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Tops in Africa, perceived as a mover


Tops in Africa, perceived as a mover

In addition to measuring the value of brands from South Africa, we can also assess the strength of Brand South Africa itself. The Best Countries ranking does exactly that, comparing perceptions of countries around the world held by a broad spectrum of consumers. Developed by WPP’s Y&R BAV Group, it surveys 21,000 people across 36 countries to understand how a nation’s policies, politics, and people are affecting its perceived standing in the world. It then ranks countries against a series of attributes—such as education, culture, and openness to business—all of which have the potential to drive trade, travel, and investment. 

While survey data is always valuable, interpreting it in with a country like South Africa can be a challenge. Survey respondents are often less familiar with smaller countries that aren’t integrated into a major market, like the EU. As a result, places like SA tend to make headlines only for extreme events, like natural disasters or spectacular scandals—and almost never for good news. Outside of South Africa, for example, you’ll never hear is that it is one of the most charitable nations, with nearly 9 in 10 South Africans doing something for charity each year. And South African brands tend to be much more active in social justice issues than in other countries (see Eloise Kelly’s survey of SA brand activism in the thought leadership section of this report for more details).

As a result, survey data and reality often diverge, and those living in South Africa may find outsiders’ perceptions jarring. A good example in this year’s data is that the job market is not doing well in the country, a fact that is having a major impact on brands. Yet in the rankings on that measure SA rose four spots to a respectable 37, possibly reflecting international familiarity with the IT job market in Cape Town. More amusingly, the country fell 11 spots in its ranking for “sexy,” although it’s hard to imagine South Africans lost that much sexiness in a single year.

Of course, the ranking measures perception not reality—and perceptions are an indication of how brands from South Africa will be received by consumers and businesses outside of it. They give marketers an outside-in look on a country’s brand, which can be useful both to understand how to lean into the strengths of the country, as well as where they can work to change perceptions.

Given the unfamiliarity of global citizens with South Africa, it’s also probably better to look at where SA over-indexes and under-indexes on its overall scores, rather than absolute rankings. The outliers are likely areas where people have a strong opinion on the country, while measures like “has great food” or “manufacturing costs” are probably less reliable as even most people outside of SA’s neighborhood would likely not have an informed opinion on them.

South Africa by the numbers

Overall, as might be imagined, South Africa ranks slightly above the middle of all nations, at #37 out of 80, up a respectable 2 spots from last year. This makes it the top African nation, 3 spots ahead of Egypt at #40. The ranking puts it in a group of peers that include Mexico (#35), Croatia (#36), Malaysia (#38) and Vietnam (#39).

South Africa outpaces its own rankings in a few broad areas. First, it is seen as a good place for adventure (#27). In truth, that ranking probably undersells it. Most South Africans would likely consider the country higher on this measure, not least for its diverse geography, national parks, spectacular wildlife, and laid back, outdoor lifestyle. Niche communities around the world—surfing and scuba diving in particular—are, of course, well aware of SA’s spectacular outdoor offerings.

One place where global and South African opinions converge is sports, where the country is rated #5 in terms of athletic talent. Indeed, sports are much more important to South Africa than they are to most countries. The Springboks’ victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which SA also hosted, was a seminal event that helped bring the divided country together under Nelson Mandela. South Africa also played host to soccer’s (yes, it is “soccer” in South Africa) 2010 FIFA World Cup.

The country has produced countless sports legends, including Gary Player, Francois Pienaar, Chad Le Clos, and Jacques Kallis (if you’re not from a country replete with batsmen and bowlers, he’s arguably the best cricketer who ever lived). Currently, SA is rallying in a remarkable way behind Caster Semenya, an Olympic medal-winning runner who has faced discrimination over her gender status.

South Africa also scores quite highly on various measures of difference—which offers a crucial opening for brands. It excels in uniqueness (#9) and distinctiveness (#13), and scores well in difference (#22) and dynamism (#23). All this contributes to a #10 ranking in Movers, which shows that people outside South Africa think the country has the potential to unlock great growth in the near future. The real implications for brands may be less grand—though the measure does show that they can emphasize their South African-ness outside the country.

An odd one is that the country’s ranking for “cares about the environment” leaped 25 ranks to reach #28. This is likely due to efforts of Cape Town residents, who dropped their water usage by 60 percent in the face of a crippling drought. For what it’s worth, on most metrics, South Africa is neither here nor there when it comes to the environment.        

Not surprisingly given recent headlines, the country fares poorly on both crime and a range of metrics measuring transparency and corruption. Particularly alarming, however, is that it fell an astonishing 43 places for business transparency, which now matches its ranking for government transparency. Apparently global consumers and business leaders had been mentally separating South African businesses and the government, but the drumbeat of bad news has caused opinions on both to converge. This is a metric that needs to improve under the country’s new leadership.

Last but not least, the country comes in at #17 for “pleasant climate.” While this is hardly a critical metric and would certainly be the envy of Sweden or the UK, it is a scandalously low ranking for South Africa, a clear miscarriage of justice, as the country easily has the best weather in the world.

The value of strong national brand attributes

Impressions of a country matter immensely to brands because the feelings people have about a place are projected on to the brands that come from there. This, in turn, affects what people are likely to buy, and how much they’re willing to pay for it.

We certainly will pay more for wine and cheese from France than we do, in general, from Portugal or Chile. Likewise, if a new technology product comes from Silicon Valley, we’re more open to its consideration and purchase. We travel to have fun in Brazil and to soak up food and culture from Italy. Each country’s brand influences a product’s perception, especially if it is new or unusual to us.

And just as countries perform an ambassadorial role for the brands they’re home to, brands also perform the same role for their home country. Samsung has helped reshape international views about South Korea, for instance, Sony has done the same for Japan and Japanese products. There’s a reason companies like Nando’s can thrive using a distinctive South African identity (though the yummy chicken doesn’t hurt either).

How Do We Measure a Country?

The Best Countries ranking incorporates the views of more than 21,000 individuals surveyed in 36 countries in four regions: the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East and Africa. These people included a high proportion of “informed elites,” or college-educated people who keep up with current affairs, along with business decision makers and members of the general public.

Respondents are asked about the 80 countries that feature in the ranking; between them, these countries account for about 95 percent of global Gross Domestic Product, and represent more than 80 percent of the world’s population.

People surveyed for Best Countries are asked how closely they associate 65 attributes with a range of countries. These attributes are then grouped into eight categories, which are used to calculate the Best Countries ranking:

The 8 elements of a country’s brand

Adventure: a country is seen as friendly, fun, has a pleasant climate, and is scenic or sexy.

Citizenship: it cares about human rights, the environment, gender equality, is progressive, has religious freedom, respects property rights, is trustworthy, and political power is well distributed.

Cultural influence: it is culturally significant in terms of entertainment, its people are fashionable and happy, it has an influential culture, is modern, prestigious and trendy.

Entrepreneurship: it is connected to the rest of the world, has an educated population, is entrepreneurial, innovative, and provides easy access to capital. There is a skilled labor force, technological expertise, transparent business

practices, well-developed infrastructure, and a well-developed legal framework.

Heritage: the country is culturally accessible, has a rich history, has great food, and many cultural attractions.

Open for business: manufacturing is inexpensive, there’s a lack of corruption, the country has a favorable tax environment, and transparent government practices.

Power: it is a leader, is economically and politically influential, has strong international alliances and a strong military.

Quality of life: there’s a good job market, affordable living costs, it’s economically and politically stable, family-friendly, safe, has good income equality and well-developed public education and health systems.

Each of the eight measures is given a weighting in its contribution to the total score for each country, as follows.

Switzerland tops the ranking as it is highly regarded for its citizenship, openness for business, and for providing an environment that encourages entrepreneurship. It offers its citizens a high quality of life and is quite culturally influential, with many more Nobel prize winners per capita than most nations. Japan is seen as tops for entrepreneurship.  Canada is best for quality of life, while Germany has a similar Best Countries profile to the UK, though Germany is stronger on entrepreneurship. The United States scores as the most powerful nation, but its low rating as open for business, presumably driven by its wrangling on trade and harsher immigration policies, drags it down in the rankings.

Being the best they can be

Overall, South Africa has a respectable if not spectacular national brand. Weighed down by perceptions of crime and corruption, it scores brightly on cultural measures and above all on its potential. People around the world would likely welcome South African brands and have high expectations of them. Companies that embrace the following attributes should do well with international consumers.

Different, but in a good way

Sometimes it’s good to be different. International consumers across a wide range attributes find South Africa to be a different, distinct, and entirely unique country. Brands like Nando’s do very well by playing up their uniqueness with bright colors, South African art, and an unusual product line. Other South African brands could do well to follow its lead onto the international stage, leaning into to the diverse heritage of the country.


One of the things that the international consumer gets exactly right is SA’s mania for sport. Whether it’s golf, running, swimming, soccer, rugby, or cricket, international sports stars have carried the perception of South African athletic prowess to the far corners of the earth. Reflecting a nation’s passion is always a good idea when looking to market a brand beyond your borders, and anything to do with athletics is sure to ring true in an international consumer’s mind. Discovery made a bold and intelligent statement by supporting Caster Semenya, when less confident brands would have stayed away.

South Africa first

An interesting finding from a different BAV survey is that SA ranks 12th for wine consumed in the world, but is 36th in perception as a wine country. This is likely due in part because they rarely distinguish themselves in terms of brand and identity from other wine-producing region. Given the positive global perceptions of places like Cape Town, which is routinely voted one of the world’s best cities to live in, leaning into the identity of South Africa as a country of origin is never a bad thing when appearing on the world stage.


SA’s ranking for friendliness leaped 11 places in 2019. This should not be surprising. In their own neighborhood, South Africans have a well-deserved reputation for being open and friendly. Brands that emphasize this trait will come off as genuine—which should make it easier for them to build strong relationships with consumers.

About Best Countries

Best Countries was developed by WPP’s Y&R BAV Group, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, with U.S. News & World Report. The ranking is revealed each year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the world’s largest gathering of global leaders and heads of industry and influence. For more detail visit: