It is possible not only to measure the value of brands from the US, but also to assess the strength of Brand US itself. The Best Countries ranking does exactly that, comparing perceptions of countries around the world held by a broad spectrum of consumers. There is a close relationship between how people feel about a country, and their attitudes towards the brands they associate with that country. Strong countries fuel strong brands, and vice versa.
Developed by WPP’s Y&R BAV Group, the annual Best Countries ranking was first launched in 2016 at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos, the world’s largest gathering of global leaders and heads of industry and influence. It is now in its third wave.
Modernity and tech know-how at heart of country’s global image
The US has an unrivalled role on the world stage, thanks to its scale and influence as a major economic and political power. It is also seen as a cultural leader, setting trends through its entertainment output, which through TVs, radios and smartphones around the world permeates so many people’s lives. And, as a hotspot of new business development and technology, it is seen as a modern and dynamic country with much in its favor, particularly as a business center.
How a country is viewed around the world is of huge importance to brands. The words “Made in …” can instantly lend credibility and trust to a product or brand that a consumer hasn’t previously encountered. That can be enough to convince someone to buy, and, beyond that, convince them to pay a premium. Likewise, “Made in …” can prove an instant turn-off if a consumer associates the country of origin with poor safety standards, or sees it as being behind the times on social issues or workers’ rights.
Global opinions on the US vary quite significantly between older and younger people, as well as between business leaders and a broader cross-section of the public. This gap in perception is one that brands would do well to understand, as it could influence the way they position themselves for different target audiences. The gap also gives the US an opportunity to gradually change what “Brand US” and “Made in the US” mean to consumers around the world.
The perceptions and performance of brands abroad feed back into the development of the country itself. Willingness to invest is closely linked to the strength of a country’s brand, and as local brands and businesses succeed, they generate economic growth as well as lending further positive associations to their country’s brand.
The annual Best Countries ranking measures global perceptions of countries against a series of characteristics – impressions that have the potential to drive trade, travel and investment, and directly affect brands. It was developed by WPP’s Y&R BAV Group, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, with U.S. News & World Report.
The ranking is based on a large global survey, which asks a range of people about how they perceive different countries against a range of key attributes.
In the 2017 Best Countries ranking, the US ranks 7th out of 80 major markets around the world across all measures.
In the US itself, there is near-unanimous support for the idea that the US is the best country in the world. This view is consistent across age groups and among people from across the political spectrum. But around the world, the US has declined on several key Best Countries measures in the past 12 months. Fieldwork for the 2017 ranking was done after the US presidential election, and there is clear evidence of a widespread loss of respect for the US leadership after the poll. This dip coincided with a more general malaise; half of respondents said they felt the world had “gotten worse” in the past year. The US’s greatest attributes – despite the declines – are its modernity, can-do spirit and technological advances.
The virtuous cycle every brand hopes for
The relationship between country brands and the products and services those countries produce is complex and changes over time. When a country and its brands represent consistent qualities and values, they lend one another credibility, and there is a multiplier effect for both.
Think of France and Chanel; both represent elegance, glamor and prestige. Chanel is intrinsically French, and France is synonymous with Chanel. The same could be said for Germany and BMW, and perhaps Italy and Ferrari, or Japan and Sony. In each case, the brand and the country are part of a virtuous cycle, a symbiotic relationship.
Brands can both shape and be shaped by perceptions of their country of origin.
Japan in the 1970s was known as a cheap manufacturing base, but is now respected as a world leader for quality electronics and technology thanks largely to brands like Sony and Toyota. South Korea has taken a similar path, with Samsung and Hyundai demonstrating to the world what modern South Korea is and, in doing so, creating a consumer predisposition in international markets to favour other Korean brands.
In a relatively short time, China, too, has shifted perceptions from being seen as the world’s toy factory, to a place of entrepreneurship and innovation, particularly in digital technology. This is partly because of government strategy and a rebalancing of the Chinese economy, but also due to the ambassadorial role of some of China’s leading export brands, such as Haier, Huawei and Alibaba.
How to measure a country
The Best Country ranking incorporates the views of more than 21,000 individuals surveyed in 36 countries in four regions: the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East and Africa. These people included a high proportion of “informed elites” – college-educated people who keep up with current affairs – along with business decision makers and members of the general public.
Collectively, the 80 countries in the 2017 ranking account for about 95 percent of global Gross Domestic Product and represent more than 80 percent of the world’s population.
People surveyed for Best Country were asked how closely they associated 65 attributes with a range of countries. These attributes were then grouped into eight categories that were used to calculate the Best Countries ranking:
State of a nation – the 8 elements of a country’s brand
Adventure: a country is seen as friendly, fun, has a pleasant climate, is scenic or sexy.
Citizenship: it cares about human rights, the environment, gender equality, is progressive, has religious freedom, respects property rights, is trustworthy, and political power is well distributed.
Cultural influence: it is culturally significant in terms of entertainment, its people are fashionable and happy, it has an influential culture, is modern, prestigious and trendy.
Entrepreneurship: it is connected to the rest of the world, has an educated population, is entrepreneurial, innovative, and provides easy access to capital. There is a skilled labor force, technological expertise, transparent business
practices, well-developed infrastructure, and a well-developed legal framework.
Heritage: the country is culturally accessible, has a rich history, has great food, and many cultural attractions.
Open for business: manufacturing is inexpensive, there’s a lack of corruption, the country has a favorable tax environment, and transparent government practices.
Power: it is a leader, is economically and politically influential, has strong international alliances and a strong military.
Quality of life: there’s a good job market, affordable living costs, it’s economically and politically stable, family-friendly, safe, has good income equality and well-developed public education and health systems.
Each of the eight measures is given a weighting in its contribution to the total score for each country, as follows.
The weight of each category in the final index was determined by the strength of its correlation to per capita GDP (at purchasing power parity). As seen in the above chart, a nation focused on providing great quality of life for its people, which cares about rights and equality, and has a focus on entrepreneurship, is seen as having the most powerful nation brand. This reflects how the world has changed; no longer is it just tanks and banks that give a country influence around the world. Hard power is making way for softer power that comes about as a result of entrepreneurship and cultural exports.
In addition to the eight categories above, a momentum metric called “Movers” represents 10 percent of the index, measuring how different, distinctive, dynamic and unique a country is seen to be.
To see the full Best Countries methodology, visit https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/methodology
BEST OF THE BEST
Switzerland tops the ranking as it is highly regarded for its citizenship, being open for business, for having an environment that encourages entrepreneurship, offering its citizens a high quality of life, and for being culturally influential.
All of the other countries in the top ve also score highly across all of these measures. Canada is especially strong on the citizenship measure. Germany has a similar Best Countries profile to the UK, though Germany is stronger on entrepreneurship and is seen as offering a better quality of life. Japan’s greatest strength is also entrepreneurship, but it also scores highly across all the other measures.
A CLOSER LOOK AT BRAND USA
The United States consistently appears in the Top 10 of the Best Countries ranking, though in the past year it has slipped from 4th to 7th place. Scores to the right are out of a possible 10, and the rankings below show the United State’s place on each attribute, out of 80 countries.
Keeping up with the neighbors?
The US has more in common, from a perception point of view, with other large western economies than it does with its more immediate neighbors. The country with which it has most in common, according to the Best Countries survey, is the United Kingdom. Its next-closest match after that is Germany, followed by Japan and France – all culturally very different, but all major world economies and leading exporters with a strong sense of cultural and national identity.
COMPARED TO OTHER WORLD POWERS
The US has clear room for improvement in being seen as “open for business”. It cannot manufacture a heritage it doesn’t have in order to compete with its rivals on that score, but it could do more to improve perceptions around adventure; this has been a traditional area of strength for the US, which has strong associations with fun – in part due to the fun brands it has exported.
A look around the G8 table shows where the US leads the way, and where other major powers have the edge or are strong rivals. Russia is a clear challenger on traditional measures of global influence – military strength and political influence – while for innovation, technological expertise and progress, Japan comes out on top.
When consumers think about buying products made in the US, they don’t expect a bargain, but they do expect satisfaction. In fact, 75 percent of consumers worldwide say they would happily buy a US-made product, and a further 20 percent would buy US-made if there was no alternative. These are higher figures than for many other large economies, and beat the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Canada. The US is also a favoured hotspot for business. When senior decision makers are asked about the countries where they prefer to operate, almost 43 percent say the US first, the highest among all of the advanced western economies.
The times, they are a-changin’
The US still maintains significant clout in the world of global commerce, and is still securely in the Top 10 Best Countries. But it is losing traction among certain groups of consumers – particularly women – and opinions vary a great deal between people of different ages.
While the US ranks 7th worldwide among the general population, it ranks 5th among business decision makers, and 8th among women. Declines were noted in the past 12 months on the measures most closely associated with “soft power”. The quality of life and citizenship measures for the US do not even place it in the Top 15 in 2017. Last year, it ranked 23rd out of 80 countries for being “open for business”, and this year has dropped to 35th.
The US has gone up in people’s eyes as a place that is trendy, fun, fashionable and distinctive – and for providing easy access to business capital. But global opinion of its trustworthiness, of equality, of transparency and of the education levels of its population have all gone down. These can all reflect on brands associated with the US.
Nearly 75 percent of people interviewed around the world for the Best Countries study said they had lost some respect for the US leadership after the election of Donald Trump as president. The US was not the only one of the major economic powers to feel the pinch of global scrutiny; Germany, which was the target of several terror attacks in the months leading up to the research being done, also saw declines on key measures.
This all reflects widespread global concern about the social and geopolitical changes that are creating uncertainty. Shifts in the Best Countries rankings signal people’s desire to restore a sense of order; nations perceived as being neutral, stable and promoters of diplomacy did well.
While the general global population still perceives the US to be the most powerful country in the world, the young, those in business and the most highly educated have in the past year changed their minds on this, and now see Russia as number one for power. This suggests that power in its traditional sense is not necessarily a driver of positive sentiment and a positive country brand; in fact, power can also be a metric of fear.
Millennials – the youngest respondents to the survey – are those who most strongly feel that the US has put up barriers to business, even to a greater extent than people who are actually making business decisions about where to operate. Business decision makers see the US as more entrepreneurial than the general public do, and while quality of life in the US – one of the key measures of “soft power” – is seen as having declined across all of the consumer groups measured.
The difference in perceptions of the US between old and young people around the world is striking. On a series of key indicators, millennials give the US a far harsher rating than older people. When asked about which countries have transparent government practices, older people place the US in 17th place out of 80 countries, while millennials are more sceptical, and it ranks only 27th. Similarly, when countries are ranked according to which care most about the environment, the US is 22nd among older people but only 30th among millennials. These younger consumers also see the US as offering less equality and less religious freedom than the general population, and while older people describe the US as one of the most culturally accessible markets in the world, millennials put it 10 places lower down the ranking (17th) on this measure. Openness, transparency, the environment and equality are all elements of what we call “soft power”, and they are all close to the hearts of millennials. The US’s poor performance in their eyes on these soft power measures explains why young people feel they are disconnecting from the country culturally.
Challenges for US brands
Brands can use their country of origin to greatest effect when they align with values and positive attributes already associated with that country. This often means walking a fine line between using accepted wisdom to benefit a brand, and perpetuating stereotypes.
Striking the right balance is a matter for each brand, and will depend on their category and the market they are entering. For some brands, the reputation of their country will help fill gaps in what consumers know about an individual brand.
The following rules of thumb apply to most US brands:
* The US is seen as a cultural leader, so brands that associate themselves with cultural trends, particularly in entertainment and fashion, benefit from association with their country of origin. Fun, energy, dynamism and independence all reinforce what international consumers readily associate with the US.
* Technology, innovation and progress are strongly associated with the US in the minds of the global consumer. The number of technology brands born in the US that have become household names around the world has helped build and reinforce this view over many years. Whenever brands want to justify a premium for technological expertise, or signal the quality of manufactured goods, US heritage is useful.
* Few people see the US or US goods as being particularly affordable, but the US ranks well on the measure of prestige (fifth in the world). There is therefore a sense among consumers that US goods might be expensive, but that their premium pricing is justified, and this helps explain the strong predisposition to buy American. Show that while US brands are not cheap, they represent strong value for money and are “worth it”.
* The US is seen as a leader with strong global connections, scale and influence. Brands that reflect an international outlook and position themselves as leaders in their field will find this messaging resonates with what consumers expect from Brand US and will feel authentic.
People believe what they do about a country because they gradually accumulate snippets of information that either reinforce or challenge what they think. Experiences with brands can provide those snippets, and leading brands don’t just represent themselves, they represent their country.