Is the nation brand in decline? That is one interpretation of the results from the influential Anholt-GFK Nation Brands Index, which yesterday published the 2012 results from its annual study. Two-thirds of surveyed nations saw their reputations decline, led by Japan and Spain. Indeed 'developed' nations experienced some of the biggest score losses, suggesting that economic woes are largely responsible. That so many country reputations declined, however, is worth exploring. For some, the concept of a nation brand is, at best, nebulous, but a conversation with private sector marketers, rather ironically, often illustrates its true worth. This much was demonstrated at our Beijing Roundtable with Fleishman-Hillard last month, where several China brand marketers pointed to the importance of China's global reputation in framing (often negative) perceptions of their own companies overseas. The good news for those panellists is that developing nations emerged with more credit from this year's Index, led by the UAE, Turkey, Kenya, and Poland. China, for one, is not mentioned, and it is also worth noting that there is little change in the upper reaches of the table, where USA, Germany and the UK continue to reign supreme. Perhaps, though, we should simply accept that trust in countries is declining. Or, as nation branding guru Simon Anholt puts it: "The world likes the world a bit less than it did last year.” Anholt puts this down to economic concerns, which suggests that a recovery on this score would see people's views of other countries improve. That may be so, but there is enough in the findings to reflect an increasing trust deficit between people and nation brands. As GFK's Xiaoyan Zhao points out, trusted nations, those at the top of the table, find their reputations dented more easily when they don't deliver. A geopolitical version of the tall-poppy syndrome, perhaps, but something that indicates rising disenchantment with governments and established positions of authority. This conclusion may also hold for big corporate brands, despite the reputation goodwill that such companies often assume they possess. That conclusion is accentuated by factors that respondents to the survey identify as most important to a nation's brand. The top five are:
  1. Democratic, open, and treats its citizens fairly
  2. Good quality of life and work/life balance
  3. Respects nature and keeps a clean environment
  4. Safe and orderly society with well-behaved people
  5. People are warm and friendly.
It would be easy to compile a corporate brand list that identifies similar factors. Ultimately, it seems that people are losing trust in governments for some of the same reasons that they reject established brands. Authenticity and transparency are not words that apply to corporate reputations alone.