Worrying about the “Finnish Brand”

suomi.emoji

Something I have heard here worries me a bit. A number of Finnish people I have met have told me that Finland needs to do a better job selling itself. Somehow, some seem to think, the ongoing recession is in part due to the fact that “Brand Finland” isn’t in better shape abroad.

I don’t know if that is true or not, but there is not much about Finland in the international media that isn’t glowing. It is true, though, Finland’s post-Nokia economy is in a rut. Finns are well aware that the tech sector, especially tech exports–have taken a nose dive. What’s more,“Finland remains in recession after contracting by 0.1% in the last three months,” a blurb in the Guardian announced a few days ago. “That follows a 0.5% contraction in the July-September quarter, and means Finland’s economy is still smaller than in 2008.”

Okay, but who is to say that 2008 is the year we should use judge the present. In 1929, the Dow peaked at 381; it would not revisit that mark until 1936, if we include deflation-related prices. In the 2000s, there were likewise multiple bubbles in the global economy and Finland, though it was no Greece or Iceland, was taken for a ride. But should we wish for a return to the economy of 2007?

Also, there was the size of Nokia. The Economist reports that Nokia “contributed a quarter of Finnish growth from 1998 to 2007,” and “was sometimes paying as much as 23% of all Finnish corporation tax.” And, on June 29, 2007, the iPhone became available for purchase.

The pain here is real. Finland’s unemployment rate is about 9%, roughly twice that of Norway. Sweden’s rate is falling; Finland’s is not.

I wonder if fear about the country’s brand is something of a Nokia hangover. I don’t know. Imports are down as a percentage of the size of the economy. According to the World Bank, in 2000, exports of goods and services comprised 42% of GDP. In 2014, only 38%. After 20 years of a trade surplus, a small trade deficit began in 2011. But what is striking to me is that Finland’s top exports are refined petroleum paper, steel and wood: do these need re-branding?

I have taken a look at the forecasts for the Finnish economy made of the World Bank and the Bank of Finland. Both foresee growth. Not roaring progress, but slow, steady growth. This is something I have not read about on news websites.

This comes from the Bank of Finland:

Source: Bank of Finland forecast December 2015.
1. Balance of supply and demand, at reference year 2010 prices
% change on previous year
2013 2014 2015f 2016f 2017f
GDP at market prices -1.1 -0.4 -0.1 0.7 1.0
Imports of goods and services 0.0 0.0 -2.8 3.2 2.8
Exports of goods and services 1.1 -0.7 0.1 2.1 2.7
Private consumption -0.3 0.5 0.5 0.6 0.6
Public consumption 0.8 -0.2 -0.1 0.6 0.6
Private fixed investment -7.1 -3.9 -1.1 3.3 2.8
Public fixed investment 3.5 -0.9 -2.3 1.3 1.4

So when I take into account the Great Recession, the collapse of Nokia, and the forecast for a turnaround, I wonder why “selling Finland” is such a common refrain. And Brand Finance, “the world’s leading independent brand valuation and strategy consultancy,” ranks Finland’s nation brand at #4, behind only Singapore, Switzerland, and the UAE. Wow.

Is it part of a strategy, a way of keeping on top? Is the expressed worry like the new curriculum for a school system envied the world over, namely, the continuous search for ever-better results?  Here’s one piece of marketing I do like: the appearance those new Finnish emojis–the headbanger, the suana-ers, the people waiting far apart, Finnish-style, at a bus stop, the first ever produced by a nation.

Behind my discomfort is the fear that Finns will emulate Americans and begin to see markets as the holders of all solutions. When the Minister of Education, who came through the university here today, calls for a combination of cuts, consolidation, and specialization in higher education, I worry. Can a “university” specialize? She wants the universities to become world-famous for a single field of study and research–can you say branding? This sounds like the rhetoric of austerity to me and it sounds like an opening for academic capitalism now so common in the US. Let’s hope the economy rebounds before any harmful changes can be implemented, whether in education or anywhere else in the social welfare system.

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