Peter Kentie: My Estonia – a mix of pleasure and pain

Peter Kentie, a Dutch marketing ace, who in 2016 proposed an ambitious nation branding concept and a new slogan for Estonia, shares his reflections on the country – what is good and what can be improved upon.

Can anyone be truly objective? As an observer, friend or even a lover, commenting on a foreign nation? Obviously not. Personal affection usually dictates the experience. And these can be altered over time. That applies to me as well. Coming to Estonia initially on a cruise left a first impression. A trip back in time to the beautiful old town of Tallinn, full of medieval splendour and amber.

This image stayed with me for years. And whenever the word Estonia came up in the Dutch or even the foreign media, not a bell rang. I needed a person to open my eyes and heart to Estonia, whom I luckily met and now I know and understand so much more about the country and its mentality.

My fondness for Estonia is four years old. What I like so much in Estonia is also what I care dearly for in my own home town (Eindhoven, the Netherlands – editor): it’s this special combination of resilience and unconventional thinking and acting. Yet when one’s heart beats faster and the endorphins are created, the image gets tainted: the image becomes rosier. That happened to me, too.

Luckily, I had my compensation. When I was in Tartu to make a speech about my work for Eindhoven’s marketing and place branding, I received a gift: “My Estonia 3”, the third book by Justin Petrone (an Estonia-based writer, originally from New York – editor). I was already an avid reader of his blog. So, a welcome gift from Tartu, a place I feel really connected to.

Reading his book was like looking in the mirror, bit of a shock as well. Petrone unwillingly showed me the honest reflections and experiences of a person falling in love with Estonia. The closer you think you are becoming to your destination, the more questions are raised, and the sought-after answers seem to be furthest away. So recognisable, I went through this awkward process as well and after the past years I can honestly state that Estonia has brought me the biggest joys and equally has hurt me beyond belief. Changing my life for sure.

Land of contradictions

Pleasure and pain are opposites, so it seems. They also complement each other; belong together, maybe even enforce each other. They are high on Maslow’s scale, having a genuine and lasting effect on people. They surely have a serious effect on me, being a vulnerable man. I found my balance, sort of. It took me quite some time and having a friend that guides and comforts is a big help to figure things out.

The parallel that appeared are the contradictions. As if all of Estonia has two opposites. For example: the medieval versus the digital. The old medieval preserved city centre of Tallinn, opposed to the advanced digital society of Estonia. Both co-exist in the same society yet are worlds apart from mentality.

This one goes even deeper. The Estonian people are quite single-minded. I mean no offence. One of the first sayings I learned was: “two Estonians, three opinions.” Or the alternative: “two Estonians, three political parties.” Nothing wrong with that. I am Dutch, and we are known for speaking our mind and going our own way. Yet Estonia is also a singing nation. Meaning performing together in a choir, singing in perfect harmony following the conductor. An interesting combination of the individual mindset versus the collective performance.

“One of the first sayings I learned was: ‘two Estonians, three opinions.'”

Another example: the nature. What fantastic natural resources Estonia has. Not just four seasons, even a fifth one! Lots of space for forests, bogs, islands and lakes – making it one of Europe’s greenest countries. Estonians love their nature, adore it in the weekend. It is so odd to find out that a city of Tallinn is so less crowded in the weekend; people leave the city to enjoy the countryside. In our Dutch society, we go to the city.

The air quality is another example of the Estonian contrariety. Estonia can boast as one of the countries with the cleanest air in the world and not only in the outback; the city of Tallinn is in top league of cities with cleanest air. Sounds great, so where is the opposite? It is in greenhouse gas emissions and especially carbon-dioxide. Estonia’s average is almost double the European Union average in CO2 emissions per person. And that is not something to be proud of. Again, a big contrast.

“Estonia’s average is almost double the European Union average in CO2 emissions per person.”

One more? Think about this one. Estonia has a tough citizenship test, thus limiting the possibility to become an Estonian as a foreigner or alien. Do you want to let your foreign visitors and aspiring residents to feel like aliens? Of course not, although there is room for improvement. And with such a complex language it is quite a big step to gain official citizenship as a foreigner because it is fundament of the citizenship test.

The opposition, of course, is the estonishing (the slogan “just estonishing” was proposed by Kentie as part of his open-source brand concept for Estonia – editor) e-residency programme; such a bold move inviting potentially all worlds’ citizens to become digital compatriots. I loved the idea right from the start and have a great adoration of the likes of Taavi Kotka, Siim Sikkut (the former and the incumbent CIO of the Estonian government – editor) and the incredible Kaspar Korjus (the head of the e-residency programme – editor) in driving the e-residency forward. It is unconventional to make every global citizen a potential digital Estonian – and therefore sympathetic to the country, too.

Agree to disagree

I was once invited to speak at the Arvamusfestival (an annual opinion festival in Paide, Estonia – editor). As a concept alone, the festival deserves full praise – the idea that a society invites all stakeholders and parties to share their thoughts and beliefs in the open; collectively with the citizens and discuss even sensitive issues in public space, with media present.

It was a great experience for the Dutch ambassador to Estonia, Jos Schellaars, and myself. The subject we chose was “polderen” – yes, I hear you thinking, what? In the Netherlands, it is a method of being pragmatic in a discussion and therefore resulting in an efficient work practice.

The history of the word is that a “polder” is a piece of land regained from the sea – we Dutch are good at that, expanding our territories. Even in times of war and fighting amongst each other, Dutch opposing clans worked together to fight the common enemy: mother nature. When the sea levels were rising through storms creating high tides, the opposing groups worked together to save their soil.

So “polderen” is a translation of this mentality: although we disagree, we always seek after a common ground. And from that basis we strive for a mutual agreement. We even “agree to disagree”, making a start of a process forward in reaching our goals.

“Although we disagree, we always seek after a common ground.”

And we are an ambitious bunch, the Netherlands once conquered parts of the world. In Asia, South America, even the United States. We sold the island of Manhattan to the British and the name New Amsterdam was traded in for New York. Not bad if you consider the Netherlands is a country in size almost as big as Estonia. Surrounded by water, the Dutch are living below sea level.

What could Estonia benefit from the Dutch mentality? Working together, sharing common goals, celebrating achievements reached together – as one nation. Estonia has so much potential which inspired me immensely and introduced the achievements and peculiarities of Estonia to me. I learned that we – the “advanced thinking” Dutch people – have found our match with Estonia, an advanced and future-oriented digital society.

Why so modest?

“Stand up to be seen,

“Speak up to be heard,

“Shut up to be appreciated.”

These words resonate in my mind when I think of Estonia. I learned this saying from the mayor of Tel Aviv. Wise words and so true – and also applicable to Estonia and my role. My contribution to “Minu Eesti” is to find the common voice that brings the story and achievements of Estonia come alive. Make it known and share the benefits and learnings, creating value to Estonia and the world.

To understand the Estonian mentality better, I really did a lot of research to capture and understand the essence of your nation. I found my realisations equally striking and disturbing. You are the biggest and the coolest, although you hardly communicate that to the outside world in a strategic way. So that’s a missed opportunity for all.

The edge is in your mentality. The richness in unique cultural assets, the e-society and innovative spirit and a wonderful nature is stunning. The key is to find a coherent approach and act in a coherent manner. Not scattered about, minding your own business and interests. Why so modest?

The Estonian suspicion

So I decided to be bold and brave. After the EST brand concept was created and worked out into a consistent marketing and branding proposal my thinking was: “Your country is positively surprising, so let’s be positive and surprising and so I send the concept as a gift, from the heart, as a true fan!”

And then suspicion creeped in – which I didn’t understand. “What is behind this, why is he doing this, what is in it for him?” I was stunned. It was a pro bono, open-source idea which surely can be also of high value. Just because it was shared for free, doesn’t make it without value. I think my actions are fitting in nowadays society – the mentality of sharing, contributing, caring, co-creating. It is my choice to act like this and accept it as it is. Take the gift and embrace it.

Yes, I realise it is a bit weird situation. I understand the reservations and I respect that, too. It is odd; a Dutchman living more than two thousand kilometres away creating a nation branding concept without a commission or even a briefing. I know it is hard to explain the work and dedication; I got inspired by Estonia and Estonians. But hey, if you truly want to be positively surprising, this can happen.

“I know it is hard to explain the work and dedication; I got inspired by Estonia and Estonians. But hey, if you truly want to be positively surprising, this can happen.”

And why not start a new great project again in another Estonian-Dutch cooperation? Did you know that when Estonia won the Eurovision song festival in 2001 it was a successful teamwork between Estonian singer, Tanel Padar, and Dave Benton from Aruba, which is a proud part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands? So this relation between Estonia and the Netherlands is a natural fit. And it has made me proud that the EST concept is now part of official nation branding of Estonia.

A gift to the world

Gifts can be seen as a philosophy, a metaphor for a new future. Elon Musk’s greatest gift to humanity will not be driverless cars, hyperloops or missions to mars. It will be an inspiration – inspiring a whole generation to think bigger.

What is the gift of Estonia to the world? The nation thinks unconventionally and has the scale to try out and act, thinking forward. The digital society is an example of Estonia, the entrepreneurial state. So is the government as an investor in daring policies and programmes.

“What is the gift of Estonia to the world?”

And the country is the testing bed. In recent history, this methodology worked well resulting in the United States in projects like the GPS or the internet (Darpanet). Government-based research has a great potential if it fits with global challenges and ambitions. The digital world doesn’t know borders, just firewalls.

Standing out brings fame and fortune if done well. Maybe it takes a generation of Estonians to appreciate this way forward. I do hope to witness that myself – and sense the global appreciation.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. A shorter version of this article was first published in the Estonian print magazine Pulss.

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