When the current economic crisis went into high gear in 2008, Finland started to talk about branding like it was the second coming. Since then the discussion has involved traditional consumer brands, job-seeker brands, employer brands, municipal brands, district brands, education brands, author brands and above all else, the Finnish brand.
The lattermost variety has to do with Finland’s competitive ability as a nation. Hysterical questions were asked, like ”Does everything have to be branded these days?” ”Is it a good thing or a bad thing?” and ”Why is it so hard to commercialize Finnish know-how?”
In the September issue of Ylioppilaslehti we will discuss political branding. In recent years the National Coalition Party, the largest political party in the country, has won election after election and their support figures are still sky-high, over 21 percent depending on the survey.
If you ask the NCP’s key players about branding, they jump down your throat. Brands don’t matter, they rage, insights into social issues do!
But they do not. People have based their votes on images and conceptions since the dawn of politics. The proportion of citizens who are well-versed in the political concerns of their own country is actually very small.
The image that used to be big was just a different image: ideals. Ideals represented either good or evil. Now young voters especially can shuffle between Left League and National Coalition Party candidates in the same elections without so much as batting an idealistic eye.
The big win of the Coalition Party’s branding scheme has been its success at building itself up as a group of specialists who understand the world better than anyone else. In a country like Finland whose welfare system badly needs an overhaul, this is the kind of talk that hits home for a lot of people.
For instance, when fresh new Minister for Social Affairs and Health Laura Räty yarns on about her tax dodging, she knows full well which buttons to push. She talks about the transformation of the job market and the growing group of self-employers, and new methods of ensuring a sustainable income that resemble the love child of traditional entrepreneurship and wage labor. Räty transforms herself from an antagonist into an omniscient trickster god with all the answers. Many don’t swallow her highfalooting prose, and label her an elitist. But for a large enough proportion, her mythic rhetoric hits the exact spot she wants.
Prime Minister Alexander Stubb showing up to a press conference in knee-high biking shorts doesn’t weaken the ministerial institution, but instead strengthens the image that the Coalition Party wants to perpetuate. In any case, Stubb’s shorts are still a better choice of clothing than Social Democratic Party leader Antti Rinne’s crooked cravats.
In many respects, talk on branding is a welcome thing. For instance, job-seeker branding essentially challenges people to think about how to present themselves to employers. Introspection of this kind is always worth our while.
Political branding, too, would be free of stigma €” if all parties did it, as in most of the United States. What has happened in Finland is that the National Coalition Party has been able to build up its brand brick by brick, without any of the other parties realizing what’s going on. They should have followed suit ages ago. It is only once all of Finland’s political parties are playing the same game that Finns will be able to realize that behind every brand, there is something it is trying to cover up.
In the NCP’s case, it is a gang of stiff-necks with conservative values. It isn’t very rewarding for the voter to realize that the group of people shooting down all the issues he holds dear is the very one that he has helped get there. This is what has happened with citizens’ initatives, all of which have fallen through. Initiatives on fur farming and marriage equality are issues of ethical values.
Two-faced branding is something that is also a familiar practice for Pekka Somerto, CEO of Valkee Ltd. which sells bright light headsets. Somerto chides Finland for being anti-innovation in our feature article; the wall of evidence declaiming him as a fraud is, he says, nothing but a fear of change.
Right. And of course: Stubb traveled to China last year with Valkee plugs in his ears to show off Finland’s amazing forward-thinking innovation. Because that’s what Finland needs, brave new ideas to usher us into the future.
Who could disagree with that?
Translated by Kasper Salonen.