Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Audacity To Think differently

At this year´s Elonmerkki-conference (25.8.2011), the "Branding of Finland" -project  was visibly represented through the Finnfacts- display stand. It has been almost a year since the national "brand-team" published their report with the help of Jorma Ollila, yet the work still continues. Last year the team concluded  that Finland´s strengths and modes to distinguish itself  is through "great functionality of the society, nature and education". The executive director of Musex (Music Export Finland) Ms. Paulina Ahokas was a member of the Jorma Ollila -led brand team. Her organisation, Musex, focuses on representing Finnish music industry abroad and tries to improve the export revenue income. Ms. Ahokas also served as the moderator for "Elonmerkki", and gave her view on the significance of design in exporting the Finnish brand abroad. International economy is in turmoil, and the way to survive is through constant adaptation and renewal. In this regard, Finland as a country has a lot to catch up to, according to Ahokas. Companies must recognize the significance of design in renewal, differentiation and profitability. In sum, "design" is not plain decorative speak for the organization, but a strategic approach on action.

Finnish know-how, and ways to export it abroad  was an underlying theme in many of the day´s speeches.
Panel discussion "Design in boosting competitivity" (Design vauhdittamaan kilpailukykyä) highlighted the concerns, hopes and visions for the Finnish brand internationally. Panel members were Atte Jääskeläinen (YLE, Finnish Broadcasting Company), Mirkku Kullberg (Artek, Finnish  furniture company), and Veera Heinonen representing Finnish Foreign Ministry. The moderator for the panel was Pekka Timonen, the leader for the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012-project.

The shared view among the panel members was apologetic. According to Veera Heinonen, the encapsulated message of last year´s Finnish brand team (functionality, education and nature) is good, but it has not been successfully communicated globally. The problem lies with under-communication, if anything. The notions of "sauna, Sibelius and Finnish Grit" are old-fashioned and need to be upgraded. As a skillful recent example Heinonen mentions last winter´s "Finnish snow-how" -phenomenon, and how it gained international attention and recognition. While the rest of the Europe struggled with too much snow on their airports, Finnish airports remained open, no matter what. This skill with snow removal was widely admired and reported even at CNN. But how could this one-shot attention be integrated as part of the country brand? How could it generate longtime buzz and boost export?

According to Kullberg from Artek, their company is often  mentioned internationally when referring to Finnish design. The problem is, that the company is actually smaller than their fame and name-recognition. Their small size comes as a surprise to many foreign stakeholders and has turned into a golden cage for the company itself. How does a company utilize their brandname productively while avoiding pitfalls? At times, it felt like Artek´s challenge was in risk-taking. This is what Kullberg admitted herself.

In effect, the panel concluded that a much of the challenge with communicating Finnish brand lies with cultural modesty and reservedness. We simply do not have the natural tendency to speak loud enough repeatedly and take risks when it comes to marketing and communication. The phenomena of "Rovio" is admired yet feared at the same time. Is that the kind of attitude we should adapt in marketing? Surely Vesterbacka is pushing the limits of good behaviour- after all, it is not "The Finnish way" to act. But discreetness does not gain you followers in today´s cacophony of messages sent. In the end, everybody cannot be pleased, when it comes to designing the message. From where can we garner the audacity to talk louder and push for influence?

The uber-innovation activist (yes, that is his self-made title, "yli-innovaatio aktivisti") Anssi Tuulenmäki from Aalto university had many pointers to give in this. Hopefully the panel members were listening and throwing their shy ponderings away. Tuulenmäki is not shy to admit the influence of environment to communication style. The Finnish landscape has been traditionally rural, cold, distant, barren and small-scale. There is not simply even enough of Finns to speak of to gain profits based on mass. However, the nationally characteristic ability to survive on the basis of smallness, independence and reliability are strong assets to be recognized.
The seed for success lies in differentiation and clever innovation. What do we do differently than the others, and how can we capitalize that? Simple, yet the idea does not bear labor for offspring easily.

One of Tuulenmäki´s clever insights into "differentiating the message" is being ordinary. In this day and age, we have all come to associate startling messages with something special, lavish, unique, outstanding, better than the norm. But this not always the mode to take. As an example he cites Lauren Luke, your-average single mom from South Shield, England, who happened to stumble into making amateur makeup-videos into the internet sometime in 2007. Today, she is a Youtube-phenomenon with 111 million views, her own cosmetics line sold at Sephora, a book, newspaper column and a Nintendo game. Her secret lies in being ordinary and approachable, not the supermodel-style we have come to associate with cosmetics. Can an entire nation take example from this? Of course, according to Tuulenmäki. The best communication is different communication. Copying the mainstream is not strategic innovation. It is safe, yet poor and lazy thinking. Common convention is the killer of brilliant ideas, regardless of the field of operation.

Are Finnish companies doing things differently enough? Is the value of deviation and difference acknowledged? The speech of Anssi Tuulenmäki surely left the audience with a thought or two to reflect on, hopefully with fruitful results.


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