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  • Figure 1. “Helsinki – Daughter of Baltic” (“Itämeren tytär”) brochure published by the Helsinki City Tourist Office was an important marketing tool for transportation companies, the Finnish Tourist Board, and other tourism communities both in Finland and abroad from the 1960s until the 1980s.

The development of Helsinki's city brand

City officials have long striven to manage Helsinki’s reputation and visual appearance through place-making and marketing communication. In the 2000s, these actions have been grouped under the umbrella of “city branding” – a practice that has become increasingly popular throughout the world in the context of global intercity competition. Branding refers not only to the promotion of cities through logos, slogans and visual representations, but also to strategic practices and participatory processes through which cities are reinvented and developed.

“City brand” is often used in colloquial language as a synonym for the reputation of a city, whereas researchers usually use it more specifically to refer to strategically managed attributes and mental associations connected to a city (e.g. Anttiroiko 2014). In Helsinki, efforts to capture and enhance the essence of the city gained ground along with the institutionalization of tourism. Prominent individuals and tourism societies had published illustrated guidebooks and brochures about Helsinki since the 1850s, but it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the city administration addressed the need for more systematic city promotion.

In the 1950s, the Sport and Excursion Office of the City of Helsinki launched a promotion campaign which included the publication of a series of tourism brochures. In these brochures, Helsinki was called the “White City of the North” along the lines of a catchphrase that had become established by the 1930s (Lindberg 1931; Laine 2011: 289). The idea of Helsinki’s whiteness stemmed from the light-colored buildings in the center of Helsinki and it was frequently associated with Helsinki Cathedral (Jokela 2014).

Daughter of the Baltic meets the White City of the North

The promotion of Helsinki became more systematic after the opening of the Helsinki City Tourist Office in 1963. The office aimed to raise awareness of Helsinki’s assets and improve the infrastructure of the city in accordance with prevailing ideas about urban life and tourism. In the inaugural speech of the tourist office, Mayor of Helsinki Lauri Aho described tourism promotion as a collective endeavor which required local people to learn to look at Helsinki through the eyes of a visitor. According to Aho, the essence of Helsinki was determined by contrasts between nature and architecture – between the major attractions and the islands, for instance – or the “old” Empire style city center and suburbs (Aho 1963).

The staff of the Helsinki City Tourist Office recognized the need to come up with symbolic representations and material landmarks that would capture the spirit of the city. A new slogan was adopted from the title of novelist Maila Talvio’s trilogy Itämeren tytär (“Daughter of the Baltic”) in order to emphasize the maritime nature of Helsinki (Salokorpi 2000). This slogan was used in a series of tourism brochures, posters, and other marketing materials in the 1960s through the 1980s. During its peak years in the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, a brochure entitled “Helsinki – Daughter of Baltic” was published in 20 languages, including Arabic, Japanese, and Portuguese (Figure 1).

Mikko Nupponen, the manager of the Helsinki City Tourist Office in 1963–1993, frequently associated the “Daughter of the Baltic” with the statue of Havis Amanda by the Market Square. According to him, the statue was “the touristic symbol of and probably the most photographed sight in the capital city” (Nupponen 1991). Most often, however, the slogan was depicted next to the Cathedral, which was the “most visible landmark of Helsinki” and, together with Senate Square, “among the actual pull factors” in the city (Nupponen 1984).

While tourism promoters were working to strengthen the symbolic and material basis of the “Daughter of the Baltic,” Helsinki’s brand evolved also more organically on the foundation laid by earlier marketing and communication. In 1970, for example, Boston Herald Traveler adopted both slogans by noting that Helsinki was “variously known as the ‘White City of the North’ or ‘Daughter of the Baltic’” (Koenig 1970). Likewise, the notion of whiteness was used by planners to advocate functionalistic architecture in Helsinki and, later, by public commentators to oppose plans to build a Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki. Those critical of the museum plan argued that the winning proposal would be too dark for the “White City of the North” (Rakennuslehti 2016; Visanti 2016).

Making place for performances and lifeseeing

The Helsinki City Tourist Office promoted tourism not only by producing marketing materials, but also through place-making  and performances, which enabled people to enact the ideas captured in images and texts (Figure 2). In the late 1960s, for example, tourism officers appealed to the City Board in order to enliven the Empire center of Helsinki, which lacked “small shops, cafeterias, restaurants and public services which were characteristic of the turn of the century and would invigorate the area during weekends and after office hours” (Nupponen 1978).

Figure 2. Local celebrities played a special role in the promotion of Helsinki. In 1977, Helsinki’s tourism poster and map were ceremonially delivered by Mikko Nupponen to Miss Finland Armi Aavikko, who was from Helsinki and, hence, associated with the idea of “Daughter of Baltic.” In a story published by Helsinki-lehti (1977), Aavikko promised to use the map during her trips to promote “her beautiful hometown”. Picture from the Helsinki City Archives.

Nupponen (1969) considered urban liveliness important, because “the motto of today is lifeseeing, which […] includes different functions from various domains of life that tourists can observe up close or in which they themselves can participate.” In the 1980s, Finnair’s marketing director Leif Lundström shared this idea when he emphasized the role of the City of Helsinki and its service providers in supporting the development of the Helsinki–Vantaa Airport into a “gateway airport” that would eventually encourage tourists to spend more time in Helsinki and Finland (Palojärvi 1986).

Tourism promoters perceived local people as being integral and adding to the exoticness of Helsinki. In 1982, Nupponen was interviewed about foreigners’ reasons for travelling to Helsinki. He stated that “we live in an odd and strange place and we are a little bit strange ourselves” (Pääkaupunki-lehti 1982). This view was also taken into consideration by the Finnish Tourism Board, which wanted to launch a “charm campaign” to develop the Finns’ language skills, manners, and sense of humor, “toward a more pan-European direction” (Kantakaupungin Alueuutiset 1986). In this campaign, Helsinki appeared not only as a showcase of Finnishness, but also as a leader of tourism development in the entire country. The Finnish Tourism Board, for example, acknowledged the potentially beneficial effects of urbanization on “sophisticating” the Finns.

The willingness of Helsinki’s local authorities to adopt modern marketing tools clarified its marketing messages and, thereby, helped to improve people’s knowledge of Helsinki’s assets. This development paved the way to tourism promoters’ understanding of the city as a product that could be “sold to” and consumed by various groups of people.

From consumer-oriented image building to city branding

In the 1980s, city promotion in Western countries was supported by the adoption of the concept of image, which “in a fairly straightforward way captured something essential in the otherwise messy conceptual field of city marketing” (Anttiroiko 2014, 61). The study of city images had gained impetus with the rise of behavioral approach within geography and urban studies from the 1960s onwards, and the concept of image was adopted by place promoters as a way of referring to the attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs people held about places (Aikäs 2004: 41).

In Helsinki, the term “image” (“imago”) was introduced to tour guides in the 1980s in the context of the “creation of a mental picture to listeners” (Nupponen 1988). Along with the economic restructuring that followed the depression of the early 1990s, the concept of image emerged also as an analytical tool for studying associations linked to Helsinki. These studies revealed that the image of the Helsinki capital region remained “unknown, neutral, or unclear” (Pääkaupunkiseudun matkailun kehittämisstrategia 1997).

According to the 1997 Tourism Development Strategy of the Capital Region, the general image of the region was to be developed on the basis of the region’s “closeness to nature and sea”, as well as its “interesting architecture, human scale, functionality, safety, and cleanliness” (Pääkaupunkiseudun matkailun kehittämisstrategia 1997). Tourism promoters were also interested in developing products for different market segments. These included “the hustle and bustle – good vibes, swinging Helsinki” for “the young, young adults and dinks (double income, no kids)” and “Helsinki seen from a child’s-eye view.”

Despite the increasingly market-oriented approach, the strengthening of Helsinki’s image was essentially based on the same concerns as before. Tourism developers stated, for example, that Helsinki’s city center should be made “livelier” for tourists and locals through the “liberalization of shops’ opening hours” and plans that would “direct the services aimed at private citizens to locate on the street level” (Pääkaupunkiseudun matkailun kehittämisstrategia 1997).

The marketers of Helsinki also continued to balance between the exploitation of Helsinki’s perceived “exoticness” and the production of more mainstream promotional imagery. In 1994, the City of Helsinki published a brochure to accompany its application for European Capital of Culture 2000. The initial brochure consisted of simple black and white photos and it was recalled by the City Board on grounds of being too bleak and giving an impression that Helsinki is “grey like Petrozavodsk” (Manninen 1994; Tani 1995: 74–75). This brochure was replaced by a colorful collage of images that marketed Helsinki as “a pocket size metropolis” (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Images have played an important role in the negotiation of Helsinki’s brand, as in the case of illustrated brochures that the City of Helsinki produced to pursue the status of the European Cultural Capital 2000. The city council condemned the images of the original brochure (on the left) for being too grey and gloomy and decided to replace them with a colorful photo collage (on the right).  

The identity-political underpinnings of Helsinki’s brand were discussed again in 2007, when Kari Halonen, the marketing manager of the City of Helsinki, maintained in a newspaper article that Helsinki should be branded as “a meeting point between East and West, sort of like the Istanbul of the North”. According to Halonen, Helsinki’s past in the sphere of influence of Russia and Soviet Union is “that exotic feature that makes tourists come here” (Huhtanen 2007). People quickly reacted to the article by stating that “Helsinki is not St. Petersburg or Istanbul” and it should “proudly be itself, with its own weaknesses and strengths” (Yrjölä 2007). In both cases, the evocation of Eastern exoticism conflicted with local people’s understanding of what Helsinki was about. This suggested that the city needed to pay more attention to the locals’ ways of conceptualizing and using the city.

Engaging stakeholders for the co-production of the city brand

As the previous examples show, city branding inevitably involves choices about whose idea of the city is taken as the starting point of the brand. In the worst case, the city brand is unsustainable, because it is not supported by the residents. Branding professionals have thus started to emphasize the need for more inclusive and democratic branding processes, which utilize branding as a comprehensive tool of urban development.

This is evident in Helsinki’s new brand concept, developed in 2015–2016 in accordance with the strategy of the Helsinki City Council. The “Brand New Helsinki 2020” project engaged various stakeholders to address Helsinki’s strengths and weaknesses and to come up with a vision of what Helsinki wants to be in the future. The aim of the brand concept was to “highlight the city as a desirable location for both business and living, and help create the buzz that can make Helsinki a more interesting destination for visitors and events” (Helsinki brand concept 2016).

While earlier city branding endeavors in Helsinki have included place-making initiatives, Helsinki’s brand concept (2016) stresses explicitly that “the Helsinki brand needs actions, not words,” as the brand is essentially made up of “shared experiences that happen wherever and whenever we encounter the city.” Instead of slogans, the city brand is based on phrases that crystallize Helsinki’s attitude – “One Hel of an Impact” and “Here is the city – use it!” – with the goal of ensuring that “[i]n 2020, Helsinki is a city full of people, actions and encounters that make an impact” (Helsinki brand concept 2016). The brand is supported by the My Helsinki website and hashtag, which enable people to share their tips and experiences concerning Helsinki (My Helsinki 2018).

Helsinki’s new brand concept relies largely on the assets acknowledged by earlier generations of city promoters. These include “fascinating contrasts, such as pulse and peace, light summers and dark winter nights, the city and nature […]”, uniqueness and diversity (“We don't want to be overly polished. We are authentic and the city has a certain edge.”), as well as smartness and functionality (“Everyday life in Helsinki goes smoothly.”) (Brand New Helsinki 2018). What differentiates the new brand concept from earlier branding initiatives is the role of people as co-creators of the city brand instead of mere consumers and users of ready-made places and activities.

The active role of the people of Helsinki in city branding supports Helsinki’s attempts to emphasize civic activism as a distinctive feature, setting Helsinki apart from other major cities (Helsinki brand concept 2016). The idea of “people who make an impact” is also connected to a broader shift in the conceptualizations of administration and citizenship in networked western societies (Bäcklund et al. 2014). The rise of neoliberalism and globalization from the late twentieth century onwards have involved the emergence of autonomous and flexible citizens, whose actions can be harnessed for the purpose of enhancing (inter)national competitiveness and connectivity within global networks of cities. As a result, a growing number of people praise the important role of independent urban activism in the making of internationally recognized city brands (Mäenpää & Faehnle 2017). The value of urban activism is especially emphasized when contrasted with government funded cultural building projects, which are increasingly criticized for being expensive and unrealistic (Vihinen 2013).

Branding for transformation

International branding researchers have started to address the use of branding as a tool to achieve the goals of urban policy and strategic spatial planning (e.g. Oliveira 2015; Joo & Seo 2018). This approach is relevant also in Helsinki, where one of the goals of the brand is to lead the city’s transformation “in the right direction” through concrete measures, such as “the removal of unnecessary obstacles that hinder encounters and actions with impact” (Helsinki brand concept 2016). In other words, the City of Helsinki is using branding as one way of reassessing the rationalities and practices of governing people and managing spatial change.

Pasi Mäenpää and Maija Faehnle (2017) state that Helsinki’s administration should find ways “to participate constructively in the activities of citizen networks.” The branding of Helsinki shows that there is a strong impetus for such participation, but it remains to be determined what role the new brand concept will play in facilitating and supporting new types of collaborations between the city and its people. Some important questions remain. How will Helsinki’s residents, visitors and businesses be able to utilize the opportunities provided by the new brand concept? What will they get in return for their participation in the making of the brand? What kind of “impact” is desired and how is the “right direction” of transformation defined? Who will decide what kind of people, actions and encounters make the right kind of impact?

Open discussion about these issues is important because it makes the branding process transparent and helps people to understand the role of branding – and their own actions in relation to the emerging brand – in the context of urban development. On a more profound level, open discussion will make it easier for Helsinki’s residents to take ownership of the city brand as well as the processes through which it is made.

Salla Jokela is Postdoctoral Researcher in the RELATE Centre of Excellence at the University of Helsinki. 


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