The National Coalition Party, Finland’s largest political party, has been building its winner’s identity since 2007. With Alexander Stubb as the party’s frontman, everything seems to be on track.
If Alexander Stubb was at home in Espoo on this particular Monday morning, he would pour himself a dark coffee, stir in some cardamom and add some warm milk.
But Stubb is not at home, he’s at the counter of the Robert’s Coffee at Helsinki’s Central Railway Station and wearing knee-high pants. His legs are gleaming and he’s sporting a summery pair of Tommy Hilfiger shoes. Here, Stubb orders a regular coffee with warm milk, as he usually does in cafes. Stubb takes his java to go and speedwalks with his National Coalition Party (NCP) colleagues to catch his train, bound for Seinäjoki. That’s where the NCP is holding its ministerial group’s summer meeting, which Stubb is attending for the first time as the country’s Prime Minister.
It’s more than a quartile since the NCP’s new leader was elected in Lahti on June 14. There were no outright favorites in the campaign for PM. Not even any of the Finnish parties’ district organizations took clear stances towards their leader of choice; votes were cast as individuals. Outwardly, it looked like nothing was certain.
This was an illusion. Looking at the NCP’s recent history, there was really only one option. The party needed a face to match themselves: a trendy, youthful, successful face. This was a brand that Alexander Stubb plopped snugly into, as snugly as into the upstairs seat of an Intercity train, destination Seinäjoki.
The party’s new order emerged in one fell swoop, or a series of them. When Stubb ran for Member of the European Parliament in 2004, he immediately pocketed the second-highest number of votes in the elections. The only person to get more was Anneli Jäätteenmäki, ex-Prime Minister and current MEP for the Centre Party.
It may be that Stubb wasn’t as taken aback by his landslide as a first-timer might be, because here is a man who is used getting his way. In September of 2003, prior to the elections, he said in an interview by influential Finnish culture magazine Image: ”If I were to look at myself from the outside and go, hey, it’s Alex Stubb, without reading anything I’d just know that guy was in some big EU position, and I’d be like who the fuck does he think he is.” He had already begun considering his MEP candidacy.
Stubb knew what he was worth, and so did the political parties. He was courted by various groups but in the end he chose the National Coalition Party, which was doing terribly in the polls at the time. The party’s abjection was due to their parliamentary election failure in 2003, which looked about as successful as you’d think, based on their creaky slogans:
This is the time of families with children. Education must be a priority. No buts when it comes to good healthcare. Safe lives for all. Entrepreneurship up, unemployment down. Let’s lighten the taxation on earned income.
Lackluster, hackneyed and flat. Which is exactly what the nation thought, too. While the Centre Party and the Social Democratic Party formed a joint government, the National Coalition, lead by Ville Itälä, was relegated to the opposition.
But only for a moment. It’s like anyone who roots for politics that stress individual freedom and responsibility would say: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
The National Coalition Party lives as it teaches.
There is a canvas behind Alexander Stubb presenting new logos for the NCP. There are blue flames on them, which Party Secretary Taru Tujunen insisted on. The message attached to the logos is pithy: Rise Again 2015.
We are at the first press conference of this summer meeting in the Seinäjoki library. Talks are held on Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and Libya. Stubb refers to the European Union in devout tones and reminds everyone present that we are no longer engaged in a cold war.
You can see his bare legs, but his expression is stern. This is the Prime Minister speaking. And he speaks slowly enough for there to seem to be a breath between every word, quite differently from the Image interview a decade ago, where the journalist seemed not to be able to get a word in edgeways.
The change is understandable. Erstwhile PM Matti Vanhanen left a conceptual legacy of a gray little man in pressed gray pants talking about depressing gray things. A sporty, vibrant Prime Minister is a different kettle of fish entirely. During the dramatic first phases of the Ukraine crisis and the ground assault on Gaza, Stubb’s Twitter feed was composed mainly of his own triathlon exploits rather than the severity of world politics. The social media went ballistic, and many were outraged.
It was easy to come to the conclusion that the Prime Minister had dropped the ball. Talking a little slower and more soberly after a gaff like that was a good move.
In early 2007, streets in Finnish cities were lined with colorful posters depicting butterflies, rainbows, roses and cornflowers.
Well this definitely isn’t an election poster, people snorted €” but it was. The NCP, together with ad firm Bob Helsinki, had blown the basic archetype for an election advertisement to smithereens. At the same time, the party had entered a series of its very own on the political field.
The same playfulness was found in their brochures, where hilarious cartoon characters demonstrated just whose party the NCP was. The leaflet featured figures like ”Sylvia the Single Parent”, ”Jane the Jobless”, ”Vince the Veteran”, ”Irma the Immigrant” and ”Frank the Farmer”.
Strangely, no one called ”Pete the Private Equity Investor” was to be found.
The National Coalition Party needed a new identity to win the election. The party’s leadership knew full well that the Finnish elite would be sure to vote, and the NCP was their only choice. That’s why the actual vote-fishing nets had to be cast elsewhere.
Advertising agencies have been used to boost political interests in Finland since the 1970s, but even looking at all the NCP’s campaigns over the decades, the change that had just occurred was the most radical to date. The image you got when you thought about the party just wasn’t the same anymore.
Tricks like these have proven successful before. Apple Inc., struggling under financial strains, revamped its brand in 1997. Their TV campaign used a simple little slogan: ”Think different”. The rest is history €” the history of the world’s most expensive company.
The NCP’s think different, the theme their new age began with, was hope €” probably the infinite kind espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. Their message wasn’t directed at those who shared their stances on taxation or immigration, but at every single person in the whole country.
And hope worked for them. After the elections in 2007, the National Coalition Party was Finland’s second-largest political party, and their MP Jyrki Katainen became Minister of Finance.
A year later Katainen was put on the spot. Fellow party member and Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva had been caught ”sexting” with dancer and tabloid starlet Johanna Tukiainen and Katainen, as the party leader, decided that Kanerva had to go.
All this brings us back to Stubb, whom Katainen called in to be the new Minister of Foreign Affairs after the sexting debacle €” and Stubb was even then as streamlined as a brand new (pun intended) Nokia Communicator. The NCP had taken yet another step towards a brighter future.
A year after that, in 2009, the party was conducting its EU election campaign with Stubb as its glossy boy king. He juggled and posed for the campaign brochure’s front page and was introduced in its pages even before Katainen, with the words: ”You, Me and Alex Stubb.”
There’s a crowd on Koulukatu in Seinäjoki. Heads are turning as if for a rock star or at least a beloved athlete. Teenagers and grannies alike are joining in.
Alexander Stubb plants himself in the middle of the street and barely moves for the half-hour ”Kokoomus kuuntelee” (The Coalition is Listening) event. Behind him a rather deflated NCP tent sits abandoned.
Stubb doesn’t give speeches. His party’s new listening-based operating model was launched before the 2007 parliamentary elections with the slogan ”Puolue, jolla on korvat” (The Party with Ears). The idea was born by thinking about what the nation was most pissed off about, Party Secretary Taru Tujunen says. The result: politicians from on high telling the population what they should think and want.
That’s why NCP brass decided that there would be no microphones and no stages in play when their politicians went out among the citizenry. Instead, the politicos are asking people how they are. It’s impossible to hear what Alexander Stubb is asking in the center of the swirling mass of people.
It’s easy to see that selfies are being snapped in quick succession, and why not: the people want to bask in the Prime Minister’s glory. The other ministers get off with far less slobbering.
The steely, even grim figure who addressed the press conference moments earlier has disappeared. In his place a star has been born, who at least outwardly doesn’t seem to be aware of his own excellence. He chats to everyone with equal ease. Newspaper articles have pegged Stubb as an ex-bully, but if we were in grade school, he would now be the popular kid in school that everyone wanted to be friends with.
Soon Stubb’s Twitter account (@alexstubb) posts a photo and the text: ”Lots of folks in #Seinäjöki. In Finnish we call it #pöhinä. #Kokoomus2015”.
It was a risk, like the National Coalition Party’s whole revamped image. The flashy posters and cute cartoon characters in 2007 could easily have been interpreted as a loss of authority. This party, the go-to political group of the wealthy bourgeoisie and a highly cultured intelligentsia, had always been viewed as proper.
How did the NCP as a party dare to steer themselves so far from home? Maybe because they had had some practice with newfangled campaigning a year earlier in 2006, when their presidential candidate Sauli Niinistö lost to Tarja Halonen by just 3.6 percent. It boggled the mind how close Niinistö got to the then-incumbent Halonen.
Sauli Niinistö’s presidential campaign was the first of many grand-scale advertising projects conducted with Bob Helsinki. The slogan, catchy and ballsy, ran: ”The Workers’ President.” Tarja Halonen had long been seen as the personification of a regular workaday Finn, strolling in her traditionally working class home district of Kallio, and that was the chord that Niinistö’s campaign managed to strike.
The presidential enterprise also included so-called ”Café Niinistös”, where the masses could gather and discuss current affairs like in some 18th century costume drama. The goal was for every one of the NCP’s 14 districts to include at least one of these coffee shops. Eventually, over a hundred of them sprouted from the earth and there was almost a shortage of window stickers and campaign t-shirts.
The working man’s angle was originally the idea of politician and Stubb’s ex-manager Kirsi Piha, current CEO of the advertising agency Ellun kanat, and she got it from the Swedish counterpart to the Finnish Coalition Party. In the neighbor state, the Moderates lead by Fredrik Reinfeldt declared itself the new labor party. They won the autumn 2006 general election with the slogan, and have been in power in Sweden ever since.
The National Coalition Party’s great success with their 2007 ”hope election” spurred them on to send all of their members a letter with a Manual for Hope. These were instructions on how to be a good Coalitioner, who:
Is not ashamed to be excited.
Knows that hope needs positivity.
Does not cover up even the ugliest of truths, but instead seeks solutions.
Does not feed the flames with ill will, but tries to always say something nice about their naysayers.
Understands that the time for confrontations is over.
Speaks a language the nation can understand.
Does not get bogged down in details.
Does not get provoked by attacks.
Admits to mistakes.
The National Coalition Party’s ”eleven commandments” have worked. Since they were released, the NCP has been the biggest party in all of Finland’s elections: the 2008 municipal election, the 2009 European election, the 2011 parliamentary election, the 2012 municipal election and the 2014 European election. In 2012, Finland’s new president was chosen from the NCP.
A video was made based on the Manual for Hope, and it can still be found in the party’s intranet. Taru Tujunen also commissioned motivational posters to be made of the manual’s exhortations, which she sent to all the party’s MPs. They were on Jyrki Katainen’s desk in the Finnish Government until the end of his term as Prime Minister, and now Alexander Stubb’s desk is adorned with them.
Although, as an elite prototype of the eleven commandments in both rhetoric and behavior, Stubb is unlikely to need them. He has publically apologized for his mistakes, such as his ”fuck this shit” comment in a Nordic Council meeting. When journalists at the Seinäjoki junket tried to get him to criticize Antti Rinne, Stubb coolly told them he had nothing bad to say about him, despite Rinne himself having consistently sniped at Stubb since he first became Prime Minister. Stubb even said in an interview with top daily Helsingin Sanomat that he hopes the Social Democratic Party’s support ratings go up.
And he knows how to talk so wonderfully plainly €” so that even Mr. and Mrs. Average can grasp what he’s saying.
”Remember to exercise, eat healthily and get enough sleep,” Alexander Stubb counsels adults and children alike.
The ministerial meet continues in Seinäjoki now with the opening of a park devoted to comedy and philanthropy group The Dudesons, and Stubb is speaking.
He says that Finland is known internationally for three things, and goes on to list four: the sauna, Nokia, Angry Birds and The Dudesons.
After his speech he climbs onto a giant dartboard to be fired at with foam missiles.
The news value of all this is, believe it or not, off the charts. The cameras flash away, and photos of the short-sporting Stubb proliferate online.
Many feel that the dartboard performance is not becoming of a country’s Prime Minister.
”Stubb’s brand is slightly schizophrenic right now,” says marketing professor Jaakko Aspara from the Aalto University.
Schizoid features are to be found in Stubb’s party’s brand too, inasmuch as the National Coalition Party struts its stuff as a liberal grouping. You only need to listen to NCP representatives go on about the gender-equal marriage bill to see that these people have at least two faces each.
It is difficult to make it past the facade of the NCP’s brand. Politicians often enjoy saying that only the content of their party’s policies makes a difference, especially among the Coalitioners: when Green League-owned magazine Vihreä lanka tried to write an article on the various ad firms used by Finnish political parties in 2010, the NCP declined to comment, saying that their party is about the content of their message. The Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party were more forthcoming.
From the inside, things look a little different: in one election pamphlet aimed at NCP candidates, the Communications and Marketing paragraphs remind them to include insightful content in all their comments.
Only the NCP’s most influential power-behind-the-throne individual can reply to questions on the party’s brand and its content, says Taru Tujunen.
But there’s a snag.
”I can’t talk about our brand, because I don’t know what it means,” says Tujunen in the cafe of snazzy Helsinki restaurant Kappeli.
All we can do is think back to the National Coalition’s previous success stories. Let’s start with the ”hope elections”, which were Tujunen’s first as Party Secretary.
She starts bubbling over with excited rapid-fire monologue like the Stubb of old.
”Our conclusion at the time was that we need something totally different,” she says. ”And as we built our strategy, we asked ourselves: What is the best thing that politics can offer a nation? The government can’t promise citizens jobs, but it can promise to raise labor market subsidies.”
”Politics cannot promise faith or love, but the best it has to offer people is hope,” she continues. ”If politicians do their job well, which no one cares about, right, and I so get it why they don’t, but they’re interested in the context. People want to live their dream, and politicians are there to make it possible. When you’ve got hope you’ve got more drive to work and study and you know, look after your family and whatnot, and that’s not gonna happen with a 10-euro pension raise.”
So… The National Coalition wants to make every person’s life better. Isn’t that a little tricky, when people have such different life situations and goals?
”What is the one thing that unites the supporters of all the different parties?” she asks. ”Traditionally it’s been like this big conflict, like what Marx talked about with the struggle arising from capital, where you’ve got the employers and the employees and then you’ve got the Coalition and the Left and the Right and what else. And I think that with globalization the world looks very different to people.”
”For a lot of Finns the biggest threat or enemy isn’t your colleague or your boss,” she meanders further. ”It can be found in totally different places. The antagonists in this kind of conflict in politics would be the Left or the Right, but I’m pretty sure that those aren’t that relevant to most Finns out there.”
But the National Coalition is a party, and parties make decisions based on their values. What is the one value that unites Coalitioners?
”I’m not entirely sure,” Tujunen says. ”This is like The Party 2.0, and there are big brainstorming workshops in Europe that are struggling with this question. If it isn’t ideologies anymore, then what’ll it be in the future? I don’t have that answer. I think that a big factor is the way in which we relate to change in the world. And that same way can also be a dividing issue.”
Tujunen says that the NCP has tried to actively understand what the world looks like to the average Finn. The ”Kokoomus kuuntelee” campaign mentioned above is an example of this. In outsourcing its solutions, the party took to peoples’ homes in 2012.
Prior to the municipal elections at the time, National Coalition candidates and ministers toured the homes of their prospective members to listen to their life stories. The idea for the grassroots mobilization originally came from the Norwegian conservative party, HÃ¸yre. The Swedish Moderate party had tested the concept in their 2010 parliamentary election.
”What we did was we branded the idea in a different way,” says Tujunen. ”We took a different route… We called them housecalls, and you could apply for them online. It was a blast.”
There it is: we branded it!
Last March, the NCP’s communications fractured. Musician and director Tuukka Temonen made a documentary about Sauli Niinistö’s 2012 presidential campaign, called Presidentintekijät (The President-Makers). Tujunen and Temonen had differing views on how to use the material. Tujunen got publically upset, which was odd in light of the National Coalition’s alleged communicative congruence.
Did something unexpected happen that the party wasn’t prepared for? Tujunen becomes taciturn in her response.
”I don’t think it was anything that wasn’t covered publically,” she says. ”We were divided on the issue.”
The documentary reveals that Sauli Niinistö’s character raised concerns about him being old news. The aforementioned Kirsi Piha, the campaign’s marketing executive, said in the docudrama: ”Sauli isn’t interesting, [his opponent] Pekka Haavisto is interesting. Sauli has rambled on about all kinds of shit for six years straight, and nobody gives a damn anymore.”
Maybe the youthful and liberal Haavisto stole the very image that the NCP had tried so hard to maintain. Tujunen says she doesn’t recall Haavisto’s jejuneness being a problem. In fact, she says she hasn’t even seen the finished version of The President-Makers; she says her anger was due to Temonen not sticking to his word.
Political researcher Ville Pitkänen from the University of Turku suspects that the stir involved other factors.
”Maybe it was a sort of lapse on Tujunen’s part,” he theorizes. ”Image engineering and brand communication involve deliberate methods and ideas about the kind of image being constructed. For it to work, it has to appear effortless. Most people think, ”Oh, that’s what they’re really like”, that the image is not fake or artificial. The documentary basically revealed the extent to which a party’s image is built up and how much planning goes into it.”
Yeah, you could be the greatest // You can be the best // You can be the King Kong banging on your chest
This song, ”Hall of Fame” by Irish rock band The Script, started playing in the National Coalition’s party congress in Lahti last June. Alexander Stubb had just been elected leader of the NCP and, consequently, the Prime Minister of Finland.
You could beat the world // You could beat the war // You could talk to God // go banging on his door
The party’s new ringleader took bows in the presence of the entire National Coalition and received a bouquet of flowers from Taru Tujunen. People gave standing ovations and took ecstatic snapshots. Meanwhile, the Centre Party’s congress wore national costumes and debated the pros and cons of peat turf.
The atmosphere at the National Coalition’s get-together was reminiscent of a revival, and the would-be preacher took complete control of his flock. In this meeting the religion was the National Coalition Party, and its shining leader was Alexander Stubb. The party now had a true guide, who people wanted to pose in selfies with as if he were a movie star.
To use an allegory from the food industry: many people would be nonplussed if they had to buy a flat little Kraft chocolate bar, whereas every Nordic person has heard of Daim. The Daim of politics is a branded individual who gives the party a face.
Stubb knows that institutions are out and individuals are in. He is so individualistic that even political commentators are unsure of his affiliations. And he hasn’t come clean about it himself; commenting on the Confederation of Finnish Industries, he has said that the relationship is fine, but that ”we’re not lobbying for their interests or anything, and that’s a fact.”
The decay of institutions can be seen elsewhere besides politics. People are leaving the Lutheran Church in droves because the ideologies inherent in central value questions and the church’s hierarchical spats are not appealing.
Faiths with charismatic leaders always draw the people in. Pentecostalism, which is based on the magnetism of a singular spiritual leader, is the fastest-growing Christian movement in the world.
Religion and politics are separated by a fine line. The latter often involves decisions based on faith rather than fact. The NCP, for instance, believes that the 4.5 percent decrease in corporate taxation will bring jobs to Finland in the long run. The Social Democratic Party, however, feel that the decrease was one of the main reasons why Jutta Urpilainen had to resign as party leader.
Belief requires believability. And Stubb is nothing if not believable, even if three points do recur in his rhetoric: three-point lists, the Big Picture and optimism. His charisma is what the National Coalition has tried to achieve for the whole of Katainen’s three-year cabinet. Minister of Transport Paula Risikko and Minister of Economic Affairs Jan Vapaavuori are both experienced politicians, but in light of the NCP’s party line, Stubb’s rise to stardom provokes only one question: ”who the hell else?”
”Stubb personifies success,” professor Aspara says. ”Hope, success and optimism are the joint ethos that he has managed to create and which has matched well with certain supporters [of the NCP]. Stubb is an incarnation of all these things.”
”Don’t fix what ain’t broke,” he continues. ”That’s what makes the National Coalition’s choice of chairman a smart move; just elect the one person who best represents everything that the group has stood for for years. Why switch to someone with a different ethos, if this is the accepted, existing policy?”
The parliamentary elections of the spring of 2015 will measure the current intensity of the nation’s belief in this policy; because the nation itself hasn’t a clue. In the 1960s, American political scientist Philip Converse suggested that voters do not know enough about politics to be able to make informed decisions in elections. In Finland, political science professor Lauri Rapeli has studied the phenomenon, and he came to a very similar conclusion.
Converse holds that most people living in modern Western societies have no clear political ideology and feel no need to evaluate political questions that have no direct effect on their individual lives. Which is just what Taru Tujunen said: people are interested in their own personal context. The same can be seen by looking at the front page of Helsingin Sanomat on a July afternoon. There is war in Ukraine, but the most widely read news article is titled: ”These six diseases often go unnoticed.”
What is important to egocentric voters is that a party’s mission is in line with how the voters see themselves. A majority of them want to see themselves as highflyers and not marginalized chumps, go-getters instead of people who cling to the past. You can’t move forward in reverse. National Coalition voters have felt themselves to be on the winning side for years.
This is also thanks to the weaknesses of the NCP’s competitors: for instance, the fact that the Social Democrats have failed to beef up their message. But the social democratic ism is not extinct in the North. Sweden held a general election on September 14, and the result saw the country’s three left-wing parties outdo the Alliance for Sweden, with the two blocs respectively gaining 159 and 141 seats in the national legislature. The Sweden Social Democrats had their support figures double, and they won the remaining 49 seats.
Sweden’s underwhelming education system raised concern and diminished support for the government; on the other hand, Swedish Social Democrats have managed to reinvent and brand themselves as the party of the future.
Taru Tujunen says she believes the Finnish National Coalition is a party that understands the present, and the NCP’s PR would certainly point to that.
Sweet Thursday two days after the ministerial gathering in Seinäjoki: today Stubb might announce what can really be found behind the curtain of the NCP’s brand.
Expectations are high. Will the Prime Minister be in a jolly mood, as he was when Palestinian-Finnish journalist and former member of the Helsinki City Council Umayya Abu-Hanna visited him in Brussels in 2005?
That’s when Stubb told Abu-Hanna in an article with male-oriented Finnish magazine Mies:
”Umayya, you don’t need to a adopt a kid! I want a third child and my wife doesn’t, so let’s make a baby together!”
He went on: ”Think of the genes this brat would have! It wouldn’t be shy, it would be multilingual, and it’d be at home anywhere in the world…”
Stubb no longer wants more children. He seems a little irritated now, sitting in an armchair in his office in the Finnish Government on Helsinki’s Snellmanninkatu.
”I don’t think in terms of branding, I prefer to approach issues through issues,” he says. ”A brand is a difficult entity, it’s usually an image, and someone else always forms that image. Issues-first is the key. If a brand emerges, it’s on those terms.”
Stubb speaks calmly.
”I don’t have an opinion on the National Coalition’s brand, if it even exists.”
Stubb is also mum on his own brand, such as the way he expresses himself. He says he doesn’t think about it.
”I don’t really have the patience for a cynical world where things are always premeditated, because I think cynicism is a disease that inhibits creative thinking,” he says. ”When you lose your curiosity, when you don’t want to learn new things, you become a cynic, and that’s when development comes to a halt. I don’t like cynicism, and thinking about my personal brand would be cynical. I am what I am, and people can think of me as they wish, that’s everyone’s right and I respect it.”
This is probably how to get ahead in the world; not to worry about what others think. But in political terms it’s a paradox, because politics is exactly that: caring about what others think. It’s how a politician gets a job.
Two weeks and one day later, on August 29 at 9:25 am, the news drops a bombshell. After serving for eight years as the National Coalition’s Party Secretary, Taru Tujunen announces her resignation. Long-time NCP politico Minna Arve is chosen as her successor in October.
Alexander Stubb says he is sorry that Tujunen left. He commented to the Finnish Broadcasting Company, Yle, that he would have wanted her to stay on and that the new Party Secretary should be like her.
What did Taru Tujunen do? She struck out to find new ground. She is now the CEO of strategic communications agency Ellun kanat €” owned by Kirsi Piha.
They are sure to be able to explain what branding really means.
Text: Sonja Saarikoski
Illustration: Jukka Ovaskainen
Translation: Kasper Salonen