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'That Dutchman': Why Peter Kentie's brand proposal for Estonia should be taken very seriously

Didn't really come out of nowhere: Peter Kentie, Dutch branding expert and ad man
Didn't really come out of nowhere: Peter Kentie, Dutch branding expert and ad man Source: (Private collection)

What Estonia has in common with the Dutch city of Eindhoven, why Kentie was the right man to create its new brand, and what will happen if those in charge aren't kept from bungling it: Here is the long story of "Just estonishing".

When Dutch marketeer and ad man Peter Kentie submitted his idea for Estonia's national brand to Enterprise Estonia, the first reaction was silence. The people at the receiving end didn't realize that they had been approached by a destination branding expert.

Peter Kentie had been in charge of football club PSV Eindhoven's marketing for more than eight years when he was offered a chance to run the city's branding effort. He successfully launched Eindhoven365 in 2012 and, together with a highly motivated team, built it into one of the most successful examples of destination branding in the world.

But there was a downside. During his time with the PSV, Kentie had worked on other projects on the side. He now found he didn't have time for them anymore.

How to turn industrial debris into a world-famous festival

One of his things on the side had been Eindhoven's STRP Art and Technology festival, named after Strijp-S, which in the 20th century was part of a factory of Philips.

Philips had turned Eindhoven into a city, becoming its main employer and bringing tens of thousands of jobs to the area. When crisis hit in 1994 and the company almost went bankrupt, tens of thousands of people lost their jobs and factories stood empty.

One of the project's co-founders, Kentie realized that he could use the city as well as Philips' history to create something new. Eindhoven had been the home of Philips Studios, where in the post-war years the company assembled some of the time's most remarkable minds to experiment with sound.

These pioneers included Iannis Xenakis, who came up with the concept of stochastic music, architect and designer Le Corbusier, and groundbreaking composer Edgard Varèse. With their work, the studio in Eindhoven became one of the most important factors in the emergence of a new form of musical art.

Kentie realized that he could use this history to attract some of the most important artists in electronic music. The festival started off in 2006 with performances by Karl Bartos (of the legendary Kraftwerk) and Jeff Mills, and since then has attracted some of the world's most notable electronic acts, including the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Aphex Twin, and Laurent Garnier. Other artists include director and visual artist Peter Greenaway, and writer William Gibson.

But with his new job as director of Eindhoven365, he didn't have time for it anymore. Kentie found himself forced to quit some of his engagements on the side. So he did, and went about building the city's brand.

After a few years of work, and with Eindhoven365 becoming successful, he found he had more time on his hands again. He needed a new hobby.

A Baltic country, a bike, and an off-white van

Two years ago, Kentie was in Rovaniemi to talk about Eindhoven's branding. There he met Shardee Rebas of Enterprise Estonia's digital marketing, who asked him if he had been to Estonia before. Kentie had been on a cruise in 2007 that stopped in Tallinn, but hopping off and back on, he hadn't seen much beyond the city's old town.

What he heard about Estonia now went far beyond its postcard subjects and tickled his interest. Kentie was fascinated by the country's digital success stories, its potential - and that he was looking at a place somewhat similar to Eindhoven. He had found a new hobby.

He began to read about the country and looked at its past branding efforts. The more he read, the more he realized how scattered and uncoordinated they had been. The problems he came across ranged from major campaign flaws to small issues.

Stick it anywhere: The old "Welcome to Estonia" logo (Postimees/Scanpix)

Estonia's PR was clearly falling short, with the norm in foreign media being medieval-themed imagery. Some of its key websites, like Invest in Estonia, Research in Estonia, and Trade with Estonia, were inconsistent in style and tone of voice, and at least partially outdated.

While the country was promoting its digital successes and capabilities, it was making little or no use of digital technology in its advertising and branding, and nobody had bothered to tell Google that "Eesti" would often be translated into "Africa" or "Ireland", a fact Kentie pointed out to Enterprise Estonia as early as 2014.

In short, nobody had bothered to take care of the details.

The idea for "Just estonishing" hit Kentie when one day, as he was getting on his bike, he saw an off-white van of a local TV and electronics company. The writing on the car played with part of the company's name represented in bold type. This gave him the idea to highlight "est" in different words and build the nation brand around this central feature.

Not rocket science, as Kentie himself puts it. But now the real work started.

What he had in mind was quite a departure from Estonia's past branding efforts. Instead of coming up with yet another rubber stamp for arbitrary campaigns, he looked for a concept that would be adaptable enough to work effectively across a whole range of areas - tourism, foreign trade, business promotion, attracting talent, and promoting the country in general.

But when he tried to introduce the relevant people in Estonia to his concept, he ran into a few difficulties.

Tamkivi to the rescue: Rejection and breakthrough

Kentie got back in touch with Rebas and asked her to pass on his idea and see what people might think about it. What followed was silence. Initially, nothing happened.

When after some time he broached the subject again, he learned that people at Enterprise Estonia had reacted positively, but that they didn't quite know what to make of his suggestion. Kentie had made one crucial mistake: he had offered them his idea for free.

Something that comes free is instinctively classified as something of little or no value. Adding to that, Enterprise Estonia's executives asked themselves what exactly this Dutchman's angle was. What was in it for Kentie? Why would he go to such lengths without any thought of profit for himself?

As Enterprise Estonia still showed little interest, Peter Kentie decided to introduce his idea to other Estonians, also to check if his concept included cultural mistakes that he might not have thought of.

When director of Estonia's e-residency program, Kaspar Korjus, was in Eindhoven, Kentie approached him and told him about the brand concept he had come up with. Korjus loved the idea and was immediately interested. Similar reactions from Estonian technology companies and the start-up scene followed. Rene Tõnnisson, who runs the Estonian branch of the EU's SmartEnCity project in Tartu and also visited Eindhoven, became an avid supporter of the proposal.

At that point, Kentie had been interested in seeing Eindhoven added to Estonian company Teleport's portal. Teleport helps people find desirable places to live and work abroad, and as attracting talent is one of Eindhoven365's core purposes, he wanted to see it featured there prominently.

So when Kentie heard that Teleport's founder and former Skype man Sten Tamkivi was in the country, he got in touch and convinced him to take the train to Eindhoven.

Tamkivi arrived with his colleague Kristjan Lepik, who is responsible for Teleport's partnerships. Kentie gave them the grand tour of his city. At the very end, he casually dropped into the conversation that he had come up with a new national branding concept for Estonia.

The visitors were intrigued and wondered why nobody had picked it up. Kristjan Lepik interviewed Kentie and arranged for PR man Daniel Vaarik to publish the talk on Memokraat.

The idea's breakthrough came when Postimees picked up the story. The paper added a poll to their article to gauge people's approval of the idea. Thousands reacted, and 95% of them liked it. In just a very short time the idea gathered a following large enough to prompt designer Martin Lazarev, an expat Estonian living in Brazil, to start producing brand merchandise. Lazarev's t-shirts were an immediate commercial hit.

Posing with fans, Stenbock House, June 2016 (Private collection)

The universal nature of the idea to use "est" in various contexts allowed people to pick it up at their leisure, which made the idea spread even faster, and which culminated in Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand (independent) having t-shirts printed for a Queen concert in Tallinn in June. The minister presented the band with the t-shirts after the show.

Common sense: Why Kentie's experience branding Eindhoven should matter to Estonia

Kentie's efforts have had effects beyond the immediate attention the brand has achieved.

Earlier this week, an Estonian delegation around former Minister of Trade and Entrepreneurship Anne Sulling (Reform) visited Eindhoven to see how the city has developed since its crisis years in the 1990s, and how Estonia might be able to gain from its experiences.

Eindhoven has plenty in common with Estonia. After its largest employer, Philips, almost went bankrupt in the early 1990s, one in three of Eindhoven's working population lost their job, and the outlook was bleak.

With most of its business gone and more than 30,000 people out of work, Eindhoven needed to reinvent itself. As Kentie puts it, two factors contributed to its ability to succeed. People realized that they needed to work together, and the bonds created like this turned out to last well into the more prosperous times that followed; and the city, its entrepreneurs, and its educational institutions came together to give the whole area a commercial and knowledge-based boost.

Beyond its economic and cultural development, which turned Eindhoven's catastrophe into one of Europe's most promising urban environments in just 17 years, Estonia has a lot to gain from its branding and advertising experience.

Kentie built up the city's brand and gave it the image of a place that brings together technology, design, and knowledge. In this, its efforts are very similar to those of Estonia. Its focus areas of talent, entrepreneurship, and making the city attractive to a wide audience abroad fit Estonia as well.

In that sense, looking for someone to create a new brand for the country, Peter Kentie would appear to be an obvious choice. But if it hadn't been for Kentie's own efforts, the idea very likely wouldn't have come this far.

Never mind a good idea

Enterprise Estonia knew about Kentie's concept first. But they didn't bother to read up on the man behind the idea.

They didn't realize that they had been offered a concept devised by one of the leading experts in destination branding in Europe - entirely for free.

What's more, the concept was based on an extensive analysis of Estonia's existing branding efforts. Without a proper brief and without any instructions, Kentie had built the case for the idea entirely on his own.

Thinking back to what the country's "Welcome to Estonia" logo cost, and what a comedy it eventually became, how miserably Enterprise Estonia's attempt at turning "Mis on Eesti" into something half-way sensible failed, and the somewhat odd fact that the last branding contest ended without the jury picking any of the submissions, one would think a present like Kentie's would be welcome.

Far from it. What it took for the breakthrough of the "Just estonishing" concept was the interest and recognition of tested businessmen and PR experts, both of which seem to be a rare breed in all the places that advertise Estonia today.

When the concept suddenly gained momentum, Enterprise Estonia's director, Hanno Tomberg, made an attempt at explaining why they hadn't followed up on Kentie's proposal. What had bothered them the most was that the "est" allowed the interpretation that Estonia was bragging about itself, Tomberg said.

Which shouldn't have been an obstacle, considering that what the country's leading politicians have been doing in terms of promoting Estonia's digital capabilities can hardly be called anything else. And this isn't really a bad thing. After all, what is the point of advertising if the goal is to stand out as little as possible?

Meanwhile, the concept kept getting more popular. It was introduced at the Latitude59 start-up conference, prominently supported by Estonia's prime minister and other government members, and Kentie found himself invited to the Estonia's Friends International Meeting 2016.

Still, a few rather important points remain unsolved. Nobody has yet claimed ownership of the brand, which means that at this point, nobody is trying to consolidate its use and build it up as the national representation of Estonia.

The future: For heaven's sake, don't mess up

Kentie points out that while the approval of the population is crucial, the brand of a city or country of course has a purpose, and that is to advertise it as a destination. This again means that a thorough and long-term approach to actually building it is needed. As nice as it is, the job isn't done by printing t-shirts.

The local obsession with the country's logo isn't helping either. While the visual appearance of the brand matters, the main concerns are picking the right audiences, the right stories, and doing efficient marketing.

Kentie sees several possibilities. If a state institution should run it, Enterprise Estonia would likely be the obvious choice. Another idea he has had is to turn it into an open source brand, free to use for everybody. Several hotels and companies have already submitted ideas to Kentie, plenty of IT companies are eager to use it, or are using it already.

But even an open source brand would need a custodian, an institution to make sure people stick to its guidelines and that make sure it remains universally recognizable, graphically as well as in its spirit and language.

An example for the practical problems in store for the brand is the question of images. For his initial outline, Kentie used a mix of stock photos and proprietary material of Enterprise Estonia. There are several businesses who would like to use his designs, but can't do it, as intellectual property laws would make it illegal. A coordinated approach here would create a database that could be used following the brand's guidelines.

Branding efforts, private as well as public, often fail because of the misunderstanding that the brand is taken care of once a few designs are ready for use and a company or institution has come up with its own brand book.

Running meetings discussing different shades of orange and different typefaces is less work and more fun than supervising a brand's performance and application, and actually making it sell.

Kentie is worried that the "Just estonishing" brand could die because of lack of ownership, that if it runs uncoordinated for much longer, it will become just another fad and eventually disappear from people's consciousness.

Considering Kentie's experience and influence as a marketing executive and creator of brands, it would be a crying shame to see "Just estonishing" fail because of the same attitude that made people ignore him at first.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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