02/23/2013 11:43 am ET Updated Apr 25, 2013

'Nordic Cool Power in Washington': What the Nordics Teach About Nation Branding

Last week the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. welcomed "Nordic Cool 2013", a month-long festival showcasing the finest examples of music, dance, literature,fashion, food, lifestyle and the arts, all the product of creativity and a thousand years of tradition from the Nordic countries. The icing on the cake (literally) on opening night was a dinner created by the talented Morten Sohlberg, the Norwegian-born chef who runs, among others, the Smorgas in New York. This was just a sampler, with more to come!

The Nordics are smart to team up to make themselves visible in Washington and beyond, as an entity to be reckoned with. This radiates self confidence in each of the [very diverse] participants: Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, the Færøer Islands and Åland. The message they are delivering is very simple: creativity is the most precious resource of the 21st century, which thrives on tradition, innovation, respect, tolerance, openness and courage. This one-of-a-kind event illustrates all that through a widespread cultural attraction the Nordic countries increasingly enjoy these days.

But why is it that a small, inhospitable geographically peripheral part of Northern Europe is currently among the hottest places in the world in terms of global attractiveness? What have they got right that others should learn from?

Clearly, what is unique about the Nordics is not just their cultural appeal, but also their successful 'nation branding' efforts underpinned by strong attention to both soft and hard power.

In today's fluid globalized world, 'nation branding' is already emerging as an important concept. As businesses seek to attract customers on an increasingly competitive global market, positive preconceptions of a country can help improve the competitiveness of a nation's exports. Well-known Nordic brands such as Nokia, Volvo, H&M, Ikea, Lego or Novo Nordisk and Angry Bird, have all benefited and profited from the strong attractiveness of their home countries.

Make no mistake: the successful export of Nordic "cool" culture is not accidental nor merely the result of savvy marketing campaigns. On the contrary, these countries have all made a deliberate, concerted effort at promoting their global brands in a strategic way which includes but also goes beyond cultural aspects. In the case of the Nordics, cultural appeal is complemented by a strong and principled international stance and domestic well-being. Moreover, their domestic affairs -- characterized by effective governance, strong liberal values and an egalitarian system, an innovation-driven, tech savvy business climate, and environmentally conscious policies -- is an envy to the rest of the world.

Using a smart mindset on power, the Nordics show that both soft and hard power capacities, part of one power toolbox, are the critical components that comprise a nation's global brand. But successful nation branding is also inevitably a 'whole-of-society' enterprise. As the Nordics show, these assets must be deployed strategically and in a comprehensive manner. Effective collaboration between government, civil society and the private sector is key.

The fact that they hold hands is a victory of reason. None of them alone can wield as much power and influence as in unity. Together they are a formidable little giant to be reckoned with both economically, culturally and militarily.They have put aside historic grievances a long time ago, which today only exist in jokes. A hundred years ago Norway was still a Danish colony and in Finland the Swedish minority was discriminated against. Today they project power together, and the Finnish Secretary General of the Nordic Council, Jan Erik Enestam, is from the Swedish minority.

The Nordics wield the tools in their "spectral power toolbox" smartly.

The challenge posed by the authoritarian models to Western-style democracy is a real one. To offer a real viable response, Western countries must undertake necessary and bold domestic reforms to enhance governance efficiency and economic competitiveness, ensure transparency, beat corruption and keep democratic institutions strong. They must also seek to play a more responsible global role, stepping up to the plate when it comes to contributing to international peace, security and development efforts.

Nordic Cool is a display of the softer tools in the power toolbox. But it is important, to recognize that their power is ultimately based on their belief in universal values of human rights and freedoms. It is this belief that allows to reconcile their national interests with the needs and interests of the international community.

In sum, "Cool Power" complements and transcends both hard and soft power. It is a display of the attractiveness of a group of countries, which in turn is based on both their domestic and international qualities, ones that really matter in the 21st century. Their strength lies in turning their diversity into a joint message. In return they each gain a lot of visibility. Tapping into this and communicating the mindset effectively must become a new imperative for the West.

It naturally comes to mind that others in Europe, in particular Central Europe: the Poles, the Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Romanians should learn from the Nordics. They should team up, not just in words and forms of declarations but for real. The menu for opening night at their joint event in Washington will be nothing to worry about.