In a globalised world, competition between national “brands” has opened a new battlefield in the digital space. To be able to exist in the face of the great powers, Sweden took the challenge of an original digital diplomacy.
In 2016, Sweden ranks first among the countries of the world on Simon Anholt’s “Good Country Index”, the guru of international communication and national branding. In a period of economic globalisation in which nations themselves tend to be increasingly seen as brands in a market, competition between nation-brands has opened up a new diplomatic battlefield in the digital space.
Olle Wastberg, Director-General of the Swedish Institute, a public institution responsible for promoting Sweden and a key Swedish diplomatic position, presented the challenge of governments to deal with this situation: “Every “nation brand’ is a simplification. But even though it may be paradoxical in a globalised world, most countries have found that they must stress their individuality to compete. Reputation is the new currency now that countries are beginning to understand that soft power can be more forceful that the hard power that has so often failed” (Wastberg, 2010). Presence and visibility on the Internet have become a sine qua non for success in this competition.
In the 2000s, Sweden’s promotion abroad was integrated into the country’s export policy: through the promotion of Sweden’s brand, symbols and images, attempts were made to strengthen the position of Swedish products on the world market. Under the leadership of Olle Wastberg, the Swedish Institution put the concepts of Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding at the centre of its strategy. Wastberg has declared his intention to make the Swedish Institute a genuine communication tool, capable of acting on the Internet, which has become the main form of international communication.
2007 marks the first breakthrough in Swedish digital diplomacy. After the 2006 parliamentary elections, former Prime Minister Carl Bildt became Foreign Minister. He was one of the international pioneers of using a personal account on Twitter. In May 2007, he inaugurated the Swedish embassy on Second Life, a virtual form (Bengtsson, 2011).
In January 2013, Carl Bildt instructed all Swedish embassies to open accounts on Facebook and Twitter before the end of the month. Since then, the Internet and its communication channels have taken on a growing role in Swedish diplomacy, both as a tool for communication and as a vehicle for Swedish progressive politics in this field. Thus Bildt’s ministry organised a meeting in Stockholm in January 2014, the Stockholm Initiative for Digital Diplomacy, which brought together international actors for informal discussions on the possibility offered by contemporary digital diplomacy (Sandre, 2014).
One of the most notable projects in Swedish digital diplomacy was Curators of Sweden on Twitter, designed by the Swedish Institute with the National Tourist Board. Following a rotation principle, it was not a single individual, but several who were responsible for Twitter’s @Sweden feed. Each week, a new Swede – nominated by a third party and selected by the project managers – became the feed administrator. The project is clearly in line with the strategy of the Swedish brand: it is a staging of its key-values.
These activities were part of a wider cooperation framework with Swedish companies active on a global scale, where they sought to help Swedish companies to make their Swedish character more pronounced so that they could benefit from Sweden’s good reputation in the world, the idea was to strengthen both the image of Sweden companies and the image of the country itself.
A good example of such use of the national image in international advertising is the publicity for Volvo, where the carmaker used the one who is now the most famous Swede in the world: the footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In these advertisements, which are small cinematographic pieces, Zlatan, like Volvo, represent the union of ancient Sweden, its boreal nature and harsh conditions, with Sweden today: countries of immigration, land of welcome and of advances technology, which has conquered the world by its talent and excellence, while remaining authentic.
Bengtsson, S. (2011), “Virtual Nationbranding: the Swedish Embassy in Second Life”, Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Vol 4, n°1
Sandre, A. (2014), “Diplomacy 3.0 Starts in Stockholm”, Huffington Post, accessible at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andreas-sandre/digital-diplomacy-stockholm_b_4592691.html
Siret, M. (2016), “Sweden officially the ‘goodest’ country in the world, study says”, 2nd June 2016, The Independent, accessible at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/sweden-goodest-country-in-world-good-country-index-a7061341.html
Wastberg, O. (2010), “The Symbiosis of Sweden & IKEA”, Public Diplomacy Magazine, accessible at: http://www.publicdiplomacymagazine.com/the-symbiosis-of-sweden-ikea/