As 2009 winds down, the pundits are already beginning to tally what Barack Obama has achieved during his first year in office. Even his more well-intentioned detractors contend that, though he may have made a high-profile speech or two, the new U.S. president can boast of few concrete achievements in foreign policy. Obama himself accepted the Nobel Peace Prize as a "call to action," rather than a reward for his work, and gave himself only a "B+" grade during his recent interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Yet in one sense, Obama achieved more in the first 11 months of his presidency than his predecessor managed to in eight years. My research clearly shows that he has begun to restore America's good name, an intangible asset with highly tangible (read: lucrative) consequences. As head of state, Obama has boosted the value of "Brand America" by just over $2 trillion, up from $9.7 trillion in 2008 to $11.8 trillion this year. That means U.S. goods, services, people, and even the country's landscape are about 20 percent more enticing to the global market than they were in 2008.
I know this because I track the value of countries' brand images closely from year to year. Since 2005, my Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index (NBI) has regularly measured the international perceptions of 50 countries by polling between 20,000 and 40,000 people in 20 to 40 countries. We have asked them to detail their perceptions of other countries' human rights records, education systems, cultural lives, products, sporting prowess, and even kindness to strangers.
I originally launched the NBI because public perceptions of countries are critically important to their prosperity in a globalized world. What people believe about other places may be biased, utterly misconceived, weirdly distorted, unfairly negative, undeservedly positive, outdated, and ludicrously simplified. But it matters. Countries with a powerful, positive image find it easier to attract tourists, investors, donors, talent, respect, and the attention of international media and foreign governments. They are more successful in exporting their products, services, ideas, culture, and people to the world. Countries with weak or negative images, by contrast, find these transactions more difficult and expensive. None of this was captured by GDP, economic productivity, or any host of other economic measures -- a hole that the index was meant to fill.
Value of Brand America (in trillions of dollars)
But I also wanted to test my hypothesis that national images are very stable. Country images are not like public opinion, which can fluctuate literally from day to day. People are reluctant to change their minds about other countries, partly because they don't think about them very often or very deeply, and partly because countries' images are deeply ingrained in the culture of the population that holds them. Chinese views of Japan, for example, are really part of the Chinese culture, and vice versa.
Indeed, hardly any country's image has altered more than 1 or 2 percent since the NBI was launched. Perceptions about a given place remained more or less constant even as it was hit by political and economic upheaval, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. Nor did the countless, ruinously expensive publicity campaigns optimistically designed to "brand" countries push up any ratings for the better.
There have been just two exceptions to this remarkable inertia: Denmark in 2006 and the United States today.
Following the publication in 2006 of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, Denmark's image collapsed in Muslim countries in the survey. In Egypt, for example, Denmark had typically been ranked around 15th in most categories, with a high ranking of seventh for its governance. Following the cartoons' publication, both its governance and overall rankings dropped to 35th out of the 39 countries then included in the study. It has still not recovered its prestige today. The reason was clear: Unlike most major news events that take place in other countries, which won't strike people as especially relevant and consequently won't affect their beliefs about that country, the cartoons were personal. Many Muslims felt that "Denmark" had deliberately reached out to offend them, and their views of that country changed as a result.
The second exception occurred this year and was even more dramatic. The United States, which had languished around seventh place in my index since 2005, shot up to first place, and not just in the perceptions of one or two countries. For a sample representing some 60 percent of the world's population and 77 percent of its economy, America is suddenly the most admired country on Earth.
First is, I believe, the United States' natural position. It happens that since 2005 (and no doubt before), a dark phase in America's international relations had held it in an unnaturally low spot on the list. Obama's election "released" the country, returning it to its usual position as the world's most admired country. (Interestingly, since the survey was launched, the United States has never departed from first place in the eyes of the Muslim respondents surveyed).
Closer analysis of the data shows that much of the boost comes from improved international opinion of the American people themselves. After the re-election of George W. Bush to a second term, I began to record falling scores not just for U.S. foreign policy but also for U.S. people, culture, products, and even -- by a delightfully illogical extension -- the U.S. landscape. Now, the world appears to have absolved Americans of any perceived sin, having elected the "right" president. Even the country's rolling hills and city skylines, it seems, are fully restored to their former grandeur in the eyes of the world.
Redemption of the brand means more than just the warm and fuzzy feeling one gets when thinking about the United States. By combining the NBI data with a range of economic and industrial statistics, it is possible to hazard a brand valuation for a country, much as corporations value their brands. Working with Brand Finance, a consultancy that specializes in valuing the intangible assets of corporations, we estimate that the value of "Brand America" has jumped from $9.7 trillion in 2008 to $11.8 trillion today. Even more remarkably, that increase comes even as the global recession has seen U.S. GDP growth decline 2.3 percentage points over the last year. That number is value that Obama has added to the U.S. economy simply by taking office and making the right speeches.
So to those who say Obama has achieved little, my research suggests otherwise. His mere presence has begun to restore the United States to a position of respect and credibility -- and consequently, of influence -- that no amount of political, economic, or military might could muster. And it is an absolutely necessary achievement if Washington is to wield any moral authority in the world. In at least one of his responsibilities as head of state, the sacred responsibility of upholding the good name of his country, Obama has had a pretty good first year.