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A place for independent minds: Estonia’s new brand concept

Estonia.ee — the country’s official gateway page — focuses on three core themes: digital society, a clean environment and unspoilt nature, and smart people.

Nation branding – measuring, building and managing the reputation of countries – is still a developing field in which experts are searching for the right answers, sometimes through trial and error, sometimes learning from the best.

As in many fields in the last 26 years since Estonia regained independence, the country has had its fair share of experience in both. Occasionally, the Estonian people find that tried and tested foreign experience is beneficial, at least to get the ball rolling – but then the local independent minds tweak the existing rulebook and find a way of their own.
Estonia’s still developing a new branding concept and the whole process behind it is the epitome of this national mind-set: listen to what the others suggest and advise but ultimately find your own distinctive way.

The Search for New Branding

The new web platforms came about from practical need – various institutions and entrepreneurs complained for years that the way Estonia was officially presented abroad needed improvement.

In a study conducted in 2014, Enterprise Estonia (EE) questioned almost 500 top managers and CEOs of Estonian companies and asked how many of them had used the ‘Welcome to Estonia’ logo when selling their products or services in foreign markets. The results were not exactly cheerful – only four percent had used it in the past and just two percent continued to use it. 50 percent of the entrepreneurs said that a thought-out Estonian brand would be helpful.
‘The “Welcome to Estonia’ logo was introduced in 2002 and was used by the tourism sector. Since then our country has made a considerable leap. Estonia has focused on export in recent years and our exporters need to feel comfortable when presenting their companies abroad. You cannot necessarily sell products with a logo that invites tourists to visit our country – even if it has warm underpinnings,’ says Piret Reinson, who has led marketing at EE since June 2016.

Hence, the search was on for something new. After first there was a stillborn attempt in 2015 in which EE initiated a public competition to find a new logo and branding style (the competition drew 650 submissions – none convincing enough), EE started again from scratch. This time, the task was not to find a logo, but to create a new gateway page – a kind of visit card itself – and a coherent branding toolkit.

‘Our task was to create a digital environment that takes into account the interests of Estonian tourism and the public sector as well as our exporting businesses – and that includes exporting our culture,’ Reinson explains.

How to Distinguish?

EE assembled a professional team to meet their aims called the Estonian Design Team, or EDM, to find something more quintessential – what are Estonia and the people who live here about and how do we digitally communicate that.

‘Branding is a complex process – there is no one solution or miracle logo that would be one answer for all,’ Alari Orav, the team leader at EDM, says. ‘The international image of Estonia has formed on the basis of the remarkable and not so remarkable developments in our country. It is this image that shaped our approach towards the new branding.’

Orav says that over ten people were directly involved in working out the new concept; approximately four hundred contributed with additional input.

The new web platforms that were launched in January 2017 are the fruits of their labour.

Estonia.ee – the country’s official gateway page – focuses on three core themes: digital society, a clean environment and unspoilt nature, and smart people. Brand.estonia.ee is essentially a toolkit, containing useful thoughts, tips and tools for everyone who wants to share something about Estonia with the world – mainly useful for tourism and the public sector.

The new digital gateway, minimalistic in design and strikingly blue, greets people with the slogan, ‘Estonia is a place for independent minds’, elaborating that it’s a ‘country that extends beyond its borders; here bright ideas meet a can-do spirit’. The independent spirit is further amplified by another slogan, ‘we always find a way’.

The prevailing intention is to highlight a society that uses digital means to complete many tasks, and in the process draw attention to Estonia’s international e-Residency service. Secondly, it places importance on showing what matters most for ordinary Estonians – the fact that wherever one lives in the country, they’re never too far from the forest or unspoilt nature. The ultimate aim, Orav points out, is to show that these two are somewhat combined – the less time you spend on tedious daily duties, the more time you have for leisure or the outdoors.

‘Estonia is already well known enough as a digital society – hence our emphasis on this topic. When it comes to our nature, such as forests and bogs, it is not as widely acknowledged – but looking into the future, we believe that the appreciation of unspoilt nature will become globally more important,’ Orav says.

The idea to accentuate the can-do attitude in the country was actually recommended by people outside the core team – the concept that was backed by some of the non-native Estonians. ‘There was this notion that you can get things done in Estonia,’ Orav explains.

The assumption that Estonians are individualists is not an alien concept to anyone who knows the country well or has spent some time here – it also helps to explain the preeminent motto, ‘Estonia is a place for independent minds’. ‘We don’t like when we are ordered around. The fact that we have coped under – or fought against the foreign powers – has made us very independently minded. Naturally, the downside is that we quite often struggle to agree amongst ourselves – nevertheless, we try to portray a certain stubbornness in a positive way with our new concept,’ Orav describes.

Surprising Facts

Estonia’s new page also draws the spotlight to previously unknown or little known facts – such as that there are 2222 islands and islets in Estonia; that 22 percent of the land is covered by swamps and bogs; Estonians hold 133 000 documented folk songs; or that there are over 190 nationalities living in the country.

Perhaps the most unexpected is the assertion that 60 of the 65 glacial erratic boulders of northern Europe lie in Estonia – 62 known boulders greater than 30 metres in circumference.

Domestically, the new branding concept’s association with boulders raised many eyebrows – it doesn’t prominently feature on the new estonia.ee site itself, but rather on the brand.estonia.ee toolkit platform. According to Reinson, the boulder as a branding template was an accidental find. ‘When we were searching for fascinating facts for the new gateway page, we discovered that Estonia has more glacial erratic boulders than any other country in Europe. There was previously this criticism that Estonia’s image is too boring and that perhaps there is something peculiar missing – and we thought, these stones are cool as image templates, so let’s use them!’

Orav says that despite the criticism at home, the largest branding blog in the world positively highlighted the use of boulders. ‘We can always argue whether something is right or wrong – but it doesn’t do any harm to have something unique either. For example, Finland emphasises the Northern Lights in their branding. Saying this, we never intended to use a boulder as a logo, but simply as one of the design elements. The new gateway page, its colour and visuals are the main elements.’ He doesn’t rule out, however, that years down the line, people will have embraced the boulder imagery and think that it wasn’t a bad idea after all.

The branding concept also introduces a brand new font called ‘Aino’. It was designed by Estonian type designer Anton Koovit. Another aim of the design team is to place more emphasis on the letter ‘e’ in the name ‘Estonia’.

Still a Work in Progress

The new branding and the estonia.ee page is still very much a work in progress. The design team has taken some of the criticism on board – for example, adding more cheerful pictures and videos to the site, since many thought that the first impression was rather gloomy.

Reinson and Orav explain that the team is constantly looking for ways to distinguish Estonia from other countries and that inevitably means doing things in a different way – and not always as the country is perceived locally. There is also an international survey that aims to find out what people in different countries think or know about Estonia – one doesn’t have to explain to Finns where Estonia is situated; but the same cannot necessarily be said about some far-flung country in Asia, for example.

‘Now the real work begins. The success will be evident only after it all comes together as envisioned and Estonia’s international reputation goes up,’ Reinson concludes.

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