A couple of days ago, the Kingdom of Sweden announced it had just woken from a dream in which “dinosaur-sized chickens” attacked a TV broadcast antenna. This was a few hours after the country complained about Google’s Chrome browser, and right around the time it decried the horrendous accent sported by the Swedish nanny in HBO’s series Boardwalk Empire: “One would think that there’s more money in HBO’s dialect coaching budget than letting the poor girl watch the Swedish Chef from the Muppets,” sniffed Sweden.
Now, those in Ottawa responsible for monitoring the country may have missed the pronouncements, since they were not issued through the traditional channels of international diplomacy. Rather, they were sent to more than 13,000 people around the world by Hasan Ramic, a previously unremarkable Swede who last Sunday was given the keys to the kingdom’s Twitter account, @Sweden, to do with as he wished for a week.
He was the second person to take up the task since the launch on Dec. 10 of Curators of Sweden, a new online initiative co-sponsored by Sweden’s tourism authority and the Swedish Institute, which works to position the country in the global economic and cultural marketplace. The project promises: “A new Swede every week!”
It’s a new twist in the practice of “nation branding,” which has floated ever higher on the radars of governments around the world in recent years.
For decades – even before they thought of themselves as brands – nations have sent ambassadors, artists, and academics abroad to be their public face.
But country brands are notoriously tough to control. That obnoxious Aussie who elbowed you at the pub the other day? He bruised his country’s brand and didn’t even know it. Research In Motion’s recent swoon? It’s dragging down Canada’s brand among the world’s tech savvy. Those 35 murders in Veracruz back in September? They also put a bullet in Mexico’s brand. And let’s not get started about Ottawa’s very public withdrawal from Kyoto.
Slowly, though, some countries – like a growing number of companies – are coming to grips with the fact that their brands are a function of every public representation of their citizens (or employees). They’ve realized there isn’t much of a choice in an era when people are instantly connected to others from around the world as soon as they check their social feeds on their phones.
Last month, the Canadian Tourism Commission rolled out a website and an app, Explore Canada Like a Local, that gathers up and rebroadcasts online travel recommendations from regular Canadians. That follows a similar project for Tourism Toronto, which published recommendations pulled in from a variety of social networks, including Twitter and FourSquare.
With its new project, Sweden is taking the ethos several steps further, embracing the potentially terrifying reality of a brand that can’t really be controlled – and then magnifying it.
Curators of Sweden is the brainchild of Volontaire, a boutique ad agency based in Stockholm. This week, executives there recalled that, when they pitched the idea a year ago, it got a cool reception. Then came the Arab Spring’s demonstration of the power of social media. “Suddenly the client got more interested,” said Patrick Kampmann, one of the agency’s creative directors. “They could really see the relevance.”
When a faceless government employee controls the @Sweden Twitter handle, said Mr. Kampmann, “it’s a dead account.
“It becomes just another advertising megaphone. What we’ve done instead is said, all people living in Sweden are in essence ‘Sweden’ so they’re a good representation. So together the total of us give a multifaceted view of what Sweden is all about, and very personal – high and low, funny and stupid, intelligent, stupid, funny, quirky.”
That approach wasn’t an instant success. When the Curators project kicked off two weeks ago, @Sweden already had about 8,000 followers; more than 100 quickly dropped it. “I think the traditional follower of this account used to get one or two messages a day about some nice tourism destination, so it was kind of a shock to some of them when they suddenly got 30 different tweets on everyday life, and some opinion,” acknowledged Klaus Hahn, the agency’s business director responsible for the project. “Not everybody appreciated that.”
Since then, the feed’s followers have shot up to more than 13,400 as of late Thursday.
Curators of Sweden is a self-replicating organism: Volontaire recruited a small initial group of participants (none of whom is paid), who then take it upon themselves to recruit others. There is no planned end date.
“We chose (the initial curators) to give a wide representation, of different sides to Sweden in terms of age, sex, interest, religion, hobbies, personalities, urban, not urban,” said Mr. Kampmann. “We just chose people that are colourful.”
“I think we all, as people, are interested in personality, as opposed to a fake facade, an image,” said Mr. Hahn.
But how much personality do people want? The first @Sweden curator, a writer and marketer by the name of Jack Werner, instructed followers on the Swedish translations of five rude sayings and sprinkled in a handful of fart jokes. And some of his tweets reflect the unvarnished reality of living in Sweden – especially around the winter solstice. “We have about five hours of sun time a day. It’s rather sad,” wrote Mr. Werner last Sunday.
The new curator has jumped into even more controversial territory. On Wednesday, he directly criticized the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, for the government’s apparent lack of action in the case of two Swedish journalists convicted this week in Ethiopia of working with outlawed rebels. (The journalists face a maximum sentence of 20 years.) “I’m...appalled, and outright saddened by the actions – or non-actions – by our foregin (sic) minister @carlbildt throughout this ordeal,” he tweeted. He followed up with another tweaking tweet: “You need to step up, @carlbildt!”
As it happens, I had just asked the Volontaire executives whether there were safeguards to prevent curators from harming the brand. Could they say something negative, I wondered, about the Nobel Prize or other icons of Swedish life? “It would be his or her opinion and as such of value,” replied Mr. Hahn. “That’s the beauty of free speech and this is not moderated. The curator can react very quickly in real time on real developments, and they have the licence to do that.”
Would Canada have the courage to undertake something similar? We won’t know any time soon: the @canada handle appears to have been grabbed by someone from Malaga, Spain whose online bio said he works in search engine optimization. His single original tweet, issued in September, asked the government of Canada to reach out to him if it wanted the handle. It appears no one has yet done so.