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Culture

The Nation as a Brand

Crassness on a national scale or just good marketing? Estonia’s decision to brand itself poses fresh questions of national identity in the “postmodern” world.

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Estonia's "Eurovision" win last year set up this year's branding opportunity

Nike has its "swoosh", McDonald's its "Golden Arches" and Daimler Benz its "three-pointed star".

The Nazis had their dreadful swastika. Once upon a time there was a hammer and a sickle. Ireland has its jolly shamrock, the European Union its mesmerising ring of stars.

The symbol is as old as the word – from the Star of David to the crucifix and crescent moon – but the modern concept of "logo" is something new.

Even newer is the idea of "branding" – the complete propaganda package, the culture of the sale, in which the product itself becomes a desirable, possessable symbol. This is fleeting perception as palpable reality – a flight of fancy, what philosophers see as the entryway to "postmodern" life.

The allure is such that individuals, groups, nations and even continents (like the European Union) resist it at their commercial peril. But only now are countries giving in, whole hog.

Brand Estonia

The latest experimenter is Estonia, a small country on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, just across the water from Finland and a short ferry-ride away from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Weary of "getting branded" as a "former Soviet republic" and eager to sell a new image to the world, Estonia has hired a British advertising firm, Interbrand, to do the job. The whole "Brand Estonia" project will cost half a million dollars.

What’s the benefit? Debatable.

But the country’s population of 1.4 million is enthusiastic about the idea, according to opinion polls. Since they peacefully won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, they have watched their image change in international media.

By all accounts, it has been a ego-wrenching decade, when foreign perceptions of Estonians ranged wildly.

Starting as a bunch of blonde-haired Baltic democrats, they soon became residents of a dark, Mafia-infested post-industrial paradise lost. After that, to the few Europeans paying attention to European Union enlargement, they became "the most economically successful former Soviet republic" and "a fast-track candidate for EU membership." Whatever.

Perceptions changed like the seasons, but Estonians pretty much stayed the same, apart from some flashy modernisation in their, ahem, "post-Soviet" commercial markets, that helped create a growing middle class.

A country like this, its leaders say, could use a brand name and a set image. The former president, Lennart Meri, repeats his mantra that "Estonia needs its own Nokia," so that like neighbouring Finland it can be made famous by a popular high-tech commercial success.

But the Interbrand idea will come first, peaking in the spring when the Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Tallinn, the capital.

It was one of the country’s marketing coups, last year, when Estonian singing duo Tanel Padar and Dave Benton won the Eurovision prize for their disco tune "Everybody".

But that was hardly representative of Estonia. Benton has Estonian citizenship but originally hails from Aruba.

For some down-home Estonian reality, unbranded, click the following links.

WWW links