authority in the world. Just because it happened quickly doesn't in any way devalue the achievement: one man really can change the nation in the eyes of the world, and if one nation can really change the world, this man already has changed the world.

A Nobel Prize, in my view, is both timely and appropriate, and to claim that Obama's contribution to date is nothing more than fine words and fine intentions, is to show a profound and dangerous misreading of the central importance of ideas and emotions in the history of our species.

Simon Anholt is an independent policy advisor to numerous governments on matters of national identity and reputation. He is also a member of the UK Foreign Office's Public Diplomacy Board. His website is www.simonanholt.com.

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