Jason McGrath on Measuring the Perceptions and Brands of Cities and Countries

Jason McGrath, Senior Vice President at Ipsos – a TPBO Knowledge Partner – in this interview shares how cities, regions and countries can determine and increase the value of their brand reputation, for example by looking at the data provided in the Anholt-Ipsos City and Nation Brands indices.

Jason also highlights the importance of solid performance in social and environmental sustainability for corporations and nations alike, with respect to their brand reputation. Plus: Jason’s insights and advice on how to communicate in times of crisis, such as during the current pandemic.


Jason, as the SVP at Ipsos, assessing the reputation of organizations and places is your daily business. Do you remember the first time you came across this topic? What got you interested?

I’ve been helping organizations evaluate their reputation for over a decade now – currently leading the US reputation practice at Ipsos, and previously in my role at Edelman/StrategyOne in Washington, DC. Edelman supported numerous clients with corporate positioning and reputation management, and my research group provided the reputational benchmarks needed to evaluate impact over time.

Beyond just benchmarks and tracking though, we also provided the strategic insights to determine what attributes will have the greatest reputational impact, and how those attributes can manifest themselves through effective messaging.

At this time we were providing communications support to some foreign embassies, and we applied these same reputation research principles to measuring perceptions of these nations. It was fascinating digging deeper with stakeholders to understand why they feel certain ways about different nations, how they form their opinions, and what they prioritize regarding the expectations of different nations.

Since then, running the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index (NBI) has been extremely rewarding as it is the most robust study of its kind, and is used by countries across the globe.

How can places – cities, regions, or countries – determine and increase the value of their reputation?

Perhaps the best starting point is the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index. Annually, we conduct a comprehensive study assessing the perceptions of respondents from 20 countries about 50 nations. This is the most comprehensive study of its kind and has the most robust historical data set so we can identify trends and reputational shifts over time. Client nations use the study to understand overall perceptions of their country, but also to evaluate themselves against competitive markets to identify differentiators or their strategic brand advantage.

Beyond this, many of our clients then choose to dig deeper by exploring their reputation in other markets, among other audiences, or by evaluating different metrics and testing potential messaging.

Ultimately, having a measurement framework that has been tested over time, and that has comprehensive comparative data available, will provide a place with a robust assessment of their reputation. By understanding reputational strengths and weaknesses, then action plans can be developed to improve reputation.

Based on your research, how important are good performances in social and environmental sustainability nowadays, with regard to place reputation?

Just as Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) programs are becoming a stronger focus for companies, these areas are growing in importance for nations as well. Protecting the environment and natural resources, ensuring the safety of food and water, and resolving violent conflicts have been consistently named as the top issues which respondents would like to see nations address the most.

Protecting the environment and natural resources is named as a top issue in 2019 (38%), a 6-point increase since 2014 when this was listed as a top issue by 32% of global respondents. This is the only global issue that has considerably grown in importance in the past 5 years.

Sustainability is a topic that has been increasing in importance over the years, and those countries that embrace, adopt, and implement ESG initiatives and policies have been reaping the reputational benefits. We’ve seen some great examples of nations who have a significant focus on environmental sustainability consistently ranking extremely well in the Nation Brands Index, and these countries also perform extremely well on other indices such as the Good Country Index, or the World Happiness Report.

What’s interesting about sustainability and social performance, though, is that it is often correlated with governance and the priorities of the government in power. So, while society broadly tends to have greater expectations for environmental and social performance, it can be hard to improve perceptions in these areas without also focusing on perceptions of governance.

Which results did you find the most intriguing in the latest Anholt-Ipsos City Brands Index?

We had a few interesting results in the latest City Brands Index. For example, we saw Paris drop from 1st to 3rd this year, and Vienna strengthened its performance quite a bit, re-joining the top 10 at 7th place this year.

Furthermore, I’m highly anticipating the results of this year’s Nation Brands Index to understand whether nation rankings have shifted to a greater extent due to the global pandemic. Stay tuned.

How does the Anholt-Ipsos City Brands Index work?

Every two years we survey a total of 5,000 people across ten countries and those respondents evaluate fifty global cities. Cities are evaluated on each of the following aspects:

  • International status (Presence)
  • Physical appeal (Place)
  • Amenities (Prerequisites)
  • Warmth of their inhabitants (People)
  • Activities (Pulse)
  • Educational and business qualities (Potential)

Together, the ratings in each of these areas create the index and final rankings.

This is a similar approach to the Anholt Ipsos Nation Brands Index, though that program is run annually and includes perceptions from 20,000+ respondents across 20 countries. The 50 nations evaluated in the survey are measured on the six dimensions of the Nation Brand Hexagon:

  • Exports—The public’s image of products and services from each country and the extent to which consumers proactively seek or avoid products from each country-of-origin.
  • Governance—Public opinion about national government competency and fairness, as well as its perceived com­mitment to global issues such as peace and security, justice, poverty, and the environment.
  • Culture and Heritage—Global perceptions of each nation’s heritage and appreciation for its contemporary culture, including film, music, art, sport, and literature.
  • People—The population’s reputation for competence, openness and friendliness, and other qualities such as tolerance.
  • Tourism—The level of interest in visiting a country and the draw of natural and man-made tourist attractions.
  • Investment and Immigration—The power to attract people to live, work, or study in each country and how people perceive a country’s quality of life and business environment.

Do you think the need for country-level benchmarking studies such as the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index has increased over the last few years?

Absolutely. To quote Peter Drucker, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” The Anholt-Ipsos City and Nation Brand Indices measure the reputation of places in a consistent and comprehensive framework. Through this lens, we are able to provide clients with a clear understanding of the areas where they can and should focus to recognize reputational gains. And reputational gains translate into their target outcomes, like the increased desire to visit, increased interest in that place’s products and services, a greater interest in business investment, etc.

As the world continues to chart a path to recovery from the current pandemic, the ability to understand how sentiment has shifted in different areas of a place’s reputation can help those places develop strategies to address those shifts and improve perceptions over time.

It’s important to have a clear understanding of how you’re perceived if you want to be able to address perceived weaknesses and make reputational gains.

How will the coronavirus pandemic affect country rankings and perceptions?

We’ll know soon. The 2020 Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index results will be published in October, showing us exactly how country rankings have shifted since last year. For countries where the ranking has shifted, we’ll be able to explore which aspects of the Nation Brand Hexagon are driving that change, and what a country can do to manage their reputation.

Understanding gaps between stakeholder perceptions and reality is critically important to promoting the virtues of a place, and to have an active role in shaping its narrative and positioning. How does Ipsos help cities or countries to succeed with this?

Shaping a place’s narrative and positioning requires an understanding of a place’s perceived strengths and weaknesses. This is our core area of focus in measuring the reputation of a place. By understanding how different stakeholders rate a place on the various dimensions we measure, we can help those places determine which areas to focus on for the greatest impact. By then tracking perceptions over time we can identify whether certain actions, messages, or initiatives are having an impact on stakeholder perceptions.

Ipsos is working with countries across the globe through the Anholt-Ipsos Nations Brands Index, as well as through custom research programs, to support their global positioning efforts and provide targeted stakeholder insights that guide their work.

Crisis communication being another strength of Ipsos – what advice can you share with city or country branders on how to promote their place responsibly in the current public health scenario? How to best attract visitors, talent, and investors?

We like to focus on the “ABCs of Crisis Management”:

  • Assess the situation – what do stakeholders know of the current situation, are there areas of misinformation or perceptions that don’t match reality?
  • Benchmark and track – it’s impossible to know if you’re shifting perceptions or making progress in conveying accurate information if you haven’t quickly benchmarked perceptions at the beginning of the crisis, and track throughout.
  • Communicate – if you’re not driving the narrative then it leaves open the possibility that others will, and they may not have the same intentions. Communicate transparently, factually, and regularly. Identify information needs from target stakeholder groups and work quickly to address those needs. Evolve messaging and communications as the crisis evolve.

Ultimately, as we think about the current public health scenario, it’s important that information from places is available, easy to access, updated regularly, and instills confidence in stakeholders that a place is managing this situation in the best way possible. Recovery will take time but reinforcing and strengthening stakeholder confidence will be critical to spurring that recovery.

Thank you, Jason.

Connect with Jason McGrath on LinkedIn. Find out more about Ipsos here or on reputation.ipsos.com.


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