Nation Branding: Which Countries Ranked Highest This Year?

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Wharton's David Reibstein discusses U.S. News and World Report's 2019 Best Countries rankings.

Any country that wants to improve its brand image must offer a superior quality of life, with a high degree of cleanliness and safety, and a progressive business environment. However, it doesn’t help if a nation is seen as untrustworthy in global trade and politics, or if it makes poor or unreliable products.

Those are the top takeaways from the just-released 2019 edition of U.S. News and World Report’s Best Countries rankings. The rankings rate a country’s wealth and success, the policies that create opportunities, and the people who lead the change and its history. Wharton marketing professor David Reibstein and the BAV Group developed the study and the model used to score and rank the countries. Reibstein shared select insights from his research on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Sirius XM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Switzerland tops the latest Best Country rankings, followed by Japan, and then Canada and Germany. The U.S. is ranked eighth, after the U.K., Sweden and Australia. Japan has improved its brand by moving up three places from fifth place in the 2018 rankings, and so has Norway — from 12th to ninth place.

Look Inward

Any country that wants to develop its own brand must direct its efforts internally, said Reibstein. The task is similar to a company trying to improve its brand image, “because we want people within the company thinking positively about it.” The fact that employee satisfaction is “highly related to customer satisfaction” is also borne out by many research studies, he added. “We need to make the people within our country very satisfied with the country, and that will help translate to people being happy with the country externally and having positive perceptions.”

However, most people do not realize that their perceptions of their country have a bearing on how it is perceived externally. “I don’t think there is much understanding of that at all,” Reibstein said. “We have our perceptions about our own country, and so it is. And we hope other people think positively about our country. But how my feelings affect their feelings is not transparent.”

“The biggest downfall for the U.S. is that its external perception of trust has fallen significantly.”

Swiss, Safe and Sound

Switzerland is at the top of the list, and for good reasons. “They are so much in the middle; there is no strife,” said Reibstein. “It is a neutral country that doesn’t take sides in any international conflicts.” It is also perceived to be a country with “good citizens, and a clean, a good living environment,” he added. “It is open for business. You can do business there — no particular problem. The quality of life is very, very good. It is such a peaceful place, and such an open place. Those [features] all bode very well for them.” Incidentally, Switzerland is not No.1 in any of the different factors on which the study ranks countries, but it ranks high on almost all of them, he noted.

The U.S.: A Trust Deficit

The U.S. this year has not improved its rank from eighth place, but even there it is in a shaky position, said Reibstein. Four years ago, the U.S. was at No. 4, but fell to No.7 after the “vitriolic campaign” of the 2016 presidential election, he recalled. “Now we are barely holding on to the No. 8 position.”

“The biggest downfall for the U.S. is that its external perception of trust has fallen significantly, and that affects how people feel about our country,” said Reibstein. “[The administration enters] into an agreement, and they withdraw from that agreement. They make one statement, and they reverse that particular statement or that position. Are they in NATO, or are they out of NATO? What is the agreement with Iraq; what has come away from that? And so, the external perception of trust is down.”

Progress in China

China has improved its rank by four places to No.16, just one place behind Singapore. “China is definitely progressing,” said Reibstein. China has had an “unbelievable” transformation between 1981, when Reibstein first visited the country, and now, he noted. Back in 1981, China had “a nascent marketing environment,” and stores would carry only one brand each of shampoo or toothpaste, he said.

Today, Reibstein finds China to be a remarkably different country. Its airports “are much more advanced than those in the U.S., its shopping malls are “an extravaganza” and commerce is booming, he said. “On the negative side, as they continue to develop products that are seen to be of poor quality, and as they continue to develop things that are unreliable, perceptions of them will not be great,” he added. “That is why they are not in the Top 10 in terms of a brand.”

Japan’s Innovator Image

Reibstein said he expects Japan to move from its current second place to No. 1 next year, when it will host the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. “The Olympics always provides a positive boost,” he said. Japan is viewed as “very entrepreneurial … and doing a lot with technology,” he noted. “When we think about Japan, we think about all of the electronics that have come out of Japan,” even if other countries may have outpaced it in that area, he added. “Brands and images stick with people for quite a while.”

Like Switzerland, Japan is also viewed as a place that is “very clean and very safe,” Reibstein pointed out. “It is amazing that everything is so organized and clean. You do not see people carrying coffee cups walking down the street. If you buy at a Starbucks, you drink your coffee in the Starbucks and you deposit your cup there. If you buy at a vending machine, what is expected is you stand by the vending machine and you drink whatever you are going to drink right there rather than walking and then having a can that you are going to throw away or a package you are going to throw away. That is just how the culture is.”

“In Japan I never heard a horn honk, and in India you drive with one hand and you are honking the horn with the other.”

A lack of noise pollution is another area where Japan scores high. Reibstein related his experience last year when he visited Japan, and India after that. “In Japan I never heard a horn honk, and in India you drive with one hand and you are honking the horn with the other.”

Canada, the ‘Quality of Life’ Star

Japan’s advance turned out to be at the cost of Canada, which has fallen one place to No.3 in the latest ranking. “That was not because anything changed about Canada, but the perceptions about Japan have been getting better and better,” said Reibstein. As it happens, Canada ranks No. 1 on the “quality of life” parameter, he pointed out. “They are viewed as an economically stable country, very safe, politically very stable, and with a well-developed public health system.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “contributes to the perception of Canada,” said Reibstein. “Everybody views Trudeau as one of the greatest leaders in the world right now. If you go to Davos, he is a rock star there.”

India Slips, but Is Looking Up

India slipped two notches to No. 27. Externally, it is seen as being “slow,” and “there still is a lag in people’s perception about how progressive the country is,” said Reibstein. On the positive side, India gets good marks for improving its lot on several fronts, the business opportunities it offers, and because it has “tons of potential,” he added. India’s low labor costs and the presence of English as a spoken language helps it to be viewed as “a place to do business and to do world commerce.”

The outlook for India is strong, too. “We definitely see [India] on the rise,” said Reibstein, noting that it is a competitor for Russia. “Its huge population contributes to how much of a consuming country it can be. Lots of people are looking to India, and we will continue to see growth happening there.”

Ways of Seeing

In the case of select countries, Reibstein and his research team were able to gather sufficient data on internal perceptions across the 65 dimensions on their check list and compare that with the external brand image. “Almost always, the internal views are better than the external views.”

However, Japan is the outlier and the exception in that respect, Reibstein noted. While people from the outside think positively about Japan, those within the country feel “it is nice, but it is not extraordinary,” he pointed out. “Some of it, I think, is just the humility of the people. They do not think of themselves in a more glowing fashion than externally.”

“The energy and positive view within India are much higher than the norm.”

In terms of its external image versus internal perceptions, India is another outlier. Notwithstanding what the rest of world thinks of it, Indians happen to be bullish about their country, said Reibstein. “The energy and positive view within India are much higher than the norm.”

Other notables in the 2019 rankings:

  • Iraq moved into the Top 80 in the last place. Reibstein attributed much of that to its increased foreign trade. “They met the criteria, but the perceptions of Iraq are still not great.”
  • Vietnam moved up five notches to No. 39. Reibstein said the country “is a good place to invest,” with relatively low wage costs, and a significant amount of manufacturing, infrastructure construction and other business activity.

How the Ranks Are Tallied

The methodology used for the rankings of the 80 countries in the report measures “how global perceptions define countries in terms of a number of qualitative characteristics, impressions that have the potential to drive trade, travel and investment and directly affect national economies.”

The study includes a survey of more than 20,000 people worldwide, covering 65 dimensions, which are clustered into categories such as cultural influence, power and quality of life, said Reibstein.

The study then weighs those factors by how they are correlated with GDP per capita. As Reibstein explains it: “How much does the perception of a country, or what I refer to as the brand of a country, relate to and contribute to the GDP per capita?” The study refined the broad list of the 196 countries in the world to 80 by selecting those that are within the top 100 in various categories, such as tourism, foreign direct trade, foreign investment, and the United Nations’ Human Development Index, he added.

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