WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©

A Modern Nation Branding Tool

Click here to access the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©

Introduction - Every Country Needs a Recognisable Brand

There are more than 213 countries and autonomous financial centres in the world that compete – sometimes quite fiercely – for trade and investment, industry and tourism, regional and international influence, and media attention.

Successful countries such as the United States, China, Germany, and Japan have strong brands associated with high salience. Over many years, they have invested considerable effort, time and money to nurture their positive and recognisable brand images. Other countries have weak brands with low salience. Current examples of such low-profile countries include the Democratic Republic of Congo, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sudan, and Guinea-Bissau.

Most countries aspire to a positive brand, but countries are not corporations and brands cannot be creatively invented out of thin air. They can, however, be strategically shaped and refocused by developing their salience in a skilful manner that takes into consideration current events and global forces. As used throughout the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©, “salience” refers to a country's visibility or profile on the world stage. A lack of salience can severely impede brand recognition and make efforts to develop a positive brand image very time-consuming and expensive.

What is a Modern Country Brand?

A country's modern-day brand has developed over time as the sum total of the social and cultural changes it has undergone and the historical events it has experienced, none of which, of course, were planned with a modern nation branding campaign in mind. Culture, religion, history, economics, and contemporary politics all play crucial roles in defining a country's brand image. Successful nation branding campaigns recognise this and play to a country's core strengths.



The great events of the last hundred years – the rise and fall of fascism and communism, two world wars, several catastrophic famines, and the winding up of European colonial empires – have left the world with a patchwork of country brand images.   Formerly strong countries such as the United States, Brazil, Thailand and South Africa have high salience brands that are now negative, tainted or weakening.   Meanwhile, countries such as Uzbekistan and Serbia, that have taken steps to improve their undesirable images, possess brands that are visibly improving.   In contrast, Eritrea, Montenegro, Kosovo, and other new states have low salience and as yet enjoy very little brand recognition.   In an attempt to assert their independence and remodel their images, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other post-colonial states have adopted new names, a nation branding tactic often hampered by a failure to link the past with the present in a relevant and effective manner.

Low salience and the lack or wrong sort of brand recognition present formidable challenges to new and established states as they compete for export markets, foreign direct investment and influence in a globalised marketplace where a recognised brand image speaks louder than a thousand words.

What is the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©?

The WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking© has been developed over time as an internal, practical tool to help us measure where our clients stand with respect to their competitors on the issues that matter most to them: trade, foreign direct investment, tourism, regional influence and international media recognition.   Our methodology makes sense to any government that understands the crucial link between its country's brand image and its ability to exert soft power on the world stage.   (Click here to follow the discussion on our Facebook page.)

We base the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking© mainly on publications that appear worldwide on the internet.   This reflects our belief that, with the internet being the primary medium now used to gather information, countries need to come to terms with its content and the implications that content holds for their brand salience.   They also need to understand and become adept at analysing the character of search-engine generated data, which is usually personalised to reflect location and previous search behaviour, tends to be bloated with irrelevant content, and can be unstable under certain circumstances.   It is important to come to grips with these issues because, in looking for information about a particular country, business or topic, people turn first to the internet and, increasingly often, that is the only source they consult.   This poses both challenges and opportunities for countries. The WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking is designed to help decision-makers and their communications officers better understand what those challenges are, how to address them, and how best to exploit the opportunities presented.   (For further information about our evolving methodology and the challenges and opportunities it has highlighted, we invite you to visit here. For a step-by-step guide to updating the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking© click here.



In constructing the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©, we first ranked each country according to its salience in the sixteen major Western powers. To many governments this is the most important measure. Here we find that China, Canada and France currently enjoy the highest brand recognition as measured by the number of Google hits they garner on websites originating in the major Western countries, just as they did in 2015 and 2016. This year, China shifted out of 3rd place to 1st and France slipped into 3rd. If we limit our query to those hits registered on websites updated in the past year, Canada, Italy and Australia occupy the top spots while China appears in 8th place and France in 9th, which is down from their positions on the same measure in 2015 and 2016. As this suggests, a focus on actively maintained websites generates slightly different results than those produced by less discriminating searches. This is a critical point that warrants careful consideration by analysts investigating brand salience, and one that raises interesting questions about the conditions that give rise to movement in the rankings.

Many internal and external factors influence a country’s internet presence and consequent position on the rankings. These vary from country to country and require nuanced analysis grounded in a thorough understanding of the particular country and its political, economic and social circumstances. Common across all countries is a clear link between current affairs and movement in the rankings, as is evident in the case of North and South Korea. During the period covered by the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©, North Korea was almost constantly in the spotlight as it taunted the American administration with ever more menacing missile tests and the Trump Administration responded with increasingly bellicose language. Caught in the middle of this exchange was South Korea. The media attention and widespread public concern this generated is reflected in the data. Currently, North Korea ranks 18th on the Western Perception Index, if we tally only those search hits logged for websites updated in the past year. That is up 38 places from 2016. South Korea exhibits a similar pattern: it now ranks 16th on the same index, a upward shift of 17 places. This pattern is also evident elsewhere in the rankings but nowhere more clearly than on the Historical Footprint metric, where South Korea jumps 129 places to 24th and North Korea 142 places to 53rd. This illustrates another key pattern evident in the data: countries in conflict with one another tend to rise and fall together in the ranking.

Turning to Central Asia, we see that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have also risen in the two rankings just mentioned, with the steepest ascent seen on the Historical Footprint measure, where Kazakhstan is up 24 places and Uzbekistan 17. In trying to make sense of these changes, it is worth noting that Kazakhstan hosted EXPO 2017 last year, currently holds a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and assumed the UNSC presidency in January 2018. Positive things are also happening in Uzbekistan, which in early 2017 elected its first new President since Independence – the forward-looking Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who served as Interim President for several months prior to his official election. As these two sets of examples illustrate, both positive and negative factors can impact brand recognition.

The WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018© also looks at several other high-priority measures of a country's standing in the world. These are perceptions of it among other countries within its trade group and closest trading partners, among investors in the world's largest financial centres, and among international tourists. Finally, we measure a country's historical footprint, which is an important yardstick of its modern-day salience.

Beginning with trade and investment, we find that Algeria, Kenya and Kuwait currently rank at the top of their trade groups. Here again we see the impact of events on the ground as Algeria – once the most unapproachable country in the Arab Maghreb Union but now one of its least conflict-ridden – replaces Tunisia at the top. In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), we find Kuwait taking the top spot from Bahrain and troubled Yemen dropping from 3rd to 7th out of eight places. Unravelling changing perceptions among leading trade partners requires more penetrating analysis as a country’s major trading partners frequently change and the reason for and impact of those changes must be assessed along with any other factors. More than 77% of the countries on this year’s ranking present different trading partner configurations than in 2016. Consequently, important questions to be asked include: Why has the configuration changed? How does the number of major trading partners impact brand visibility? And, which trading partners are most likely to elevate a country’s profile? In terms of investor perceptions, the United States, China and France still occupy the top positions in the world's largest financial centres, as they did in 2016.



Derived from the World Tourism Organisation and the Ref Seek search engine rather than from Google, the remaining measures offer a different perspective. Beginning with tourism and using the most recent full-year data available, we find the USA, Spain, Thailand and China in the top four sports with regard to tourist receipts but France, the USA, China, and Spain at top in terms of the number of international arrivals, just as they were on the previous two editions of the ranking. The USA, India, Canada, and France also have the largest historical footprints.

These are just a few relatively straight-forward examples to illustrate the range of fascinating insights to be derived from the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©. Taken together, the measures that constitute our ranking provide an immediate snapshot of a country's salience – or international brand visibility – among world governments, the public at large and specialised audiences such as investors, academics and journalists. But there are also other kinds of insights to be gleaned from the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking©.

What else can we learn from the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©?

The WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018© can also be used to identify transnational patterns, to explore complex themes and issues of international interest, and to address questions of concern to individual countries. For example, what insights does the ranking offer with regard to joining or leaving the EU?   What kind of impact might China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have on countries along the route? How are political instability and corruption, conflict, shared regional interests, or uncontrollable events reflected in the rankings? These are just a few of the many issues one could explore using this set of rankings.


Relations with the EU

Data for the previous edition of the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking© was collected in the lead-up to the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum. That vote weighed in favour of leaving the European Union. Afterwards, analysts and planners from across the political spectrum looked to several model countries for the UK’s post-Brexit trade arrangement with the EU. Three stood out as most realistic: Norway, Canada and Switzerland. The situation has moved on since then, but considerable attention has nonetheless focused on those three countries. In exploring what the leadership ranking can tell us about relations with and within the EU, we look first at the UK and those “model” countries and then move on to the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) – which is singled out because of its unique trade relationship with the EU – and the EU’s newest member states.



Nearly two years on from the Brexit vote, change is evident in the ranking. For instance, data from websites updated in the past year show that the UK has slipped back 1 spot to 11th place on the Western Perception Index, Canada remains in 1st place, and Norway and Switzerland have inched up to 27th and 45th place, respectively. But when we include data from all websites irrespective of when they were last updated, we find three of the four countries sitting much higher in the ranking. Canada is slightly lower in 2nd place, as it was in 2016, but the UK has climbed 4 spots to 8th place, Switzerland 4 to 16th and Norway 7 to 24th. This higher positioning may result from more comprehensive searches or elevated interest in older documents and historical trends during the Brexit negotiations.

Turning to trade and investment, we find that Canada and Norway have retained the top positions in their trade groups while the UK has made an impressive climb from rock bottom to 14th place in its 28-member EU group. Switzerland, which is in EFTA along with Norway, has fallen 2 places to the bottom of that four-country group. It is noteworthy that, of the 16 trading groups examined, the EU exhibits the greatest amount of internal variance over 2016 and EFTA the least, followed by NAFTA, which is Canada’s trade group. Given the observed patterns and correlations described here and below, it is unlikely that this movement can be accounted for entirely by the difference in size between the groups, although that is undoubtedly a factor. The Major Trading Partners Perception Index presents a messier picture, with Canada down 1 spot to 3rd place, Norway up 21 to 23rd, Switzerland down 60 places to 83rd and the UK down 43 to 64th. All four countries have changed their configuration of trading partners since 2016. This complicates interpretation, but well-contextualised, country-specific analysis is likely to yield insights into how different trading partners and the actual number of trading partners influence a country’s worldwide visibility.



With Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU well under way, there has been a discussion about EFTA being a possible model for future relations. This added attention has almost certainly impacted EFTA’s standings, as all four member states (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) have advanced in the World Perception Index, and Switzerland and Norway – two of the leading post-Brexit model states – have also moved up in the Historical Footprint ranking.   Except for Switzerland, all of the EFTA countries have risen in the Major Trading Partners Index. Meanwhile, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have climbed in the Investor Perception Index while Norway and Iceland register sharp falls. Unravelling these patterns requires deep study of the countries in question and their particular circumstances and is therefore beyond the scope of this discussion. However, the data begin to make more sense if one distinguishes between general interest in these countries as models for trade between the UK and the EU and more specific interest in them as potential trade and investment partners.


Relations within the EU

Two other patterns detected in the EU data are worth mentioning. The first is that although some countries that have joined the EU since 2004 have leapt up the ranking – most notably Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic – not all of them have enjoyed enhanced visibility as measured by the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©. Overall, there is little difference between senior member states and the newer members when it comes to movement on the Western Perception Index. The gap widens, however, on the Historical Footprint measure, where we find the oldest EU member states nudging up a place or two over 2016, while the newer member states have slipped back more than 14 places, on average. Where EU membership does favour the newer members states in our ranking system is in the areas of trade and investor interest. Here we find that the newer members have climbed the Major Trading Partner Index an average of 49 places whereas the older member countries have barely moved. A similar pattern appears on the Investor Perception Index, where the newer members have climbed more than 21 places on average since 2016 and the older members have hardly shifted. These patterns would suggest that, while EU membership has done little to enhance these countries general visibility, membership has attracted added attention from potential investors and trading partners.

Another interesting pattern emerges if we focus on the highest and lowest EU financial contributors and on what some analysts have labelled the top “net givers” and “net takers”. When comparing the upper quartile of EU contributors (all of them long-standing member states) with the bottom quartile (6 out of 7 of which have joined since 2004), we find little movement in the ranking among the top contributors but an average drop of 5 places from 2016 among the bottommost(1). The difference between “net givers” and “net takers” is even more pronounced. When we take into account only those websites recently updated, the top 7 “net givers” (25% of all EU member states) on average have barely move on the Western Perception Index, whereas the 7 biggest “net takers” have slumped an average of 3.6 places(2).  If we then look at data from all websites regardless of how recently they were updated, we see the “net givers” rising an average of 6 places and the “net takers” an average of just over 10 spots. This historical data suggests that newer accessions enjoy a “honeymoon” period of increased visibility, which then diminishes as interest wanes, unless it is maintained by country specific circumstances or actions.


China’s Belt and Road Initiative

In September 2013, President Xi Jinping of China announced an ambitious plan to create a vast trade network connecting China to Europe and beyond. Widely known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is comprised of two routes, one stretching from China through Southeast Asia and the Middle East to Europe (the “Belt”) and the other from China across Central Asia to Europe (the “Road”). Linking into each route are spurs to adjacent countries. Although there is as yet no definitive list of infrastructure projects completed, under way or proposed, the BRI as now conceptualised spans 71 countries(3). The initiative is still in its infancy but interested onlookers and those already involved will find the performance of these countries on WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018© enlightening. As the BRI moves ahead in the years to come and more information becomes available about specific transnational projects and in-country activities, the leadership ranking should generate more insights and suggest questions that warrant rigorous investigation by individual countries and their transnational partners. This year’s ranking will provide them with a useful baseline against which to measure change as the initiative picks-up speed.



But for now, the first observation to be made is that the Belt and Road countries exhibit a slightly higher degree of variance on average from 2016 than one would expect based on the variance of all countries on the Western Perception Index. This pattern carries through to the Major Trading Partners, Investor Perception and Historical Footprint indexes, with the widest gap – albeit still only about 3% – to be found on the Investor Perception Index.

But that is just part of the picture. Average variance does not distinguish between upward and downward movement. Upon closer examination we find that, on average, the BRI countries have slipped slightly on the Western Perception and Historical Footprint indexes. These are general measures of worldwide visibility, as already noted. But when we turn our attention to trade and investment we find that, on average, they have risen slightly on the Investor Perception Index and – with an average of more than 13 places – more significantly in the Major Trading Partners Index. This may be attributable to the fact that more than two-thirds of the BRI countries have changed their configuration of major trading partners since 2016, a realignment possibly triggered by the development of new trade and foreign direct investment opportunities under the BRI umbrella.

Things get even more interesting when we consider actual ranks. If we include only data from websites updated in the past year, the average rank of the BRI countries comes in at 79 on the Western Perception Index, which is significantly higher than median rank of 106.5. If we include data from all websites irrespective of their last update, the average rank slips to 89. At an average rank of 84, the BRI countries also come in well above the median on the Historical Footprint metric. The average rank of these countries on the Major Trading Partners Index is 87 and on the Investor Perception Index it is 89, which is again higher than the index median. Given that many of these are still-developing countries with small economies, this is impressive and bodes well for their future profile on the world scene. These are trends to be closely watched in the years to come.


Some Other Interesting Correlations

There are other intriguing and suggestive correlations that stand out on this year’s leadership ranking. Countries tainted by corruption or political instability can be expected to jump up the Western Perception Index as public interest is piqued and media attention focuses on them, only to lose standing on the trade and investment measures as trade partner and investor confidence falters. Once media interest fades and a resolution of the issues seems imminent, the trend reverses.



This is evident in the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018© as countries in the spotlight due to conflict, controversy or catastrophe in 2016 have fallen back on the Western Perception index – especially when only those websites updated in the past year are considered – but have risen in the trade and investments rankings as confidence is renewed.  For instance, Ukraine has dropped in the Western Perception Index by 17 places, Venezuela by 25 and Libya by 20. Meanwhile, all three countries have climbed the Major Trading Partners Index – Ukraine by 62 places, Venezuela by 42 and Libya by 34 – and Ukraine and Venezuela have moved up in the Investor Perception Index.

As one might expect, our rankings also confirm that tourists are put off by internal instability and events that tarnish a country’s image. Here we find declining tourist traffic to troubled countries such as Russia and Egypt, this despite their previously high touristic appeal. Also registering a decline in tourism are conflict-ridden countries such as Yemen, Sudan and Ukraine.

Serving the Needs of Government Communications Campaigns

While strictly speaking not scientific due to the challenges inherent in working with data derived from Google and other search-engines, we believe our unique approach offers a more accurate and objective understanding of a country's brand image than any upfront assessment of whether that image is “positive” or “negative”. Such determinations are by definition subjective and frequently lead to simplistic or predictable results. We deeply believe that achieving as reliable an international recognition measure as possible is the most effective starting point for any campaign to change or improve a country’s brand, and it is for this reason that we continually hone our methodology and upgrade the leadership ranking. Our focus on taking an accurate measure of a country’s salience enables us to collect objective data irrespective of whether a country's brand image is positive or negative. It thereby serves as a stable foundation upon which we may work with policy-makers and government strategists to build a successful nation branding strategy with realistic objectives and concrete chances of success.

WorldPR’s Global Leadership Ranking 2018© is a comprehensive tool that looks at all the sectors that matter to modern states while taking into account crucial historical and cultural factors at the core of a country’s character and, ultimately, its brand image. Taken together, we believe our ranking’s constituent measures can help government strategists and their advisers assess the strength of their country's brand and make informed and precise decisions about how best to deploy their valuable resources to increase trade, foreign direct investment and tourism as well as to enhance their nation's influence on the international stage.

About WorldPR: Professionals in Nation Branding

WorldPR is an international public relations company with more than twenty-five years’ experience in the field of government and corporate communications. During that time, we have advised twenty-six old and new countries from different regions of the world on their nation branding strategies, their relations with other governments and international organisations, and their efforts to promote and grow their economies by developing closer relations with other countries.

Although our firm’s long-standing policy prohibits us from disclosing the identity of our clients, we may state with pride that we have played an important role advising governments on strategies for successful international political communications campaigns, some of which have pursued ambitious goals.   The campaigns we have advised on range from winning national elections and hosting international sporting competitions to securing advancement within international organisations such as the OSCE and the EU.   Most recently, we have successfully advised two governments on their strategy to secure a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Our work has included managing a multilingual communications campaign addressed to audiences in 193 countries and overseeing the establishment of a regionally-focused think tank. Many of these campaigns have incorporated specific branding objectives and we have adapted our tactical approach accordingly.

Click here to access the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2018©, or click here to read the full Report.

Click here to access the WorldPR Global Leadership Ranking 2016©.



1. Share of total contributions to the European Union budget in 2016, by Member State.

2. M. Keep (2018). A Guide to the EU Budget. House of Commons Briefing Paper 06455.