A few months backwards, I was returning back home from a ski holiday that I had spent in northern Finland. Knowing that I would have to sit several hours on our way back, I had grabbed the local newspaper in order to have something to read in the car. Mostly it was nothing very exciting; as one could guess, it was mainly about local events. However, as I continued glancing through the pages, my attention was caught by an article that made me write down some notes and, later, gave me inspiration to write this text.
It was about a tiny Finnish town called Ruka. One of the biggest ski resorts in Finland is located in this small town, and that is where I spent my holidays, too. It likes to brand itself as being part of Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland that tends to attract plenty of tourists in the wintertime. The only thing was that it wasn’t technically located in that particular region, but just in a neighbouring geographical district.
One could believe that this little detail would not really make a difference, but according to the writer, the business owners who actually reside in the district of Lapland weren’t pleased with the fact that someone was branding itself as a Lapland ski resort. The wish to use the word ‘Lapland’ when promoting tourist services is understandable, as this name is commonly used to describe the northern parts of Nordic countries. It is a strong brand when it comes to attracting tourists.
When I had returned home, I decided to learn more about this ‘brand value’ that is attained by geographical places. As we zoom out from the regional perspective, we can see that even entire countries want to be associated with good things – most often a country itself wants to be a strong brand beyond its borders. Tourist organizations are good examples of spreading a country’s recognition, yet a good reputation can be seen as an asset in almost every sector where a country promotes itself to other nations. As a consequence of this effect, we can assume that a French cook working abroad might want to highlight his nationality as his country of origin is traditionally associated with high-quality gastronomy.
I am definitely not the first and only one who has been reflecting on brand image on a national level. We can see it as a phenomenon, where branding strategies that are typical for companies are applied to individual nations. For example Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices is a book authored by Pauline Kerr and Geoffrey Wiseman. The authors help us see the bigger picture of nation branding; they state that the phenomenon of countries branding themselves is one of the plenty consequences of globalisation. The distances between nations are made shorter than they have ever been before. As countries are getting more and more connected to each other through international trade and tourism, it is expected that they increasingly share common characteristics. At the same time however, there is a counter-reaction. The nations still share, a little bit paradoxically, the need to be distinguished from each other in order to be successful in international competition. That is where the local specialties play a major role – they can be used as branding tools which help a nation to stand out from the crowd.
What we need to understand from today’s countries is that each of them needs publicity for the purpose of attracting tourists or gathering investments. A good origin of a brand may as well be helpful for companies that operate internationally. It should be no surprise that IKEA has the colours of the Swedish flag, or that iPhone’s virtual assistant Siri prefers telling you that it is designed in California whose reputation is closely linked to that of highly technological Silicon Valley, rather than mentioning the fact that it was originally made in China.
And it is not just that companies take an advantage of the positive image of their origin. The relationship is closest to a symbiosis where both parties benefit from each other’s existence. It is common that a country boosts its own prestige by organizations that aim at creating and maintaining a good country reputation, others being more successful than others. A good example of this is Sweden’s branding organization called Brand Sweden. On its website (1) it has gathered material that a Swedish enterprise can use in its work, that aims at making the Scandinavian country better known in the world. You can even find strict rules on how to use the stylised version of the Swedish flag, in order to make the country brand more recognizable. It is almost as if nations would have turned into companies that aim at keeping themselves alive in the global market, the only exception being that the players of this game are states rather than private units.
Whether this trend where nation states are put in a competitive position and that is further pushed forward by increasing globalisation is desirable, is difficult to answer. Realising that unique characteristics of a nation are harnessed to serve a marketing image, in order to let the country be successful in the global competition, has a somehow grim tone. It should be questioned if countries really have to adopt procedures that are typical for international companies rather than for sovereign nations.
However, we must bear in mind that nation branding can be regarded as a harmless, even desirable consequence when it is compared to other side effects of globalisation. The Guardian published an interesting article (2) where nation branding is compared with constantly growing right-wing populism. These two phenomena are similar in the sense that they both can be seen to some extent as results of globalisation. In addition to this, it is quite startling to notice that both of them are willing to emphasize the abilities and identity of one nation over others.
However, the major factor that clearly takes these two phenomena apart from each other, is that they follow completely different rules. Whereas right-wing populist movements have quite clearly underlined their anti-globalist nature in different Western countries in the 2000s by attacking institutions that promote international cooperation, nation branding actually follows the general principles of globalism. Nation-branding is actually part of a bigger continuum in the history of international trade; it has transformed from the status of 18th century where mercantilist ideology was the dominant way to define successful trade policy into a state of affairs where nations are part of one global marketplace. While national populism is quite introverted in the sense that outside world is regarded mostly as a threat, the motivation for branding nations and emphasizing their greatness is solely premised on making a country more attractive in the eyes of other nations and increasing collaboration between them.
Nation branding doesn’t necessarily mean that the cultural heritage which nations have fostered through centuries is completely productized for commercial purposes. On the contrary, branding can actually be seen as a useful way to spread information of different nations worldwide. This may play a major role in increasing global understanding between different cultures. Tourists probably wouldn’t very easily find their way to learn more about the way of life of the people living in the cold and remote Lapland if it wasn’t for its strong brand image of being a winter wonderland. Still, I believe that what must be done in the near future is to define what kind of nation-branding can be considered as harmless and when it is essential to separate the role of a nation from the work done by a marketing firm. As long as flags are not replaced by logos, we should be fine.
Photo: The writer enjoying the views regardless of whether Ruka is part of Lapland or not.
 The Guardian: How to sell a country: the booming business of nation branding (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/07/nation-branding-industry-how-to-sell-a-country)