Thoughts: The Mishandled Beauty

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After the past month, there shouldn’t be any uncertainty left about what is the lingua franca in the field of sports. For over thirty days, sports fans from all over the world have gathered together to celebrate and support their national football teams to win the FIFA World Cup that is getting closer to its end in Russia.

And what could be better than knowing that by watching a match, you’ve suddenly become part of a bigger community? The broadcasting rights for the 2018 World Cup were sold to well over than one hundred countries, and along with the Summer Olympic Games, it is the most internationally attractive live event on television. It has been almost impossible to avoid pictures where the supporters of different teams pose to the camera together in a friendly way, wearing anything they can find with their national flag colors or extra-large sombreros (I am pointing at you, Mexicans!) in order to express their support to their country. These photos taken on the spot and spread by international newsrooms have been ideal to strengthen the image of global sports events bringing people together.

There is naturally nothing wrong with this image, quite the opposite. It has been refreshing to see pictures of funnily dressed fans filled with true joy, while it tends to be the fact that the majority of media coverage is dedicated to less cheerful topics such as political scheming and international human rights violations. However, it would be wrong to close one’s eyes from the fact that these two worlds are tied together more closely than it would be pleasant to admit.

Russia was appointed to host the 2018 World Cup in 2010 by a decision made by the FIFA organizing committee. The years that followed the host nomination have, unfortunately, left room for doubts on whether the hosts are receiving some undeservedly positive power due to the tournament. We’ve heard the list several times; the annexation of Crimea as well as military intervention in Syria make it self-evident that Moscow is getting more positive attention during the tournament than it has received in many years. It is appropriate and necessary to ask whether it is acceptable that the time when the whole world is, for once, peacefully united under a single event, the spotlight is growingly focused on geopolitical interests that are urged forward by using hard power. Even if the sport itself is disconnected from daily politics – and that is the way it should be -, it would be desirable to leave more room to the event rather than to the host.

We can find even more sources of insecurity that threaten the ideal where nations are given opportunities to gather together peacefully without accidentally having to take a stand on political issues, let alone quietly support corruption. Football is the most popular sport in the world, and the most profitable leagues around the sport make revenues that correspond to billions of US dollars per year. It is therefore not a surprise that the international governing body of this worldwide sport,  the FIFA, holds significant powers. Strong authority should always be accompanied with a careful sense of responsibility, yet the organization has had some trouble with living up to these expectations in recent years due to serious corruption scandals. One of them, just to mention one example, is connected to the 2022 World Cup tournament that was given to Qatar. In addition to possible bribes involved, the organizing team of the country has been accused of mishandling migrant labour that works on the construction sites of the future World Cup venues. Something is not quite right when a regular football fan is forced to balance between buying a ticket to a sports game he or she has been waiting for a lifetime and pondering on whether seeing that match supports actions that should not be encouraged.

 

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The good thing is that FIFA has a role model when it comes to organizing a meaningful tournament that can be looked back with satisfaction afterwards. The International Olympic Committee definitely doesn’t have a clean track record for corruption either, yet the latest Winter Olympic Games is a good example of how to steer the publicity brought by the international event to a direction that benefits more people than just the elite of the hosting country. Pyeongchang 2018 was branded as ’the Peace Olympics’. Even if the games were accused of hypocrisy and giving a free propaganda platform to North Korea, the idea that such multinational events should serve the common international good is the right path to follow. And ultimately the world got a good piece of news when it was announced that the US president Donald Trump and the leader of North Korea, Mr Kim Jong-un, would meet each other peacefully in the speculated aftermath of the Olympic games. Even if it is too early to draw far-fetched conclusions from the discussions that took place between these two heads-of-state in mid-June, in the best-case scenario the future history tellers can link the 2018 Olympics as part of a bigger continuum of increasing dialog between former hostiles. We can hope that similar improvement of worldwide good will be achieved between Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin during talks that are scheduled to take place in Helsinki a day after the World Cup final.

 

Football is an irreplaceable asset to mankind. It is one of the rare things that connect people with drastically different backgrounds; children in poor developing countries and wealthy professional players, as well as nearly everyone in between, know how to kick a ball. It is a universal language than can have a stronger unifying effect than any citizenship or common tradition. Above all, it is far more than just a token in the game of those in power.

As the tournament is steadily coming to an end, it is more than important to switch on the TV and enjoy the final match before waiting for another four years for the next World Cup. Still, it is necessary to avoid closing our eyes from the faults that lie behind the glamorous surface; football and millions of its fans worldwide deserve ethically sustainable conditions to their favorite event. This beautiful sport is worth it.

 

Credits: Pixabay, the Epoch Time

Thoughts: Flags that Turn Into Logos

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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.

[1] Identitytool for Sweden: https://identity.sweden.se/   

[2] 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)

Finland: The happiest country in the world?

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Photo: “Whereas surviving the dark winters may require some resilience in Finland, in summertime there is daylight even during the night.”

In a recent World Happiness Report published by the United Nations, Finland was nominated the happiest nation in the world. The Finnish people, Finns, received this title given by a UN-led committee with rolling eyes; claiming that the happiest citizens in the world live in a country where the sun barely exists during the long and cold winter sounded more like a joke.

What is this recognition based on, and what are actually the facts indicating that this conclusion has a reliable ground? The UN research is based on factors that measure life expectancy, social support received by people, as well as level of corruption and security, just to name a few. These topics were surveyed by asking simple questions from citizens of different countries. Along with Finland, all the Nordic countries made it to the top 10 list, accompanied by countries such as Australia, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

What is noteworthy is that all these types of rankings always consist of factors that one is able to measure in a quantitative manner, and that is what the report is, in fact, about; levels of happiness in different countries are put in order based on scientific methods. There is no doubt that something essential is inevitably lost, when the pure and personal feeling of felicity is formulated so that it serves the idea of performances competing against each other. However, can we still consider that these rankings have at least some directional value when it comes to searching true happiness?

I have talked with several foreigners about Finland and what usually pop up in their mind, when asking about the country, are the words such as ’north’, ’coldness’ and ’dark winters’ – along with Santa Claus and reindeer, perhaps. Sometimes even the high rates of suicide are mentioned, and there is a grain of truth to that notice, too. Despite the shining placing at the top of the happiness ranking, Finland still has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, even if those rates have showed a steady decline during recent years. The darkness during the winter months can get depressing, and there is even a separate word in Finnish to describe depression caused by the lack of sunlight, ’kaamosmasennus’. As a matter of fact, the public health authority in Finland recommends people to supplement their everyday diet with some extra D vitamin, as the natural access to it is most often inadequate due to lack of sun during the winter. Conversely the sun hardly sets in northern parts of Finland in summertime.

Despite these factors, it is most often not an exaggeration to say that Finns are proud of their country. The national personality trait in Finland is usually characterized by self-deprecation and jokes about the darkness and the language no one understands, for example, but behind that shell you can find a person that is more than happy to both present his or her country, as well as learn more about other cultures, too. National pride usually stems from things such as the word ’sisu’, explaining Finnish national character that includes qualities such as grit, honesty, bravery and resilience. A Finn wouldn’t probably mind either telling you, with a modest smile on his or her face, that pronouns in Finnish grammar are gender neutral, or that Finnish women were the first in Europe to win the right to vote.

Along with the national character it is the network of working political institutions that plays a major role in Finnish society. What could be a better source of reassurance than being able to trust that the community you live in is safe, and that you will not be hung out to dry in case you need help? Yes, it is a known fact that Nordic citizens pay a relatively high amount of taxes to the state, but as a return they can be sure that this money is used to serve the common good. It is not only about income distribution but rather an investment to a society where most people can feel involved. In the long run, the resulting decline of social exclusion leads to a healthy and trustworthy society where the nominal costs have been paid back multiple times. It is not surprising that Finns are one of the happiest taxpayers in the world; instead of being altruistic they can expect to get something in return.

It can of course be argued if the idea of welfare state is a Nordic way to rationalize socialism, or rather a successful business model adapted to the government level. In either case, I believe that these political institutions, supported by a certain mix of modesty and national pride together, form a recipe that helps Finland perform well from the international point of view. Surprisingly enough, it may even outweigh the inconvenience of getting your dose of vitamin in pills instead of lying on the beach…