Simon Anholt is the founder of the Anholt Nation Brands Index – a survey that ranks countries according to global perception, that is, the strength of the nation’s brand. Conducted quarterly in 35 countries, plus one or more guest countries, the survey asks people to rank each of the participating countries according to their opinions of the country’s exports, governance, culture, heritage, people and tourism.
“Today, every country, every region and every city has to compete with every other country, region and city on the planet: for customers, for visitors, for business, for talented people, for investment, for attention, for respect,” Anholt states on his website, where he makes a very strong case for effective nation branding.
Iceland was one of three guest countries in the NBI survey for the last quarter of 2006 and finished 19th overall. Iceland’s position in the top half of the table seems very encouraging, but it is considerably lower than some of the countries Iceland most readily identifies itself with: the Scandinavian countries, the USA, Canada and the UK. Iceland’s near neighbours in the list are: Belgium, Portugal, Brazil and Russia.
Iceland’s performance in the survey is best described as inconsistent – as it was ranked overall as high as sixth (by Norway) and as low as 33rd (by India). On individual questions across all 35 countries, Iceland reached as high as 11th for being responsible on international peace and security, but was ranked a lowly 35th on built and historical heritage.
“What most surprised me in the survey was Iceland’s low score on culture and heritage,” says Frosti Ólafsson, an economist with the Iceland Chamber of Commerce. “When I think of culture and heritage in Iceland, it is obvious that we have a long standing and strong culture and heritage, but we have failed to inform others properly about that.”
Dóra Magnúsdóttir, Marketing Manager for Visit Reykjavík – the city’s tourist board – explains that she was not really disappointed or surprised by the results per se, saying: “I was actually a bit surprised by how many people were surprised by the outcome.”
Both experts largely agree on the cause of Iceland’s inconsistent results: a weak national brand. “We like to think that we are at the centre of the universe – and I’m not saying that in a bad way,” says Frosti Ólafsson. “We feel that we have significance in the whole outer spectrum. Therefore it might be surprising that we are low compared to other western countries in the survey – but what seems to be the reason for this is not that we have a bad image or a bad reputation, but because we don’t have a reputation at all.”
The report itself states as much, saying: “The NBI suggests that the more we know about a country, the more we are prepared to forgive it its transgressions and admire its strengths and achievements. In contrast, countries that are not well known are not usually viewed very positively. Iceland, for example, may be one of the world’s richest nations per capita, has a uniquely beautiful natural landscape, a rich and ancient culture, and is successful in many other ways, but few people know enough about it to see it in positive brand terms.”
Having digested the results, we might ask whether the report is useful at all. Should we trust the varied opinions of a few thousand people from 35 countries, when there are people with a high regard for Iceland scattered all over the world? Ultimately, the survey may be more useful for larger nations than for smaller ones, about which people may not even have formed strong opinions. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that countries that are culturally and geographically distant tended to rank Iceland lowest, whereas cultural and physical distance did not seem to alter the scoring of big nations, such as France and the United States.
On the other hand, there must be no sour grapes here – after all, 25,500 people were asked the same questions about 38 countries. Whether you think Iceland did better or worse than expected, you have to accept the result and you also have to accept the fairness of the survey, even if you doubt its overall worth. The question experts are asking now is: “what do we do with this?”
Their question is a valid one because opinions are so very fickle. “Image is something that is hard to define, since it is something that is a matter of perception or sense – not something you can accurately measure,” says Ólafsson. In order to improve Iceland’s showing, the talk centres on ‘focus’ and ‘clarity’. “The single most important thing is co-operation between the state, the city and the business sector,” Magnúsdóttir explains. “Our problem is first and foremost lack of image, and that is why I think it is important to put forward one united brand. But of course, it is a difficult task and has to be done in the right way,” says Magnúsdóttir. “We have to research the qualities of Iceland and do it systematically. We can’t just think of a slogan, start using it and say, “Yeah, let’s see if everyone else agrees!”
Assuming that it is possible to create an exciting, universally agreed brand image for Iceland, what should we then do with it? “You would never go on an advertising campaign or something of that sort,” Ólafsson assures. “It’s similar to a culture. Take a corporation as an example: if it has a strong culture, then that sets it apart from other corporations and becomes a competitive advantage. And there are certainly similarities between corporations and countries. We want Iceland’s culture and character to become known through our actions and build up a competitive identity in the world.”
After cataloguing and refining the country’s strengths and characteristics, the task is to force this positive image upon the global public without resorting to such obvious methods as advertising campaigns. This may seem a bit whimsical and perhaps even pointless, but attracting foreign investment and foreign tourists is in fact one of the most important challenges facing the entire Icelandic economy.
Dóra Magnúsdóttir believes that the most effective tool in this field is word-of-mouth: the stories (positive and negative) visitors tell their friends back home about their visit to Iceland. After all, we tend to believe our friends more than we believe the newspapers. The word-of-mouth method is not only the most effective branding device, but also the one all visitors and residents are directly responsible for – whether we like it or not.