Rankings and league tables have become a component of contemporary life. We now rate everything, from taxi drivers to online sellers to our university education. It seems we somehow feel that we have to create rankings to define the value of watches, cars or perfume. But how important are rankings and indices in the context of places? How useful are they for those professionals involved with developing, managing or monitoring the image and positioning of a city or country?

Rankings matter because…


Singapore-based author, writer and strategic advisor Buck Song Koh suggests that reputable rankings and indices should be taken seriously, as the power they have to influence public opinion is undeniable, especially where people have no first-hand experience of a place. He adds that businesses base their relocation and investment decisions on such data, and so do individuals when deciding where to work or move. Community leaders and place marketers can benefit from rankings in several ways. For one, rankings can provide valuable insights into a place’s current performance and image, which can be used to make strategic decisions. They can encourage bolder and better ways of thinking about places and their development, finds associate professor Cecilia Cassinger of Lund University in Sweden. As Professor Hong Fan of Tsinghua University in Beijing stresses, rankings can lead governments and stakeholders to improve their cities according to the dimensions covered by a ranking or index. And rankings can help us understand how a place has evolved, or changed, over time – its growth trajectory – as Barcelona-based place branding advisor Juan Carlos Belloso points out. 

Long-time director at Promote Iceland Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir finds the ability to compare your own place with others the most useful feature of global rankings and perception surveys. This stance is seconded by Copenhagen-based strategic communications advisor Hjörtur Smárason and former head of Brand Colombia, José Pablo Arango. Rebecca Smith, director of The New Zealand Story, finds global rankings to be one of the few measures available to reassure officials that a city or country is heading in the right direction. As communication tools, Jeremy Tamanini of Dual Citizens points out that global rankings and perception surveys can produce great headlines. As such, they are “nice-to-have marketing tools”, as Jeannette Hanna of Trajectory Brand Consultants in Canada puts it. Another important aspect in terms of the usefulness – if not vital importance – of place (brand) rankings is that they can be crucial for acquiring financial resources from the government and foster buy-in from the local community, adds Sonya Hanna, researcher at Bangor University in Wales.

Rankings have to be used with caution because…

Notwithstanding their potential usefulness and importance, we need to use rankings with caution. This is the overarching opinion of the leading thinkers in the field who participated in the recent Place Brand Observer panel session on the topic.

To begin with, the very idea of standardising places to be able to rank them might be regarded as questionable. “How can one rank and compare South Korea’s success in technology and India’s accomplishments in space policy? How can we compare the Swiss mountains to the Greek beaches?” asks US-based place branding researcher Efe Sevin. Sebastian Zenker of Copenhagen Business School concurs, pointing out that it is impractical to pitch cosmopolitan behemoths like Tokyo, New York or Munich against smaller places. Ms Hanna finds rankings biased, as not all the places are equivalent or can be considered global cities and countries. Likewise, University of Lund researcher Andrea Lucarelli finds it difficult to accept the idea that something like a city or country can or should be measured and ranked in the first place. Because cities and countries begin their growth story from different starting points, Heather Skinner of the UK’s Institute of Place Management fears that such comparisons engender unhealthy and unsustainable competitiveness between places. Marta Hereźniak of Lodz University echoes this saying: “Rankings are not for every place and they are the most appropriate for countries, cities and regions which already enjoy recognition and represent certain associations in the minds of international public opinion.” 

What is more, investors and skilled workers find the intangible features of a city more and more important, like the local values, identities and cultural aspects. Those are difficult to measure and to capture in rankings, which tend to put too much focus on economic data. The result: they risk missing out on assets of a place which make it authentic, unique and desirable (or not), finds Montreal-based consultant Günter Soydanbay. Indeed, rankings and surveys seem obsessed with economic indicators, finds Ms Skinner. Using those as the cornerstones of growth leads to sustainability issues, she notes, which we can already witness all around the world. Even the economic data which are measured, hardly capture the full picture of a place and thus reflect only a certain reality, reports Hila Oren, who leads the Tel Aviv Foundation. Ms Fan finds that rankings which work with ‘hard’ data can hardly ever cover all the factors which may be deemed important by places in various social and cultural contexts. Lack of consistency in methodology over time makes it difficult to rely on rankings over a longer period, finds Adam Mikołajczyk, founder and CEO of BestPlace, the European Place Marketing Institute in Poland. Non-transparent criteria used, such as the internal weight of factors, mean that most rankings would not survive academic scrutiny, warns Mr Zenker.

Several of our panelists recommend perception surveys as a more useful tool, as they refer directly to the way in which places or place brands are perceived. Perception surveys are the only way to ‘look inside the mind’ of consumers. This means they are a relevant starting point for branding strategies and for measuring their success. That said, the feeling is that any findings from such surveys need to be supplemented by other data sources. Background knowledge and a good idea about context come in handy in this regard.

Ohio-based Ed Burghard, a veteran marketer with Proctor & Gamble and initiator of the Strengthening Brand America project, reminds us: “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.” He finds that too often people fail to understand the limits of the methodology and misrepresent their findings.

The ‘what gets measured, gets managed’ viewpoint that is commonly exhibited may unduly influence and skew activities, including those of place branders, points out Gary Warnaby, marketing professor at Manchester Metropolitan University. Todd Babiak, who leads the Brand Tasmania team in Australia, sums it up nicely, remarking: “We can make data say just about anything.”

Better do it yourself?

When there are valid doubts arising from the methodology, having an independent unbiased investigation might be more useful for place branding and marketing pros. Mr Mikołajczyk finds that nothing can replace your own research, including on brand perception. Ms Cassinger recommends listening to the stories of the people who live and work in a place, as a way to understanding their performance, because “successful place brands are anchored in identities and values of local communities, which are difficult to capture”. Social media today is an ocean of unprompted views and ideas, with information on travel patterns, financial transactions among many other datasets. Through big data analysis, Mr Sevin suggests that each place come up with its measurement process, relying on organic social media data. And even the good old surveys are never out of fashion. Mr Smárason recommends them to measure the impact and success of a brand, as does Ms Pálsdóttir, who believes that it is always worth it for places to make their own perception surveys.


• Ask why a location ranks the way it does, and then translate that answer into what changes may be worth considering in a location’s strategic plan.

• Ask how rankings or surveys work, in terms of methodology, and how relevant they are for you and your stakeholders.

• Ask who conducted or published the ranking or survey, and what hidden agenda they might be pursuing.

• Never just take into consideration one ranking but look at a variety of rankings and surveys measuring the same metrics. If results diverge significantly, check limitations.

• Read between the lines: rather than just focusing on the ranking, search for insights and interpretations, as those can help you determine if you’re achieving your goals.

• Get an independent expert involved to determine which rankings are credible and the most useful, for your specific situation.

Dr Florian Kaefer is the founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer (PlaceBrandObserver.com), a knowledge portal and think-blog providing insights into the reputation and branding of places: cities, regions, countries and destinations.