Simon Anholt discovers that the construct of national image can be a distraction from the serious business of good governance in a globalised world
Four or five years after I started working as a policy advisor to Presidents, Prime Ministers and governments on almost every inhabited continent, a disconcerting truth began to emerge. Almost every assumption I or these governments had ever made about my core topic – the images and reputations of nations – could and must be questioned. Do people want it? Is it legitimate? Is it relevant to their needs? Does the aspiration to improve the nation’s standing really make sense in today’s world?
I was beginning to conclude that the whole construct of national image, although an undeniably fascinating topic, was a distraction from the serious business of good governance in a globalised world.
I had also begun to find the topic of national image embarrassingly outdated. Sometimes I would listen to the discussions between officials, hearing them debate how they could most effectively outwit or outperform other countries, how they could most noisily trumpet their own country’s achievements and attractions, constantly looking for opportunities to maximise revenues and dominate markets, and it all sounded unbelievably eighties. A whole quarter century had passed since the movie Wall Street; business and society had changed beyond recognition; nobody wore red suspenders anymore; and yet in government buildings all around the world, greed was still good, and dog was still busily figuring out how to eat dog.
At this point, I decided to take some time off and try to answer the fundamental questions that had been perplexing me more and more over the previous ten or 12 years. The first thing was to try and establish, once and for all, what were the true drivers of a positive national image, since the question of achieving more prosperity, especially for developing countries, had been the starting point of the whole exercise. My annual survey measuring the images of 50 countries, the Anholt Nation Brands Index, had by this point accumulated more than a billion data points, and I’d only scratched the surface of what I could learn from it: to use that big data to identify what made the difference between a country with a strong image and one with a weak image was, at least in principle, pretty straightforward and well worth doing.
So my analysis of the cumulative NBI database – what I ended up calling the MARSS model – showed that the five key drivers of overall national standing could be characterised as Morality (whether people approve of the country’s behaviour in the international domain); Aesthetics (whether the country’s people, cities and landscapes, products and cultural productions are pleasing to the eye); Relevance (whether the country has the power to impact one’s life in some direct way); Sophistication (whether a country is regarded as primitive or highly-developed); and Strength (whether we perceive that a country can wield direct influence over us or others: this corresponds to Joseph Nye’s hard power).
I then worked out how closely these clusters of perceived values correlated with the strength of each country’s overall reputation as measured in the NBI. It turned out that Relevance and Aesthetics were the least important contributors; Strength followed by Sophistication were the next most important, but Morality made the biggest contribution of all, by a wide margin, and correlated most strongly with each country’s overall NBI score.
Later, this finding was corroborated when a more than 80 per cent correlation was measured between the Nation Brands Index and the Good Country Index, my annual measurement of the impacts of each country on the world beyond its own borders.
The message from the analysis was very clear. The countries that people prefer aren’t necessarily the biggest, strongest, richest, or most beautiful countries: the most likely reason why somebody would admire a country is because they believe it contributes something of value to the world we live in; that it is motivated by positive values and principles.
In other words, people admire good countries.
Governmental Social Responsibility
Does that conclusion have a familiar ring to it? If so, it’s because we learned long ago that consumers also admire good companies. This is corporate social responsibility all over again but played out this time at the level of the nation-state: and governments, just like corporate boards, ignore it at their peril.
Yet why shouldn’t it be so? The same consumers who won’t buy running shoes from a certain company because they don’t like the way it treats workers in its overseas factories might equally refuse to visit a certain country because they don’t approve of its government’s record on human rights: it’s the same people, exercising the same set of values on every choice they make as consumers, students, investors, visitors, employers and opinion-formers.
And if that all sounds a bit too good to be true, it chimed with something else that the NBI had been telling me for years: most of us don’t much like to think about other countries. There are too many of them, and it’s all too complicated. So a country we perceive as a reliable, reassuring and principled actor in the community of nations is a country we can safely ignore: it doesn’t need watching or worrying about. But a country which we believe disturbs the global equilibrium, which potentially threatens our world or our children’s world, is a country we do have to think about and worry about, and that’s something we don’t much like doing.
Lots of people around the world believe, for example, that Norwayis a Good Country, perhaps because they’ve heard of the Oslo Peace Process and they know that Oslo is in Norway. So they admire Norway, and reward it by buying its products and services, going there on holiday, investing in its economy, hiring its citizens, trusting its government, and so forth. On the other hand, many people think that Russiais a country that somehow disturbs or threatens the international order, even if some of them would be hard pressed to give you precise details: consequently, they do worry a bit about Russia before they go to bed, and so are far less likely to buy its products, hire its people, or want to visit. It’s as simple and as brutal as that: multiply by billions of people, and you have economic and social forces of planetary significance.
This discovery was a turning-point, as it validated what I’d been saying to governments for years: if you want to do well, you have to do good. And because doing good on a global scale is necessarily a matter of working with others, the most competitive form of national behavior is collaboration.
Here, finally, was a way out of the conflict between the desire of governments to act in a responsible and principled way in the international community, and their duty to serve the interests of their own population: it neatly closed the loop between the two. Desiring a better national image, far from being an unworthy and superficial distraction for governments, was the missing piece of the jigsaw: it was the motivation they needed, finally, to do what they had to do in order to heal the planet and save humanity.
Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to move on.
Excerpt adapted by the author from The Good Country Equation– How we can repair the world in one generation by Simon Anholt, published by Berrett-Koehler.