Tokyo has most ‘soft power’ of Asia’s major cities, Kuala Lumpur the least, survey finds


Downtown Seoul

Tokyo has more soft power than any of the region’s major cities, and Kuala Lumpur has the least, according to a study of eight prominent Asian cities.

The Japanese capital came out well ahead of next-placed Singapore in the survey, which measured how outsiders perceive Asia’s cities in terms of soft power traits such as the quality of food, shopping, music scene, design and architecture, and whether they are known to be influential centres for media, technology, academia and politics.

Third in the ranking was Sydney, then Hong Kong and Bangkok. Seoul and Shanghai were ranked just above bottom-placed KL.

Asia’s most powerful city brands

  1. Tokyo
  2. Singapore
  3. Sydney
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Bangkok
  6. Seoul
  7. Shanghai
  8. Kuala Lumpur

Tokyo highly rated in the survey of 4,147 people by every measure except for gender tolerance. It is well regarded as a tourism magnet, its influence on social media, digital technology and global cuisine, its design and architecture, and for embracing sustainability. Tokyo’s news media is considered to be the most influential in the region, and it is a city that others try to copy, the study by PR agency Weber Shandwick found.

“Tokyo seems to have found the balance between fast-moving, forward-thinking, hyper-contemporary megalopolis and a place where deeply entrenched social rituals are the foundation for service quality, commercial artisanship and attention to detail,” reads the report.

Singapore rated highly for standard of living, its approach to sustainability and the environment, its appeal as an academic hub and as a shopping destination, but lagged behind the others for its influence on the region’s cuisine and its arts and music scene.

Third-placed Sydney’s soft power lies in its in architecture, which includes the famous Opera House, design and variety of leisure pursuits, topping the study for those three measures. Sydney’s biggest weakness is its reputation for food, trailing every other city in the survey on that front, and it is also not well thought-of as a trend-setter for social media and digital technology or – oddly for the home of News Corp and Fairfax – for the influence of its news media.

Hong Kong faired well in how it is perceived as a finance hub, and better than most other cities for its media scene, but not well for sustainability, the arts, sport and leisure. More than any other city in Asia, Hong Kong produced the most extreme variation in results.

“The space, or the lack of it, defines much of what is so intoxicating about Hong Kong. The urban landscape shapes and forms social interactions that fuel a progressive energy, whether it be in design, technology and creativity (which is beginning to take root) or in the abundance of innovation in its retail stores,” reads the report.

Bangkok scored well as a tourism magnet, with the Chatuchak Weekend among the reasons why people like to visit, for gender tolerance and as an influential food hub, but trailed most other cities for its influence on the region’s tech and music scene, and for its architecture and design.

The report’s authors note while there is an authenticity to Bangkok that is difficult to find in any other city in Asia, Bangkok has struggled to effectively project its strengths to the region.

Seoul’s soft power lies mostly in its appeal as a trendsetter in social media and digital technology, as well as recognition of its music scene. This, the reports suggests, shows signs of a city that has embraced youth culture. But like Tokyo, Seoul scored weakly for gender tolerance. It also performed poorly as an influential finance centre.

In a video to explain the thinking behind the study (see below), Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Korean agency specialising in the distribution of K-pop songs, said: “For all the millions spent on creating tourism commercials, probably the biggest and best commercial wasn’t produced by government officials, it was the Psy’s Gangnam Style music video.”

As the world’s busiest container port, fast-growing Shanghai does not enjoy a strong reputation as a tourist destination, its sport and leisure infrastructure and its music scene, but does ok in terms of its influence in food, culinary and dining experiences, and its contribution to arts and literature – a nod, the report suggests, to the resurgent populism of Chinese art.

One area where the city is strong is confidence. The report reads: “Shanghai’s confidence is palpable. Having grasped the opportunities that came with China’s relaxation of foreign investment policies in the 1980s, the city quickly became a national gateway to multinationals and it has never looked back. In many respects, 2010’s Shanghai EXPO was the pinnacle of that energy and the point at which it took on global-city status. For some residents, that simply returns Shanghai to its rightful place as the commercial capital of Asia, a position it last held in the 1930s.”

Weakest of all eight cities in the study is also the smallest – Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. While the city rated feebly across most measures, with its tourist appeal being the biggest draw, KL rated a lot higher among respondents to the survey from Shanghai. The report concludes that this is because Shanghai and KL could not be more different.

“Where Kuala Lumpur shines brightest is in its diversity,” the report reads. “The city is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and traditions, and a mix of architectural icons and understated residential neighbourhoods. It is surrounded by a rich tropical landscape too, giving its residents access to varied quality lifestyle choices. But with diversity comes the challenge of an
ambiguous sense of identity and Kuala Lumpur’s something-for-everyone message has the potential to lose its traction both at home and abroad.

Ian Rumsby, chief strategy officer, Asia Pacific, Weber Shandwick, said that there are five key things that contribute to a city’s soft power status: the importance of a city’s own identity, the significance of neighbourhoods, the importance of creative classes, citizen advocacy and “power power” that feed into a city’s brand. A video about the survey:

Rumsby said: “The dramatic urbanisation of Asian countries and the increasingly challenging environment in which civic leaders compete for creative talent, inward investment and tourism dollars has made brand reputation a priority for cities.”

“The ability to articulate, connect and promote unique, soft power attributes is now at the centre of success for governments and cities,” he said.

The survey emerges a month after Japan topped a ranking by FutureBrand of the world’s most powerful country brands.

For Weber Shandwick’s full report, click here.


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