Scandinavia: Brand Scandinavia

From Abba to Volvo, why are Scandinavian brands so well-loved? Lynne Roberts investigates.

For more than half a century, the world has embraced the pared-down style and democratic principles of Scandinavian design, fuelling global commercial success for many brands such as Ikea, Bang & Olufsen, Saab and Lego.

The love affair with "style Scando" began in the 50s with a series of international exhibitions of household design. Since then, a strong regional identity has remained a crucial ingredient in its potency, with Nordic brands drawing on a history of design that has propelled international demand.

It was the 60s and 70s when great Scandinavian "pioneers" trailblazed interior style, "taking what was formerly craft and moving it into design", Dick Powell, the director at Seymour Powell and a former D&AD president, notes. Typical features were "great ergonomy, great use of natural and appropriate materials, and simplicity, but without the hard-edged modernism you might associate with German design".

Bang & Olufsen, he says, typifies this approach - as does the scissor designer Fiskars. "Fiskars made the first really ergonomic scissors and stands for everything you would think of as Scandinavian industrial design - purity and simplicity. And, of course, we can't fail to mention Ikea, which has turned all of this into a massive retail concept," Powell says.

The association with light and simplicity is so strong, he adds, that it is still deeply ingrained in the national psyche of many contemporary Scandinavian designers.

Ingela D'Angelo, the head of brand development for Volvo, says the company's success is linked to this design heritage. "Some markets don't necessarily have a good knowledge of Scandinavia, but they still connect to certain values," she says. "It has a lot to do with our heritage - where we are placed as a country, lots of space, fresh air, the importance of light. We certainly see it as a strength."

Saab also sees itself as part of this tradition, where a harsh climate and long winters engendered a need for simplicity, safety and function. Michael Fox, an art director at Saab's global agency, Lowe Brindfors, Stockholm, says Saab is "very much rooted in the context of Scandinavia. It's democratic, very pared down; it reflects the tranquillity of the environment."

There is an emphasis on innovation, and on quality of materials, Fox adds: "People have time in winter to tinker with things. And things last longer. They function as they are supposed to. There is an honesty in the way that this is done."

Yet, international success lies as much in Scandinavia's democratic and environmental traditions as in its clean lines and modernity.

The clean, light design typically regarded as Scandinavian was formulated in the 20s, but fuelled after the war with the development of the region's welfare states, the architect Anders Wilhelmson notes.

"Design became democratic, with a focus on everyday functional items," he says. "There was no tradition of producing consumer goods like in Italy or the US, but an emphasis on creating items that worked for society as a whole."

He claims that the most successful aspect of Scandinavian design is its social conscience and global consciousness. The growth of mobile communications and the prominence of Nokia and Ericsson epitomise this. "The concept of the mobile phone itself is grounded in the idea of social mobility," Wilhelmson says. "It breaks up ordinary structures of communication, and is very much part of a tradition of personal liberation."

Fox sees Saab's Nordic identity as a key brand asset. "Because of the strong Scandinavian context, the brand is perceived as attractive, clean and environmental. It's a role model for responsible performance and greener thinking," he claims.

Saab is now producing cars that run on electricity and ethanol, reflecting a wider environmental commitment in which Sweden will aim to become energy self-sufficient within a few years.

"There is a great emphasis on human consideration," Fox argues. "The cars are anatomically correct and user-friendly. Environmental issues, which are becoming fashionable worldwide, have been central here for centuries."

Yet Lego is a global brand that has managed to triple its profits in 2005-6 because of its focus on product rather than regional identity, Charlotte Simonsen, the global head of corporate communications for Lego, states. However, its simplicity of design is rooted in Scandinavian tradition, and an emphasis on continuity and tradition is key, she says: "It's important that all elements (of the building-block toy) since 1958 can still be put together and used with modern products."

Corporate culture also makes an impact. Scandinavians pride themselves on a people-centred consensus environment, in which everyone at all levels can feel accountable and responsible. "It is a relatively non-hierarchical way of working," D'Angelo says. "There is an importance placed on ownership - people feel that they can make a difference."

Simonsen agrees. "Democratic traditions in Scandinavia are important," she says. "We are very aware of the people dimension - treating employees well, having a sense of the right thing to do. People tend to co-operate on different levels."

Despite the evident appeal of this democracy of culture and design, Powell thinks it nevertheless has its limits, particularly for markets such as the UK, the US and Italy, where difference is prized. "Sometimes there is a blandness," he says. "It lacks the ebullience and dangerousness you find in other cultures. It's almost too sensible and worthy - very inclusive, but perhaps not edgy enough."

And Powell also doubts that a Scandinavian "look" still exists. "It has lost its identity," he claims. "We are much more global in our outlook, and provenance is no longer a determinant of a certain look."

Others disagree. Scandinavian design may not be as stylish as Italian, "but it is not just about form, it's about life", Wilhelmson says.

In any case, Fox argues, it can stand the test of time precisely because it often "isn't ornate or decorative, but belongs to a philosophy of thinking rather than a trend". So a Saab Classic 900 model still looks modern, in contrast to a Ford from the same era which "looks ancient already".

As D'Angelo concludes: "Scandinavian design is absolutely sustainable with values that connect to our concept of luxury. It's about getting your own time and some free space. And that's even more important today."