Dagens Næringsliv, 2002
Norway may have excelled in the winter olympics, while Sweden languished at the bottom of the medal table, but in the branding league the Swedes are at the top and Norway, nowhere. It could be argued that this is unimportant. In terms of national wealth (GDP per head), Norway continues to progress relative to other nations, while Sweden slides. Yet, what is observable is that the power of brands is growing. Stock markets reward companies with powerful brands, consumers pay more for well established brands and employees want to work for brands with good reputations. Increasingly the value fo companies can be found in their intangible assets; in the realm of the brand. By some estimates the average percentage of market value attributed to intangiblity has already reached 85%. This means that the real future belongs with companies and countries that nurture their brands.
Good in Norway is Good Enough
Sweden has long excelled at developing international brands. Brands such as H&M, Gant, Ordning & Reda, Volvo, Absolut and Ikea have well established reputations across the world. This is because as soon as they have a good business base within Sweden they look to capitalise on the growing power of their brands. In many cases this is surprising, because internationally there have been no historic associations with Swedish vodka or clothing. Rather these brands, often in their own idiosyncatic way, have established markets that no one knew existed. In comparison, while Norway has been successful in the production and distribution of raw materials, consumer brands, perhaps with the notable exception of Helly Hansen, have not succeeded on the international stage. The reasons for this are subtle. One contributing factor is a belief in the virtue of Norwegianness. National pride is a powerful and positive factor and understanding how to use the reputation of Norway in the development and marketing of products is fundamental. However, pride should be balanced by open mindedness to new ideas and new experiences. It is self delusion to believe that Norwegian pasta is inevitably better than Italian and that Norwegian camembert is better than its French original. Innovation comes from absorbing new influences and using it to make imaginative leaps that define new and different consumer experiences –something that Swedes are very good at (Sweden is ranked number 1 in innovation, ahead of the USA, Japan and the rest of Europe). Connected to this issue is a lack of confidence among Norwegians outside of Norway. There is far less anxiety attached to building a brand in your home market, where you know the rules and the culture. Internationally, there are many pitfalls. For example, the UK has long been know as a nation of shopkeepers and there are powerful indigenous retail brands, but for most success in Europe and in particular the US has been elusive. To avoid the discomfort, Norwegian brands seem happy to settle for success in Norway and if they are adventurous, in Sweden or Denmark. As a participant in a recent customer discussion group about Norway observed,
Building successful brands is all about the willingness to take risks, of making mistakes and tackling the unknown.
The Weight of Tradition
Recently if you were travelling from Stockholm to Oslo and using the airport express trains, you could be treated to an insight into one of the cultural differences between Sweden and Norway. The Arlanda Express train would show a video on the train on the infrastructure of Stockholm – the excellence in telecoms, the transport facilities and the support available to business. After arriving in Gardermøen, the Oslo express train would also have a video showing. Not of the business opportunities in Oslo, but rather a documentary showing seal hunters in Svalbord and the beauty of an isolated lifestyle. The rural idyll remains a dominant feature in the Norwegian psyche, yet only 4% of the labour force are employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing and farming only accounts for 2% of GDP. The natural beauty is there to be appreciated and tradition to be savoured but brands are found in adding value not processing raw material and in using the past to discover new futures. Swedish retail brands such as Gant, Ordning & Reda and H&M do have long established histories, but they are also very adept at understanding future markets. Ordning & Reda, for example, was a long established family book binding business, before the children of the founder saw the opportunity to use the Scandinavian reputation for design and the tradition of paper production to develop a brand that met the consumer desire for high quality stationery for both home and work. The particular insight was the realisation that there was a significant market for a premium based product that conveyed a sense of pleasure and esteem in its use – paper products as a lifestyle statement. From its beginnings in 1982, the company now has retail outlets in 16 countries, including the USA and Japan. In contrast, in Norway tradition rather being used to create new and interesting stories often seems to represent a barrier to change.
A very powerful seam that runs through modern Norwegian history is a spirit of adventure. The exploits of Nansen, Amundsen and Thor Heyerdal are known throughout the world. If there is an awareness of Norway internationally, it is for the courage and risk taking of these individuals – and by extrapolation for Norway as a whole. There is a brand that uses this aspect of Norwegianness to great effect: the outdoor clothing company, Napapijri. If you visit their website you are treated to stories of polar exploration and adventure. Buy the products and you are treated to outsize representations of the Norwegian flag. This brand sells the concept of Norway. Yet of course it is an Italian brand based in Aosta. Much of the success of Swedish brands is their ability to capture and then communicate strong stories. For example, Gant and its East Coast American lifestyle, Absolut and its bottleshape and Volvo and its concept of safety and longevity as encapsulated by `For Life`. Where are the equivalent, Norwegian stories? This is the area of prime opportunity. There may be geographic, population density, regulatory and cultural barriers that inhibit the development of Norwegian brands, but with insight and courage, there are great stories to tell. More can be made of the overall Scandinavian reputation for design, more can be made of the reputation for purity (especially for any brand with arctic associations) and certainly more can be made of the powerful adventurous spirit. These attributes are most clearly represented in modern Norwegian architecture: Olso Airport and Snøhetta´s Alexandria Library are strong examples of how Norwegianness can be used. If companies are willing to seize the opportunity, Norway could emulate its winter olympics success with international brands.