Those of you who have to listen to me every day or several times a week know that my conviction is that your culture is your brand. It’s one of the cornerstones of the world’s most celebrated online companies, Zappos, it’s the foundation of Chip Conley‘s boutique hotel chain, Joie de Vivre, and it permeates all the great business minds that I know of.
Yet, for so many years it’s largely been a forgotten virtue. Companies, organizations and cities have talked about rebranding themselves as if your brand is a coat you can buy, wear and discard at your convenience. Many companies have tried and failed.
I recently wrote a post about a local ferry company, Mols-Linien, who, in their 2009 annual report, announced the biggest advertising spending ever to “rebrand” the company in order to become more profitable. The advertising campaign had nothing to do with their culture (and actually ended up insulting a large population group – which is another good story). At the peak of the national television campaign a famous TV chef decided to test the restaurant on board one of the ferries and gave it one of the most appalling reviews I have ever come across (and 95% of all online readers agreed). The food was ridiculously expensive and the quality abysmal. When I investigated further into the company, I found that the ferry company just happened to be hiring chefs for their restaurants at sea – and alarmingly I realized that chefs, among very few requirements, had to have experience with just basic cooking and have a high stress threshold. Imagine that: Unskilled chefs cooking, under stress, with sub-standard ingredients at Michelin star prices. No wonder why the restaurants weren’t doing too well – and it also gave me a pretty good impression of the type of company culture (or lack thereof) you’d find on board one of those ferries.
The case of Copenhagen
Now, this is really just leading up to the real purpose of this post: The case of Copenhagen (you know, the venue of last year’s failed climate summit, the home of The Little Mermaid, at least when she’s not abroad visiting China, and Tivoli Gardens – you get the picture).
Last year, The Danish tourist council, VisitDenmark, decided to launch a covert branding campaign (you know where this is going, right?). They hired a young Danish actress and shot a 3-minute amateur video, in which the actress pretended to be Karen, a young single mother. The video was put on YouTube and in it Karen explained that this was her last resort trying to find the father of her baby son (featuring on her lap), who was conceived with a stranger (a foreigner) on a hot summer’s night in Copenhagen. Not surprisingly, within a very short space of time the video had generated several million hits and at first people were debating the authenticity of the video and soon after who was behind the stunt. Well, within days it was revealed that VisitDenmark was the culprit and that’s when the criticism started – both in Denmark and in several other countries.
The idea was to generate traffic and attract visitors by portraying Denmark as a country with liberal, open-minded, blond people, but instead Denmark came across naive and silly (at best). Shortly after VisitDenmark removed the video from YouTube, they closed all related websites and made an official apology. The video shown above is therefore a pirate version with much fewer hits than the original.
Wearing my your-culture-is-your-brand hat I would have to conclude that the campaign had to fail (if not instantly from the criticism, then at least longer term from the fact that it was a fairly lame fake that didn’t represent what you’ll find in Copenhagen).
Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes
The contrasting video (below) by Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson, Jr. was filmed during the Velo-City 2010 conference in Copenhagen in June 2010 and released in July 2010. It wasn’t sponsored by or paid for by anyone. It’s there because of Copenhagen’s unique cycling culture. No more, no less.
The contrast to VisitDenmark’s Karen video is striking and it begs the rhetorical question: Does it make sense to spend your money and efforts on a branding effort or on creating and developing a unique culture? You see, the same rules apply to companies, organizations, politicians – and cities.
Read the growing number of comments on Streetfilms.org.