If you were given the choice between a two-week vacation in New Zealand and one in Iran, which would you choose? If your choice is the former, there’s a good chance that you’re being influenced by your perception of each country’s reputation. But how does a country’s reputation get made? Events that make front-page news play a big role, as do economic and environmental conditions and so much else. Consciously or unconsciously, people rely on these reputations when deciding where to set up a business, where to live and where to travel on vacation.
“Reputation determines whether people support a country through their behaviors. Good reputation means more exports, more investments, more people coming to visit,” says Nicolas Georges Trad, chief operating officer at the Reputation Institute, a reputation measurement and management services firm. Since 2008, RI has published the Country RepTrak, an annual study of countries’ reputations, based on a survey of citizens of G8 nations. When asked why those particular countries were selected for the survey, Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, chief reputation officer at RI, explained: “It provides a proxy for the opinion of the population of the world,” adding that the survey responses are “driven and weighted by the perceptions of the most important economies.” This year’s ranking revealed an average 0.5-point increase in the reputations of Country RepTrak nations, barely enough to compensate for the average 1-point decline recorded last year.
“Countries saw an erosion of trust in 2018 and an overall decline in reputation,” says Hahn-Griffiths. “Maybe countries have adjusted their rhetoric and how they brand themselves to the rest of the world, maybe there’s been an improvement in underlying geopolitical tensions or less social unrest, but those things have only marginally increased the global reputation of the countries we measured.”
Some of the countries that appear in the upper echelon of this year’s list may, in light of recent events, come as a surprise. Canada, for example, despite revelations regarding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appearing in brownface and blackface on three occasions, climbed one spot to claim the No. 6 position, a rise that may have been due to the fact that research for this list was conducted between March and April 2019.
What should shock no one, however, is that Sweden has claimed the No. 1 spot and appears in that position for the second year in a row. “Even relative to 2018, we’ve seen a significant improvement, and in many ways, [Sweden] has strengthened its position,” Hahn-Griffiths says. “It’s no wonder Sweden is No. 1, because it’s done an incredible job of telling its story.” The narrative to which Hahn-Griffiths wasn’t created by happenstance. Similar to a business strategy, the narrative is a collection of fact sheets and guides called “Sharing Sweden” that were crafted by the Swedish Institute, a government agency whose aim is to shape perceptions of the country overseas. “Sharing Sweden” explores everything from what the nation is doing to improve accessibility for people living with disabilities to how to work or run a business in the country. “Sweden has done well communicating through one team, and that is super difficult to do,” Georges Trad says. “Many countries have challenges with messages being thrown out there.”
Carefully crafted narrative aside, the way Sweden cares for its citizens tells a story all on its own. The nation has long been lauded for its universal healthcare system and its commitment to gender equality makes it one of the best in the world for gender pay parity, with Swedish women making 82 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. Countries that are also doing well at closing the gender pay gap are Switzerland, Norway, Finland and New Zealand, which ranked No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 on this year’s list. And perhaps even more impressive is that the leaders of Norway and New Zealand are female—prime ministers Erna Solberg and Jacinda Ardern, respectively.
When measuring a country’s reputation, RI considers whether the nation in question has an advanced economy, an appealing environment and an effective government. In the past, characteristics such as beauty, culture, friendliness and lifestyle have played a central role in determining the general public’s perceptions, but this year another factor has emerged as a driving force. “The desire for effective government is becoming disproportionately more important,” Hahn-Griffiths says. “It’s not just about the aesthetic beauty of a country—you may want to live, work and play there, but is it well run?”
Take the United Kingdom, for example. The European nation fell two spots to No. 18 due, in part, to global skepticism about the competence of Parliament. “We’re seeing emotional polarization around the U.K. brand. It began in 2016 with the Brexit referendum, and as negotiations have continued year after year, the gap between how the U.K. perceives itself and how it’s viewed around the world has continued to grow,” says Isadora Levy, senior research manager at RI. “Its esteem in the global community has declined since 2016.” (Note: In the months following RI’s research for this ranking, Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as U.K. prime minister; if the research been completed prior to the change in leadership, the results might have been different.)
And then there’s the United States. The reputation of the U.S. has been in steep decline since 2016, dropping two spots to No. 36 on this year’s list, below even the Philippines, which ranked a surprising No. 35 in spite of President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous regime. “The Philippines has a slightly higher reputation score than the U.S., but they are statistically on par in terms of reputation, and therefore, the difference should not be considered significant,” Hahn-Griffiths says. “Having said that, this result speaks to the lack of emotional appeal surrounding the United States’ brand.” Unlike the U.K., which, despite having a less-than-stellar global standing, has managed to maintain much of the support of its citizens, the U.S. seems to have lost the trust of stakeholders both internationally and domestically, perhaps a consequence of the nationalist rhetoric that sometimes emanates from the White House. “There’s a disconnect—the economy is thriving, business is great, but what does it stand for? What does the government really represent?” Levy says. “The U.S. is at an ethical and moral crossroads,” Hahn-Griffiths adds. “It’s not good enough to have an advanced economy—it’s about what you’re doing to help society progress in the right way.”
But no nation has suffered a reputation regression quite like Venezuela. While its three-spot decline to No. 49 may not seem all that significant, Venezuela’s reputation dropped by a whopping six points, the most of any country on the list. Trust in the Latin American nation has no doubt been tarnished by years of economic, humanitarian and political crises, though recent unrest can be traced to the nearly yearlong power struggle between President Nicolás Maduro, who was elected in January after a widely disputed vote, and opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself acting president shortly after the vote. And yet, says Hahn-Griffiths, it’s not up to either of them to repair Venezuela’s reputation. “We can’t assume there’s one individual group of stakeholders who carry the weight of the perception of a country’s reputation,” he says. “There’s no quick fix or one solution for countries to improve—it requires a multi-stakeholder strategy to be efficient in managing reputation.”
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To determine the list, RI surveyed more than 58,000 individuals in just seven countries, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, during the period from March to April 2019. The 55 countries considered were those with the greatest gross domestic product and those that were familiar to at least 51% of the population of the G8 countries.