The idea to build a brand for the Baltic Sea Region has been around for some time now. In this article, published in a special edition of KULTURHAUS BERLIN’s newsletter marking the 20-year celebration of the Council of Baltic Sea States, Hans Brask and Marcus Andersson discuss challenges and opportunities with regard to the branding of the region.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the policy environment in the Baltic Sea region (BSR) was to a large degree geared towards ensuring basic security and political stability in the region. The creation of institutions and partnerships focusing on security and political dialogue and military and “soft security” aid assistance from the Nordic countries and Germany to the Baltic states as well as preparations for membership of the Baltic states and Poland in NATO and the EU to a large extent characterised this phase. After the three Baltic states and Poland and joined the EU in 2004, decision makers in the region began looking for a new raison d’être for the region-building project. Soon, internal integration and economic competitiveness – and policy issues such as trade and investments relations, transport infrastructure and research and innovation – moved to the very forefront of regional policy discussions.
At the same time, a realisation among decision makers emerged: the BSR seemed to lack a clear profile and image. Despite many successful efforts aimed at building a new region, the BSR had remained indistinct. It was argued that the low visibility came at a price – at a time when the global competition between countries and regions was heating up, being unknown or having a weak image became a serious handicap. The BSR had to be put on the global map, it was argued.
One of the first times this issue was discussed in an official setting was at the 2000 Baltic Development Forum (BDF) Summit in Malmö. The year after, at the BDF Summit in Sankt Petersburg, BDF chose to dedicate one plenary session to the topic of “Branding the Baltic Sea Region”, where branding experts and policy makers discussed how branding could be used to improve the image of the region. One of the speakers was Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then Foreign Minister and currently President of Estonia, who drew parallels with Estonia’s efforts to brand itself as an IT-nation, and suggested this theme as a possible core element for marketing of the entire BSR.
The EU Enters the Debate
The issue lay fallow until 2005, when BDF organised a series of seminars and meetings aimed at bringing the issue forward. The same year, the Baltic Strategy Working Group of the “Baltic Europe” Intergroup of the European Parliament, a working group of seven MEPs issued a report on “Europe’s Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region”, which formed the basis for the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea region (EUBSR). This report contained a chapter on “image and identity”, pointing out the need for marketing of the region, not only to raise its political profile, but also to open up for considerable mutual economic benefits. It also called for measures that can restore the region’s identity.
The Identity Issue
Precisely the identity issue has been a contentious one in the discussion on branding of the region. It has been argued that any branding effort in the region needs to tackle two specific challenges faced by the BSR: there is a lack of one single decision-making authority and a lack of unity of purpose among potential stakeholders stemming from the fact that the region is heterogeneous in many aspects; language, culture, religion, political traditions and level of economic development etc.
To compensate for this, one approach might be to build different sub-brands either in the sense that each sub-brand aims at covering the whole region, or that each sub-brand aims at covering smaller regions of the larger macro-region, and then coordinating them in an alliance. In both cases, some kind of unity of purpose — a core idea or a brand story — building on common denominators and a sense of a common identity or “we-feeling” is needed. This sense of common identity must be strong enough to act as a coordinating element, so stakeholders in the brand-building process want to pursue it. However, many observers agree that the BSR lacks a coherent, common identity, making brand building a difficult endeavour.
One project that did take its starting point in the idea of a common identity was the Balticness project during the Latvian presidency of the CBSS in 2007-2008. This was the first time that a project, aimed at discussing identity and brand, had been initiated by one of the governments in the region. The purpose of the project was to highlight and discuss a common Baltic Sea identity. According to the Latvian presidency, the BSR possesses an environment of common values and objectives, and it was claimed that regional integration cannot be just a bureaucratic concept; it requires a feeling of belonging to a common set of values.
Prof. Bernd Henningsen argues in the essay “the Constructions, possibilities and necessities for understanding a European Macro Region: the Baltic Sea“, that was published at the Baltic Development Forum Summit in October 2011, that it is not possible in any substantial manner to speak about a common identity in the strict meaning of the word. This conclusion is reached after having analysed most features of the region – the landscapes, climate, the sea, the history, the architecture, the literature, the music, the food etc. At the same time he leaves it open that the “we-feeling” might be developing presently, not least through the many common projects.
Indeed, the project BaltMet Promo or “Creating promotional Baltic Sea Regional products for tourists, talents and investors in the global markets” (planned in 2007-2009 and implemented in 2010-2011) is based on the underlying assumption that as the region cannot be said to have a widely held common identity, it is not feasible to aim to build an overall brand for the region, but rather to promote different parts or sectors of the region. In doing so, it assumed that such an exercise will help build both an identity internally and an image externally. In that sense, it echoes the line of thinking that is described above; that a plausible strategy would be to market a range of sub-brands in an alliance, without striving to build an overall umbrella brand.
Many countries and cities in the region have seen branding the BSR as a competitor to their own city or nation branding, and BaltMet Promo has strived to shift the focus from competition to cooperation between cities and countries. Initial results from the project show that supra-national branding benefits from a bottom-up approach that tries to develop concrete products and services as the core of the brand identity that one wish to project. Nevertheless, the project has faced difficulties in engaging the national-level government agencies, both in product development and policy deliberations, especially in the field of tourism promotion. BaltMet Promo is based on the collaboration of the Baltic Metropoles Network and the BDF. The overall aim is to join forces in marketing the entire BSR, with a special focus on its metropolitan areas, on a global scale.
More recently, place-branding expert Jeremy Hildreth proposed a set of ideas for how the region could work with branding. Taking a pragmatic approach in terms of identity, he suggests that instead of developing a brand story for the whole region, creating a simple and smart identification of the mission for and benefits of branding the region is sufficient. He also asserts that the region does not need a complicated brand strategy, but rather a coordinating team or network that can help highlight all the ongoing initiatives that are working to promote the region, and thereby help making the BSR as a concept more relevant to more people.
Is there a change in sight? Can one somehow discern a change over time, i.e. is the region becoming more known and visible? Have the activities aimed at profiling the region since 2004 had any impact? The short answer is – we do not know. It is sometimes said that creating or changing an image of a place through systematic branding, unless one has extraordinary tools and resources at hand, takes up to a decade. In addition, an overall perception and image analysis of the region remains to be done. Until then we can only speculate about the developments of the BSR image.
Trends: Macro-Regionalisation of the EU and Globalisation
There are, however, some European and global trends that works in the direction of regionalisation where the Baltic Sea region might become more distinct internationally.
First of all, within the EU, the very launch of the EUSBSR has given new impetus to and a framework for the discussions about not only the marketing of the BSR but also creating a stronger sense of “we”. The EUSBSR reflects that the EU has become too complex and heterogeneous and that macro-regions and a regionalisation of Europe are beginning to materialise. There is need for groups of countries to work closer together since they have common priorities and economic characteristics. The present debt-crisis in Southern Europe has in some sense demonstrated the trend – this European region has certain problems that need specially targeted policies.
One thing is also clear from the strategy and its action plan; there is no lack in initiatives and interest. The projects and activities described above only account for a small part of all the different initiatives that tries to market the BSR. Several projects are underway, too; for example as a part of the EUSBSR to create collaboration platforms for joint attraction of tourists and for investment promotion in global markets. Other priority areas of the EUSBSR that include components of region marketing are also found in policy areas such as cluster, research and innovation policy. In addition, one can also claim that the strategy in itself has given the region an unprecedented political identity – and hence image – in a European context. It will of course take time before this identity trickles down to the citizens, and it remains to be seen what the longer-term image effects may be.
Secondly, globalisation has contradictory trends. One the one hand, markets and communication are levelled out. On the other hand, economic activity becomes increasingly concentrated to growth centres and cities; a trend that for example the World Bank has documented in its World Development report 2009. Consisting of smaller countries and markets in the Baltic Sea region, it is increasingly necessary to pool resources together and to promote markets and places jointly. For example, the Danish market is being branded as the gateway to the Baltic Sea region since the Danish market in itself is too small to impress international investors and traders.
If all these trends continue, the efforts to market the region continue and work well and the region continues its endeavours to become an integrated area, the BSR may be a recognised and attractive region in the public mind in a few decades. Perhaps we will then refer to the BSR as a place in the same way we today refer to the Mediterranean region, the Caribbean or Scandinavia.
About the Authors
Marcus Andersson worked at Baltic Development Forum until end of 2011. He is currently Partner and Head of Research and International Markets at Tendensor AB and Executive Member of the Board of the Association for Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. He holds two MSc degrees, one in Business, Marketing and Economics (Stockholm University School of Business) and the other in Political Science (Uppsala University).
Hans Brask has been director of Baltic Development Forum since August 2007. His background is in international affairs since he began working in the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1990. He holds a MA in Political Science from the University of Aarhus (1990) and a MA in History and Philosophy from the University of Essex, UK (1990).