Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Boring and the Beautiful

Brand Estonia strikes again. This time, Estonia’s marketing arm gives us: “Estonia. Positively Surprising.” It’s a slogan that’s, well--and forgive me here--surprisingly unsurprising.

I’m willing to pardon the bureaucrats for not knowing much about international marketing, but they could at least take a lesson from the movies. In Crazy People, Dudley Moore stars as an advertising executive who’s reached his breaking point and, when committed to an insane asylum, starts to produce the best ads of his career by telling simple and compelling truths. Ads like these:

“Jaguar. For men who want hand-jobs from beautiful women they hardly know.”

“Metamucil helps you go to the toilet. If you don’t use it, you’ll get cancer and die.”

Moore also dabbles in tourism: “Forget France. The French can be annoying. Come to Greece. We’re nicer.”

But we can’t blame Brand Estonia entirely. Give most of us tens of millions of euros and the responsibility to promote Estonia, and we too might buckle under pressure and choose the most cautious route. Positively Surprising.

But there is still hope for Estonia. Brand Estonia may not get it, but others do.

Janek Mäggi recently wrote in the daily Postimees that Estonians want to be “the beautiful and the boring” and so offered some better slogans himself: “Europe’s most beautiful women.” For Finland he suggested “Northern Europe’s Cheapest Beer.”

Sadly, Mäggi doesn’t happen to run Brand Estonia. Nor do I. But since my income is connected to the success of this small nation, I’m not above telling them how to do their job. So in the spirit of Dudley Moore and Janek Mäggi, I offer a handful of highly targeted slogans to carry Estonia abroad.

For Russia: “Estonia. The continent’s closest flush toilet.”
To the Italians: “Estonian women are too reserved to slap you.”
For India: “Feel right at home—our taxi drivers will cheat you, too.”
To the Swedes: “Europe’s cheapest breast implants.”
For Africa: “Come be stared at. But not necessarily in a bad way.”
To Americans: “Estonia is Europe’s low-calorie Russia: All the excitement with only half the danger.”
To the Dutch: “Come touch a real live tree.”
For Finland: “Vodka 9 euros per liter.”
For men under 25: “A place where it’s permitted to drive like in Hollywood action films.”
For the French: “After you leave, you’ll appreciate your own food more.”
And to zee Germans: “Welcome home to the land you used to rule.” Or for after the freedom monument is unveiled: “Europe’s Biggest Balkenkreuz.”

Of course you think I’m kidding. Actually, I’m exaggerating. But only slightly. My tasteless slogans may not be as suitable as Mäggi’s, but there’s a grain of truth in every one, a starting place from which a marketing message can be crafted.

In fairness to the marketing wizards at Brand Estonia, we shouldn’t be so naïve to think one sentence is going to cause tourists and investors to come flocking over the border to see what Estonia is all about. Even one sentence plus a lot of money. Seventeen years is a very short time for a country to have formed any sort of identity, to know who it is and what it wants. When I was seventeen I was beset with conflicting goals: I wanted to drink beer and chase girls and show the world what an adult I was. As I later realized, I was bad at drinking beer, worse at chasing girls, and no clever slogan could ever have improved things. It wasn’t that I was a bad guy. I just hadn’t yet understood why I was a good guy. So perhaps we can forgive the shortcomings of a seventeen-year-old Estonia.

Still, though, if we’re going to spend the money, why not get that one sentence right? There are plenty of good case studies. Recently, India greeted guests at the Davos World Economic Forum with a “Dream Team” (to quote Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria) of India’s most intelligent and articulate government officials. There were Hindi tunes, Indian dancers, and free iPod shuffles loaded with Bollywood music. Somehow they even talked the forum’s chairman, Klaus Schwab, into wearing a turban and shawl. Their slogan? India Everywhere. “And it was,” wrote Zakaria.

Good advertising presents a product much like a self-confident person presents himself: as he is, not as he wishes to be. Age seventeen is about the right time for Estonia to look in the mirror and see who we are. To get comfortable in our skin and learn to be ourselves. And then advertise that. A big country with a big budget can get away with forgettable ads—put enough money behind even an inane slogan and it will eventually register. But Estonia doesn’t have that luxury. When your budget is only a drop in the bucket of international media, you actually have to say something memorable.

Every time that Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s Investors Service drops its ratings on Estonia, some government official appears on camera to whine, “But they don’t even know where Estonia is!” Of course they don’t know where Estonia is. And at the rate we’re going—“Welcome to Estonia” and “Positively Surprising”—they’re not likely to know anytime soon. To them, Estonia is no different than Latvia. But hey, there’s an idea in that: “Estonia. The Baltic State that Isn’t Fucked Up.” (Knock on wood, of course. Loudly.)


As an exercise in Estonia's image via the web, try googling "Welcome to Estonia." In a normal text search, the fourth entry generated (above the fold, as they say) was a photograph from a porno shoot in a building across from Stockmann. What this says about Estonia's image I'm not quite sure. Maybe it says more about search engines. Thoughts?