Place Rankings and Perception Surveys: How Credible, How Useful?

A frequent question asked by those in charge of developing and managing the brand of their city, region or country is whether to trust rankings and indices measuring the economic performance, brand strength or reputation of places, and how useful those really are.

We asked our panel of place branding specialists. Below are their responses (highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research or as speakers).

Our key takeaways:

  • Questioning or understanding the methodology behind rankings is important. Every ranking comes with its own limitations, which means that ideally, we take into consideration different studies for determining place image or measuring branding success.
  • The most credible rankings are those produced by reputable organizations, and which are backed by robust research (which is time-consuming and expensive).
  • Favorable place (brand) rankings can help secure bigger budgets for current or forthcoming place branding projects.
  • Most rankings are not comprehensive and limited to economic indicators. More and more important for investors and skilled workers are intangible features of a place, like the local values, identities, and cultural aspects. Those are difficult to measure and to capture in a ranking.

Ed Burghard panel

Ed Burghard

The Burghard Group

Like any market research study, global rankings are only as good as the methodology used to collect the data. Too often, people fail to understand the limits of that methodology and misrepresent their findings. My counsel is, global rankings (and more importantly changes in ranking) are simply an aid to judgment.

It is important to understand why your location ranks as it does and then translate that answer into what changes may be worth considering in your location’s strategic plan. Too often I see positive rankings used to support pre-determined actions location leaders want to take, and negative rankings get ignored.

I also rarely see decision-makers try and reconcile the results of different ranking reports to understand the underlying drivers. The value of surveys like the Good Country Index is totally dependent on how you view the basis for comparison.

Bottom line? If you are going to use any survey as a success measure, it is incumbent on you to understand the limitations of the data and not draw conclusions beyond what the data can support.

Efe Sevin

Researcher profile

Perception surveys are relatively more useful in measurement than global rankings, but neither is really worth the resources spent. Global rankings standardize places to be able to rank them. But how can one rank South Korea’s success in technology and India’s accomplishments in space policy? How can we compare the Swiss mountains to the Greek beaches?

Perception surveys are based on designed data that solely show individuals’ reactions to questions they receive. Each place should come up with its measurement process, relying on organic data and big data. We have access to people’s unprompted views and ideas on social media. We have access to travel patterns, financial transactions, planning changes among many other datasets. Places should look at the changes over time – changes in how people view them through organic data and changes in behavior through big data analyses.

Gunter Soydanbay

Günter Soydanbay

Soydanbay Consulting / Speaker

Rankings and perception surveys are useful, but not for measuring success. For starters, to measure success, we must first have a universal success metric, which we don’t. Success might mean attracting more visitors for a place, whereas for the other, attracting fewer visitors.

Psychologists will point out that asking someone what they think about other people reveals much about their own personality. Likewise, rankings may tell you a great deal about the ranker; they tell you nothing about the ranked.

We tend to think that we believe what we measure, but in reality, we measure what we believe. And history shows that humankind is ineffective in measuring intangibles and understanding what really matters. Instead, rankers measure practical things, primarily digital and economic data.

So, what use do global rankings and perception surveys serve? First, they keep the conversation alive. Second, they each demonstrate a piece of a fractal truth.

Heather Skinner

Heather Skinner

Researcher profile

Place branding engenders unhealthy and unsustainable competitiveness between places. Not all places are in a position to compete in the global marketplace.

Another problem with global rankings is that they tend to focus on economic indicators, often at the expense of other indicators of success.

However, when comparing global rankings year by year, it is not just economic performance, but also economic growth that remains a key strategic focus for many places. Even quality of life is linked to economic improvement and is thus based on growth in economic terms only. Economic growth then becomes the required mandate of all those charged with the strategic management, marketing, and branding of places, which has been criticized when considering issues of sustainability.

Hjörtur Smárason

Hjörtur Smárason

Scope Communications / Speaker

Surveys are definitely one way to measure the impact and success of your brand. The best way to do it though is to work with your own survey where you measure the strength and context of your brand, both the current one and the one you want to build. That way you can see how the words you want people to connect to your place surface and become closer to being the first word or context your place is put in.

Jeannette Hanna panel

Jeannette Hanna

Trajectory Brand Consultants / Speaker profile

They are not great measures of success on their own. What matters is how people behave – the talent, visitors, investors and more who actively choose a place. The people, resources, and support you attract are the most important metrics. However, good rankings are certainly nice-to-have marketing tools!

Joao Freire

Joao Freire

Researcher profile

Different global rankings measure different aspects of a place brand. This is why place brands have distinct results in each global ranking. The key to understanding a ranking is to know what is being measured. If what is being measured is clear then global rankings can be quite useful, especially if the measurement is taken on a yearly basis.

Juan Carlos Belloso panel

Juan Carlos Belloso

Speaker profile

Rankings and perception surveys can help to understand where our place is today and how it has evolved over time. Also, to set targets and define strategies for the future. In some cases, they can influence behavior and decision-making.

However, we must clearly understand what kind of rankings and perception surveys or indexes they are, who has conducted them, how credible and independent are they, what do they measure (reality or perception) and what influence can they have. Also, we need to identify which ones are appropriate for us and set a strategy on how we can use them. There are so many rankings and indexes out there and we also need to have a strategic approach to this.

Magdalena Florek

Magdalena Florek

Rankings are, foremost, in relation to other entities. As such, they can serve mainly as a point of comparison and can be useful in understanding the situation in a competitive context.

Of course, depending on the methodology, the usefulness of various rankings may vary, while some are altogether useless. The thing is, however, that rankings attract attention as they convey a simple message for the audience, and as such cannot be ignored (as is often the case when they are unfavorable). Rankings (and the way they are constructed) still help to realize certain issues and these are worth taking a closer look and analyzing in the brand context.

Perception surveys are usually more focused and precise; this is because, by definition, they refer directly to the way in which places or place brands are perceived. As, to a large extent, brands are about perception, these surveys deliver important information on how to manage a place brand. However, as it frequently happens, they are based on declarations and need to be supplemented by other sources.

Robert Govers panel

Robert Govers

Independent advisor / Speaker / Researcher

Yes, of course, if you spend taxpayers’ money for image orchestration or the reputation of your community impacts your economic performance (which it usually does), you want to find out how you are doing. It is complex and requires effort and determination, because, for one thing, you should only believe those rankings and survey providers whose methods you have scrutinized for validity and reliability.

Sebastian Zenker panel

Sebastian Zenker

Researcher profile

Global rankings are important for practitioners (as they use them for showing success or argue for the need for improvement). Academically, they are (most of the time) very questionable and I would not rely on them. One of the problems is the non-transparent criteria used, the internal weight of factors and the often missing comparability (as mostly only larger cities are involved and as it is questionable – Tokyo, New York or Munich are real competitors – and not comparable with potential smaller places within one region).

Perception studies, however are an inevitable source in place branding – as the most important part of a place brand (a network of associations in the mind of the consumer). They are currently more or less the only way to “look inside the mind” of consumers (e.g., residents, investors, visitors). This means they are a relevant starting point for branding strategies and for measuring the success of them. However, they are hard to compare (between places and over time).

Todd Babiak, place branding panel

Todd Babiak

Speaker profile

They can be useful, of course, but I think we all know we can make data say just about anything. And participating in these initiatives comes at a cost. In place branding, if we ask partners who benefit from a powerful brand to give us their specific measures of success, and we chase these metrics together, it allows us to measure success (and failure) in a deeper (and scarier) way.

Tom Buncle

Tom Buncle

Yellow Railroad Consulting / Speaker profile

Some are. Others aren’t. The ones that are credible are those devised by reputable organizations, which are backed by robust research. Those that appear, often at the beginning of each year in a range of media as unevidenced PR fluff, are generally no more than ‘listicles’. But tourism boards love them!

Adam Mikołajczyk

I recommend reading any external research or ranking on methodology. This is where the answer to the question “can you believe it?” is usually hidden. I know from practice that global and sector rankings are a good background and often a motivation to do our own research and analysis.

The problem is that there are a few such rankings with convincing methodology and implemented over a longer period. And this is a key issue, to be able to track the position of our brand in the background. However, nothing can replace our own research, including tracking ones, on brand perception.

A completely different question is whether perception issues are the best indicator of the success of a territorial brand today?

Andrea Lucarelli

The big question for me is if rankings and surveys measure something, like success, or rather they project the idea that something is possible to be measured. I think they are doing the second: they construct a collective imaginary which makes us believe we can measure something. Thus in short, my answer is no.

Aparna Sharma

From the perspective of place branding and for starters, global ranking and perception surveys can help provide useful pointers and determinants essential for place branding to begin developing a ground strategy. For those that may be more evolved in their place brand strategy, a deeper look at the top, mid and lower brackets could provide some insights for further refining their place brand tools and matrix.

There would be less or little value derived in being obsessed with numbers and rankings, should the only end goal be to move up the pecking order, which probably today is easier to achieve through a studied analysis of indices and coordinates that go into deciding rankings.

Buck Song Koh

Reputable indices should all be taken seriously. The power they have to shape opinion is undeniable on people without first-hand experience. An authentic, unbiased third-party endorsement is the highest recommendation. It is also a valuable critique, to be ignored at a country’s own cost. It’s like genuine user reviews on TripAdvisor.

Businesses base their relocation and investment decisions on such data. Individuals, especially those who have never visited a place, would also take such ratings into account to decide whether to visit or move.

Cecilia Cassinger

Global rankings provide an easy overview of how places perform in relation to each other, but should be treated with caution. Success is generally difficult to measure since its meanings differ over time and across contexts. I, foremost see place branding as a holistic practice for accomplishing bolder (and better) ways of thinking about and making places.

By contrast, rankings draw attention to a set of selected indicators, while neglecting other equally important dimensions of a place. Another way of understanding the performance of places is by listening to stories by the people who live and work there. Successful place brands, as I see it, are anchored in identities and values of local communities, which are difficult to capture through measurement.

Gary Warnaby

Rankings and league tables are an (unfortunate?) fact of contemporary life. We are asked to rate everything, from our taxi drivers and online sellers, to our university education.

In many ways, places are no different (TripAdvisor), and as a consequence, the scope of the inherent competition between places that have existed for a long time (i.e. for residents, tourists, inward investment, etc.) has expanded into a variety of different areas.

A by-product of the viewpoint that ‘what gets measured, gets managed’ is that it may unduly influence and skew activities, including those of place branders. Here, a key issue is that rankings and league tables are essentially used to compare and as such, we must ask:

  • On what basis is this comparison being made? 
  • Is it valid and fair? 
  • Is the methodology of creating the league tables robust? 
  • Is there a hidden agenda for those organisations and bodies who develop these league tables?

The existence of such rankings and league tables can lead to the subjects of them attempting to ‘game’ the system. Ultimately, does this serve any useful purpose for anyone, especially when it relates to the places where people live and work?

Hila Oren

Global rankings and surveys are useful to measure people’s perception of success, not necessarily to measure success itself. While these rankings are comprised of quantitative data and are reflective of a certain reality, their ability to capture the full picture of a place is limited.

Nevertheless, people view them as credible. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge their impact and to leverage the fact that they not only reflect perceptions of success but also fuel and reinforce those perceptions which, if you have a positive ranking or trend, can represent a form of success too.

Hong Fan

I think they are useful, as they can lead governments and stakeholders to improve their cities according to the dimensions and index. However, these rankings and surveys seem to be limited in research data and they cannot cover all factors which are more or less important and applicable to the places in various social and cultural contexts.

Inga Hlin Palsdottir

Global rankings and perceptions surveys can be very useful and important for measuring success both for the place and benchmarking with other places. However, unfortunately, most of them have not been consistent enough through the years, to be able to rely on them to measure success and compare between places, or to use them as a parameter in a long-term perspective. I believe that this is changing, but it is always worth it for places to make their own perception surveys that they can do consistently through at least a decade.

One way is to put up a benchmarking framework, for indexes, rankings and perceptions for the place that is important to be able to measure the place branding strategy. This will give the big picture, without relying on just one parameter or having to worry about one falling out – or just relying on comparison to other places.

Jeremy Tamanini

Global rankings and perception surveys both produce great headlines but are often misinterpreted due to a lack of understanding of their underlying methodologies. In the case of global rankings, they are referencing datasets and using methods for aggregating them that may vary considerably and have a large impact on results. Or, perhaps, they are attempting to measure a new topic where limited data exists, leading to the necessity of referencing datasets that aren’t very descriptive of the topics at hand.

The same issue can arise with perception surveys, where the respondents in the survey may introduce bias to the results. So, when one does use these tools as the basis for key performance indicators (KPIs) or other ways of measuring success, a thorough review of these underlying issues must be conducted.

Given the proliferation of rankings and surveys over the past decade, another approach is to look at a variety of them measuring the same general topic to see where results may diverge significantly. But even in this case, the analysis is complicated by the fact that “results” are often expressed differently with different underlying methodologies, making “apples to apples” comparisons problematic.

Jordi de San Eugenio Vela

In my view, global rankings and perception surveys could provide some valuable insights to make decisions, or to evaluate the trends directly related to the development of a global strategy for places.

We’re living in a society where it seems mandatory to create rankings to define the value of watches, places, cars or perfume. However, I want to claim the need to interpret these rankings through a global view, as something that can lead us to improve our practices on place branding.

José Pablo Arango

If they are understood as they really are, they are very useful, insofar as they use the same methodology and information to measure people’s perceptions of places. Without very useful to understand the relative position of a place with its references and competitors and measure the evolution of perception. I don’t think they serve to make timely decisions about the strategy but as a long-term indicator.

Marta Hereźniak

Global rankings are probably the most widely recognized instruments of assessing a place’s position on the perceptual map of the world. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that rankings have several limitations and thus should not be treated as the sole source of knowledge for measuring the success of place branding.

Firstly, rankings are not for every place. They are the most appropriate for countries/cities/ regions which already enjoy recognition and represent certain associations in the minds of international public opinion.

Secondly, while rankings are great when it comes to benchmarking and comparisons, they don’t reveal much about the reasons behind the success/ failure of brand strategies of particular places. That is because they address neither particularities nor strategic objectives of places.

Finally, such rankings overlook the internal effects of branding, focusing mostly on external perceptions. For these reasons, places wishing to measure success should apply a variety of measurement methods, best suited to their specificity, objectives, and aspirations.

Rebecca Smith

Global rankings are one of the few measures we have available to reassure officials we’re heading in the right direction. However, evidencing the link between the work we do and the results is fraught. Analysts and economists seem to have a built-in mistrust of any surveys they haven’t interrogated deeply themselves. So focusing on these results too much can lead to a frustrating conversation about the validity of a particular survey or ranking. This leads to the inevitable question “who do we believe?”.

The short answer, in my opinion, is “use them all” and take what you need from each one. Rather than focusing on the ranking, it’s the insights within the surveys that provide the richness to help you determine if you’re achieving your goals as a nation.

Sonya Hanna

The use of rankings and perception surveys is ‘arguably’ beneficial from a resource point of view and for stakeholder engagement.

In circumstances where a successful outcome is the prerequisite for the provision of (more) resources, the use of rankings and perception surveys makes it easier to:

  • communicate with governing bodies, especially in relation to financial resources
  • foster buy-in from the local community

The use of rankings and/or perceptions surveys would also allow for longitudinal comparisons that (may) legitimize the necessity for place branding. There is, however, the issue of bias and also how do we define ‘local’ success? Not all places are defined as global cities and countries.

Previous questions answered by the panel here.

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