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Brand States: Postmodern Power, Democratic Pluralism, and Design

A rainy autumn day in Tallinn at 10 am. Between twenty and thirty experts convene in a tiny classroom. Their meeting is about the national brand of Estonia. A former Soviet Republic, independent since 1991 and now a member of the European Union and NATO, Estonia sits between Scandinavia and Russia, and it is only partially happy to be doing so. Almost everyone in the room thinks that Estonia doesn’t say the right things about itself to the world. No one likes Estonia’s current national brand and its trademark, “Welcome to Estonia.” Allegedly, an Irish proxy for the Interbrand corporation “created” it and ran away with an excessive amount of money. An official in charge moans that Estonian citizens should be programmed to say better things about their country when interviewed by foreign travelers (Estonian humor tends to be self-deprecating). Someone suggests that Estonia may not be a place where many things started, but it is the place where a lot of things came to—an end. Everyone laughs.

Estonian promotion mainly leads to Tallinn, the capital. But what about the country’s unspoiled countryside? Estonia has inherited heavy industry and massive shipyards, but what about its emerging IT sector? The current president considers Estonia a Nordic country along with Finland and Sweden, but the country doesn’t boast anything close to a social-democratic Scandinavian welfare state. For geographers, Estonia is part of a belt of former Soviet states stretching all the way to Murmansk, many of which are little known to international audiences. For the British, Tallinn is a target destination for stag parties, thanks to EasyJet’s direct flights from London Stansted; no-holds-barred drinking and misbehaving on the safe ground of foreign soil. For the Russians, Estonia is contested ground. With a renewed faith in the politics of Russian empire, many Russians living in Estonia refuse to speak or learn Estonian, clanning together while dreaming of an Anschluss. Estonia is the birthplace of the composer Arvo Pärt. Andrej Tarkovsky’s seminal movie Stalker was shot in a derelict Tallinn warehouse. And the massively popular Internet phone and text messaging application Skype is from Estonia.

The discussion began with a logo, “Welcome to Estonia,” which nobody found attractive or inspiring. Soon however it was no longer about that but about the way Estonian citizens should behave on the streets. The person in charge of the logo made no secret of her ambition to change that behavior if she could.

Consequently, our meeting was open to the public. That alone, however, didn’t make it democratic. We had all been invited because of our proximity to the issue of nation branding and not because of our capacity to represent the Estonian people. We were part of a network of experts.

Read the full article here.