From Iceland — The Image of Iceland

The Image of Iceland

Published July 29, 2008

The Image of Iceland
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Luckily most nations were named before the existence of nation-branding. If people would have been as business-minded in medieval times as now we would never have heard of Iceland. Our glorious semi-arctic island of midnight sun and hip nightlife would have been named “Cool-land”. Greenland would have been sued for false advertising. But finally, for better or worse, we are systematically starting to brand the image of our nation. Last year the Prime Minister appointed a committee to give a report on the matter. The report is now out but since most people are not that much into reading governmental reports (don’t start because it becomes a habit) we will give you a summery plus some of our own thoughts on the matter.

Which “brand” is more famous Sony or Turkey? What about Smirnoff or Austria, Snickers or Seychelles Islands, The Blue Lagoon or Uzbekistan? Even though the answer will at some rate be subjective there are formulas and theories that can give us a scientific answer to the questions, at least – for what it’s worth – which brand is worth more. Based on my taste I would go for Sony, Austria and Snickers, but I’m not sure about the last one. Here I am accepting the fact that nations can be brands. They can have official slogans. A disappointed Slovenian I once met explained to me that his nation’s official slogan is “The country with love” (A rather unappealing wordplay, I must say).

What about Iceland? It certainly has an image but is it a brand? How big is it and how should the slogan sound? Who decides how it is presented and how it is maintained? These are interesting questions and up until this point the public and more sadly also authorities had only limited answers.

Why Mess With a “Perfect” Image?
Let’s start with a banal but yet necessary thought. Isn’t Iceland’s image exceptionally good? Aren’t we the global flavour of the week, month, year and millennium? The land of elves and poets, beautiful women, fire, ice and crazy nightlife? We know the drill. Iceland is the best. We tell ourselves that Icelandic water is the best in the world and that Icelandic agricultural products are more ecological than those from rest of the world. Tourists even buy it since it’s relatively debatable. But when we start to brag that we construct the best houses in the world, I think we stir up a few laughs (just friendly laughs though like when you laugh at a picture of a dog with sunglasses).

My point is that we over-estimate the image of Iceland. It is neither as well-known nor as positive as we think. It is pointed out in the report that according to a 2007 research by nation branding specialist, Simon Anholt, Iceland came in number 19 out of 35 countries. All Scandinavian and OECD-countries in the research were higher on the list (p. 20). Maybe it was time we took a look at this thing called nation-branding. It’s no good to have a perfect image if the image is only in our own head.

No U-turns
It is no secret that the ideology of nation images and nation branding is an adaptation of similar ideas used for companies. That does not justify my intentional but silly comparison between companies and nations. We are not interested whether Ikea has a better image than Korea. But we could be interested whether Sweden has a better image than Korea, at least in some isolated fields, e.g. furniture making. Maybe it is a dark side of globalisation, but countries are now just as dependent on a competitive identity as companies. And make no mistake. The idea is not to create a totally new image for Iceland. One of the first things stated in the report is that building an image is a long-term project which revolves mostly around coordination between those that already serve the cause and to sharpen an image that already exists. The key is to bring out an image that all parties can agree to.

What’s the Image For?
To understand what kind of work is being done it is necessary to understand who stands to benefit from it. According to the report, there are mainly three fields that benefit from a sharp and strong nation image. They are export of goods and services, foreign investment and tourism.

Research shows that consumers are more and more deciding on products based on their country of origin. A good example is the positive image of Swatch wrist-watches. We would buy a wrist-watch made out of rhubarb if we knew it was from Switzerland. Iceland can benefit from this since research also shows that the majority of people are willing to pay more for a product from a country with a clean environment. In this sense one of our tasks is to sharpen this angle of our nation’s image.

When decisions are made whether to make investments in foreign countries there a few issues at hand, for example, access to international airports, financial environment and taxation, number of experts, universities and research centres. Still executives do not, according to studies, only base their decisions on clean economical facts but also on their gut feeling for the nation’s image and reputation. In this field I personally think it’s important for Icelandic authorities to decide what kind of investment should be brought in. The country is a feasible place for high-tech companies who need both the expertise and education, but let’s not forget that Iceland’s energy resources also raise hopes for quick colonisation-style profits, so let’s not sell ourselves cheap. The image should be of a trophy-wife and not a street-hooker.

Can We Serve Them All?
Then of course attracting tourists is all about image. Here the image works both ways. We create an image to attract tourists and then, like the report points out, the way we treat our tourists is one of the most important and visible factors in the nation’s image. The tourists return home with an image of an unspoiled and hip nation and the reputation spreads out and affects the export of Icelandic goods and even eventually foreign investment.

Though these three fields are different shouldn’t they all rely on the same image? Brochures intended for foreign investors should have the same feel as tourist brochures shouldn’t they? This is a very important topic which is underlying in the report but never directly addressed. Are we capable of promoting the possibility of putting up an oil-refinery for the business executive while promoting the idea of pure nature for the common tourist? Even though the report does not strictly define a rule in this matter, it certainly suggests a competitive identity that can be applied to all fields.

Energy, Freedom and Peace
The key to finding a competitive identity is to be focused. Volvo cannot brag about making fast and safe cars – at least not at the same time and place. They usually go for safe. This is one of the challenges when building an image. Icelanders like to be known for culture and nature. Is that possible or do we have to choose? Or can we find an identity that can serve both as representation for culture, nature and even more?

The way these issues are confronted in the report is to draw out three cores in the image of Iceland that can be applied to four important fields we want to promote. The fields are nature, people, business and culture. The three cores are energy, freedom and peace. Let’s take a look at this ideology and see if it works.

Energy reflects the nature because Icelandic nature is full of green energy that can produce endless energy. It connects to the people because Icelandic people are willing and determined. It reflects business because Icelandic business is full of pioneers and it connects to culture because Icelanders are creative and productive in the artistic field.

Freedom is connected to nature through its empty spaces and purity. It is the core of the people because they are independent, the business because it is not suffocating from red-tape and corruption and culture because free minds create pure art.

Peace has a role in the preservation of nature and today’s ecological issues (this one is maybe a little farfetched). It reflects the people because they have created a safe society. It has to do with business because we are not on the verge of a coup-d’état and have a solid infrastructure and it reflects the culture because we are a peace loving nation.

Goodbye Elves 
This representation is very wide but not necessarily unfocused. It may be foam but its good foam. It’s whipped cream in a spray-can. Some connections, like the one between peace and nature, is not solid and in my view I think all the connections to culture are weak. Energy, freedom and peace, in my opinion, are cores that reflect Iceland as an option for foreign investment and tourism but do not in a focused manner sharpen the image of Icelandic export products. The image in my head is of a big and unspoiled country with hard working people. That is all well. But what about the high educational level, the literature and last but not least the mysticism? Do we have put emphases on unspoiled nature and good infrastructure and leave mysticism to Romania? We can’t have our cake and eat it too, but still it’s better to do either of that instead of choking on it.

What’s Being Done Now?
As it has been pointed out there is a lot of work being done, intentionally and un-intentionally, in building an image for Iceland. We should be careful not to define “work” too broadly here since in its widest sense pretty much anything done by any Icelander in connection with other countries contributes to the image. An Icelander giving a bum a penny in downtown London is certainly a good representation of Icelandic kindness but what we are discussing here are big projects concerning image-building. The report makes a good summery of what’s being done and includes an appendix with a list of all governmental bodies that have to do with externally promoting Iceland.

One of the things discussed is Iceland’s candidacy for the UN’s Security Council and the Iceland Naturally project which has been rolling since 2000. The latter is a joint venture between the government and private companies and revolves around events in North-America and Europe that actively try to raise positive awareness of Iceland.

What Are the Next Steps?
The moral of the report, hats off, is not to make petty complaints about the situation at hand. On the contrary, it merely presents the options available. One chapter is dedicated to successful image building in other countries. The countries scrutinized are Switzerland, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark and Scotland; what they all have in common that they have consciously worked on their image. Most of them have been able to bring together the government and the private sector which seems to be a key factor in successful nation-branding.

The report suggests the Icelandic government should create a venue that would handle coordination between different bodies in image-building and name it “Promote Iceland”. Promote Iceland should look for ways to simplify and re-organise the current structure. It would need to have participants from all private sectors dealing with export and also The Trade Council of Iceland, Invest in Iceland, The Icelandic Tourist Board and other offices with a similar status. Its basic tasks would be to evolve a verbal and graphical trademark with a slogan, a website that would serve as a gateway to other information sites that deal with promoting Iceland, handle publishing of promotional and educational books, brochures and videos, and manage events that promote the image and do research.

Let’s Not Be Too Global
The Prime Minister’s Office report is a neat and professional account of the status and potential of the image of Iceland. It gives a good idea of what course to take and serves its main role which is basically to introduce the term nation branding to Icelandic authorities. For better or worse the report is not inspired by Einar Benediktssonesque claims of Icelandic intellectual superiority. That would have been a miss anyway. But still.

Here is a final thought from the place inside me that doesn’t make a distinction between feelings and logic. I think the Icelandic nation has two important assets. Two significant assets that make all others fade and crumble. The first is the nature and I can’t complain about the awareness in that field. The second is the Icelandic language. Sadly we are more than willing to compromise our language when it comes to image building. Most of our export trademarks have English names like Farmers Market, Geysir Green Energy, Icelandic Group, Cintamani and Icelandic Glacial. The same goes with the big branding projects like “Iceland Naturally” and “Iceland on the Edge”. I don’t understand this logic. Does anybody have a problem with the word Volkswagen? It’s German and means People’s Car. I would have liked to see more emphasis on literature and language in the report, and the presentation of research on how we look at our language and its role in promoting our country. The Icelandic language is the key to the cultural and philosophical legacy of Northern Europe. If that’s something we are not willing to use as a corner-stone when building our image, I think we should not even bother to build it at all.

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