Scandinavia: Freestyler

Metro's chief Pelle Tornberg tells Mark Tungate why Swedes are good at building global brands.

The Swedes are rather good at creating global brands, it seems. Where do those cheap, chic clothes hanging in your wardrobe come from? H&M, perhaps? And where did you buy the wardrobe? Could it possibly have been Ikea? If you drove to Ikea in a Volvo or a Saab (preferably while listening to Abba), you get full marks for being a Swedophile.

Another Swedish brand that has conquered the world is Metro, the free newspaper usually distributed on public transport. The version we see in London is a me-too product published by Associated Newspapers, which was launched to fend off the threat of the original Metro - created by Sweden's Modern Times Group in 1995.

Understandably, the market-shaking title hasn't always been welcome on its travels. It caused protests in Marseille when it launched in 2002 (because of its alleged use of non-union labour) and has been continually growled at by the newspaper barons of Germany, a market it has long held in its sights but never been able to crack.

However, the newspaper is now in 21 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America, with a readership of more than 18.5 million. Its 70 editions are published in 19 languages.

Metro's boss is Pelle Tornberg (pictured), who was the chief executive of the Modern Times Group until Metro was spun off in 2000, when he took over the running of Metro International.

Tornberg, 50, studied journalism before joining SVT (the Swedish state broadcaster) and then Kinnevik, which became the holding company of the Modern Times Group. Here he answers a few questions about Swedes and the media.

So why are Swedes so good at convincing us to buy their brands?

I think it has to do with the size of the country and our geographical situation. If you are in business here and you have any ambition at all, you quickly outgrow your home market. Sweden is, of course, part of Scandinavia, but if you take into account the Baltic Sea region, you'll see we belong to a very messy market with lots of different languages and cultures. Once you've conquered that region, you're ready for the rest of the world.

Even so, the Swedes seem naturally international ...

Swedes have always been willing to travel, and brands such as Volvo and Ericsson have transplanted groups of us across the world. In Sweden, nearly everyone has a relative who has worked abroad.

Metro has been a remarkable success. It could have emerged from almost anywhere, so why Sweden?

Thanks to Jan Stenbeck (the late satellite TV entrepreneur who created it), the Modern Times Group was very innovative compared with the rest of the media sector. At that time Sweden was highly conservative, dominated by state television and a few ageing family groups such as Bonnier. This made any new product stand out. You would have thought that entrepreneurship works best in broadminded markets - but I've come to the conclusion that it has more impact in conservative markets. There's less competition and more sympathy for the underdog.

Were the established newspapers worried when you launched?

We didn't consider ourselves a press brand. The Modern Times Group had a background in broadcasting, and when you looked at our business plan it had more in common with a broadcaster than with a print product.

The Swedes clearly snapped it up. Are they natural early adopters?

In Sweden, 80 per cent of people install their own TV satellite dishes. They are not afraid of new technology. Until recently, mobile phone use in Sweden was higher than anywhere in the world. Having said that, the daily television viewing figure has consistently been one of the lowest within Europe, while the number of books consumed per capita is one of the highest. Taken together, these apparent contradictions bode well for an innovative print product.

It was one of those "surprise them with the obvious" ideas ...

The Modern Times Group was something of a specialist in that area. For a long time, we owned a company called SDI - Subtitling and Dubbing International. It handled 60 per cent of the world's subtitling and dubbing needs, which becomes much more impressive when you consider the DVD market, where each film needs to be dubbed into five or six languages. And language evolves, so you have to re-translate old films to suit modern tastes. We eventually sold SDI, but it's another example of a niche industry that we exploited.

Earlier on, you made the global expansion of Metro sound quite easy. But it must be a nightmare from a strategic point of view?

Of course, it's a cultural and geo-political challenge. You have to study each market very carefully to see how best to distribute your product. For example, in New York it's impossible to give away papers at the exit of a subway because everyone is in too much of a hurry. But in Italy it's OK to place newspapers in a coffee shop in the morning, because Italians don't eat breakfast at home. In each market we identify the best way of reaching the young urbanites who are our advertisers' target group. We are a typical example of a "glocal" product - both global and local.

How do you feel about digital technology: can the Metro brand survive the death of print?

In one sense we might welcome it, because print is our biggest cost! At the moment it makes sense to be a traditional Gutenberg product, but we are looking at other media. I agree that now is the right time to be online. We have an online presence with rapidly growing advertising income. But it is dangerous to write off one medium in the face of another. Take the example of radio: it has been around virtually unchanged since the 20s, and not only has it survived, it has flourished in terms of advertising income.

You're going to continue expanding the print product, then?

Line extensions are important to us. We have a number of free magazines around the world based on the same idea as Metro, but with more specific subjects. For instance, during the World Cup we produced a daily Sports Metro. We're looking at the possibility of more products like that.