Sweden and the 2023 Nation Brands Index: Time for a rethink?

We asked Simon Anholt, founder of the Nation Brands Index, to comment on Sweden's results in this year's survey. He notes, among other things, that most countries have not just one but several "brands".
Foto av Simon Anholt

By the end of 2005, the year I launched the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index (NBI), it had become clear that the images of countries are remarkably stable phenomena. Collectively, once people have formed a set of views or prejudices about other countries, they are unwilling to revise them: stasis seems to be the default setting.

Sweden, for example, has never moved by more than a single place in the NBI since 2008, having invariably ranked either 9th or 10th. I’ve often joked that the NBI is one of the most boring social surveys ever conducted: indeed, any country image ranking that produces significantly different results from year to year needs to be carefully scrutinised, since it is surely measuring something other than mass public perceptions.

It seems to make no difference whether the image is positive or negative. People often quote the Dutch statesman Johan Thorbecke when discussing reputation (“trust comes on foot but leaves on horseback”) but his observation simply doesn’t apply to countries. Once a country has earned a powerful and positive reputation, nothing much less than invading another country seems to have the power to spoil it (and even that doesn’t always work, as the United States has regularly demonstrated). For this reason I would suggest that Swedes don’t need to panic about their losses in the 2023 NBI: but they should not ignore them.

Another interesting finding from the NBI is that when country images do change, they tend to change as a cohort rather than independently. Sweden’s overall score, in common with that of every other country in the index apart from Russia, has risen by an average of 0.7% per year since 2008, suggesting that the “global public mood” is a more powerful driver of country image than the behaviours of countries themselves. That this mood improves with every year is another fascinating finding which, in my mind, points to one of the few unequivocally beneficial effects of globalisation: we are gradually getting used to each other.

“Brand Sweden” encounters turbulence

Although Sweden’s average score in the NBI fell by a mere 0.5% this year, causing its overall rank to drop from its habitual 9th place to its almost equally habitual 10th place, this tiny surface shift reflects a dramatic subterranean event: Sweden’s NBI scores from Saudi Arabian respondents collapsed by a remarkable 28 places, nearly halfway down the entire index.

28 places is not quite a record-breaking fall. In 2006, our Egyptian respondents’ scores for Denmark dropped by 36 places, following the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed.

So what has Sweden done to earn itself nearly as much opprobrium as the Jyllands-Posten cartoons? The smoking gun is surely the Korankrisen, which led to public denunciations by Muslim clerics, protests and riots across the Muslim world, and Turkey’s refusal to endorse Sweden’s NATO membership bid (although it’s worth noting that Turkish NBI respondents downgraded Sweden’s image by a mere seven places). One Quran-burning episode took place in the same week that the NBI fieldwork was conducted, so the episode was certainly fresh in people’s minds.

As with the Danish cartoons, the reputational damage wasn’t limited to Sweden, damaging perceptions not only of other Nordic countries, but also countries with similar-sounding names and what are perhaps presumed to be similar values: Saudi views of Switzerland[i] fell by fifteen places—a catastrophic fall by normal NBI standards—Finland by eight places, Canada and the Netherlands by seven, and Austria and Norway six. Yet the same Saudi respondents’ scores for Australia, France and Scotland actually rose by 7, 9 and 10 places respectively, suggesting that this is not some generalised upsurge of anti-Western sentiment, rather a specific response to a specific offence.

Cultural Terrorism

Paludan and Momika are certainly aware that their actions achieved powerful effects, although literally turning nation against nation may not have been quite the effect they anticipated. Their actions can justly be described as cultural terrorism, because like bombings or shootings, they are guaranteed to “go viral”, and that’s exactly the intention: to generate a sense of generalised paranoia and to fan the flames of moral outrage. In this way, small groups or individuals that are unburdened by moral principles, or indeed any sense of responsibility towards anything other than their own cause, can easily outperform much larger actors, including states. They do this in the same way that NASA uses the gravitational fields of planets to slingshot its tiny spacecraft into deep space: terrorists leverage the vast energy of national images and religious beliefs, and our powerful prejudices for or against them, to propel themselves to planetary influence.

The trouble with all this is that it’s very hard to get famous by being really good but pretty easy to do it by being really bad. That’s called cheating, and it’s the best weapon of terrorists and populists alike.

And the sting in the tail is that thanks to the extreme stability of national image, once a country’s image has been caused to shift, it may stay shifted. In 2019, the last time Denmark was included in the NBI, thirteen years after the Jyllands-Posten episode, Egyptian respondents still ranked it 36th, well over 20 places lower than one would expect for a Nordic country (they ranked Sweden 9th).

How many brands does a country have?

All this makes me wonder whether the whole notion of a country having a singular “brand image” is flawed, and perhaps the word should only ever be used in the plural. After all, how can we possibly claim that Sweden’s image is the same image for Germans or Canadians (who both rank Sweden as the 4th most admirable country on earth) as it is for Saudis, who now rank it 44th, or indeed for the Chinese, who rank it alongside Poland and Saudi Arabia?

The truth is that most countries have multiple “brands” which are significantly less stable and less predictable than their global average image, which is, after all, just a mathematical construct (fewer than 10% of NBI respondents actually rank Sweden tenth, its average global rank).

What really matters in a multipolar world is bilateral perceptions – and the only effective way of understanding or influencing those perceptions is bilaterally. I have written before about collaborative public diplomacy, where two countries with a common need to improve the way their populations regard each other (it would be hard to find any two countries that wouldn’t benefit from such an effect) agree to facilitate access to each other’s citizens in a carefully calibrated friendship initiative, rather as Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle did in the 1960s. It costs a certain amount of money and a great deal of patience and commitment, but it works: even today, it’s clear from the briefest examination of the NBI data that the legacy of the Elysée Accord is alive and well after sixty years, and constitutes part of the bedrock of the European Union.

The idea that so-called ‘nation branding’ is a competitive activity was never a very intelligent one. I, for one, will not mourn its passing.

[i] At least in their adjectival forms, the names of the two countries are, as in English, slightly similar-sounding in Arabic: سويسري (Swissri) and سويدي (Swedi).

Simon Anholt is the leading expert on national image (he originally coined the term ‘nation brand’ in 1998) and founded Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brand Index in 2005. He is also the founder of the Good Country Index. Simon Anholt has advised the governments of over sixty countries and has written six books on public diplomacy and how to work to strengthen the perception of a country. His latest book is The Good Country Equation.