To brand or be branded? Some insights into Brand Denmark

Can a nation ‘brand’ itself? The imagery and stereotypes we, as Brits, think of when we talk about Scandinavia or, more specifically, Denmark have been built up over a long, slow stretch of time, interspersed with bursts of activity – for instance, the recent success of Danish TV programmes on BBC4 in the last few years.

I’ve enjoyed learning about the theory of Place Branding. Since coining the term nation brand and the Nation Brands Index, Simon Anholt (Places – Identity, Image and Reputation, 2010) has conceded that ‘competitive identity’ is probably a better term for the metaphor. In any case, unlike branding in a typical corporate marketing communications context, you cannot ‘do branding’ of a nation or change its perception via a snappy marketing campaign, a nation’s brand is earned rather than constructed (according to Anholt).

The Danish pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 is an interesting case study of Denmark’s self-branding when attempting to project and protect its image abroad. The Welfairytales theme of the Expo pavilion used two Danish icons: bicycles and the Little Mermaid statue (which was relocated from Copenhagen to China for the occasion). Ren & Gyimóthy (in their article Transforming and contesting nation branding strategies: Denmark at the Expo 2010, 2013) have written about some of the minor cultural misunderstandings which resulted. The pavilion’s imagery and activities may have been an exercise in ‘auto-communication’, Danes communicating the brand values they would like to project about themselves and not adequately allowing for cultural misinterpretations – for instance this is one of the phrases by everyday Danes used to decorate the pavilion:

‘Denmark is a little country where you can enjoy a cup of coffee while your child sleeps in the baby carriage outside the café’

Ren & Gyimóthy astutely remark (p27): “This well-known Danish idea of safety reflected in letting your child sleeping outside in public space is perhaps not easily grasped by middle-class people from a country with massive urban air pollution and a hot and humid climate”!

Last week I attended a fascinating meeting with the Danish cultural attaché in the USA who gave me some further insight into Brand Denmark. Denmark does not have a cultural institute as such (nothing comparable with Germany’s Goethe Institut, for instance), but the cultural attaché at the Consulate General in New York still advises on 125 cultural project per month! They have had a radical rethink in the last ten to fifteen years. Following the Danish Wave events in 1999 – a two-month cultural festival initiated by the Consulate and Embassy, where Danish authors and artists were brought over to the US with negligible impact – they have become reactive, taking their lead from looking at an artist’s reception in Denmark and their focus on new and modern brand values, rather than the traditional ‘old’ icons (Hans Christian Andersen!). The Consulate General of Denmark in the USA now ensures all cultural events they support fit within four core brand values:

art – sustainability – children’s culture – film

An initiative by Scandinavian arts councils has been established to promote Nordic literature abroad as one brand. The ‘Nordlit’ collaboration presented a unified Nordic presence at the London Book Fair and Book Expo America – rather than each nation having its own stand, the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and even smaller related countries e.g. Faroe Islands) shared a single stand. As wee and similar nations, they believe it’s beneficial to merge so they can cross-promote, utilising to their advantage the (probably correct!) presumption that many English-speaking readers and publishers cannot readily distinguish between the Nordic countries anyway, so why not cross-promote authors from the same region (“you liked this author, you might also like this author from more-or-less nearby”).

I look forward to investigating further how Brand Denmark is being created nationally and internationally by Danish cultural bodies, and how much impact this has had on the everyday British public’s perception of Denmark and Danishness. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts, dear reader!

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