It's Time to Discover the World's Best Kept Secret -- Finland

05/14/2015 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

As summertime rapidly approaches, many are looking for a vacation spot that is different, interesting, and safe. While not on most people's radar screen, Finland is the place I'd recommend.

After numerous trips to Finland to do consulting and teach at Aalto University, I learned a lot of things that most people don't know about Finland.

  1. It's clean.
  2. You won't freeze.
  3. There's a lot to do.
  4. Most Finns, especially younger ones, speak English very well.
  5. Those that visit don't just like it. They love it.

With so many things to offer, why is Finland not on most people's radar screen for visiting or doing business? The answer is quite simple. Finland has not done a good job of marketing itself. Paraphrasing the movie Field of Dreams, most Finns believe "If you build it, they will come."

The Finnish brand is too easily forgotten

The first problem is that Finland is not very well known outside its borders -- especially in the United States. In fact, when I tell my friends and associates that I am going to Finland, without fail, the next time they see me, they ask, "When are you going to Sweden, Norway, or Denmark?" They rarely, if ever, remember that I am going to Finland. Even more amazing, when I return from Finland, they'll ask, "How was Sweden, Norway, Denmark?" They can't remember that I just told them I was going to Finland.

More evidence

My point was underscored when an article appeared in the Business Section of the Los Angeles Times way back on the 17th of February, 1999. In the piece entitled "More on Tech," the author wrote (and I am quoting verbatim),

"Nokia to Buy Diamond Lane: Swedish cellular phone maker Nokia agreed to buy Petaluma, Calif.-based Diamond Lane Communications Corp. for $125 million to help meet demand for Internet access through wireless phones."

Nokia was, and still is, Finland's best-known brand, and the writer of the article in a major newspaper thought it was a Swedish company.

Part of a greater Marketing Problem

The confusion of Finland with other better-known Scandinavian countries is really part of a larger marketing problem. This problem is underscored by the fact that Nokia has been in business since 1865, but it hired its first CMO in January of 2011. Just over a year later, Nokia laid-off thousands of people, and that CMO was gone. Not long after, Nokia sold its handset business to Microsoft. My Finnish friends were upset at the time and are still angry about this. It is as if Coca Cola or Disney were sold to a French company.

Nokia's great fall

At its peak in 2007, Nokia had a market capitalization of $250 billion. That was before the iPhone and Android phones took the lions-share of the smartphone market away from Nokia's disappointing smartphone line-up. Before the Microsoft deal was announced, Nokia's stock price was trading somewhere between $3 and $4 per share - giving it a market value between 2 and 3% of its 2007 value. While there are many reasons for Nokia's sharp decline, experienced marketers know that Nokia had a great fall because it was a product-driven company dominated by engineers and a bureaucracy that missed the marketplace signals because of its lack of marketing expertise.

That was then. What about now?

I know what you are thinking. Many of my examples are in the past. If you think the situation has improved, think again. In 2013 Adam Csikos wrote a post in which he said,

"Everyone knows Nokia. And most of the world knows Nokia is a Finnish company. But besides those there are a lot of unique, worldwide brands from Finland in the every day use (Supercell, Rovio, Linux, Kone, and Fiskars just to name a few). However, usually no one is able to connect these huge brands to the Nordic country."

At USC we have an exchange program with Aalto University where students can do their semester abroad in Finland. The people that run the program tell me repeatedly that they have trouble filling the Aalto slots and are only able to get people to choose Finland if they do not get into their primary choices. Despite my encouragement, three former students of mine reluctantly went to Finland because their other choices were filled. In all three cases, they didn't just like Finland. They loved it. To this day, they continue to rave about their experiences. In fact, they had far better experiences than their friends that went to 1st-choice locations.

An even greater problem

When people don't know much about your country, don't think about visiting, are not rushing to do business with you, and you are a country of only about 5.5 million people, there are bound to be serious repercussions. Finland's economy has been struggling. Prior to a year of stagnation in 2014, Finland had two consecutive years of recession.

It does not have to be this way

For those that know Finland, the frustration is that it does not have to be this way. If most that know Finland, love it, the solution is conceptually simple. Communicate Finland's benefits to those that don't know it. Since many of the Finns I know seem to be uncomfortable telling others about these benefits, it might be helpful if a non-Finn (such as me) provides some facts about the place that are likely to surprise many that read this post. My apologies to those that do not like long lists of bullet points - it is perhaps the most economical way to get you the information without wasting your time. Here it goes.

  • Clean, healthy environment with lots of available space. 5.5 million people living in 131,000 square miles -- 38 people per square mile.
  • Top of the world education. Frequently tops the world in education. Finnish students are ranked amongst the top three in the world.
  • Universities and research centers are great too. 21 Universities and 12 research Centers of Excellence.
  • Leading in R&D. Among leading nations in R&D expenditures as a percentage of GDP.
  • Not as cold as most think. Average temperatures vary between 25° F in Winter and 64° F in Summer.
  • Easy to communicate. Official international business language is English.
  • Western-style government. Western parliamentary democracy led by a President.
  • In all the right clubs. International affiliations include membership in the EU, UN, WTO, OECD, IMF, World Bank, EBRD, AsDB, AfDB, IDB, the Nordic Council, ESA, CERN, and EUREKA.
  • Bridge between East and West. Expertise to bridge the gulf between businesses and countries in the East and West. Very close to the Baltics and St. Petersburg for visitors.
  • Advanced technology infrastructure. Europe's leading information society second only to the USA in the use of information technology, and it has the world's highest number of mobile phones and Internet nodes per capita.
  • Advanced financial infrastructure. World's most developed electronic banking system.
  • High-performing stock market. Stock market that has frequently outperformed most of the world's capital markets.
  • Uses the Euro. Monetary unit is currently the Euro - one of the world's four hard currencies.
  • Industrial leader. World leader in forest products, pulp, paper, and board technology, and shipbuilding.
  • Lower tax rates. The lowest corporate and capital tax rates of any EU country.
  • Safe and secure. Safe and virtual risk-free environment.
  • Most wired and wireless. Most wired nation in the world with sophisticated digital and fiber optic voice and data processing networks.
  • Lowest corruption. Tied with Denmark for having the least corruption in the world.
  • Competitive. Often recognized as one of the most competitive nations in Europe.
  • Lot's of things to do indoors and out. Finland has 187,888 lakes (more than any country in the world) and 179,000 islands. It has great restaurants, music festivals, and beautiful historic places to visit. And, believe it or not, the guy who won the "funniest person in the world" contest is a Finn.
  • Fresh and healthy food. With the sea and all those lakes, the fish is so fresh it does not even smell.

When you have a great product and the world does not know much about it, it is likely that insufficient marketing is a big part of the problem.

Finland could benefit from more effective marketing

To overcome the "best kept secret" syndrome, Finland needs to devote more resources to effective marketing. Rather than produce expensive, flashy brochures that bury the benefits of Finland in the body copy (those are the ones I have seen), these benefits need to be highlighted in headlines. If Finns have difficulty overcoming their cultural inclination to be self-effacing, they should employ non-Finns to tell the world for them. I have said this before, and am repeating it now because I'd like my Finnish friends to be less worried about their economy and more focused on continuing to provide the many great things Finland has to offer.