Interview with Tobias Grut on The Nordics Region Branding Challenges and Benefits

Tobias Grut, Project Manager of Branding the Nordic Region, an initiative by The Nordic Council of Ministers, in this interview illustrates how The Nordics as unified region brand is helping Nordic countries gain traction internationally. He also shares his views on major trends likely to influence the work of place branding professionals in 2018, the challenges involved in region branding and which aspects he finds the most rewarding. 

Our interview with Tobias Grut is part of a special series with speakers of the Nordic Place Branding Conference in Copenhagen, March 7th, 2018.

Learn about:

  • How Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class influenced Tobias Grut’s understanding of place branding;
  • How The Nordics approach place branding;
  • Why the Nordics countries focus on promoting a common brand;
  • How individual Nordic countries benefit from this inter-regional branding;
  • Which aspects of building and managing the region brand Tobias finds the most difficult;
  • Main trends which will impact the work of place branding professionals in 2018.

Tobias, do you remember when you first heard about branding in connection with places, and your initial thoughts?

Back in 2002, while I was finishing my master’s thesis, I was in the lucky position to be offered a job at one of Denmark’s (at that time) most renowned strategic design agencies, 11 Danes. At 11 Danes, we worked with all the classic design disciplines and created corporate identities for a wide variety of clients. In the same year, Richard Florida published his bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class.

Richard Florida’s book was a game changer because it got us thinking about how we could mix classic design-driven branding with a more holistic view on branding a place through creative hubs, people and industries. It was an eyeopener.

We started to see place in a very different way and developed our own strategic framework for branding cities, the CityDesign model. The model described the discipline of place branding kind of the same way as you set up a play at the theatre, where success depends on the actors, the scenery and the staging as the main factors.

How has your view on place branding changed since then? For example, do you observe a change in how branding agencies, economic developers or destination marketers approach the topic?

When I started working, the internet was still a relatively new phenomenon. I remember that we at the design agency even took pride in saying that “we don’t do digital”. Nowadays, we are bombarded with so much information and we can also watch our competitors much more closely. This creates a lot of competition.

I also think that greater freedom of movement and the need for specialized skills means that everyone is fighting for the same talent pool. So, it’s much more important to stand out in the crowd and position yourself in a way which distinguishes you from your competitors.

That’s why at The Nordics we are trying to rethink the concept of place branding. Instead of focusing on our region’s beautiful landscapes and attractions, we emphasize our shared values. And instead of promoting The Nordics to the world, we are showing The Nordics in the world – as traces of North. Because the Nordic footprints outside of our own region are the true essence of the Nordic brand.

The truth lies in your values: if you want to be authentic in a globalized world, you really need to wear your values on your sleeve.

You are leading the development and implementation of a common brand for the Nordic region. Why are the Nordic countries investing time and energy in a common brand?

First and foremost, we are doing this because we share many common values across the Nordic countries. Secondly, the further you move away from the Nordics, the more people see us as one unified region.

People cannot always tell the difference between a Swede and a Norwegian, or maybe they think that Stockholm is the capital of Denmark. So, for us, it makes sense to create a common story and to have a joint branding venture.

While it does take a lot of time and energy to strengthen a common Nordic brand, we also believe that we are successful because we exercise a lot of trust and openness in the way that the Nordic brand is interpreted on the other side of the world. I think that this hands-off, organic approach is what makes the Nordic Branding Project so unique.

There is a very strong economic argument too. It’s very expensive to create place brands aimed at audiences on the other side of the world. But because we have these shared Nordic values and share the same story, we have created tools that benefit us all. This enables many different stakeholders in doing Nordic branding projects abroad.

Of course, sometimes it is to the benefit of one country, or to the benefit of another, but in the end, it all adds up to a stronger region brand.

In your eyes, what does “Nordic mindset” stand for? What makes the Nordics special?

It all comes down to the values that inspire us in everything we do, something that we call “The Nordic Perspective”. These values are trust, equality, openness, innovation and sustainability.

We are 27 million people living across the Nordic countries. We share common values and ambitions. Because we have such a strong attachment to these values, we believe that they can be used as a conversation starter and a way to connect with other countries.

In 2016, President Obama held a state dinner at the White House. Rather than just inviting the Prime Minister of Norway, he invited all Nordic Heads of State. In his dinner speech, he acknowledged that the Nordics “punch well above their weight.” I think that there is a lot of truth in what the Former President of the United States of America said that night. When we do things together, we’re stronger.

Which aspects of your work as brand manager for a region spanning several countries and including many cities do you find the most difficult?

We are a very small branding secretariat here at the Nordic Council of Ministers. This means that we rely on embassies all over the world to get to know the concept and to work together.

It’s still new to most people that we do have a shared story. A big part of our job is to change their mindsets and to make them realize that we can best punch above our weight when we work together on Nordic branding.

I recently presented to the representatives from Finnish embassies worldwide. In the beginning everyone was thinking “oh no, not another set of design guidelines! How are we going to promote our country and then also promote the Nordics?”

We always make it clear that we are not here to cannibalize on the things that the countries are already doing. We are not competing with the national place branding, we are adding value to it.

Which parts of your work are the most rewarding?

What I love most is that I am involved in the long-term perspective of creating a brand. When you work at a design or branding agency, you might only work with a client for 3 or 6 months and then you leave a design manual on a table and say, “see you later.” But now I can also follow the process.

That’s very exciting for me and everyone else who is a part of the Nordic Branding Project. Also, it’s great to see how we, through Open Calls for Nordic branding projects, are succeeding in connecting people across the Nordic region, thereby becoming a catalyst for new pan Nordic collaborations.

Through the last year and a half, we have supported almost 150 different projects throughout the world. And that’s great fun.

Looking ahead, which trends or influences do you think will have most impact on the work of place branding professionals in 2018?

I think that crowdsourcing is going to trend more and more in 2018. Official brand ambassadors have been common for many years, but with the global rise of social media it is now so much easier to crowdsource unofficial brand ambassadors around the world.

For example, we are asking anyone to simply take a photo when they see a “trace of North” in another part of the world, and to post it on a social media platform like Instragram using the hashtag #tracesofnorth. This approach is much more inclusive and interactive, and it also allows us to have eyes and ears in many more places in the world than ever possible if we were to use a handful of brand ambassadors.

We are only three people working on place branding at the Nordic Council of Ministers, but by flipping the perspective of what place branding is by 180 degrees, we can harvest new ideas and ways that the Nordics are being showcased around the world.

As a speaker at the upcoming Nordic Place Branding conference in Copenhagen this March, which aspects of your work with the Nordics will you share with the audience?

My speech will focus on the approach that we have taken at the Nordic Council of Ministers to brand the Nordics. I’m going to push the audience to rethink what place branding is and to flip things on their heads – like we have done in the Nordic Branding Project.

My colleagues and I like to say that when the Nordic Council of Ministers collaborates on a mutual branding of the Nordic countries, it is not about achieving world domination. It’s about inviting, inspiring and moving towards conversation and cooperation by exchanging thoughts and ideas about what it means to be Nordic.

Thank you, Tobias.

Connect with Tobias Grut on LinkedIn or learn more about The Nordics here.


Future Place LeadershipThis interview forms part of a special series with distinguished speakers at the Nordic Place Branding conference in Copenhagen (Denmark), March 7th 2018 – organized by Copenhagen Capacity and Future Place Leadership.


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