Nation Brands Index 2011, U-S-A!

Today, I went to the press conference organized by the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index (NBI) to unveil their latest survey, NBI 2011. With the United States being at the top of the list third year in a row, NBI listed a total of 50 countries’ brands. In the table below, you can see the top 10 countries from 2008 to 2011.

As I have mentioned earlier, I have several doubts about NBI as a robust measurement scale. Below, I’ll try to organize my ideas under three headings:

– What is NBI good for? When should NBI be used?

– Why doesn’t NBI measure ‘nation brands’?

– Why is NBI’s understanding of nation brands incomplete (if not entirely wrong)?

Let me shortly explain what NBI is, for those of you not familiar with the measurement scale. A joint venture of Simon Anholt, and GfK Roper, NBI uses Anholt’s Nation Brand Hexagon, and examines the six dimensions of country images: exports, governance, culture and heritage, people, tourism, and investment and immigration. A survey is conducted annually in 20 countries to rank a total of 50 countries.

When is NBI useful?

A quick disclaimer: I have my own ontological and epistemological issues with NBI. If you want to see an academically robust measurement scales, I recommend you to follow the works of Dr. Sebastian Zenker, and Dr. Andrea Insch. Both scholars present very intriguing methods to evaluate place (most of the time, city) brands.

But at the end of the day, NBI is a very sophisticated product. GfK Roper still presents one of the most inclusive and informative measurement scale available to policy makers right now. So, when can NBI be useful? I, personally, see two areas where these numbers might be invaluable for policy makers:

  • Market research: Let’s assume Country A just got very interested in Country B. Maybe Country A wants more tourists, influence some policies, or attract investment. In order to come up with feasible strategies, Country A has to know what Country B thinks about it. NBI can provide several quantified insights about Country B’s perception of Country A.
  • Bureaucratic evaluation: Country A has just completed a branding campaign, or a major event took place in Country A. Policy makers want to re-evaluate their current situation. They want to see whether the campaign had any positive impacts or not. NBI, again, can show the change overtime.

Does NBI measure what it sets out to measure?

For the time being, I am going to assume that NBI’s definition of nation brand is flawless, and point out problems about data gathering – rather than research design.

  • Sampling problem: Each year citizens from 20 countries are invited for an online survey – while controlling for age, and education level. Now, there are three problems with this sampling method. First of all, these 20 countries do not necessarily represent the world. Besides, if a country is going for a ‘regional brand’ (i.e. a regional political power status, increasing economic activities in a region), the sampling might be completely irrelevant. Secondly, the survey is online, therefore, your participants do not even necessarily represent their respective countries. Lastly, I am not sure about the consistency of these 20 countries across years. I do not know whether the same 20 is included in the sample – if not, a panel study is meaningless (Though I was informed the sampling might change according to client needs).
  • Data triangulation: As a doctoral candidate, I am required by the law of nature to say triangulation at least once when I write something longer than 500 words. So here we go. In an era when we are talking about paradox of plenty (about information, not oil), why do we go ahead and collect information solely through an online survey? Individuals are voluntarily giving out information about their perceptions in blogs, on Twitter, and other social media networks. Why don’t we use those platforms to scrap data? Moreover, why don’t we use news pieces or other public resources? Why don’t we use focus groups? In other words, why don’t we get more data resources and triangulate our results? (And of course, by we, I mean GfK Roper).
  • Difficult to change: During the last four years, top 10 countries did not change. Similar to Anholt, GfK Ropers representatives mentioned that it is not possible to change a country’s reputation overnight. Yet I believe, the reason for that is the questions asked in the survey about ‘perceptions’. It is not possible to increase a person’s familiarity with a country, its people, and/or products. Yet, within some certain audiences, it might be possible to change what a country stands for. Shortly speaking, overall reputation might not change overnight, but it might be possible to associate the place with new concepts in shorter time frames. These associations are not adequately measured through six quantified dimensions.
  • Do you want to have a person from this country as a close friend?: I am sorry but really? This question? What can this measure? Do we have any idea about what a close friend is? Or do we know how people choose close friends? Anyhow, some survey questions seem to be very contingently related to the concepts measured. Moreover, 3 to 6 questions per item are asked. I argue the number of questions is too low to gather sufficient data to make claims.

Does ‘Nation Brand Hexagon‘ have construct validity?

I argue that Nation Brand Hexagon does not adequately define a ‘nation brand’. This complex social phenomenon cannot be described only with six categories. Even if it is described so, these six are based mainly on a neo-liberal economic understanding (or simply, free market competition).

  • Is ‘branding’ a competitive concept? The ranking system clearly says yes. All countries have the same comparable brands, and can be ranked accordingly. But what does the ranking mean? USA has the best brand, so, do individuals all want to buy American products? Do we all want to visit the US? Or let’s look at the change from 2008 to 2009. So, does that mean more people wanted to immigrate to US in 2009? Branding is not necessarily a competitive concept. Yes, all countries are going to limited resources (investments, tourists etc), but they are using different rhetorical, political, and economic strategies. Therefore such a quantified, zero-sum approach to branding oversimplifies the nature of competition in the international arena, and underestimates the role of several factors.
  • Is a “brand” a number? Of course not! Dr. Zenker has done a fantastic job in looking at current measurement scales (also, see his other publications for his proposed methods). However, NBI practically equates US brand to 68.88 in 2011.

What I learned from this press conference?

  1. If the invitation says there is going to be breakfast in the conference, you should not stop by Starbucks first.
  2. GfK-Roper service is better than Anholt’s conceptualization. It is a research service that can be customized to suit client needs. You can get results for specific markets, target audiences, age groups etc. But the results that are shared with the public (see the table above) are plain invalid. NBI Top 10 list does not mean anything in terms of place/nation branding.
  3. Brand Hexagon is a good visual SWOT analysis for countries. For instance Country C might rank #5 in overall, #1 in five of the six dimensions, and #39 in governance. Country D might rank in mid-2os in everything but tourism – where it ranks higher. Therefore, countries can see their weaknesses and strengths.
  4. In short, I right now have a more favorable opinion of NBI – not as a robust branding measurement but as an important and sophisticated policy making support tool.

PS: I cross-posted this entry on Place Management and Branding Blog.


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