Holland is a good brand, poorly sold

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This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

In the list of countries with the most attractive image, the Netherlands is in 12th place. This is quite a feat for such a small country.

But how should we promote the Holland brand? Hundreds of people from the marketing agencies, the civil service and business, who represent the Netherlands abroad have come together this week to discuss this issue.

If you ask ten Dutch people “what makes us proud to be Dutch?” you’ll get ten different answers.

No one has a problem naming 

  • windmills
  • cheese
  • tulips

Nor is it difficult to cite

  • the country’s heroic struggle against water
  • Golden Age artist Rembrandt van Rijn

And it stands to reason that the Dutch are proud of

  • making it to the World Cup final last summer
  • the fact that just about everyone here can skate and cycle

But people start having difficulty when it comes to

  • raw fish with onions
  • Dutch frankness
  • the Red Light District in Amsterdam
  • the right to abortion and euthanasia

Dutch perks
US historian and author Russell Shorto, guest speaker at the annual conference on the image of the Netherlands, thinks the Dutch reputation for “tolerance” is misleading. There are plenty of people in the Netherlands, especially in the more conservative areas, who couldn’t be characterised as particularly tolerant.

Mr Shorto, who has two children, would like to suggest another 'unique selling point' for the Netherlands. He was flabbergasted when he first received child allowance. One of the many perks the Dutch are entitled to.

Government funding to bring up your children is unthinkable in America. Fair’s fair, the Dutch pay quite a lot of tax for it. According to Mr Shorto, having a financial safety net eases a lot of social tension. The Dutch don’t have to worry too much about getting sacked or sickness insurance. And that makes them relatively relaxed.

The figures are clear. The Netherlands has a large number of multinationals and is one of the world’s biggest investors. Far bigger that its tiny number of inhabitants warrants. For instance, worldwide the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products.

In spite of all this, the Netherlands still has difficulty selling itself. Mark Zellenrath of engineering company Arcadis which helped out in the United States after hurricane Katrina saw what happened there.

“Everyone is glad that we helped. Americans watched how we went to work and took over. The Chinese are good at that too. People have no idea that the Dutch have a lot more technical solutions up their sleeves. A complete lack of marketing on our part.”

Solving impossible problems
The Netherlands is notorious for sending rival trade missions to foreign countries. First Japan gets a visit from a delegation from Rotterdam, and a day later it’s Amsterdam’s turn. The two delegations have no idea that they are fishing in the same pond. Totally confused, the Japanese go for the Spanish option.

Economic diplomacy can open doors, says Henk Jan Bakker, a foreign ministry civil servant.

“Even at the highest level, companies are helped. You would think top companies like Shell could look after its own affairs. Well, not always.”

In 2007, the company was confronted by lots of unexpected financial claims from environmental organisations, when it tried to invest in a large oil and gas project in Siberia.

The Dutch are also very good at solving seemingly impossible problems. Not just in the field of water management, but also in the area of logistics, agriculture and technology.

The delegates to the conference have agreed to be less modest in the future. They promise to be more concrete and give more examples of Dutch achievements and to embrace the new media. Next year, ‘Brand Holland’ will also be promoted via Twitter and Facebook.

So what makes Dutch trouble shooters so unique?

This is what I heard at the conference:

“Thanks to our tolerance and openness, the most junior employee is allowed to challenge the boss here. That can be very refreshing. But in a hierarchic culture, like in Germany, Sweden and America, that is unheard of.”