The circumstances leading to Slovakia’s first female, and youngest-ever president being elected and sworn in last month could have been taken from the plot of a dark political thriller.
The brutal assassination last year of an investigative journalist who’d uncovered widespread government corruption, sparked mass protests, a political crisis, and a desperate appetite for a radically different approach to politics. The country has turned over a new leaf with its new president, Zuzana Caputova – a liberal anti-corruption lawyer and a 2016 winner of The Goldman prize, dubbed the ‘environmental Nobel prize’. Right time, right place some might say. But while recent events in the country no doubt acted as catalysts for positive change, the results from our latest Country Index suggest that Slovakia has been on the rise for some time now.
As a global brand strategy and design company, we’re interested in the factors that drive brand perception. That’s why our Country Index re-orders the World Bank’s top 75 countries (by GDP) by how well they’re perceived in terms of an alternative set of factors, such as quality of life, tolerance, business potential, culture and environmental awareness: factors that are a proven indicator of future growth potential and competitive advantage.
Ranking number 35, Slovakia was one of the biggest success stories in this year’s Index, having moved up 24 places, the most out of all countries measured, since our last index in 2014. In particular, perceptions of the country’s quality of life, environmental friendliness, the quality of goods made there, and its heritage and culture have all shown a marked leap forward over the last 5 years – a sign that positive changes, in some ways epitomised by the election of Caputova, were on the horizon for some time.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts, Slovakia is set to be the fastest-growing developed economy in the world in 2019 and 2020, largely driven by a strong automotive industry. Since 2007, Slovakia has been the world’s largest producer of cars per capita. Well over one million cars were manufactured there last year alone and it’s been using this to its advantage in attracting foreign investment from companies drawn to the country’s relatively low wages, low tax rates and well-educated labour force.
Last year, Jaguar Land Rover announced its plans to move production of its Discovery vehicle from the UK to a €1.4 billion new manufacturing plant in Nitra in the west of the country, following in the footsteps of Volkswagen, Peugeot-Citroen, and KIA . It’s growing partnerships with car manufacturing brands like these which may have contributed to Slovakia demonstrating the highest improvement of all countries in the perceived quality of its products and services, since the last index in 2014. The country is using its short, but robust, automotive history to push innovation too. One of its most advanced tech startups, AeroMobil, recently attracted major Chinese and Israeli investment to launch its 4.0 version of a flying car.
From an environmental perspective, Slovakia recently approved a new national environmental strategy, ‘Greener Slovakia’, covering the protection of water, biodiversity, climate change and air protection, as well as the green economy. Certain areas of national parks will be extended to 50%, and in some cases, up to 75%, by 2030. Mining will be prohibited and organic farming will account for at least 13.5% of the total agriculture sector. And it’s willing to put its money where its mouth is: the country recently voted in favour of EU plans for a 2050 zero-carbon goal, despite its nearest neighbours blocking the initiative. It’s, therefore, no surprise that Slovakia ranked in the top 10 biggest risers in terms of perceptions of Environmental Friendliness over the last 5 years.
The uptick in the nation’s brand perception has been seen in rates of tourism too. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Slovakia is one of the top 20 fastest growing tourism destinations and experienced a record number of tourists in 2017, surpassing the number of citizens in the country itself.
Despite all of these promising signs, it’s still early days for Slovakia. It’s the youngest country in the Index, sits in a region of right-wing countries and has a recent history of political divisiveness and corruption. When we look at the top-ranking countries in the Index – Japan, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavian countries – we see that they combine long-term political and economic stability with fostering, and crucially exporting, a culture that feeds the quality of life, purpose and experience of that country.
Just like the most engaging and respected consumer brands, all strong country brands must balance their purpose – what they stand for – with the experience that people have of them in order to succeed. To ensure that Slovakia continues its upward path, the new president, her team, and her successors, will have to strive towards maintaining an even political keel and, crucially, bolster this by facilitating experiences and opportunities for citizens, tourists and investors that channel the new air of positivity in the country.