Earlier this month, Sweden unveiled its new brand identity with the launch of its redesigned site, Sweden.se. We spoke to Frida Roberts, head of communications at the Swedish Institute about the rebranding initiative.
The revamped sweden.se website is just the tip of Sweden’s rebranding initiative. What’s the backstory?
The joint visual identity, which includes the website, acts as a clear centre of information for Sweden. We also have a wonderful brand identity toolkit. We can just pick and choose which assets to use depending on the communication activity. This flexibility means we will be able to use our money and personnel resources to improve the content instead.
It’s important that the government prioritize this area, which we call public diplomacy.
When it comes to nation branding, Sweden has it made. Thanks to brands like Ikea and Volvo and cultural touchstones like the Nobel Prize and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sweden already receives lots of free publicity. So what prompted the redesign?
I totally agree that a brand like Ikea is doing a lot for Sweden. But in a highly competitive world where globalization and the internet are in one way making the world bigger and in one way making it smaller, a small country like Sweden which – sure – is doing well, still needs to be actively out there.
We know there is a clear connection between awareness and trust in a country and its ability to attract investors, talent, workforce, students, trade and so on. So it’s important that the government prioritize this area, which we call public diplomacy or nation branding.
Sweden’s new logo includes a custom font, Sweden sans.
With an emphasis on visuals, storytelling and context, sweden.se looks more like an online magazine than it does a government website. Can you tell us about the content strategy?
The original site was launched in 2002. It began as more or less an information database and then moved towards inspirational content, entertainment, and then to relationship building. We just kept adding things. Eventually we realized that we were trying to be everything to everybody.
So with the redesign, we looked at what sort of people come to an official website – because of course, visiting an official website is not top of mind for most people. We started from that point and built from there.
We realized that there is value in being an official centre of information when it comes to facts – not when it comes to dialogue or building relationships or even entertainment. We used to have a film room and a music room on the site, but we closed them down a year ago. We’ve really gone back to basics.
The idea is to offer correct and relevant facts about Sweden, contextualized and packaged in an interesting and inspiring way.
Sweden’s old site (bottom left) uses the traditional national three crowns emblem. The new responsive site incorporates the new flag logo.
As you mentioned, most people aren’t that interested in visiting a government website. Can you describe your audience and how that plays into your content strategy?
Many of them are young people – students and researchers looking for specific information.
They don’t go to an official source to get inspired – they want information. They want specific facts and of course, when they visit the site we would like them to stay and find out more, so we’d like to make it as inspiring as possible, but the core of the site is fact-based content.
The site’s Quick Facts category provides simple, easy-to-digest information about Sweden.
Sweden has also garnered plenty of attention for its Curators of SwedenTwitter project, which has stirred up controversy since its launch in late 2011. Some have called it a PR disaster, others call it good marketing. How would you describe it?
The Curators of Sweden project is a collaboration between the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden. We had a channel, @sweden, on Twitter and we wanted to activate Sweden’s brand values – so going from talking about freedom of speech and openness and transparency to actually proving them in practice, and in doing so, increase interest and awareness in Sweden.
We thought that by giving control to ordinary Swedes, over time we would also then build an authentic and updated image of Sweden, which is a little more nuanced than Ikea and elks.
Of course, when you hand over control, it’s not going to be a streamlined image. So far we have had three incidents, which some called “PR disasters.” I believe those incidents were really important for the project, because they tested and validated the concept.
If you talk about freedom of speech or transparency, everybody likes the concept, but when you actually apply it in practice, it’s not so pretty. Those incidents strengthened the image that we are an open and transparent country.
Are there any protocols in place in case someone crosses the line?
There are a few rules: You can’t break the law, you can’t promote your own product and services and you can’t put anyone in danger. We don’t have an opinion about what’s good taste or bad taste. We’re not there to judge.
The idea is to have very different curators and different profiles offering different broad images of Sweden. We look at everything from geography to age, to gender, to religion, to sexual preference – the lot is represented.
And of course they need to be able to handle Twitter as a communication tool. It is a must, since things can get quite heated.
So far we have never deleted a tweet. We have engaged a lawyer a couple of times just to verify, but so far – knock on wood – we haven’t had to intervene. It’s an uncensored channel.
Do you think other countries could have done this?
The reason it works in Sweden is that it’s not a PR campaign, it’s actually a true activation of Swedish core values. It really is grounded and based in that, which makes it a very strong concept. Do I think all countries could do it? It depends on what core values that country represents.
The Swedish ad agency Volontaire was hired for the project. What did you learn from the partnership?
Volontaire was one of several suppliers that won a public procurement contract for general services within the services category “trademark strategy and concept development.”
Curators of Sweden was their first assignment for SI and VisitSweden. Working with Volontaire encouraged us to push our communications boundaries and think outside the box. But the courage to actually let go of control of an official communications channel is all on SI/VisitSweden!
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.