Every time I go in or out of Helsinki I pass the Nokia international headquarters in the southeast corner of Espoo. I didn’t have any business in Helsinki on Tuesday (September 3) so the first time I saw the building after the sale of its guts to Microsoft had been announced on Tuesday morning was late Wednesday afternoon. It was sort of surreal feeling.
The structure of this “iconic” headquarters is such that in certain light conditions the steel framed glass outer walls give the impression of construction scaffolding, of the sort that encases the significant number of buildings that are continuously being put up, structurally repaired, resurfaced or gutted in the Helsinki region at any given time. It’s hard to say which of those processes is the most apt analogy for Nokia this month. People might or might not continue to work in Espoo on designing phones for their new masters in the state of Washington; that remains to be seen.
Sitting in front of me on the mostly empty bus was a fellow randomly playing with his iPhone. I assume he was texting to whomever he planned to meet when he got to wherever he was going; I didn’t pay much more attention than that. I glanced out to consciously read the sign over the plywood encased construction area along the new subway/metro/underground route they are constructing outside of the now former Nokia headquarters. Sometime next year or the following the bus I was on will cease to run that route, and travelers will start to go on a faster, cleaner running, high speed underground trains instead. The sign at the construction area there between the Nokia building and the motorway says that they are putting in a service tunnel entrance, not a passenger station there. I wonder when they made that official decision.
So it’s official now: the Nokia phenomenon has come and gone in the time I’ve lived in Finland. I wrote last year about Finnish history thus far being roughly divisible into the Mannerheim era, the Kekkonen era and the Nokia era, with a bit of uncertainty about what might come next. That has now been “announced in church” as the Finnish idiom says. The uncertainty of it all is a bit intimidating.
My hindsight perspective on “what went wrong” for Nokia is simpler than most: Steve Jobs. This patron saint of user-friendly electronics, as his life’s last thrust to put another “ding in the universe,” reshaped people’s expectations of what their little pocket computer/phones were supposed to do. Nokia had some interesting R&D going into similar ideas, but they weren’t really ready for Jobs’ swan song when it came. Nokia made phones that could pretend to be personal computers; Apple started making functional mini personal computers that also worked as phones. Sometimes image is everything. Now without Jobs around to further bend their fenders, Nokia’s cell phone division might have made a significant comeback on its own; but now that they’ve been commandeered by Apple’s arch-rival, Microsoft, such speculations have become entirely hypothetical.
Microsoft is a brand which says to people “familiar, functional software for generic computers”. Nokia is a brand which says “sleek and dependable basic communication devices”. It’s hard to guess which, if either, of those names will go on whatever new sorts of phones this new joint-venture might start coming out with. They may have to create an entirely new brand to capture the imaginations of the clients they are targeting, sort of like what Toyota did when the invented the Lexus line. What this new brand might stand for, beyond “imitation iPhones,” remains to be seen.
Nokia is not the only aspect of Finnish society (and yes, more than just a corporation, Nokia has been an aspect of Finnish society in many senses, and while the grieving process continues it remains so) that is now contemplating rebranding. A friend of mine in the mid stages of theology studies in the University of Helsinki was griping this week about an absurd required-subject lecture about “personal branding” that he had to attend. Since Finnish educational institutions, from kindergartens all the way through to the university, are being told that they have to seriously consider their “brand status” these days, of course they are passing on that pain to all of their teaching staff, who in turn are passing it on to all those they are teaching. The further up the academic ladder one goes, the more permissible it becomes to pass this sort of abuse on to one’s students.
This subject also came up in the university summer school course I took last month, under the supervision of a new professor from the department of teacher education in the University of Helsinki. The fact that I was rather unimpressed with this particular professor’s skills was a rather poorly kept secret; but he and I did agree quite strongly on three things in this regard: 1) Finland currently has a very strong brand in education. 2) This brand may be somewhat endangered, as the means by which it has come about may be fading (though he and I disagreed about what those particular fading sources of brand strength may have been). And 3) His department has very little to offer in terms of safeguarding the strength of the brand. Meanwhile, Fred, the professor in question, is very optimistic about the value of his own personal brand, but rather fuzzy about what this personal brand value is based on, or what he has to offer –– besides an abundance of published academic articles that no one reads, and access to an international sewing circle of somewhat like-minded individuals. To say that he’s not doing the University of Helsinki’s brand any good is a substantial understatement.
It may or may not be coincidental that the Lutheran bishop of Helsinki came out with her own statement about branding this week, or at least so one tabloid has to say. The sensationalism-prone Iltalehti claimed on Wednesday that Bishop Askola had given an interview to the daily business digest Kauppalehti (which the latter publication’s web site shows no record of) in which she seriously critiques the institutional church that she represents for screwing up Christian identity by making it a judgmental brand. The brief article goes on to say that the bishop is having a hard time adjusting to the slow pace of change within the church, that Christian identity –– based on justice, mercy, caring, and prioritizing the good of the community –– is as appropriate for our age as for any, and that she remains firm on the principle that the church’s message is mercy, not judgment.
Assuming that this report credibly represents the bishop’s thoughts on the matter, it would seem that she is continuing to work on distinguishing her own personal brand from that of Finland’s Minister of the Interior Päivi Räsänen’s brand –– the latter emphasizing the rejection of “inappropriate” forms of sexuality. (For my own take on this matter see my last blog for July this summer.) These women have clearly agreed to disagree, each hoping that she can win over a majority within the church to her own position, somewhat marginalizing the other in the process, all the while claiming that the church is big enough to allow for both of their positions within it. This raises the question, is either woman more guilty of abusive brand manipulation than the other? Or perhaps more importantly, if their mutual brand does not provide any definitive identity markers regarding the sort of major questions on which they disagree, what good is it? If the Evangelical Lutheran brand doesn’t actually say anything about any moral questions over which reasonable people may disagree, and if it refuses to distinguish between insiders and outsiders in any meaningful way, what remaining significance does the brand have?
Within Finland’s Lutheran church brand confusion is a fairly serious issue. When it comes to anything resembling regular worship (not exactly their brand’s strong suit) there are actually many sub-brands that mean more to “consumers” than the overall brand. One of the most successful sub-brands has been the Tuomas messu or “St. Thomas Mass,” which got started in the late 1980s –– just as Nokia was establishing itself as a mobile phone maker –– in the church in Helsinki dedicated to Mikael Agricola. This “mass” format combined a lot of safe feeling “high church” ritual and liturgical elements with various forms of contemporary music –– including everything from Taize worship music to rock and roll variations on traditional hymns –– and an open invitation to those who didn’t necessarily believe particularly strongly, to come up with a pretty successful combination in its day. But now, 25 years later, the distinctive appeal of the Tuomas messu brand has pretty well died out. Its image is that of a bunch of older middle aged folks who are trying to act spiritual, deny their aging processes and find a sort of weekly mutual acceptance. Young people of my sons’ generation who are interested in spiritual experiences don’t find it to be their worship of choice any more. I still go to these at times, but I don’t always find them particularly inspiring, or comfortable even. Sometimes the more traditional forms of Sunday morning worship feel less awkward these days.
So with that brand pretty close to dead, I heard by way of my sons last year that “the new thing” is the mid-week Agricola messu, in the same traditional church building where the Tuomas messu system got started. The Agricola messu has the same basic ethos as its older sister, just with more “updated” effects to appeal to a new generation of religious skeptics: smoke machines and a computerized concert lighting effect board, more English used in their worship music, younger priests leading the events, trying to dress like hipsters while displaying their “dog collars” to identify their role; shorter sermons, clearer and lighter weight “therapeutic” aspects to the ritual.
I went to one of these gigs last winter to check it out, and I was neither overly impressed nor overly bothered by it. This week I got a notice that as part of the orientation time for new theology students at the university a bunch of them were going to attend this mass together, so I thought I’d give it another shot. (That was actually where I was headed as I passed the Nokia headquarters by bus late on Wednesday afternoon.) It turned out to be a significant disappointment. Getting warmed up for the first time after their summer vacation, the whiz-bang special effects special effects system appeared to have some bugs stuck in it. The music this time seemed overly ambitiously arranged, but the band was noticeably under rehearsed. But most distractingly, the majority of the participants this time were teenagers who clearly were only there because they needed to rack up a given number of church attendances over the course of the year to be officially confirmed as church members this fall. So the atmosphere was one of a hall full of junior high students restlessly waiting to collect their required signatures from the priests and get out of there. The whole thing was played out at a volume loud enough to cover up the drone of these semi-voluntary participants, who seemed to be chatting with each other the whole time, and as soon as the Eucharist portion of the ritual was starting to wind down the background noise began to rise, with kids preparing to jockey for position to get their attendance cards signed by priests so they could leave as soon as possible. All I could think was, here goes another ambitious attempt at religious rebranding down the drain.
Brands can indeed be disposable commodities. When I was a bar tender I learned that certain breweries would regularly introduce new beers onto the market, with all sorts of advertising fanfare, and then pull them from the market a few months or years later with no particular regrets. The idea was to give consumers something new to be fascinated with for whatever little time that fascination might last –– nothing more than that. Brands come and brands go; blessed be the name of the market.
Some brands can be worth protecting on a longer term basis though. Back in the 1980s, when I first came to Finland I was working for McDonalds, and I remember reading in one of their in-house propaganda magazines about how the corporation had cleaned house disenfranchised their major French franchisee earlier in that decade, and they were optimistic about having rebuilt their brand image within that country with a new, more reliable set of operators and a more “culturally sensitive” branding approach there. I guess they’ve been happy with the results since. Of all of the problems with the McDonalds brand these days, lack of conformity to corporate standards in Europe doesn’t seem to be one of the major ones. Whatever else can be said about the McDonalds brand –– and I’d have plenty to say against it –– they are remarkably effective at defending it and keeping it consistent from country to country. This level of corporate discipline and standardization management is the primary reason why McDonalds is much more successful in Europe than Burger King, for instance. Thus the McDonalds brand, like a McDonalds cheeseburger, is something that lasts for years and years, showing only subtle changes as it ages. Some would consider that to be a marketing ideal; I have mixed feelings about the matter.
Is success really to be measured by the volume of quick fixes and disposable commodities which can be sold under a succession of given brand names? In some ways it is undeniable that this is the operational standard that industrialized economies operate according to. In other ways hope remains that we can learn to live beyond these sorts of wasted lives and liquid love that Zygmunt Bauman speaks of in his books of those names. We hope to be part of something more lasting, more permanent than just the ebb and flow of temporary sources of emotional satisfaction distributed under various brand names. Sometimes we turn to rituals for ritual’s sake as an emotional safeguard against this, not realizing that these rituals too are in their own right branded commodities in an economy of branded commodities. A greater hope lies in finding some form(s) of “true love” as means of connecting with something beyond ourselves, but for that pursuit brands, it turns out, are fundamentally useless. Yet on a more superficial level we continuously use our own image identifiers to “brand” ourselves in our attempts to gain customers, partners and friends of various sorts. Few of us can be secure enough in our lasting relationships to escape from this sort of personal marketing culture.
It is perhaps particularly ironic that the newest iconic Finnish brand these days, setting up shop in the section of southeastern Espoo that Nokia will no longer be calling home, is “Angry Birds” –– based on a computer game of the simplest possible sort, designed to be easily installable on any sort of “smart phone” or PC. The idea of the game is to slingshot these little avian attitude bombs at a set of temporary structures in which a group of pigs are hiding, eliminating as much of the structures and as many of the pigs as possible with the birds at your disposal. This silly little pastime has captured the public imagination enough where there are now candies, soft drinks, cosmetics, fashion accessories and playground equipment being marketed on the basis of this brand. The whole concept of trying to build lasting economic hope on such a self-consciously disposable premise boggles the mind; but for the moment it seems to be working, so no one wants to say anything.
Meanwhile I struggle on with the process of rebuilding my own brand. Having rather limited success in promoting Finnish style secondary school philosophy teaching and “values education” in general for the English-speaking world, and not having discovered any significant new markets for my skills during my African adventure last year, I’m now working on getting into a routine of marketing myself as a “doctoral researcher in philosophy of religion”. Ideally within this role I’d like to help people discover more permanent sources of value for their own lives. In practice though this probably has more in common with “Angry Birds” than I’d care to admit. When I’m done figuring out how to use this role to knock down as many of the pigs’ hiding places as possible we’ll see where it gets me.