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Saffron City Brand Barometer 2019 - Revealing which cities have built the strongest business brands City Business Brand Barometer

Saffron City Brand Barometer 2019

A report revealing which cities have built the strongest business brands


The Saffron City Brand Barometer 2019 explores which cities around the world have built the strongest brands to attract businesses and investors.

Cities compete to attract commerce on a global stage. A combination of shrinking trade barriers, economic reforms and digitalisation means more and more businesses are borderless in 2019. In order to compete effectively, cities must now build, manage and measure their brand in the same way that commercial companies would when seeking investment or talent.

Whilst developing place brands for cities and countries all over the world, we have seen first-hand the value that a strong brand can have when attracting business.

We created the Saffron City Brand Barometer to be a tool that could usefully assess what creates a strong business brand for a city. This ranking aims to highlight the importance for cities to foster a great reputation as a place to do business.



The Top 10

These cities scored the highest in our final ranking. These are the cities with the strongest business brands, earning the best score overall when both their assets and buzz were taken into account.

What might be regarded as ‘the usual suspects’ find themselves at the top of our ranking. Strong asset scores thanks to high ratings on GDP per Capita PPP, ease of doing business and, to some extent, quality of life are the table stakes among these top scoring cities. Building on high asset scores is the equally important work of establishing a positive perception amongst business audiences worldwide – which all of these cities enjoy.


Brand Strength


The Challengers

The top 11-20 of our final ranking. These are the cities with great business brands that look set to challenge the Top 10 in the near future.

The Challengers tend to be smaller by GDP per Capita PPP but typically enjoy higher quality of life and roughly the same ease of doing business as those amongst the Top 10. They are therefore serious competition to the large and established cities of the world with many businesses decided that these Challengers represent better value than their larger competitors. The Challengers also feature more cities such as San Francisco and Berlin that have specialised on Startup/IT and Creative Industries, respectively.


Brand Strength

The Underperformers

These are cities that are not realising their potential. These underperformers are in the Top 20 for assets, but have an average or low perception score. This has resulted in a lower ranking than their assets might suggest they deserve.

These are cities that may need to improve their credibility as places to do business and build positive perceptions connected with their assets. Investigating why perceptions are not in line with their offering could certainly pay high dividends. Cities such as Zurich and Dublin already enjoy strong brands in the spheres of financial services and IT but must do more in order to build a more widely established business brand.


Brand Strength


Ones to Watch

These cities are the ones we believe will be making upwards moves in our ranking in the near future. They scored in the Top 10 for buzz but did not make it into the Top 10 of the overall ranking, indicating that their assets are not yet as strong as they need to be. With the right investment into improving their asset strength, these cities could become leading business brands in the future.


Brand Strength

The Growers

These cities appear in the global Top 50 for GDP growth.

Interestingly, we did not find a strong positive correlation between GDP growth and either assets or buzz. Only Los Angeles made it into our overall Top 10, although Beijing also scored high for buzz. Nonetheless we thought GDP growth was an interesting factor to include when considering a business brand, as it speaks of current success and potential.


Brand Strength




  • 12. MAD

    The Challengers


    We have observed Madrid changing and developing rapidly over the last five years. It has become home to a thriving community of start-ups, creative agencies and international companies. They are attracted not only by the stable business environment, the level of both local and international talent and creativity found in the city, but also by the overall quality of life. World-renowned universities and innovative events like the South Summit and the Google for Startups program are raising Madrid’s profile globally.

    We observe with interest that Madrid has outperformed Barcelona in this edition of our study. Madrid’s growing profile, coupled with the recent political instabilities in Barcelona have caused the cities to flip in our barometer rankings. Time will tell whether Madrid will be able to harness this upward trend and eventually move into one of the top 10 positions. While its buzz score is already there (ranked 9th), Madrid needs to watch out for its asset score. 

    While Madrid is becoming increasingly popular for tourists, the work of the local government to regulate the housing market and traffic, whilst creating a greener city center will not only improve the life for current residents, but in turn also attract international talent with the fantastic quality of life. Madrid’s business brand has been boosted by instability in Cataluña, attracting the headquarters of Gas Natural, Abertis and Cellnex. Madrid should continue to present itself as a secure alternative to Barcelona and nurture the nascent industries starting to develop.


  • 10. WDC

    The Top 10

    Washington D.C.

    With five cities in the Top 10, it is obvious that the USA is still a dominant force when it comes to international business. The success of Washington D.C. could come as a surprise, however, given that many associate the city with politics more than business. As this ranking shows, there’s a lot more to the capital city than meets the eye.

    In terms of its overall asset score, Washington D.C. out-performs some other cities in the Top 10 like Dubai, Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Hong Kong. Its livability is higher than many other American cities. It also scores better overall on assets than other major diplomatic hubs such as Frankfurt and Geneva, implying that it is the best option for companies looking for a location in close proximity to politics. An example of this is Amazon, which is in the process of opening a second headquarters just across the Potomac river in the suburb of Arlington, Virginia. This is a big win for Washington’s tech and innovation system. Arlington is already home to the regional HQs of BAE systems and Airbus, among other big companies. 

    What could Washington D.C. do better? The city’s weakness comes down to the lack of buzz; it ranked just 26 out of the 75 cities in this metric, the second lowest performance in the Top 10 (Boston came 28th). This compares starkly with rival New York, which came 1st place. This implies that Washington D.C. has a lot of untapped potential to tell a better story around all it has to offer. This is particularly relevant when it comes to its global brand. While D.C. scored reasonably well among the English-speaking respondents of our survey, it performed poorly among those from the rest of the world. This contrasts with cities such as New York and Dubai, which performed well in the survey regardless of respondent origin.


  • 21. AUH

    Ones to Watch

    Abu Dhabi

    Dubai has long been the only Middle Eastern city to perform in global rankings but this is starting to change. The city of Abu Dhabi is starting to pull ahead of its Middle Eastern counterparts. The emirate of Abu Dhabi is home to more than 90% of the UAE oil reserves and given the hydrocarbon industry currently accounts for 30% of the UAE’s GDP, this put’s the emirate in a strong position. While the city ranks in 4th place for GDP per capita, and 5th in terms of buzz, the overall ranking of 21 is not a leading position.

    However, with the recent announcement of plans to reduce oil’s contribution to GDP by 50% within 3 years, the government has been working on a diversification program heavily focused on attracting businesses in the tourism industry. Tourist figures suggest the plan is working, with a 50% increase in the number of tourists visiting from 2017 to 2018. With assets like The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which welcomed more than 1 million visitors in its first year alone, we expect to see strong buzz maintained given the focus on building the tourism industry to balance out this oil-driven economy.

    However, to raise their overall ranking, it is assets that Abu Dhabi must focus on. If they are able to enhance their Quality of Life score by building confidence in their commitment to improved personal freedoms and greater press freedom then they could drastically affect their business brand with the international community.


  • 36. BJG

    Ones to Watch


    Ranked 36th overall, Beijing has a higher buzz score (ranking 8th) than many of the cities above it in our final ranking. It is also the capital city of one of the world’s greatest economic superpowers and is growing fast in terms of GDP growth.

    However these advantages are not enough to make up for Beijing’s disadvantages: the low asset score (asset rank 43rd), due to low scores in GDP per capita PPP, quality of life and a middling cities in motion score. Constant delays to business include Beijing’s vast size, alongside traffic and pollution at an all-time high. These issues need addressing for Beijing to markedly improve its asset score.

    Beijing stands in increasingly strong contrast with Shanghai, which has a more open reputation and is seen as a more desirable location by foreign talent thanks to improving air quality and a more international business community. Definitely one to watch, Beijing is a city with enormous potential to build a business brand befitting its role as capital city to Asia’s economic powerhouse.


  • 22. SAN

    The Underperformers


    Santiago is lagging behind when it comes to its business brand. Although it is the highest-performing Latin American city in the barometer, we think it still has the potential to do much more. It has plenty of assets: it has a well-developed public transport system, high-performing universities and the highest GDP per capita of any South American city. Chile enjoys a high level of political stability within the region and also performs well on the ease of doing business index, with only Mexico outstripping it in Latin America. However despite all these advantages, Santiago languishes at 48 on our final ranking.

    This is largely owing to Santiago’s extremely poor performance in terms of buzz. São Paulo, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires all achieved considerably higher buzz scores than Santiago, despite Santiago outperforming all of them on assets. The results were especially stark when we look at the survey results. Not only is Santiago the lowest-performing Latin American city in the survey, it is in the bottom five globally at 71st place out of 75. Meanwhile, neighbour and rival Buenos Aires sits at a comfortable 23rd. This demonstrates how Santiago is failing to tell the story of its many advantages and assets when it comes to attracting businesses. Of all the cities on our list, it is perhaps one that could most benefit from a place branding exercise.

    Santiago should showcase its comparative advantages to become a focal point for the international business community. As one of the region’s leading economies Santiago has the opportunity to position itself as a regional business hub, especially given that recent political events in Brazil and Argentina have called into question their suitability as long-term business partners. It also has much to offer prospective talent in terms of quality of life: to the West, the city is a short drive from the surf of the Pacific Ocean and Chile’s wine country. To the East, it is home to Latin America’s largest ski area. With these myriad advantages in mind, it is clear that Santiago has considerable untapped potential to rise up our rankings. With a concerted effort from local government to generate buzz and improve international recognition, Santiago could become a key business hub in Latin America.


  • 28. DUB

    The Underperformers


    Dublin has long been a key global tourist destination, with millions of tourists drawn to the city for its cultural heritage and friendly charm every year. The city has also become an attractive location for business. English speaking, it also has competitive corporate tax rates, and a youthful workforce; it has the youngest population in the European Union with an average age of 34 years. 

    Bolstered by geographical proximity to the US and a generous corporation tax rate, many large global organisations use Dublin as their European headquarters, including PayPal, Apple and Facebook.

    Whilst this paints a positive picture, according to this year’s City Brand Barometer Dublin does not hold the business brand that its strong assets merit. With the advantages on offer and strong assets (Asset ranking 17th), it is lagging behind on buzz (Buzz ranking: 49th). This suggests that although it has attracted savvy tech businesses who have recognised its significant attributes as a business city, it still is not considered one of the key business centres of the world. This could all change as the impact of Brexit becomes clearer. With great infrastructure and strong business success stories to boast of, Dublin is poised to be a strong alternative to London for companies seeking a strategic European location. Watch this space…


  • 2. LDN

    The Top 10


    Not surprisingly London is consistently ranked as a top city for doing business. Ranked 2nd overall (behind its eternal competitor, New York) with strong scores in assets (4th) and buzz (2nd), London doesn’t surprise with its strong position in this year’s barometer.

    London has however seen an improvement from our ranking in 2014, moving from 7th to 2nd place. This could be credited to the addition of the “city in motion index” in our analysis this year (it is 16% of the final ranking). London is a global leader in sustainability and innovation and so it is expected that it would perform well against these criteria.

    However, London’s strong showing in the Google trends data may have reflected the current furore surrounding Brexit, with question marks hanging over London’s position as a global business leader and destination. Will it still be an attractive investment destination, or will it no longer have the pull for business it once did? Its assets may suffer, but its buzz may not, as the world’s attention turns to London’s economic future. With the terms of Brexit yet to be laid out, the one thing guaranteed for London in the next year is uncertainty.




    How we measured overall brand strength

    The Saffron City Brand Barometer is the result of quantitative research, qualitative desk research, and polling. These elements were then combined by Saffron consultants in a methodical and even-handed way.

    To measure the strength of each city’s brand, we took into account two separate measures. The first is a city’s “assets”, meaning the features a city has to offer that are of potential significance to the business community. The second measure is one of perceptions or “buzz”, meaning how many people are talking about a given city and what their opinion of it is. We combined the results from these two measures to create the overall ranking in this report.

    How we selected cities to measure

    To ensure the report was both manageable and relevant, we focused our efforts on a list of 75 cities that are economically significant to global business. We compiled this list based on global GDP rankings, and then balancing these to ensure a global spread across all continents. The result is globally diverse, while reflecting the economic realities of today.

    Availability of data is always a limitation to investigating brand on a global scale. The lack of data for some cities excluded them from our barometer, and the under-researched nature of some factors meant they were not considered in creating the ranking.

    How we measured assets

    A city’s assets are a reflection of past successes, future potential and current stability: important factors in any city’s business brand. To measure the assets for this report, we combined data points from four different asset classes, as detailed below. Each of the four asset classes is given equal ranking of 25% within the asset score.

    The data for all assets classes are in the form of rankings, transformed into percentages using the same method to standardise the data in a way that fairly represents each city’s position. We then created a final score between 0 and 10 that formed the city’s asset ranking.

    Cities that had no data in a particular asset class were given the lowest possible score as their failure to be included indicated their ranking was lower than the remit of the data. However, there were very few examples of these, as we endeavoured to use data points that covered our city selection.

    The high quality and reliable nature of the data points meant that we weighted assets as 65% of a city’s final score in the ranking.

    Asset data points

    1. Jones Lang LaSalle Global300 Cities: GDP per Capita PPP

    2. World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index 2018 (Country Level)

    3. Mercer Quality of Living City Ranking Survey 2018

    4. IESE Cities in Motion Index 2018

    For more information on how we measured assets, please download the full report, which includes a detailed methodology.

    How we measured buzz

    We use the term ‘buzz’ to mean the perception of a city. Buzz indicates the feeling people have about a city, whether they are engaged with it, talking about it, travelling to it and whether it is held in high regard as a place to conduct business.

    To measure buzz for this report, we used a blend of qualitative and quantitative data. We devised a survey that requested information from global audiences about perceptions of the cities. To boost the quantitative element, we used Google Trends and city airport activity data. We allocated the following weight to each data point: Survey 40%, Airport Activity 20%, Google Trends 40%. We standardised the scores across each data point to create an overall ranking for buzz.

    Given the subjective element of this category, we weighted the score for buzz as 35% of a city’s final score in the ranking.

    For more information on how we measured buzz, please download the full report, which includes a detailed methodology.

    How we structured our analysis

    After we had finalised the ranking of the cities, we began to analyse the results. We examined the relationship between a city’s assets and the buzz it generates. It revealed a direct correlation between asset strength and brand strength. Cities with a high asset score should also have a high buzz score, implying that the city is using its assets effectively to generate a strong business brand. By contrast, cities with a low asset score should also have a low buzz score.

    Cities with a combination of high asset score and high buzz score have high brand strength.

    How we measured the GDP growth rate

    As part of our analysis, we wanted to see if there was a correlation between each city’s brand performance and its GDP growth. To judge this, we obtained the GDP growth rate for each city from the Brookings Institute GDP Growth ranking. We gave all cities that did not feature on the Brookings ranking the lowest score.