Russia’s International Image, and Why It Matters

Russia’s task over the next decades is identical to the task facing most other countries. It doesn’t need to find ways of making people around the world feel in awe of Russia, impressed by Russia, or even envious of Russia: quite simply, it needs to find ways of making people feel glad that Russia exists.

Russia is a country that polarises opinions, to say the least.

Each year since 2005, I have been polling a sample equivalent to 66% of the world’s population (and more than 70% of its economy) on their perceptions of fifty countries. The Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands IndexSM has collected more than 164 billion responses to a series of more than fifty questions, probing the views of ordinary people in more than 30 different countries. It’s one of the largest social surveys ever conducted, and provides many fascinating insights into what people think about other countries and cities, and why.

One of the main learnings from this study is that people’s perceptions of foreign countries don’t change very much, or very quickly: most of us, it seems, have rather fixed views about other nations, and we prefer not to change them. There is no evidence from the survey that attempts at deliberate image manipulation have any effect at all: there is no correlation between how much money or effort countries put into promoting their national image, and what ordinary people subsequently believe about them.

Russia, like the majority of countries in the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands IndexSM, remains more or less stable in image terms from year to year: although there is a chance that the vigorous international debate about recent Russian legislation banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional relationships’ may have polarised views about Russia even further by the time the 2013 Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands IndexSM is released in the coming weeks. We shall see.

However, in 2012, when the last NBISM was conducted, Russia ranked 41st out of the 50 countries in the Index on mean favourability. Its highest average ranking was 6th for perceptions of its sporting prowess, while its lowest rankings were three 42nd positions for questions relating to its government’s contribution to preserving international peace and security; for protecting the environment; and for the expectation of a warm welcome if one were to visit the country.

So in this respect, it is clear that average global perceptions of Russia are complex, ranging from a cluster of rankings well within the top 10 countries in the Index (mainly in the area of culture and heritage) to a larger cluster in the bottom 10 (mainly in the area of governance and population). There are some things people very much admire about Russia, and other things they strongly dislike.

The degree to which Russia polarises global opinion becomes even more evident when one looks at how its image varies from country to country. Turkish respondents, on average, rank Russia 13th, while Poles rank it 49th. This spread of thirty-six places between the most and least favourable views of a country is unusually wide: in fact, Russia is the fourth most inconsistently ranked country in the whole index. Only China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates polarise global opinion more dramatically (and the only reason why Japan’s scores are more widely spread is because it receives an average 49th ranking from both the Chinese and South Korean panels; all the other country panels rank Japan well inside the Top 20).

So what does this wide variety of opinions mean for Russia in practical terms?

There is a now large body of research which demonstrates how profoundly national image affects the economic prospects of countries: one study by the Max Planck Institute for the OECD [1], for example, concludes that a difference of one single point in the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands IndexSM corresponds to an increase in foreign direct investment inflows of 27%; another study from Drexel University [2] claims that an improvement of one place in the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands IndexSM with respect to a particular target market leads to a 2% increase in exports to that market, the equivalent of a tariff decrease of up to 3.86%.

This growing understanding of the links between national image and national performance means that the concept of ‘nation brand’ has really begun to mature since I first coined the term in 1998: nobody now doubts that the elusive idea of national image, although so difficult to understand, to measure and especially to influence, nonetheless has absolutely tangible impacts on the progress of nations. My original contention in 1998 that governments must, in some sense, now learn to be brand managers as much as policy-makers, appears to be well vindicated.

Since I published my first paper on this topic fifteen years ago, the number of governments with a formal, dedicated department or agency in charge of the nation’s international profile has grown from none to fourteen [3]; at least seventeen other countries regularly carry out formal nation-brand programmes even if they have as yet no dedicated agency for doing so; another 42 countries have done so at some point in the past, or are actively considering the issue. Even higher numbers can be found when one looks at city and regional government activity in this area.

And whilst nobody really seems to doubt that reputation matters for countries, there is little consensus on what creates reputation, and what can be done – if anything – to influence it. My view, supported by nine years of research and more than 60 case studies, is that national image is neither a media nor a marketing issue. Countries, to put it simply, are judged today as they have always been judged: by what they do and what they make, by the people who live there and the way they behave, and above all by their perceived contribution to the planet and to humanity. They are not judged by what they say about themselves: such messages are simply ignored.

So national image is not a matter of messaging. Simply telling the world how great you are is more likely to create irritation or envy than admiration: success doesn’t equal reputation. As time goes by, the evidence becomes stronger and stronger that if a country really wants to be liked or admired, it has to start behaving in an unmistakably likeable or admirable way. And this appears to hold as true for foreign direct investors as it does for tourists or consumers of a country’s products: more than anything else, countries need to build trust in their people, their institutions, their government, their legislature, their society, their products and services. And trust, when it doesn’t come from personal experience, must be deduced from unmistakably moral behaviour.

There’s nothing new about this, of course. The medieval Italian banking families – the very first multinational corporations – all invested large proportions of their profits in building churches and monasteries and hospitals, endowing universities, supporting painters and sculptors and composers and writers. They did this not merely because they wanted to demonstrate their wealth and power, but principally because they wanted to transmit an unequivocal proof of their moral soundness – a sign that would enable strangers to feel safe about entrusting them with their money and their business.

Nothing much has changed about human nature since the fourteenth century, and the need to broadcast trustworthiness applies to nation-states today just as surely as it applied to banks seven centuries ago. Then, as now, simply declaring one’s virtue was insufficient: it had to be proved.

So Russia’s task over the next decades is identical to the task facing most other countries. It doesn’t need to find ways of making people around the world feel in awe of Russia, impressed by Russia, or even envious of Russia: quite simply, it needs to find ways of making people feel glad that Russia exists.

1 Kalamova and Konrad (2010) Nation Brands and Foreign Direct Investment (OECD / Max Planck Institute)

2 Yotov, Korschun, Dimitrova (2012) Country Reputation and International Trade: a Structural Gravity Approach: Drexel University

3 The 14 countries with fully-established, dedicated ‘nation-brand’ units as of September 2013 are: South Africa, South Korea, Germany, Liechtenstein, Botswana, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Kenya and Qatar.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.