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The 15 Leading Country Brands Of The Future

The United States and Europe might dominate people’s perceptions of the world’s best nations right now, but a new crop of countries is on the rise.

We spend a lot of time looking at country rankings—everything from the best places in the world to be a woman to the worst countries for food security. These realities on the ground all feed into overall perception—or branding—of countries. If perception is favorable, that can translate into investments as well as commercial and economic development. And that, if done right, can lead to better lives for all citizens.

For the past eight years, international brand and design consultancy FutureBrand has released the Country Brand Index (CBI), an in-depth study of country brands and perceptions that surveys 3,600 business and leisure travelers across 18 countries as well as selected experts. The survey takes into account a number of "image attributions," including perceptions of political freedom, environmental friendliness, food, the investment climate, and safety.

This year, the study came with a twist. In addition to looking at the top country brands—a list filled with the usual suspects, like Switzerland, Japan, the U.S., and Germany—FutureBrand created a new list. The Future 15 features countries on the rise, countries that are polishing their brands and emerging across six key future drivers: governance (the government’s ability to protect people, having a solid legal framework), investment, human capital (strength, productivity, health, and happiness of citizens), growth, sustainability (financial management, resource dependence, and sticking to international norms), and the ever-elusive influence (economic, political, and cultural).

The top-ranked country in the Future 15, the United Arab Emirates (see full list in the right hand image), is benefiting from increasingly positive perceptions about its financial stability, educational system, overall happiness of its citizens, and commitment to growth through investments in infrastructure and research and development. "There’s lots of inward investment, and people around the world are starting to see that quality of life is good," says Daniel Rosentreter, the chief strategy officer of North America at FutureBrand.

The UAE is large and wealthy enough that it could soon enter the top 20 country brands list (it’s currently at number 23). But it needs to be careful: The country’s unbalanced wealth investment—see Dubai and Abu Dhabi—set it back.

Chile, the second-ranked country, is admired as a model in the region for its lack of corruption and solid infrastructure. But it too has weaknesses: reliance on its natural resources (like copper) and a relatively small population.

Somewhat surprisingly, Kazakhstan made it into the top 15, after a successful takeover of the country brand by Sacha Baron Cohen and his character Borat, a clueless fake Kazakh journalist. "That woke the country up. If you want to be competitive, you have to put effort in managing your country brand or other people will manage it for you," says Christopher Nurko, Global Chairman of FutureBrand Worldwide (doing something about the country’s dictator’s horrible human rights and press freedom record might help, too).

And while countries like India and China certainly deserve to be in the Future 15, they’ll have trouble ascending to the top without addressing perceptions (and realities) of human rights, political corruption, and quality of life issues.

You might notice that African countries are conspicuously absent on both the top 25 and Future 15 lists. Many African countries have resources (agricultural and otherwise) as well as potential for growth. The problem comes from lingering—often outdated—perceptions of corruption, disease, and war. Most people associate Rwanda with the genocide in 1994 that killed approximately 800,000 people—not its strength as a country. This perception persists even though the country today is experiencing real economic growth and significant reductions in poverty. "It’s an issue of communicating and aligning that vision," says Nurko. That these issues don’t cling to non-African countries with bad records and leadership (ahem, Kazakhstan) is something that should make the 3,600 business and leisure travelers take a long look in the mirror.

Heavyweights with entrenched positive perceptions (most of the top 10 countries) probably won’t fall off the top 25 list anytime soon. But there is still room for other countries, large and small, to wiggle their way in with a little work—most of which involves treating their citizens and the environment better. Sounds like a plan.