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!


A report from the city that never sleeps

I went to New York for the first time this week. I had been dreading the 7 hour flight but in the end it was fine. I got up to stretch my legs a few times, drank LOADS of water, they serve food as various intervals so that keeps you occupied, and I read a bit (though not as much as I’d planned – I foolishly thought I’d have time to study but no chance!). Travelling overnight on the way back was a poor decision, though – there was no way of sleeping properly, but at least I could nap when I got home. I’d been warned of a potential one-and-a-half hour wait at immigration on arrival in the US, but through a combination of a morning flight and it being a national holiday, the whole process took well under an hour. The immigration officer told me “you’re all set” as he let me through, kicking off an adoration for all the little American phrases I heard which took me by surprise.


The view from my hotel window (the distinctive tower is the Chrysler Building)

I soon checked into the hotel and WHAT A VIEW! And what a privilege. I was in a huge room on the 36th floor. Of course I made the most of this by barely sleeping (kept waking up, woke up at 5am both mornings, didn’t reset my body clock at all as it was such a quick visit!). They provided optional ‘fit kits’ for healthy types so I actually took them up on the offer and did some weights every morning. I’m unhinged…

Some excitable observations:

The Sights

I found it very easy to get around New York without internet access on my phone, I used a little pop-up map (and the grid system makes it easy to just walk for a certain number of blocks certain you’re heading the right way). I felt very at home as a Londoner, I walked everywhere and didn’t mind the crowds. As soon as I arrived at Penn Station in Manhattan, I was hit by the 30 degree heat and raced for the comfort of air-con in the huge Macy’s opposite. I had a wander around the Macy’s themed souvenirs and wasn’t best impressed, overall the World’s Largest Store aspires to be Selfridges but ends up feeling like a Debenhams.


IMG_20140526_160457 IMG_20140526_155500 IMG_20140526_155411

Grand Central Station – it’s really interesting that such a stunning building is still being used for its intended purpose. People were queuing at the lovely ticket office windows, although there were also lots of tourists like me taking photos. The most fascinating thing for me was the combined use of this public space with corporate consumerism – a whole two balconies were being used as an Apple Store complete with Genius Bar, though you were welcome to just wander around it all being nosey. It was well integrated and not too dominant, I only realised it was an Apple Store when I actually got up there, from afar it could’ve been a very laptop-y cafe!

I went straight to see the Rockefeller Center on the same afternoon I arrived – I felt on a high the whole time I was there pottering around as I had the 30 Rock theme in my head (I love 30 Rock. Sadly they didn’t have much merchandise for it in the NBC Shop as it’s old hat by now!). On the off-chance there wasn’t a queue, I went to see if I’d be able to go to the Top of the Rock that afternoon (I’d heard you had to book a timeslot, very busy, etc) and – to my delight – I could buy a ticket and go straight up! It was admittedly 5pm on a sunny Memorial Day, I have since been reliably informed that all Americans would have been at a barbeque(!). The view was amazing – I could see sunbathers in Central Park, a spectacular view of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty in the distance – it really did look like I was gazing down at a map, especially with the grid system to the streets so the buildings all looked like they had been neatly lined up.

Manhattan as viewed from the Rock IMG_20140526_172852

People had told me not to bother with Times Square but I found myself wandering around in that area so popped to take a look, it was just crowded and chaotic and not particularly impressive, as predicted.

The main Public Library building was well worth a visit – it’s a beautiful building inside, and outside it’s based in a lovely little park which hosts events like outdoor theatre. I enjoyed a fascinating and beautifully laid out free exhibition – the ABC of it, why children’s books matter. New Yorkers roll their eyes and say, that’s still on is it? but for a first time visitor I was extremely glad to have caught it, it was lovely!


NY Public Library

Lots of classic kids books, even a bit about Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales for us Scandi enthusiasts. The shop was excellent, too – I bought some souvenirs here including a lovely book for the baby, rather than in Macy’s where the only souvenirs were tacky!


the High Line

I walked all along the High Line – a park converted from a former railway line – and ended up in the meatpacking district and Chelsea Market. The High Line was beautiful, even on a breezy grey day. I loved the juxtaposition of the cultivated greenery with the industrial buildings and in places the remaining train tracks, it was cleverly done. The meatpacking district, especially when viewed from above (standing on the High Line) reminded me of the Spitalfields Market area in East London, all industrial units which have been regenerated into trendy and expensive clothes shops and the like.


High Line sign & assorted Americana


Signpost in Chelsea Market

Chelsea Market was fun – lots of foodie shops and stalls, I had a delicious rice paper wrap from a vegan sushi place (one of the top ten vegan sushi restaurants in the US, it said – are there more than ten?!). It was very ‘New York’ – as well as vegan sushi you could find mini donuts with your choice of a selection of flavoured sugars, a ‘dairy bar’ with yogurt, ice cream, milkshakes, cupcakes of many varieties, a loose spices and tea stall, and Vietnamese sandwiches.

Later I walked around some of Central Park even though by now it was a bit grey and chilly, just to say I’d been there. It is really lovely, loads of different parts within it such as a huge lake and undulating hills and pretty arches/bridges.


Central Park


London is ridiculous for the number of chains on the same street, you can stand in some spots and be within sight of three Prets for example, and wherever you walk you’ll find a Costa, Starbucks, Caffe Nero, or an indie coffee shop or three. On the way to my meeting I walked a good twenty minutes between my hotel and the Consulate and didn’t see one Starbucks, in fact I kept walking in order to find somewhere for a decent caffeine fix. There are however lots of delis and shops where you can pick up a watery black ‘drip’ filter coffee. The reason for free coffee refills in diners is that this coffee is weak and insubstantial. The UK’s penchant for espresso-based coffee has clearly not caught on in New York, and it got me wondering whether if someone opened a competing chain to Starbucks and had one on every corner, whether they’d make millions. Maybe not – even Pret in Manhattan has a selection of drip coffees for people to pour themselves, they’ve customised their offering for the market I suppose. I missed a good flat white – although it was far too hot on the first two days for hot coffee, iced coffee is the way to go!


One of the best foods New York has to offer! I had a couple, an everything bagel (‘everything’ being everything savoury like poppy and sesame seeds, onion, wholewheat) with a schmear of scallion cream cheese but I should have branched out and tried more, one for every meal would be about right I think. Next time (please let there be a next time!) I will have honey and pecan cream cheese on a cinnamon bagel. I really should stop planning my meals so far in advance…

The Subway

…is dirty, smelly, and difficult to navigate – I know, I’m already a confessed London Transport fanatic, but you realise just how amazing the tube in London is after using the New York subway.


I foolishly found myself too exhausted and far away to walk back to my hotel on the last afternoon, so needed to top up my Metro card using the remainder of my cash in order to make one journey. There are far too few ticket machines, and they all use an old technology form of touchscreen which is maddening (hit the screen a few times, it registers the wrong number, start again…), and they often reject your perfectly adequate dollar bills! Thankfully despite the queue forming behind me for the only machine of the three accepting cash(!), no one was huffy or rude (an impossibility if the same scenario had occurred in London!), in fact the man behind me exchanged my faulty dollar bill for quarters and blamed the machine. All the lines and many of the stations are numbered, so that must be annoying if you have dyscalculia or any problem remembering numbers (‘was it line 4 to 33rd Street or line 3 to 44th Street?’). This is why people take taxis, I guess!

‘im indoors

I kept in touch with my partner online from the hotel, we just chatted briefly via messenger. The time difference meant we couldn’t catch up at the end of my day (the UK is five hours ahead) but it was nice to still have that connection during the day. He was spending four days at home covering childcare for the duration of my trip. He insisted I shouldn’t micro-manage by planning him things to do while we swapped roles (I’m usually at home doing most of the childcare, around my studies) – “on principle you shouldn’t have to help me, I should be doing this without us reverting to stereotype of the useless dad who needs to be told what to do” – but in the end I did make some successful suggestions, including toddler soft play at the leisure centre, a couple of hours at our combined childcare/workspace for a well-earned break, a few easy meal ideas, the regular childcare swap at home with another mum friend.

The purpose of my trip

I spoke at an informal meeting of translators (of Danish to English) at the Consulate General of Denmark, invited by my funders (the Danish Arts Foundation), on the work I’d been doing on establishing the network for Da-En translators in the UK/Europe. The meeting went well, I think, although perhaps everyone was left with more questions than answers (should there be two networks or shall we combine networks?) and was followed by a fantastic dinner at the official residence of the Danish Ambassador of the Consul General, a penthouse on the 76th floor of NY by Gehry overlooking Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center – absolutely stunning views, as you might imagine!







It was a lovely group of people to spend the afternoon and evening with, speaking Danish and talking about translation, books, and New York.

An amazing privilege, quite unreal the whole thing. Now my legs ache from walking so much!