Sweden, beyond IKEA

Magasinet Public Diplomacy, USA – Juli 2009 June 28
By Olle Wästberg

Frankly, IKEA is doing more for the image of Sweden than all governmental efforts combined.

That might be a sad statement from a governmental official with the task of enforcing ”the brand of Sweden.” But the 285 IKEA stores in 37 countries feature the blue-and-yellow national colors, serve Swedish meatballs in the restaurants and sell blond Swedish design. They market books on Sweden. To visit IKEA is to visit Sweden.

Every ”nation brand” is a simplification. But even though it may be paradoxical in the globalized world, most countries have found that they have to stress their individuality to be able to compete. Reputation is the new currency when countries are beginning to understand that soft power could be more forceful than the hard power that so often failed during the last years.

Enhancing Sweden’s image involves creating a clear position for Sweden internationally – a unique place in people’s conscience that distinguishes Sweden from other countries. In order to be clearer, we must find common denominators for Swedish phenomena, and also dare to set priorities among all the associations people make with Sweden. The leading Swedish agencies dealing with ”Sweden” – the Swedish Trade Council, Visit Sweden, Invest in Sweden Agency and the Swedish Institute – have together established a mutual brand platform, which places the word ”progressive” in the center with four core values around it:

To elaborate, four words represent these core values:

Innovative means new ways of thinking. Seeing things from a new perspective. Seeing opportunities and solutions and having faith in a better future. Not allowing oneself to be limited by engrained opinions or traditions.

Open means having a positive attitude toward free thinking and to differences between people, cultures and lifestyles. It involves being curious and sensitive to others as well as giving people space and creating exchanges; space for the ideas and views of individuals, as well as physical space to move freely without obstacles, fences or crowding in our readily accessible countryside, cities and places in between.

Caring means safeguarding every individual. Providing safety and security as well as respecting and including all people. It means feeling empathy and sharing with those who are most vulnerable; becoming involved with others and trying to see to the needs of every individual.

Authentic means being natural and unaffected. It means being reliable, honest and informal. It also involves being straightforward, unpretentious and clear, as well as standing up for one’s values even when it is not very comfortable. To be authentic means to be in touch with your past and your roots and open to the future.

This might not entirely unique, but the combination says a lot about Sweden and is validated in research as values that people from other countries also associate with Sweden.

IKEA fits very well into that context. The company has been a forerunner of corporate social responsibility, putting stress on the working conditions of their contractors as well as on sustainability. The IKEA brand of the company could very well be described in the same wordings as the platform of Sweden.

Still, the brand of IKEA is not independent; it is closely interlinked with the image of Sweden, going back more than a hundred years. It is not by chance that The Museum of Modern Art in New York last year published the book Modern Swedish Design: Three Founding Texts, which presented the first English translations of three seminal texts by pioneers of Swedish design. The three founding texts are ”Beauty in the Home” (1899), by the philosopher and critic Ellen Key; ”Better Things for Everyday Life” (1919), by Gregor Paulsson, art historian and director of the Swedish Arts and Crafts Society from 1920 to 1934; and ”acceptera” (1931), co-authored by Paulsson and the architects Gunnar Asplund, Sven Markelius, Eskil Sundahl, Uno Åhrén and Wolter Gahn.

Those texts were written long before IKEA was established and were part of what founded the international view of Swedish design: Spartan and blond, which may have communicated with a national character – if such a thing exists.

The Stockholm Exhibition in 1930 established the term ”functionalism” that since then has been dominant in Swedish design and architecture, even if Sweden too has its neoclassical buildings. Function, not decoration, is the framework for what could be called the typical Swedish design creed.

On another level, the book Sweden: the Middle Way by the American journalist Marquis Childs had an enormous impact of the image of Sweden, especially in the US, and it sold several editions in 1936. It painted Sweden as the ultimate compromise between capitalism and socialism, a sort of paradise where basic class conflicts were gone. It was a sort of social design that very well interplayed with functionalism.

This has acted well for Sweden. Still, it is much of a stereotype. Sweden has never had a big publicly owned sector. Sweden of today is one of the most market-oriented countries of the world – compare with, for example, the US, where schools, daycare for kids, subways, etcetera are mostly publicly owned.

Does Sweden use design as a tool for nation branding today? Yes, the Swedish Institute continuously has exhibitions with Swedish design traveling the globe. Sweden is a small country, with a population the size of New York City’s, the area of California and the GNP of New Jersey. To be successful from that small base, Swedish companies have to add value and special knowledge to their products. Some companies have learned the hard way that neglecting design will hurt. Ericsson’s problems with cellular lines at the end of the 1990s were the result of this engineer-driven company understanding too late that people first looked at the surface, then inquired about the content of the product. A good example of how well design works is when you consider products made of distilled alcohol from potatoes: often called, ”vodka.” Absolut, with its well designed bottle and brilliant ad campaign, has made that simple product an export success.

That the brand of Sweden is linked to the image of Swedish design is obvious, even though Sweden as a country has to get better at exploiting that image. Credibility comes from living the brand. To be consistent, to always speak in the same way, is essential to maintain credibility. When the U.S. established its embassies and consulates in a devastated Europe after World War II, it built transparent modern buildings with many glass windows. They were meant to send the message that the U.S. is an open, democratic society.

When Sweden built the new House of Sweden in Washington a couple of years ago, the idea of showcasing contemporary design was very present. Designed by the architect Gert Wingårdh, the building is a combined embassy, exhibition hall and meeting place. It incarnates Sweden.

But Sweden and its official representatives could be much more consistent in the details. Does everyone who represents Sweden drive a Volvo and carry an Ericsson cell? Is every embassy furnished with the latest in Swedish furniture design? Regrettably, no. You would have to search long and hard to find IKEA furniture at embassies or consulates.

For business, the image of a country can be decisive. Simply put: If you just have a couple of minutes to present your product, it helps if you don’t need to use the scarce time to explain the nature of its origin. In fact, the country of origin could actually add to the value of a product – a phenomenon sometimes called ”the country of origin effect.”

I recently met with the CEO of Volvo Trucks. He told me that clearly, Volvo is very affected by the image of Sweden. Both because Volvo as a brand is so interlinked with Sweden, but also because Volvo needs to entice some of the best car engineers to move to Gothenburg. Therefore Sweden has to spread the image of a country that is nice to live, study and work in (which actually, according to Simon Anholt’s Nation Brands Index studies, is one of the areas where Sweden comes out best).

The Swedish Institute is in the process of forming a network of companies wanting to use place branding as a marketing tool. It goes both ways: Sweden benefits from the way IKEA market itself. But IKEA is one of the companies that most benefit from the image of Sweden. IKEA would not be IKEA without its Swedish background.

Olle Wästberg is the Director-General of the Swedish Institute, a public agency entrusted with disseminating knowledge abroad about Sweden and organizing exchanges with other countries in the spheres of culture, education, research and public life in general. He has a background as editor-in-chief of daily newspaper Expressen, member of parliament, state secretary of finance and consul general of Sweden in New York.