After a decade of doing this strange work, in 2012 he found himself sitting down and taking stock. One of his most proactive relationships, trying over a period of years to help Felipe Calderón, then president of Mexico, create policy – international leadership on climate change, for example — to counter the overwhelming negative news of drug wars, had come to an end. Looking at what he had achieved, Anholt had to conclude that, despite his efforts to make national governments more collaborative, in the end, “one way or another, what I was doing was helping these countries to shaft each other. To be competitive.”
He took a year off. And in that year began digging down into his personal data mine. “I was asking it a simple question,” he says. “What makes people like one country more than another?” He produced something he called the MARSS model; MARSS stands for Morality, Aesthetics, Relevance, Sophistication and Strength, the “five drivers of national reputation”. And when he examined the data he discovered — to his surprise, really – that of those five, by far the most significant one was the first: morality.
“I am not a cynic but I expected that people might admire Germany more than Poland, say, because Germany had more wealth,” he suggests, “or had a more beautiful landscape. Turns out that the most significant driver is: is this country a force for good? And when you think about it that is really motivated by self-interest. We admire countries that we don’t have to worry about.”
Having made this discovery Anholt realised he could not go back to what he had been doing. “It was not enough for me to be telling governments to ‘be good’ privately. They needed their populations to tell it to them publicly. We need crowds demanding that they live in a good country, a country that fulfils its obligations. We needed people with the confidence that they were not alone in demanding that.” Hence: the Good Country Party.
Does he have any qualms about setting himself up as its architect?
“I’m a little bit nervous about it,” he says. “I have a bit of experience of exposure. When the Nations Brand Index has discovered some controversial facts, for example that the country that is preferred by all Muslims across the world by a huge margin is the United States, I have got a lot of hate mail. Or when we included Israel for the first time and it ranked lower than Iran I was accused and threatened on the same day of being both a Zionist and an anti-Zionist. So I know how it might feel.”
He seems to believe that if he does not try this no one else will.
“I think there is a place for something positive,” he says. “It’s a little bit like the Occupy movement – experience teaches us that people don’t like to be in angry or outraged places for a long time. They want the means to work toward a solution.”
He is nothing if not an idealist (as I talk to him I find that line from Imagine, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one… ” looping in my head). How does he see the next few months shaping up?
“Well,” he says, smiling, “once we have the 700 million the question will be: ‘How do I keep them entertained?’ It’s like sending out a Facebook invitation and finding 2,000 people on your lawn. You need some snacks to offer them. And there will be a crunch point about money at some point quite soon.”
At the moment, beyond the seed money from Denmark, Anholt is providing the finance himself (“I’m mortgaged to the hilt for this” he says brightly). He is talking to one or two philanthropic organisations; he half imagines NGOs might want to pay a small stipend once he is up and running; but for the time being “people find it hard to believe in something before it exists”. Build it and they will come.
But what if only 700 people turn up?
He laughs at the very idea. “Well that just means changing the world might take a bit longer,” he says.