As with any public expenditure, the new logo has triggered a debate—especially in the media and on social media—on whether the logo is worth the $220,000 (€200,000) it cost. Some say it is an outrageous amount of public money that better be spent elsewhere. Others, including Dutch trade minister Sigrid Kaag, argue that compared to the billions of value it can have for job generation and trade, $220,000 is a minor amount.
And as with all logos, there are people who like and people who don’t. Some may find it beautiful or ugly, others may find it too outspoken or not outspoken enough, and still others may find that, with its emphasis on the tulip, it doesn’t effectively express the core identity of the Netherlands.
In this sense, the debate on the new logo isn’t different from any corporate rebranding and restyling project: so many people, so many minds. But the new logo brings up a more important question: whether countries need logos in the first place and what a good country logo looks like.
Preceding the question as to whether countries need logos comes the question of whether countries need strategy. After all, a company’s logo and branding express what a company adds and how it wants to be perceived by its customers, suppliers, competitors and other stakeholders. And this is usually made explicit in a company’s strategy. Without a clear strategy, there is not much use for a logo because it is not clear what the logo should express.
The same applies to countries. And even though far less is written about country-level strategy than about corporate or business strategy, there is a substantial body of knowledge it. It is a field that has codeveloped with these other fields of strategy, as well as the fields of marketing and branding.
One of the most notable country-level strategy contributions comes from the world’s most well-known strategy professor, Michael Porter. In his book The Competitive Advantage of Nations (1990) he lays out an in-depth analysis based on a comparison of ten countries. The result is what has become known as “Porter’s Diamond.” It is a framework describing the six key factors that explain the differences in competitiveness between countries.
While the details of Porter’s Diamond are not relevant here and can be found elsewhere, like here, it is an important basis for the yearly “Global Competitiveness Index” by the World Economic Forum. This index ranks countries worldwide on their competitiveness on the factors described in Porter’s Diamond. In the 2019 index, the Netherlands ranks fourth globally and highest amongst European countries, one place above Switzerland.
As the weight given to this index shows, just like companies, countries care about their competitive position. Furthermore, just like companies, countries compete for talent, investments and resources and they have an interest in selling products and services in national and international markets. And just like companies, countries prefer to be top of mind so that companies and individuals choose for them instead of for others. Therefore, country-level strategy definitely matters.
Given that country strategy matters, country branding matters as well. Countries need a way to communicate effectively and efficiently to the rest of the world what they stand for and how they want to be perceived. And having some graphical representation to do this, like a logo, seems quite handy.
Whether a country needs a logo depends on whether or not it already has other means of visualizing their strategy and identity. For some countries, it is the national flag which serves this purpose. Switzerland is a good example. Whether it is the classical Swiss army knife, watches, or other products, the red square flag with a white cross inside is well-known. And it has a strong meaning attached to it as well: high-quality craftsmanship.
For the Netherlands, using the flag doesn’t really do the job. The Dutch (me included) aren’t particularly proud of their red-white-blue flag. Or at least, we don’t express it. Unlike in the United States, for example, it is hard to find any Dutch flag driving across the country. What we have instead, is the color orange. You just have to watch a soccer game of the Dutch national team and you see immediately what I mean.
Lacking a strong national flag that can be used as symbol, having a country logo seems a good alternative. After all, like companies, countries need a simple graphical representation and if not their flag, why not a logo. So, in answer to the title question: yes, if lacking another strong symbol, countries need a logo.
The right logo?
A final question that we can ask is whether the above logo is the right logo. To assess this in a reasonably objective way, we can answer it in three ways.
The first way of answering this question is to look at the logo itself and assess whether it is powerful enough to be recognized and remembered. To that end, it should be sufficiently unique and outspoken. While it probably isn’t as strong as Nike’s “swoosh” it doesn’t seem that bad either. It is pretty clear and not easily confused with other logos.
The second way to answer this question is whether the logo will be immediately linked to the country it is supposed to represent. With its orange color, NL letters and tulip, I’d say it is pretty obvious that this logo represents the Netherlands. There is little risk of confusion, so also in this sense it is quite a good logo.
The third way of answering it is by looking whether the logo is consistent with the underlying strategy and identity of the country. Taking the Swiss example again, Switzerland has been quite effective in positioning its country as source of high-quality craftsmanship and giving that meaning to its flag.
In the light of this third way of looking, I am less sure about the logo of the Netherlands. Looking at the logo in this way presumes that there is a clear strategy that says what the logo should express. Sure, we have tulips. And so we have cheese and windmills. But is this what the logo should express? I doubt it.
Unfortunately there are no official explanations yet about the strategy or identity the logo should express, other than that it is supposed to strengthen the image of the Netherlands abroad. But what that strategy or identity precisely is, or more importantly what we want it to be, is far from evident. So yes, countries may need a logo. But before that they need a strategy. Now that we have the logo, maybe it is time to think about strategy too. And then we may finally know whether it is indeed worth the $220,000 it cost.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Getty