Branding Denmark means action

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Lately I’ve been asking myself what the authentic danish brand is all about. Almost a year ago I was discussing this with Wally Olins as I was asking his opinion as (however well-informed) an outsider (Wally is british). I think his answer was something like “sameness”, that the danish people like the fact that they are all relatively similar and share lots of very specific interests, rituals and habits.

Driving to Dansk Erhvervs (the danish business association) event “Branding Denmark” today I was discussing with Sandra how difficult it is to understand your own identity. As most danes have never known anything but living in Denmark it’s difficult for them to see what’s unique about their country, about their national identity. They’ve always seen the design, the architecture, eaten the national dishes, known the way we lead our schools and organizations, how we’ve structured our social system and our environmental values and hence they cannot see all these things that differentiate us from other countries. Things, on which we can base activities that are now being framed as “Branding Denmark”.

We arrived at the exact same moment as Anders Fogh (I didn’t want to bother him as he was filling his pockets with candy from the reception, seems Sweet-tooth and I share a craving for candy) which mean we didn’t get all of Simon Anholts talk. Anholt has developed a way of mapping how different countries reputations are comparable. But we got Anders’ talk fifteen minutes later. And the panel discussion with Arlas well-prepared and serious Astrid Gade Nielsen, Parkens Flemming Østergaard who claimed he didn’t know a thing about branding and CEO of Bestseller, Troels Holch Povlsen who kept me and the rest of the crowd giggle throughout the session.

As I discussed with Majken on the way home the debate easily loses focus. Suddenly everyone is discussing wether or not danish companies should place little flags on their products and asking when the danish flag was dismissed from the über-danish “Lurpak” butter-packages. And the friendly Prime Minister Sweet-tooth didn’t miss the chance to advocate for his deeds through the past years including stop of tax-increase etc. Since every dane is a specialist on danish values and virtues everyone gives it their best shot which is the exact problem of the case at hand: There are too many opinions, way too many objectives and an insane number of activities about to happen. And not a lot of choice as that would rule some activities and virtues out of this game. In order for a branding-project to work few strengths and only one idea has to be in focus.

On a more positive note, lots of people in the lot seemed to understand that unique events matter. However events are quickly turned into a tiresome light-category of sports and the royal wedding. Not that I have anything against either but how about opening our country to foreigners. Or opening our mind to people who are different from ourselves? What kind of event would that be? Sort of a Cartoon-crisis-turnaround? And a solution to some of the problems we are facing as danish companies try to increase their workforce in fierce competition with other companies with the same staffing-needs? Two political events that has changed the perception of Denmark is the Cartoon crisis and Denmarks participation in the war in Iraq. When was the last time the official Denmark did something good that impressed the world? Like helping someone or changing the world in a good way? Was that the soccer-success of 1992?

The activities that we invest in as we try to make people outside Denmark know this little country has to be very unique, out of the ordinary, meaningful and true. They have to live up to our history and they have to show that we dare to choose to commit to actions that we believe in. Because if they are true to our heritage and are driven by a brave choice they are truly authentic. And if it’s not authentic on these two dimensions they are worth nothing.

Right now my colleagues and I are trying to get our CSR-project Specialekontoret to fly. Not an easy task as we are raising 30 mio dkkr (5 mio usd). The idea is to get companies to help students through an efficient process as they do their master-thesis. Paradoxially prime minister Anders Fogh mentioned that Denmark is becoming a leading nation for education by admitting more foreign students and giving 100 MBA-scholarships to foreign students. At the same time danish students (including the foreign students that are studying here) don’t have a place to work during the last crucial part of their studies. Basically, the idea of becoming a leading country for education and learning is great (and authentic, I think, as we have unique knowledge, knowhow and most importantly: a leadership model that help us develop great learning) but right now it’s not happening at all. Why? Because the government is not taking enough action to make the collaboration between public organizations (schools, universities etc.) and the private companies work.

The best thing the danish Government could do to brand Denmark right now is to change our policies towards people wanting to visit or live in Denmark. And hey, while you’re at it, help danish students and companies meet and work together by supporting our ambitious pilot project.