How Companies Use Swedishness As Part of Their Marketing

Volvo and IKEA are two of the most recognizably Swedish brands on the market. Their approaches to their Swedish heritage differ, even as both companies use Swedishness in their branding.

Volvo: Swedish by Design

Volvo Cars USA’s recent XC90 and S90 campaigns are emblematic of the company’s redefinition of its image from what Director of Marketing John Militello calls a ”safe, boxy utilitarian car” to the current tagline, ”our idea of luxury”: Sleek, minimal, cleverly designed vehicles for the creative set, a development that could be said to mirror Sweden’s rise as tech powerhouse.

”The slogan ’Designed around you’ tails off into Swedish innovation, human-centric innovation, made by putting people first, which is something we have always been proud of at Volvo,” Militello says.

Minimalist design, understated high quality, and cutting-edge technology aimed at making life less complicated are key components to this approach. Militello says the ways in which Volvo uses Swedishness in its current U.S. brand strategy tend to be subtle. ”We want the right audience to understand our values without us saying they are Swedish, because really, they go beyond Sweden.”

Examples of how Volvo signals these values through design and visual language in communications include overt touches such as the little flag that is sewn into the new car seats, as well as more subliminal messaging, like introducing My Volvo, from Sweden; a minimally designed magazine on matte, newsprint-type paper. Another example would be the XC90 commercial Wedding.

”For that spot we used an American director, but we tried to tell a cinematic story with a lot of non-verbal communication, which goes back to Swedish films and styles. People come up to me all the time and are surprised when they learn it wasn’t directed by a Swede.”

”As someone who is in the business of nation branding here in New York, I can confirm that it is extremely competitive—there are 116 countries represented here and everyone is trying to make a mark. Luckily, the Swedish brand is strong, and we have a powerful story to tell: We are one of the world’s most innovative and most knowledge-based economies with great startups in future-oriented industries, as well as well-established innovative global companies. We are leaders in environmental sustainability and have pledged to become one of the world’s first fossil-fuel free countries. On top of this we are also very advanced in terms of gender equality.”

Leif Pagrotsky
Consul General of Sweden in New York
(Photo: Martin Adolfsson)

IKEA: Tracing the Roots of Innovation

IKEA may be the most iconically Swedish brand abroad. As former Consul General Olle Wästberg once put it, to visit IKEA is to visit Sweden. This is true both for non-Swedes whose idea of Sweden is often shaped by the furniture retailer’s offerings and image, as well as for Swedes, who will recognize familiar items and aesthetics, regardless of if they are visiting an IKEA in Mexico City, Manila, or Sydney.

”Our Swedish roots set the IKEA brand apart. It is not necessarily the Swedish nationality that is important; it is the spirit, values and culture that go with it,” says Marty Marston, Commercial Public Relations Manager, IKEA U.S.

IKEA was founded in the small town of Älmhult, Småland and the company traces its ethos to the local spirit there. ”People learned to cope with seemingly impossible situations, [creating] the habit of
making use of scarce resources,

and an eagerness to work together without prestige and hierarchical barriers. This heritage and the IKEA values influence everything that we do today across the world.”

Like Sweden as a whole, contemporary Älmhult is a place with global extensions. Here ideas are born, material sourced, and products manufactured, communicated, and sold. Distances are short, which opens up for quick decisions and a lot of discussion, making development and innovation happen naturally.

”We are constantly looking for new and better ways forward. Whatever we are doing today, we can do better tomorrow. Finding solutions to almost impossible challenges is part of our success and a source of inspiration to move on to the next challenge,” Marston says.

If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for innovation, then what does?


Marie Wall on Swedish Innovation

In 2016, Marie Wall became the Swedish government’s first Startup Director. She is the contact node between the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation and the startup community, contributing to a deeper dialogue between the two worlds. In New York reached out to get her take on the Swedish startup scene.

What is the secret to Sweden’s success when it comes to startups and tech?

In the 1990s, when the internet became established as a ubiquitous tool, the home PC reform that made computers available to many kids around Sweden, in combination with the early broadband rollout, both partly financed by the state, contributed to our competitive advantage. It takes time to build a strong startup eco system and Sweden was early to establish one. Many front figures from the 1990s are still active today. We have reached a level of recycling of capital and talent that makes it strong and less dependent on governmental support.

What developments do you think we will see in the near future?

From an international perspective the Swedish startup scene has been synonymous with Stockholm. I think that other cities, such as Malmö and Gothenburg, will take stronger positions globally.

What does Sweden’s image abroad look like when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation?

Sweden is considered a test bed for global innovations. Swedish entrepreneurs cannot afford to develop solutions exclusively for their small home market, so they use Sweden to try out ideas designed for a global market. In addition, Swedish startups focus more on problem-solving than on maximizing valuations.

Marie Wall
Startup Director
Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation