This podcast series commemorates Bloom Consulting’s 20th anniversary, and Clare Dewhirst, director of City Nation Place, sets the stage for an exploration into the domains of Nation and Place Branding, with each episode focusing on Bloom Consulting’s 14 crucial steps to crafting an effective Place Branding strategy – a journey that will unfold across the series. In this episode, the spotlight is on the first step to Nation Branding; laying the foundation and creating a structure of Place Brand.

Clare is joined by Bloom Consulting CEO Jose Torres and Christian Biller, the brand strategist at the Swedish Institute, responsible for promoting Sweden’s Nation Brand to a global audience. Discover the key principles and challenges in shaping a nation’s reputation amidst evolving global dynamics. Their insights promise a rich discussion.

Clare: Jose, let’s start by asking you why this first step, building your foundation, is so important. While I can see that it feels like an obvious starting point, what do you mean by a strong foundation?

Jose: It has been 20 years, and it has been quite a ride. I’ve had the privilege of working with the many countries and many nations. Several projects were successful, while others were not. The truly important aspect here lies in the lessons learned and the insights gained from our experiences. And it’s very interesting to see that such a basic aspect that sounds like something that is a must have, sometimes is not there yet in some projects and some nations. We often observe Nation Branding projects emerging without a solid foundation or alignment with all stakeholders, compromising the entire Nation Brand strategy and its implementation. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s probably one of the most important steps and a lot of times it’s overlooked. And ultimately, Nation Brand projects, or even City Brand projects, fail because of that. So that is why we have outlined this primary step. I think it will be truly fascinating to speak with Christian about the foundations because I find it admirable how Sweden has prioritised this step in managing their Nation Brand. But I’m going to leave it to him to talk about this, we have so much to learn, and I hope many nations learn from this, because it really helps to implement a successful Nation Brand strategy.

Clare:  I appreciate your emphasis on focusing more on when things go wrong if you don’t take certain steps and I assume that you’re going to focus on how to get it right. But let’s turn to you, Christian, you’ve worked with the Swedish Institute for 16 years. As Jose said, the Nation Brand of Sweden, from my outsider’s perspective, appears to be strong, steady and consistent in its messaging and its reputation management. Can you remember back to when the foundations were first set? When was the Institute established? What was your original remit?

Christian: The Institute, to go back many years, was established in 1945, as many organisations working with public diplomacy were during the last year of the Second World War. It was primarily Sweden’s effort to enhance their relationship with the world. We are similar to other agencies like the European Institute, the British Council, to build trust for Sweden internationally. But it primarily began back in the 90s, after the financial crisis in Sweden. The Swedish government established an organisation called the Council for the Promotion of Sweden and to synchronise Sweden’s promotional activities, we wanted to sound like one voice. Thus, from the outset, the Swedish government opted to engage some of the most crucial stakeholders in the endeavour to promote Sweden internationally through this project. So, it involves six different actors: three departments within the Swedish government – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Enterprise, and the Ministry of Culture – alongside us, the Swedish Institute, tasked with public diplomacy objectives, as well as Business Sweden, which promotes Sweden as an export and investment destination, and Visit Sweden. So, this council collectively aims to advise the Swedish government on how to promote Sweden abroad. Reflecting on two decades, the initial substantial study on Sweden’s international image revealed a positive yet outdated perception, characterised by stereotypes like Abba, Björn Borg, and social democracy. Recognising the need for change, we established a joint communication platform in 2007, anchored in the core principle of presenting a contemporary Sweden – a progressive nation focused on its future trajectory rather than dwelling on its past. This foundational strategy continues to underpin our communication and marketing efforts, shaping Sweden’s identity on the global stage.

Laying the poundation_New citizens gathering in Stockholm City Hall on Swedish National Day
Greeting ceremony for new citizens on Swedish National Day in Stockholm City Hall. Simon Paulin/

Clare: That’s fascinating. I can see how this resonates with many nations, cities, and other places. Without proactive reputation management, external perceptions can easily become stereotyped, lacking the elevation of current narratives. It’s clear that this principle holds relevance for a wide range of entities. Do you find that you do need to keep asking questions about what you’re there for and what you’re delivering?

Christian: I think you must always ask that question because the challenges are always evolving. It’s crucial to understand why we’re pursuing certain strategies and what current challenges we’re confronting. While the issue of outdated image might have been relevant in the past, today we face different challenges, both domestically and globally. Strategy, by its very nature, is an ongoing process, necessitating regular re-evaluation to ensure alignment with evolving circumstances and policies. So yes, while it presents challenges, it’s an essential aspect of strategic planning.

Jose: I have a question for you. When discussing the other stakeholders, the six permanent members, is there a clear mandate delineating each one’s responsibilities? I assume you convene regularly. Could you elaborate on the governance system in place?

Christian: We have three different setups. At the top level, there’s the strategic tier, which convenes four times a year and includes presidents, director generals, and heads of units, establishing the strategic foundation. Below that, there’s a tactical setup responsible for operational assignments, meeting around four times a year to discuss tactical approaches and task allocations. Lastly, we have an operational level comprising two teams – one focused on monitoring Sweden’s image and the other on visual identity. Despite a modest annual budget of around 500,000 euros for various council initiatives, each organisation provides the necessary resources. This hierarchical setup ensures regular meetings and effective coordination across all levels.

Jose: But of course, another significant question concerns funding, doesn’t it? It originates from the foundation. Is this aspect clearly defined on an annual basis? Because globally, we often observe funds allocated for one or two years, raising concerns about sustainability. So, it’s a critical conversation that affects both the foundation and execution, doesn’t it? Do you have a clearly outlined process for this? How does it operate?

Christian: Well, each organisation – ourselves, Visit Sweden, and Business Sweden – are distinct entities with different structures, yet we all receive guidance from the Swedish government. So, our instructions remain consistent year to year. We each have our designated tasks, and the government provides recommendations on focus areas along with the annual budget allocation. While we operate independently, it’s more of a collaborative effort than a specific ‘Sweden organisation.’ We share the common goal of promoting Sweden across various sectors, each with its specific mandate and budget. However, cooperation is essential as we all aim to achieve the same objective, which has proven effective for us.

Jose: One of our recommendations to nations is to establish an advisory board to provide support to the committee or entity overseeing a specific mandate. Do you also engage with external advisory boards from the private sector or academia? Is this something you consider, even informally?

Christian: Not at the council level. The council for promotion doesn’t receive support from external actors. However, each organisation, such as the Swedish Institute, has its own advisory council. These councils assist the director general and staff in understanding various topics, comprising members from academia, private sector, and other governmental organisations. So, while there isn’t a board specifically for the Country Brand, each organisation in Sweden has its own internal council to fulfil similar functions.

Clare: I was going to come back to you Jose because it’s great to hear how the Swedish Institute is structured, but as we’ve acknowledged, not every place has that same structure. So, what do you think are the principles of that foundational structure that can apply to any shape of government or any place?

Jose: That’s a crucial question. We must recognise that approaches vary from one geography, country, or government to another. It’s essential to depoliticise this endeavour; it’s a state project rather than a government one, correct? So, how do we disentangle it from specific political parties? This consideration is paramount, regardless of the setting. The foundation should ideally remain completely detached from any political affiliations. The most effective foundations are those with no associations whatsoever.

Clare: But then, inevitably, political policies influence external perceptions of a country. In today’s period of intense turmoil and change, Sweden’s long-term commitment to neutrality, free trade, and progressive ideals, as mentioned earlier, faces challenges. Recently, an article in the Financial Times highlighted an identity crisis in Sweden due to these factors. How does this turmoil impact the work of the Swedish Institute?

Christian: It’s a very interesting and challenging question, and difficult to answer succinctly. These challenges are certainly pertinent to Sweden, as they are too many other countries. Issues such as strategic autonomy, de-risking, and, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine present complex strategic challenges that are currently unfolding. Additionally, we have the green transition and the advancements in AI, among other factors, adding to the mix. Yes, we are indeed navigating through a period of turmoil. In my perspective, a successful foundation for a nation brand is established when there’s harmony between its image, identity, and profile. When we examine Sweden’s image abroad, I find it to be robust. Sweden is renowned for its reputation as a well-governed, trustworthy, internationally engaged, and sustainable nation. These attributes are underpinned by core values such as transparency, democracy, and creativity. These brand assets remain highly valuable, in my opinion. However, when we consider the issue of neutrality and non-alignment, particularly Sweden’s potential accession to NATO, significant shifts have occurred. We found ourselves compelled to make a decisive choice. In a world where adherence to established rules is paramount, maintaining strict neutrality became increasingly untenable. It’s evident that there’s considerable support within the Swedish council for joining NATO. Yet, perhaps the most challenging aspect for us lies in the realm of self-image, which warrants further discussion. Faced with these intricate challenges, we must assess our capabilities to address them effectively. Failure to do so could breed disillusionment among Swedes, potentially leading to a dissonance between our perceived image and reality. If we fall short of embodying the values inherent in our brand promise, we risk veering towards an inward-looking or nostalgic stance. While I don’t foresee this scenario, it remains a potential risk. From the perspective of the Swedish Institute, our objective remains consistent: to advocate for freedom, progressiveness, democracy, and innovation. We have not wavered in this regard. Despite the evolving landscape, we believe there is still sufficient harmony to convey these ideals. Nonetheless, it’s imperative for us to monitor these developments closely, a task we are committed to.

The Swedish Parliament represents the people of Sweden
The Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) represents the people of Sweden. The parliamentary building, inaugurated in 1905, is located on Helgeandsholmen in central Stockholm. Ulf Grünbaum/

Clare: So, we’ve explored numerous topics, Christian. Are there any questions you have for Jose regarding this initial phase of constructing a robust Nation brand strategy? Perhaps you’d like to delve into his perspective on the essential elements of a solid foundation?

Christian: It’s certainly intriguing to delve into the core of the matter. Firstly, I think it’s important to question the ‘why’ behind it all. Start by pinpointing the exact challenges that necessitate the establishment of such an organisation or the strategic management of your Nation Brand. Understanding and prioritising these challenges is essential. That would be one of my questions for you, your experience on that and on being able to get stakeholders in the same room to build that organisation, what’s your best practice?

Jose: In my experience, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Different countries need different strategies, even when it comes to setting up foundational elements. When discussing the establishment of dialogue institutions in various regions, it’s clear that some parties avoid such discussions intentionally. They view themselves as competitors rather than collaborators. So, how do you manage that? Sometimes, it feels like we’re playing the role of the United Nations, trying to align everyone and encourage compromise for the greater good. The key, surprisingly basic as it may sound, lies in data. We illustrate to nations the benefits of collaboration and alignment, much like what you’ve achieved, which is admired by many nations and cities. While it may seem obvious to you, other nations don’t see it that way. It’s not that they don’t believe it’s better; rather, they may doubt its effectiveness or see no point or benefit in it. They often cite Sweden, the Scandinavians, and the Nordics as exceptions, saying that their challenges are unique and that such strategies wouldn’t apply elsewhere. While it’s true that we can’t replicate the same approach, we always support our arguments with data. We strive to demonstrate the advantages of investing in a nation brand – not merely in terms of marketing, but in fostering a positive perception and reputation. Most importantly, we emphasise that it’s not only possible but also manageable. The question often arises: “Can I manage or control my international perception?” The answer, in essence, is yes. While full control is impossible as one cannot dictate others’ thoughts, one can certainly contribute to shaping the conversation. It’s not about absolute control but about active participation. By presenting data and illustrating the societal benefits – economic, social, and in terms of public diplomacy – a shift occurs. It transforms the conversation entirely. My recommendation to all nations embarking on this journey is to initiate the conversation with data and ensure that the right stakeholders are involved from the outset. We categorize them into brand architects, responsible for laying the foundation, and brand builders, tasked with executing the brand. Sometimes, individuals like yourself, Christian, wear both hats, functioning as both architect and builder. However, the key is to have the right brand architects from the start, supported by stakeholder mapping that fosters a mentality of innovation. With the right team in place, backed by data, success becomes more attainable. This is what I advise countries facing this challenge to embrace. Christian, I’m eager to hear if you encounter challenges regarding the question of “why are we doing this?” Does this query arise from society, journalists, or other political parties? If so, how do you navigate these challenges, and what recommendations would you offer to countries or brand builders in similar positions?

Christian: One critical aspect to avoid is the perception of operating solely as a PR agency, engaging in superficial marketing tactics solely for visibility. It’s crucial to move beyond mere appearances and prioritize actions that contribute meaningfully to Sweden’s success on the global stage. This entails aligning our communication and marketing efforts with the desires and goals of Swedish stakeholders, understanding how they present themselves and their products, and identifying their target markets and investments. Listening and understanding play central roles here. We must steer clear of being perceived as a propaganda machine or a PR agency, as these roles do not align with our objectives. While marketing and PR activities can be part of our approach, they are not the primary focus. Instead, our aim is to support Swedish companies and policymakers in achieving success, thereby fostering a stronger Swedish economy and making a positive global impact. This involves communicating relevant information to the world, engaging with our audience, and actively seeking feedback to ensure our efforts remain impactful and relevant. Ultimately, the true value lies in our ability to interact meaningfully with our audience and address their needs effectively. This is where genuine connection and success are found.

Jose: You’ve really pinpointed something essential there: ensuring those questions don’t arise. It’s all about putting in the work, engaging in deep conversations with both Sweden’s representatives and those you’re serving, truly grasping their requirements. It’s crucial that everything is purposefully crafted and aligned with their interests. Your insight into the importance of dialogue with agents on the ground, companies, diplomats, and the diplomatic corps is spot-on. It’s all about understanding their needs. However, even with this understanding, there will still be questions. Some may dismiss it as merely a PR or marketing move. How do you tackle the scepticism, especially from those who are resistant?

Christain: It’s inevitable; criticism comes with the territory. People will always have their opinions, and even other countries might voice their disapproval. But I believe you must accept that and have confidence in your professionalism. Setting up clear Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is crucial, as is being able to articulate the reasons behind your actions. While measuring against the national balance index might not always be the most suitable KPI, having alternative measures can help demonstrate the value you bring. With a team of 140 people and finite resources, there are limits to what can be achieved.

Jose: You’ve highlighted an interesting aspect with KPIs. It often boils down to data rather than opinion, doesn’t it? We’re aiming to showcase performance through measurable metrics, emphasising facts over conjecture. In our experience, the KPIs that truly matter are the ones that resonate with stakeholders. While there may be other types of KPIs out there, we can’t directly influence those since they fall under a different realm. It’s essential to be evaluated and critiqued based on what’s within our realm of responsibility. Recognising this foundational principle can guide our approach effectively. It seems like that’s what you’re getting at, and I couldn’t agree more.

Clare: It sounds like there’s a significant connection between the organisational foundation, the clear vision, and the bigger picture, enabling you to listen to and understand everyone’s objectives. This facilitates ongoing evolution and keeps people engaged because of the established structure, allowing you to continue listening to and incorporating everyone’s perspectives.

Jose: The conversation about foundations is crucial, as I’ve observed in many nations. Due to a lack of a strong foundation, there’s often a cycle of repeating Nation Branding exercises. While a Nation’s Brand strategy is ongoing and should evolve with the changing world, without solid foundations, we see this repetition occurring. New governments or stakeholders come in and start the process anew, leading to strategies being developed but not implemented. With a robust foundation, there’s continuity, ensuring that the work progresses smoothly. This doesn’t mean the strategy shouldn’t be questioned or revised, but rather that it’s not because of political changes; it’s because it’s necessary. A strong foundation helps mitigate this cycle of repetition.

As we conclude this episode with Jose and Christian, we’ve gathered valuable insights into the Swedish Institute’s work, exploring the nuances of Nation and Place Branding. We thank all participants for their contributions, enriching this episode of Bloom Consulting Conversations and shedding light on the importance of laying the foundation for a successful Nation Branding strategy. It’s evident that Sweden sets a high standard to follow.

In the next episode, we’ll delve into the significance of understanding perception.

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