Interview with Pärtel-Peeter Pere on Branding in the Nordics, Nation Brands and Talent Attraction Strategies

Pärtel-Peeter Pere, CEO and partner of the place branding and management consulting firm Future Place Leadership, in this interview shares his thoughts on the Nordic Region, Brand Estonia, talent attraction strategies, nation branding challenges and city branding trends.

Learn about:

  • How working for the European Parliament triggered Pärtel-Peeter Pere’s interest in nation branding;
  • Why Estonians consider their country to be Nordic, not Eastern European;
  • How small countries can build a strong, sustainable nation brand;
  • How digitalization can put countries and cities on the world map;
  • Why inequality and multiple identities are making nation branding more difficult;
  • Key success factors for attracting talent to cities.
  • Examples of regional, participatory place branding projects in the Nordics;
  • Major place branding trends in Europe.

Pärtel, you are the CEO of Future Place Leadership, a consultancy specialized in the development, innovation and marketing of places in the Nordic region. What inspired you to focus your professional life on the branding, management and marketing of places?

Places have always inspired me and captured my imagination.

I have had the pleasure to live and work in Brussels, Belgium – the microcosm of Europe. I was an adviser at the European Parliament and loved working in an international environment. A certain European narrative, that of building something together, in a union, grew naturally on me. It was great to be working for the same vision (although, of course, even within the European Union, political parties and countries have their own interests).

That said, I never felt my national identity weakened or diluted while working at the European Parliament. Perhaps this is because the very idea of a European Union is based on a concert of national agendas, rather than a single European identity.

It was this first-hand experience at the coal face of EU politics, EU diplomacy and thinking about EU narratives which brought me to nation branding.

The UN recently classified your home country, Estonia, as Northern European, but it is often referred to as an ex-Soviet, Eastern European country. How much of a difference does this geographical categorization make for Estonians and for Estonia as a nation brand?

Traditionally, when we think about places, we focus on economic, cultural, geographic or historical traits. Estonia regards itself as a Nordic country because of its culture. Unfortunately, due to the violence Estonians experienced during the Soviet occupation, the country is often still associated with Eastern European problems. The UN categorization as “Nordic” is nice to have, but we need to create more brand associations of Estonia as a Nordic country, to really change perceptions.

By the way, the classification of Baltic countries once included Finland, before they moved closer to the Nordic realm in the 1920-1930s. Estonia and Finland are very close in culture, mentality and language. Even the music of the national anthem is the same.

But such historical details will very unlikely change the perception of potential investors or talented individuals about Estonia.

Estonia has been very active in trying to change perceptions through its digitalization agenda (e-residency), and to become better known as a Nordic country.

Striving for relevance, for instance by doing good and being a “good country” is what contemporary place branding is all about.

What does it take for small countries like Estonia to construct a strong and sustainable nation brand?

Countries and cities, big or small, need to seek out the conversations where they want to be relevant, and then start contributing to those.

People are not interested in a country’s history or self-perception (unless they plan to visit or research it for work or personal interests). Whether a city, region or country – to earn your reputation, you need to do something new, innovative or experimental.

Your target audiences might be looking for jobs, people to hire, a thriving clean tech cluster, a creative environment, work life balance, a tolerant society, or something else. The question to ask yourself is: What can you offer them, and (how) does it relate to your national or city story?

A place needs to work towards creating brand associations that make it relevant in a context that they find strategically important.

The Estonian E-residency is a wonderful example. No matter whether you are a German national, British(!), Kenyan or Japanese – you can apply online for an e-citizenship, which will allow you to run a business from Estonia, digitally. You’ll be able to pay taxes, salaries, open a bank account and accessing the EU market, without having to come to Estonia.

Secondly, there is a professionally developed Brand Estonia toolbox and website. Included there is what we like to practice very much: honest branding. Despite its Nordic ambitions, Estonia has massive problems in areas such as gender pay gap and CO2 emissions. The nation branding toolbox has slides and talking points even on those issues, in order to tell the world that we acknowledge their existence and gravity.

An example from within the country is Estonia 100, our celebration of 100 years of independence, like Finland had in 2017. For example, there was a placemaking programme included in this, where Estonian municipalities could apply for funding to create a new public space or revamp a public square, for instance.

Fourth – Work in Estonia. A very professional group of people dedicated to attracting and retaining talent in Estonia. Fun facts: Estonia is the top EU country for finding a new job (Glassdoor, 2017) and Estonia, like all Nordic countries, has a long paid parental leave (1.5 years).

Last (but certainly not least): the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS), an association founded jointly by Finland and Estonia where they together develop e-governance solutions for both countries. It is a concrete, tangible initiative that ties Estonia closer to Finland and the Nordics, and could in the future export public sector digitalization to other countries.

By offering target groups a valuable service and working with digitalization internationally, is how even a tiny country (like Estonia) can develop positive brand associations.

Importantly, this e-image is strongly rooted in the society as well – IT has become a part of national identity (take e-voting for example). In short: the offer of Estonia and how it positions itself internationally resonates with its national identity.

Of course, there are things which don’t work as well as they could or should, and Estonia’s brand builders have to overcome the same challenges faced by their colleagues in other countries, such as insufficient stakeholder co-ordination, underfunding and national media outlets being not always helpful in explaining how these initiatives strengthen the reputation and competitiveness of Estonia.

As Ying Fan pointed out, every nation has multiple identities and thus must decide what core image it wants to project to the world. From your experience, what are the biggest difficulties in determining this ‘prime image’?

The more we move into the 21st century, the more complex identities become. We belong to a nation, city, tribe, sub-culture, profession, political group and so on.

The plethora of identities is one thing, but there are also stories woven into a larger narrative. For instance, if you look at how citizens vote in national elections, cities like Stockholm and Copenhagen seem to have more in common with each other than each of them with the more rural towns in their respective country.

In my view, inequality is the single biggest difficulty in determining which national image to project to the world. It is the key challenge of our time, regardless of country or continent.

Inequality is about the economy, but increasingly also about identity. For example, even if Donald Trump’s economic reforms hurt the working class in the US, many of those who are part of it nevertheless support him – and his narrative of national identity.

Technology exacerbates the way we perceive inequality: those who have little, through social media can witness every day how their friends or peers in a higher social class, or across the borders are doing; how they seem to enjoy better lives, with more opportunities.

The one thing these people hold on to is their (national) identity, which they see threatened by anything which in their eyes does not “belong”, such as foreign religions, homosexuals, the EU, Western values, foreigners, and increasingly robots.

The issue is severe. The increasing us vs. them sentiment will probably grow further before we find a solution to it. Until then, we are living in an interregnum.

This leaves place branders with tricky, practical questions: How do you brand a country as tolerant, for instance, when a large portion of the population shows no tolerance? How do you brand a place as progressive, when people there fear the future, rather than approaching it with hope?

Talent attraction is a key focus of your work and the motivation behind many place branding initiatives. Could you share with us the keys to making places attractive for creative and outstanding professionals?

Cities are more in the lead here than countries. They need to provide services, not bureaucracy, to talented individuals, before and after their arrival. In practice this means that cities need to build and be connected to the ecosystem of service providers (both locally and national), including businesses, NGOs and universities.

A city should provide one stop shops – such as an international house or expat centre – where you can get help with everything you need for making this big change in your life.

City leaders sometimes underestimate the impact that changing job and location has on talented individuals. It is one of the most important decisions they will make in their life.

So, instead of just marketing a city as the next valley or capital of something, first work with your ecosystem. What is your value offer, which talent profile are you after and how do you reach them?

What will they find if they scratch the glossy marketing surface, and take a closer look at your city? Will they be able to work there in English? Is there really a thriving tech scene, as all places claim? Will their families feel welcome, too? Is there a spouse network or a dual career assistance programme that will help new arrivals navigate this new, foreign territory? It is the place’s responsibility to provide the answers – and solutions! – to these questions.

Talent attraction consists of hard factors that will make or break the performance of companies, big or small. Their ability to grow (or not) translates directly into economic growth of your city, region or district.

By the way, the need for a well thought-through talent attraction strategy is clear even on a micro-level, with new real estate or city district developments.

A solid approach is for cities to create attractive public space for people by combining placemaking and branding. The innovative Aarhus Ø and Dokk1 central library projects are good examples.

But there are also private developments. The Port of Tallinn in Estonia has commissioned a new Masterplan for 2030 from Zaha Hadid Architects. My company, Future Place Leadership, has helped the Port with its placemaking strategy for attracting talent and business.

The Nordic countries are well-known for their inclusive politics and collaboration across national borders. Could you give us some examples of regional, participatory place branding projects in the Nordics?

One of the most inspiring cases, in my view, is Greater Copenhagen, a joint Danish-Swedish place branding strategy, where tens of municipalities from both sides of the strait are working together to increase their value offer for talents and investors. I was part of the jury which awarded them the well-deserved Place Brand of the Year 2017 at the City Nation Place Forum in London.

Nikolaj Lubanski of Copenhagen Capacity discusses the Greater Copenhagen strategy in this interview.

Another good example of inter-regional place branding in the Nordics is the initiative Branding the Nordics (#TheNordics). In alignment with the contemporary understanding of place branding as a strategic approach which goes much deeper than marketing communications, logos and slogans, this initiative deliberately decided not to show pretty pictures of the participating countries, but instead to reveal traces of The Nordics in the world: how the Nordics have made and are making an impact, being perhaps more of a mindset (open to all) than a sum of geographies.

Such cross-border branding initiatives don’t just work with countries or large cities though. Oulu (Finland), Luleå (Sweden) and Tromsø (Norway), for example, have created an Arctic Alliance, connected by the Arctic Airlink service.

Other regional (but not cross border) initiatives include Greater Stavanger (16 regional municipalities and Rogaland County Council in Norway).

The Oslo Region has won an award as well for its brand management strategy, which includes collaboration with partners outside the city of Oslo (Øyvind Såtvedt explains the strategy here).

All in all, such inter-regional and cross-border branding co-operations are becoming more frequent.

Which major trends or tendencies do you witness in Europe right now, regarding the branding of cities, regions or countries? 

I observe a growing popularity of strategic place branding, as more and more cities, regions and countries realize the nature of the game, which in its essence is about supply and demand.

The supply of “great” cities is increasing in response to the growing demand from more and more millennials, digital nomads and sought-after, mobile talent who can choose where to live and work.

Replace the word “great” with high tech, sustainable, walkable, cool, green, fin tech cluster or whatever you wish, and you’ll find that more and more of those branded clusters and places are emerging all the time.

Cities are waking up to the fact that the only way they can capture the future workforce of highly-skilled, mobile individuals and meet their demands is to increase their visibility.

Linked to growing interest in place branding, another clear trend are strategic approaches to talent attraction, especially in the Nordics. For example, Helsinki will open an International House Helsinki this year, like the already existing International House Copenhagen. Finland as a country will focus on talent attraction this year, with activities such as its Talent Boost programme.

Then there is the urbanisation trend. Regardless of countries, this is an existential issue for both small and medium-sized cities. People are leaving those for better prospects elsewhere.

Cities and regions across the EU which are no natural magnets for talent and investments need to focus on making their place more attractive for a location-independent workforce.

There is no one magical solution for this, but useful measures include cities working with companies and universities for adopting new technologies, raising productivity – and visibility.

Estonia was the first country to offer E-residency. Do you think this initiative has led to tangible competitive or reputational benefits for the country, or is it just of promotional value? 

3 years into the programme, Estonia has 27,000 e-residents from 143 countries who have set up 2,847 businesses. An estimated €14.4 million in income, including €1.4 million in net income and €13 million in net indirect socio-economic benefits have been brought to the country, according to an estimate by Deloitte.

A qualitative analysis or benchmarking exercise would be needed to ascertain the extent to which the initiative has led to growth in nation brand equity as well. I am confident it has.

Future Place Leadership is the organizer of the Nordic Place Branding Conference in March 2018, sponsored by Copenhagen Capacity. Which are the central topics that will be discussed at the conference?

The central questions which we will discuss at the conference are:

  • How to turn the soft values of your place DNA into digital conversion and business?
  • What gives you the competitive advantage in place branding?

We will look at place branding and its effect on economic growth for cities, regions and countries – with a focus on attracting investments and talents. To explore that topic, we will look at how places such as Barcelona and Greenland are working together with businesses for their branding, and how even largely unknown cities, such as Kotka, can put themselves on the map through creative and innovative place brand strategies.

Digitalisation is key to attractive places and we will also explore that, in presentations on Copenhagen, the Estonian e-residency programme, and Helsinborg.

The conference will be an opportunity to learn about the branding strategies of places as large as entire countries and multi-country regions (Singapore, the Nordics) and as small as Træna and Hallifornia.

Details about the programme and workshops at NordicPlaceBranding.com.

Could you recommend us some recent publications that have guided you in your work?

On placemaking, there is Hoyne’s “The Place Economy”, which is still on my desk for inspiration. It contains well-written examples of cases, illustrates the benefits of placemaking and place branding, and demonstrates that it pays to build a brand.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s “Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives” was an inspiring read and a strong argument for the importance of good design. She uses latest studies from neurosciences for her analysis of why and how the built environment influences us.

For talent attraction and the need for internationalization, Enrico Moretti’s “The New Geography of Jobs” is well worth reading.

Parag Khenna takes a close look at the connections between the physical, digital, economic and political in his book “Connectography” – what a wonderful word.

For an entertaining, but nonetheless insightful read, I recommend “The Geography of Genius”. It offers something even on the issue of creating dialogue between Us and Them in our modern day and age.

Thank you, Pärtel.

Connect with Pärtel-Peeter Pere on LinkedIn or learn more about the services of the advisory firm Future Place Leadership here.


Enjoyed our interview with Pärtel-Peeter Pere on branding in the Nordics, nation brands and talent attraction strategies? Share and spread the word!

The following two tabs change content below.
We hope you found this article useful. Want to stay up to date on latest place branding insights, strategies, stories and examples? Join our mailing list!

The Editorial Team

We hope you found this article useful. Want to stay up to date on latest place branding insights, strategies, stories and examples? Join our mailing list!