The Eurovision Song Contest and the Transformative Re-Brand of Estonia

With this weekend seeing Europe’s favourite singing contest, Marksteen Adamson of ASHA tells how a nation seized the Eurovision opportunity, successfully branded and re-positioned itself and broke away from its colonial history.
It’s that time of year again…
The eagerly anticipated Eurovision Song Contest will be gracing our TV screens on Saturday night. An estimated 200 million viewers will tune in to watch worldwide – that’s nearly twice the audience of the superbowl! And as with all major television events, social media is already going wild, with Crimson Hexagon reporting a 770% increase in the number of Eurovision-related social media posts since 2010, the vast majority of which coming from the UK but also from this year’s new entrant- Australia!
Whilst it is a “fun to have” for Australia, for other countries it is an altogether more significant happening. Most notably for 1994 joiner Estonia, for whom the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest held in Tallinn formed the basis of an entire country rebrand.
The Eurovision Song Contest was born after World War II with the aim of bringing European countries closer together around a programme of united fun and light entertainment.
Little did they know then that the countries would eventually make war or peace, not with bombs or land grab, but by voting for or against in order to send much bigger political messages, hidden in unmarked envelopes and served cold, regardless of technical or creative excellence. The ‘Singing War’ was born, cloaked in fancy dress, and billed as “just a bit of fun”.
In the UK however it’s always been seen as a side show, reality TV entertainment, lubricated with comic commentary, lavished with bucket loads of uninhibited sarcasm from celebrity commentators, much to the glee of Brits who don’t care if they win or lose because they already enjoy regular international music fame.
But for Estonia, the Eurovision on 1992 was the nucleus for unprecedented change.
Not many countries had used the Eurovision to their full advantage until Dave Benton & 2XL gave Estonia its first victory in 2001. This made Estonia the first former Soviet country to win the contest and the second Eastern European country to win, after Yugoslavia in 1989. The 2002 contest was then held in Tallinn. To say that this momentous opportunity of hosting the event was going to leverage Estonia’s political and national identity agenda, would be a major understatement. It was totally and tactically seized by Estonians as their biggest chance to break away, once and for all, from the psychological grip of its former masters – the USSR. It was supremely political and for all the right reasons. Estonia realised that this was too good an opportunity to miss and set out to establish a work group who would bring together agencies to help them re position themselves for who they were, and shape the identity that they had been deprived of under Russian occupation. It was a new beginning of major repositioning and the world was watching.
Leading up to the event in 2002, an Estonian delegation came to London to engage with partners who could help them rebrand their country that was already ‘positively transforming’ and help reposition them as ‘Scandinavia with a twist’ to make way for their entry into the European Union. The brand that we developed together became the campaign ‘Welcome to Estonia’. With a focus on just a handful of important narratives, Estonia soon turned from East to North West and was welcomed back into the Scandinavian fold. I saw the ‘positive transformation’ first hand and it is astonishing what they have achieved in a very short space of time.
A decade later we went back to help Estonia move their identity work on. What was now needed was a greater understanding of both internal and external perceptions. The original campaign for Estonia was right for 2002. It was meant for the outside world. The idea that you would arrive in Tallinn airport and be greeted with a ‘Welcome to Estonia’ stamp in your passport was a major departure from the Kremlin’s traditionally grumpy: “What is the nature of your business? How many dollars do you have? How long are you staying?”
More importantly, it was now time for Estonia to stop ‘Saying’ and start ‘Doing’. We embarked on a series of work streams, born out of one ‘generative idea’ that would eventually and organically influence key activities from merchandise in the airport to government, business, education and destination branding. There is still work to do, but Estonia is still heading in the right direction, full of passion and positive energy.
It is said that what kept the Estonian spirit alive throughout the occupation was their national singing events attended by tens of thousands, all singing together. What we know for sure is that singing can break down barriers, and in the case of some nations, it was the very ingredient that set them free.
Going back to Estonia this year as the Chairman and Judge for the Creative Agencies Golden Egg Awards, I realised just how far the creative industry has matured. Estonia is now a confident nation, hell bent on shaping and influencing Europe and the rest of the world.

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