the credo of finns is that we're too unaware and, especially, modest about our incredible design industry and talent. part of the official story is that because finnish design has always [sic!] revolved around functionality, we have come to embrace quality design as such an integral part of our daily lives that we forget to consider it design. the joyous gospel of finnish design needs to be preached, but we're just too humble -- unlike our neighboring swedes.
so the story goes.
lately we have been focusing on visibility. correcting history consists in creating different types of export think-tanks. finnish design "ambassadors" of various sorts are selected frequently. the punchline is that we need to start being proud of our heritage: finns need to stop acting meek and start appreciating the talent we have. finnish classics and young designers are capable and have a unique sense of aesthetic that could take over the world.
we've done beautifully domestically. i, among others, embrace these ideas on the product part. we do have amazing talent and incredibly well-crafted products. we have established houses of design and interesting young designers who deserve more attention. yay!
i just don't buy the creed behind and the execution method of our world-conquest. i, for one, have for a very long time believed that we lack the necessary courage to promote, but have been forced to re-evaluate my convictions. if it was true that finns were too modest to promote finnish design, the little birds around the world are telling that it isn't so anymore. hearsay is always only insinuative, but i'm finding the messages i'm getting honestly alarming.
what you hear of are marketing executives unwilling to believe that no-one has heard of their company before: "so, do you know our company? ...no? ...umm...??" you hear of obnoxious lectures by design agents for lay(wo)men from all around the world assuming that finnish design as a concept is something they know and appreciate. naturally the lectures come with a few questionable jokes thrown in to inform people, for example, that the aalto stool has three legs because "as we all know... ha ha... men are said to have three legs and women two... ha ha" with the result of an entire audience glancing awkwardly each other. the worst thing is when you hear of global business meetings where it is obvious the finnish company representative has not bothered to find out at all who they are negotiating with, but walk in chest protruded and condescending.
all of the above examples have lead to people feeling confused, insulted and belittled. being asked to explain odd behavior is tough and even when successful, the impact factor stays on the negative. surely that was not the intention, but something has seriously gone haywire. instead of appearing proud, we seem to appear pompous.
at what point did we start believing that a few hundred design enthusiastic tourists from japan made artek a household name everywhere? when did the fact that habitat and colette once sold iittala glasses turn their reputation to world-leader in glassware? yeah, so jackie kennedy wore marimekko in the 60's: has anyone of significance worn their stuff since?
don't get me wrong, i am a true fan of artek, iittala and marimekko, and want their success. i take pride as much (and possibly more) as the next person in the appreciation of my native country's creative history and present. it just seems that some finnish companies are so enthralled by their domestic success and market positioning that they forget it does not imply global recognition. we've exchanged modesty to arrogant assumptions.
what i am questioning is the delivery method: it isn't a lack of courage, but lack of skill and reciprocity. there is a difference between healthy pride and obnoxious behavior. add some communication barriers and cultural insensitivity and you've got a concoction ready to blow up. what finns seem to not get is that arrogance will not get us anywhere: having the brûléan pat on the shoulder does not attract anyone else than the elitist wannabe. building recognizable brands requires both knowing and believing in your product and knowing your audience and their needs: ignore the latter and you'll fail.
what we possibly could learn from our western neighbors is the capability to listen and base our presentations on what we can infer our audience or customer needs and wants. we could start by not assuming that everyone who makes it to finland and wants to get to know finnish design was a design aficionado. it could be reasonable to assume that cooperation with global brands does not begin from the insuperability of finnish brands.
we could also let go of the idea that the tourists who do make it here come because they want to go somewhere exotic and strange and, hence, have some idea of the peculiarities of finnish culture. to build a country's brand image is quite a different story from believing it to be true: northern climate, clean nature, the "sisu" of the people and so on are all worthy brand building material, but they are abstract icons hardly visible for the average tourist walking the streets of helsinki. let's face it, finland is a pretty neutral destination these days and many people come here for business and pleasure: we're not the furthest part of the galaxy where the first relevant question to pose a tourist is "why on earth did you choose to come here?" anymore.
i'm sure some are still doing an excellent job creating opportunities for finnish design talent despite of what these few sad examples tell us. but at least partly we seem to be stuck in our own imaginings of the past: the strange faraway land of quiet and modest people that creates interest in only the most resourceful is just slightly too rough a platform to start marketing from. unfortunately right now it sounds finnish design is riding high on the wave of self-righteous assumptions and self-delusion, and i believe we'll land nose deep in the coarse sand...
any thoughts on the matter?