The Magnetic North
Simon Anholt, leading authority on national image and the creator of the Good Country Index, has been a fan of Finland for a long time. Currently ranking 5th in the world in the Good Country Index, Finland has a tendency to punch well above its weight class in the image department, he says.
“Finland has the planet’s 45th biggest economy, 116th biggest population, 66th biggest land area and 15th strongest image,” Anholt runs down the list of key factors, adding that Finland trades at “a big premium” in the international community.
But what is a “good” country exactly? Anholt replies that a good country is one that successfully harmonizes its domestic and international responsibilities and does – for the most part – the right thing for its own people.
“At the same time, a good country does little harm – and actually even does good – to the rest of humanity and the rest of the planet.” According to Anholt, this is the gold standard of good governance in the 21st century and the best reputational asset a country can have.
Don’t worry, be happy?
As it turns out, being good might make you happy, too. For five years straight, starting in 2018, the UN World Happiness Report has singled out Finland as the happiest country on the planet. The latest, 2022 edition of the Happiness Report also noted that the five-time champion scores “significantly ahead” of the other countries in the top ten (which has a definite Nordic flavor with Denmark second, Iceland third, Sweden seventh and Norway eighth).
Simon Anholt, however, confesses to being of two minds about this kind of result. Yes, it confirms what people already believe: that Finland is kind of perfect. But is there a downside? “I worry a little about the positive image of the Nordic region in these very difficult times, and how sustainable it is in the longer term”, he says, believing that there may also be growing resentment for these perfect, self-satisfied, apparently untroubled countries.
“It’s so important therefore for Finland and its neighbors to concentrate more on how to use their fabulous images to make the world a better place for everyone, rather than on how to keep improving those images for their own benefit.”
What’s in it for me?
Anholt emphasizes that every single new thing that people in foreign countries learn about Finland in the coming years should be something that benefits them – preferably, in the most direct way possible. He feels that for Finland, the question should be: how can we use this amazingly positive image, and the influence it brings, to make the world a better place?
“I know it’s unnatural for a small and historically marginal country to think in these terms, but constantly obsessing about getting a better image is no longer the point for Finland. The image is already as good as the reality of the country deserves – perhaps even more than it deserves – so what really matters is what you do with that image,” he says.
A nation’s image, of course, plays a big role in global trade. From a business point of view, Finland’s reputation as a champion of both the sustainable and the digital seems pretty solid – and of the two, Anholt calls sustainability “absolutely key”.
“There is a huge risk for Finland’s international standing if it ever starts to fall behind the other leading countries in sustainability, because people tend to assume that it’s greener than most other countries, just because of everything else they know and believe and want to believe about it,” Anholt says. Therefore, Finland must continue to innovate visibly in this area or it will very quickly start to look like a has-been, he adds.
In Anholt’s mind, Finland is lucky enough to be regarded as one of the “hipster nations” – those rare countries hugely admired by younger generations worldwide. Be it progressive social policies, embrace of technology and sustainability, imaginative multilateralism or values, Finland is one of the countries with a message that resonates strongly with the young people out there.
“In this regard, I feel that Finland is in the same group with New Zealand, Costa Rica and Scotland – it’s no coincidence that three of these four have, or have recently had, female heads of government.”
Nevertheless, there’s no rest for the unwicked. Finland can’t relax, Anholt insists. “As long as Finland is clear about what is its ‘gift to the world’ – the reason why it exists beyond giving its population a reasonable standard of living – and continues to pursue this with courage and imagination, it will continue to exercise a benign influence on the international community,” he says.
“I can’t think of a better goal for any country to aspire to.”
The Good Country Index measures what countries contribute to the world outside their own borders, and what they take away: it’s their balance-sheet towards humanity and the planet.
The Nation Brands Index represents a unique collaboration combining the heritage and authority of Ipsos's three quarters of a century of experience in public affairs research with the expertise of Simon Anholt to offer a unique barometer of global opinion.
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Simon Anholt is acknowledged as the leading international authority on the images of countries, cities and regions and has pioneered a wide range of evidence-based techniques for the measurement and management of these critical national soft power assets. He first coined the term “nation brand” in the 1990s, although his approach to curating and enhancing place image is primarily based on policy and strategy rather than on communications: on deeds rather than words. His advisory, training, coaching and mentoring practice on this topic and in several other areas of good governance are in constant high demand around the world.