Small Country, Big Impact: Sweden’s Soft Power Marvel

By Viktoriia Vitsenko

2 MB

Key Takeaways

  • Good National Brand: A favorable global image is crucial for a good national brand. In Sweden’s case, this is built on social welfare, neutrality, and innovation.
  • Economic Contributions: Strong exports, notably in the music industry and innovative companies like IKEA and Spotify, boost the economy and contribute to positive national branding.
  • Branding Development: Developing a strong national brand involves more than just innovation; it requires a strategic collaboration between government and business sectors. This coordinated effort is essential for maintaining a coherent and compelling brand image on the global stage.
  • Environmental Leadership: A focus on sustainability isn’t just ethical but also enhances economic prospects and the national brand, positioning the country as a global leader in this space.

In a world that is becoming more and more interconnected every year, it is impossible to overestimate the role of soft power for any state. Sweden is a rather special case of it. In the rankings of influential soft power countries, along with Switzerland, Sweden, being small compared to other states and having a population of ten million, stands out. Over the years, it has been among the top 10 despite the odds. The article’s goal is to evaluate the key characteristics of Sweden’s soft power, to identify the areas where it may be imitated and where experience can be borrowed. In addition, the article aims to provide examples of how Sweden has addressed and is currently overcoming challenges in the realm of soft power as its image can provide valuable insights for other countries.

The Concept of Soft Power

The prominent American political scientist Joseph Nye is considered the “father” of the term soft power in the foreign policy of the state. He was the first to propose and introduce this concept into scientific circulation in the 90s of the last century. At that time, this term was applied to the United States, for which, in Nye’s opinion, it would be beneficial to significantly soften its foreign policy. In the article “Soft power: The means of achieving success in world politics”, he noted that international relations are changing, and therefore, in order not to lose their former power, and most importantly, their significance in the international arena, major powers should incorporate soft and benevolent persuasion rather than coercion into their foreign policy toolkit. Regarding the explanation of the components of the concept of “soft power”, J. Nye identified the following generalized components: foreign policy and diplomacy, political ideology, and cultural values.

The opposite of “soft power” is “hard power”. Having made a brief generalization of these concepts, we can conclude that “hard power” primarily refers to instruments of coercion in foreign policy, such as the use or threat of the use of armed forces or economic sanctions. In contrast, it can be said that “soft power” entails the use of positive attraction and persuasion to achieve certain foreign policy goals. In my opinion, this strategy is more in line with a person’s freedom of choice, thus the country has more chance to establish successful communication with foreign audiences and indirectly promote its national culture, science, and education abroad.

As a result of this seemingly unobtrusive or even, at first glance, unintentional influence, other states, and their population gradually develop a more favorable attitude towards this country. Oftentimes, the understanding and relations achieved in this way are more reliable and strong compared to the results achieved with the help of military force or any kind of coercion.

Sweden’s Path to Global Soft Power Leadership

Modern Sweden is associated with good governance and sustainability and in general, is perceived as a stable society. The country was able to achieve that people all over the world who have even limited knowledge about Sweden often associate it with clear and positive concepts. Such success is explained by consistent work on its image and national branding, as well as by the ability to effectively position itself and extrapolate its values in a way that is supported by domestic policy. To reach this synergy, Sweden had to go through a rather difficult path, beginning with overcoming the remnants of a policy of neutrality that was extremely harmful to the country’s image. At the time of the Second World War, Sweden engaged in trade with Germany and provided it with iron ore and other important resources used in the military industry. The very same policy caused despise from other European states during the Cold War.  

1945 can be considered a starting point of Sweden’s work on creating a positive perception in the world and the beginning of the formation of its public diplomacy. That is the date of the establishment of the Swedish Institute, a specialized institution that is engaged in the implementation of the country’s public diplomacy. The establishment of the Swedish Institute became a historical necessity for Sweden, since even before the end of the Second World War, a number of European countries already had special organizations engaged in the promotion of national interests and the national brand abroad. Representatives of this institute were tasked with organizing international cooperation in several areas: culture, education, science, and entrepreneurship. Quite interesting is the fact that, from the very beginning, it was decided that the presentation of the “face” of the country would be done not only by officials but also by entrepreneurs.

The insights from the Swedish Institute representatives regarding the creation of Sweden’s branding hold true and are highly pertinent when contemplating the development of national branding for any other country. “Sweden is a small country considering the size of its population. That is why, in order for its voice to be heard on a global scale, the goals must be clear and coherent in the long term. To be more clear, it is necessary to prioritize all the associations that people have with our country. A key starting point is that Sweden’s image must be honest. People living in Sweden should be able to identify themselves. Of course, the message should also be clear and attractive. Finally, it is necessary to find what makes Sweden unique and what attracts people today. It is not enough just to have geographical features or cultural manifestations. It is also necessary to demonstrate Sweden’s unique values, way of life, and way of thinking.”

To identify the components critical to Sweden in terms of soft power, it is worth paying attention to the results of the Global Soft Power Index, the research study on perceptions of national brands. It includes three key metrics. The first is familiarity: national brands that people know, and have the mental availability of, have greater soft power. Second is reputation: is this country perceived to have a strong and positive reputation globally? Third, influence: the degree to which a nation is seen to have influence in the respondent’s country as well as on the world stage. Each country is also assessed on the 8 core Soft Power Pillars (Business & Trade, Governance, International Relations, Culture & Heritage, Media & Communication, Education & Science, People & Values, and Sustainable Future).

Sweden ranks 4th within the People & Values pillar, being among Scandinavian states that tend to demonstrate positive development in this aspect. The country entered the Top 3 globally within the Sustainable Future pillar, a newly introduced criteria aimed to facilitate the measurement of environmental sustainability. In addition, Sweden took 2nd place in the categories of “Acts to protect the environment” and “Trustworthy media” and 3rd place in the category of “High ethical standards and low corruption”. Moreover, the country entered the Top 10 in Nation Brand Strength, ranking 10th in 2022 and 8th in 2023.

The entire Nordic region stands out within the good governance category. Political culture is an especially crucial soft power instrument. Sweden’s long-lasting commitment to democracy, transparency, accountability, and respect for human rights not only increases the level of political culture of the population but also creates a positive example for other states in the international arena. According to Cecilia Andrae, Senior Adviser of the Swedish Institute, universal values such as equality and democracy have long been part of Sweden’s identity, nationally and internationally.

The Evolution of National Branding

Sweden’s successful development in the main soft power criteria has contributed to the establishment of strong national branding, which has led to the emergence of a recognizable positive image of the country in the international arena. Apart from that, nation branding represents a significant factor in the country’s economic prosperity and competitiveness, as it allows for influencing the preferences and behavior of international stakeholders, attracting foreign investment, and encouraging international trade partnerships.

During the 1990s, the country began to pay more attention to national branding. In particular, the Swedish Institute, under the leadership of the center-left government of Goran Persson, invited British consultants to help shape their external image. A large part of the brand’s initial justification was based on the rapid modernization of Sweden according to the principles of social democracy.

After joining the EU (1995), the Swedish authorities had to make increased efforts in this area. The reason for this was a certain blurring of Sweden’s image for the foreign public, as the country became another “small European state” within a large organization. In 1995, as a result of the union of several ministries, the Swedish Institute, as well as agencies in the fields of travel and investment, and the Swedish government established the Council for the Promotion of Sweden Abroad to strengthen the effective and coordinated long-term promotion of Sweden’s image, thus attracting investors and talent, as well as tourists and political allies.

Sweden officially launched its national brand in 2007, defining itself as a “progressive, open country… that balances development and human needs with environmental considerations.” The brand platform served as a roadmap for promoting the country internationally through various channels. Since its launch, the platform has evolved into a clear strategy: its first revised edition was launched in 2014, and the second in 2017.

In building an attractive image of any nation, intangible resources such as values, lifestyle, and politics are usually emphasized. Sweden’s branding strategy facilitated this by highlighting the intangible values the country wanted to be associated with and contextualizing them in Swedish politics and lifestyle to create a realistic appeal. The main concept was progressiveness. The cornerstone of the brand is four values: openness, authenticity, care, and innovation.

To further strengthen the influence of the strategy, a target group was defined in order to spread information as effectively as possible. The chosen target group was described as individuals with an extensive social network, who could further spread the information to a large number of people. Thus, the use of connectors was motivated by the possibility of reaching a large final target group. In addition, an evaluation model with methods for tracking intended goals and results was also carefully developed.

Modern Challenge Reshapes an Image

Sweden is also a vivid example of the fact that the country should be ready, if necessary, to quickly make smaller or larger amendments to its national branding. For Sweden, the evolution from a brand platform to a clear strategy was motivated by a rapidly changing climate on the international stage and increased competition between countries. In particular, according to the Council for the Promotion of Sweden, in 2016 the conditions for Sweden’s promotion abroad changed compared to when the strategy was launched in 2014. The international conversation has become tougher as the elements of hatred and threats, negative rumors, and even false information have spread about Sweden in matters of migration and integration. In fact, the branding strategy of 2017 was greatly influenced by the migration crisis, during which Sweden’s policy to some extent did not correspond to its own values.

Sweden has a long-standing tradition of providing refuge to those fleeing conflict and persecution. During the peak of the migration crisis, Sweden maintained an open-door policy, allowing a large number of asylum seekers, particularly from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to enter the country. This approach was rooted in the country’s commitment to international humanitarian principles and its desire to offer protection to those in need. However, the sudden and significant influx of asylum seekers placed considerable strain on Sweden’s infrastructure and caused issues in providing adequate support and services to the new arrivals. The issue also became highly politicized and led to new restrictions being imposed. Sweden strengthened border controls, implemented stricter asylum policies, tightened the rules for family reunification, and reduced social benefits for asylum seekers to dissuade economic migration.

In such a way the government has withdrawn the policy of Open Sweden. Thus, the authorities’ actions completely contradicted its branding’s statement about an open, tolerant, and caring country. This situation emphasized the need to adapt the strategy to new international circumstances in order to remain competitive. The main values and profile areas from the previous strategies remained. However, changes on points of migration and integration were made in two areas: culture and society. It was noted that Sweden is open to international influence in the country contributing to the creation of new ideas. The Swedish open society means that people coming to Sweden contribute to the building and development of the country. Emphasis was placed on such aspects as free trade, openness to innovation, and promoting the creation of a global market of ideas. In addition, creators minimized emphasis on Sweden as a welfare state concept, that would only contribute to an even greater attraction of the flow of migrants.

Additionally, Sweden has taken many practical steps to reduce the negative effects of the migration crisis. In particular, to combat disinformation, a working group was created to coordinate migration, including information and communication activities, and to provide objective information on current legal decisions in the field of migration and asylum policy. It is interesting that since June 2016, targeted messages were distributed on the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in social networks and embassies. The target groups were people who planned to go to Sweden as asylum seekers. The messages aimed to prepare potential migrants for what is expected of them in Sweden, especially taking into account that their expectations may not be met. The argument for restrictions in asylum policy was to limit immigration and therefore seek the resources needed to support refugees who have already arrived. Another argument for the introduction of restrictions was the non-acceptance of responsibility for the refugee crisis and the non-fulfillment of the agreed shares of refugees by other EU countries. By using these narratives, the Swedish Institute was trying to legitimize its government’s decisions on asylum and migration policy.

It is worth noting that from 2015 to 2017, during the crisis in the Soft Power 30 rating, Sweden constantly held the 9th place, moreover, the total score did not decrease, but rather improved slightly from year to year. According to Country RepTrak in 2014, and 2015 Sweden took 3rd place, in 2016 – 1st and in 2017 – again 3rd.

Environmental Leadership: Sweden’s Soft Power Asset

Sweden is one of the most active countries when it comes to actions to protect the environment. Sustainability is a key feature of its domestic policy. A truly powerful instrument of the country’s soft power, its positive perception in the international arena, is environmental diplomacy and an effective domestic policy on various aspects of environmental protection and protection. Most people can build negative associations with a country that does not care about the environment, ignores the problem of global warming, and has a large carbon emission into the atmosphere. In addition, a country’s environmental activity can often reinforce other positive aspects. For example, during the UN conference on environmental problems, which took place in 1972 in Stockholm, Prime Minister U. Palme clearly stated that the US military invasion and hostilities in Vietnam were serious environmental threat. Of course, this did not contribute to the improvement of relations with the USA. However, a more important and positive result was the formation of a large group of states that began to perceive Sweden as a bearer of attractive global ideas: environmental protection, peaceful resolution of conflicts, protection of human rights, and the fight against poverty.

At least a few examples of Sweden’s activity in this area should be mentioned. Sweden was the first country in the world to pass an environmental protection act in 1967. In 1972, the first UN conference on the environment was held in Sweden, which led to the creation of the UN Environment Program. In 1995, Sweden was one of the first countries to introduce a carbon tax, which helped reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Sweden was one of the first countries to sign in 1998 and ratify in 2002 the international agreement on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol. In 2020 it was ranked 1st in the Global Sustainability Index and in 2021, the country topped the Global Index of Sustainable Competitiveness. One of Sweden’s goals is to make the country’s transport sector free of fossil fuel usage by 2030 and to become completely climate-neutral by 2045. Currently, around 60% of Sweden’s national energy supply comes from renewable sources.

It is worth emphasizing that, both concerning problems related to ecology and other areas, for the country to maintain its positive influence in the world, concrete actions and decisions of the authorities are of primary importance. In the case of the logic of creating an image only thanks to declarations and very good words, it will be very short-lived. Also, with the example of the famous Swedish eco-activist Greta Thunberg, it is possible to see how individuals can contribute to creating a positive impression about the country in foreign societies. In the Global Soft Power Index 2020 it was stated that Greta “helps earn Sweden the top spot for climate action”.

The cultural blind spot

Each country has stronger and somewhat weaker components of its soft power. As for Sweden, the weakest element is culture. Most people who are purposefully not interested in the history and culture of this country will not be able to name a significant number of outstanding Swedish personalities. Partly, it is explained by the insufficient attention to this area by the Swedish authorities.

Nevertheless, the country adopted a successful strategy of emphasizing, first of all, the modern culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, among writers, Astrid Lindgren, who gained world fame thanks to her works about Carlson and Pippi Longstocking, is well-known. Modern Swedish crime literature Nordic Noir also has global recognition and popularity.

The situation is much better in the music industry where Swedes may brag about such groups as ABBA, Roxette, Ace of Base, and The Cardigans. Sweden is also an unprecedently successful country at Eurovision. The country won first place 7 times and shares the record for most Eurovision wins with Ireland. Eurovision 2024 will be held in the Swedish city of Malmo, which is also a great chance for cultural diplomacy and the soft power of the country.

What about the economy?

While economic coercion is a means of hard power, a country can successfully use the attractiveness of its economic model as an effective tool of soft power. Above all, the most direct positive impact on the country is the inflow of foreign business and investments.

In the 80s the Swedish economic model assumed a pivotal role in the formation of the country’s international image. Though there was no consensus on its effectiveness the state’s image depended on its success. At that time, the situation deteriorated because of the disastrous influence of the economic crisis that hit Sweden. However, the successful tax reforms carried out by the government of Ingvar Karlsson ultimately provided a positive outcome.

The presence of world-famous brands also greatly affects the country’s image. IKEA, H&M, Volvo, and Spotify have kept their positions as Sweden’s most valuable brands, contributing to the nation’s economic success. This resilience and success are reflected in Sweden’s Top 50 company brands having collectively grown by an impressive 12% over the previous year.

And vice versa, the country’s image can be decisive for business, as the country of origin can increase the value of a product. Thus, corporations such as Ikea, Volvo, and H&M quickly adopted generalized aspects of Brand Sweden in their own marketing. Ikea, for example, covers its warehouses in the blue and yellow colors of the Swedish flag, and its employee manuals now use the core values developed by the Swedish Institute as a way of introducing staff to Swedish national values.

As Olle Wästberg, former CEO of the Swedish Institut, notes, “raising Sweden’s image involves creating a clear position for Sweden internationally – namely, positioning itself as a unique place where conscientiousness and honesty of people are a hallmark Sweden among other countries”. In his opinion, IKEA “fits perfectly into this context” and this national brand does more for Sweden than the Ministry of the Interior and all institutions combined as “visiting IKEA means visiting Sweden”.


Summing up, Sweden is indeed a great example for other countries in using soft power and developing national branding. Despite all the troubles on the way and the fact of being a small state, the country was able to find its own unique place in a globalized and interdependent world. Thanks to a successful policy, the country was able to achieve that “its voice can really be heard in the world”.

In the distant year of 2010, Simon Anholt said “Sweden has a really great image that is hard to spoil. In the imagination of people, its image is always positive. Example: Stockholm is considered by everyone to be one of the safest cities (it has already turned into a certain stereotype) and even if terrible murders happened there, people would not change their opinion about it, they would rather say: “This is Stockholm, it’s impossible, how could this happen?” And even if such cases became regular, I am not sure that people would quickly change their opinion about the safety of the city”. From that, we can conclude that if the country has already developed a viable, good, sustainable, and successful national branding, it is much more likely that it will be easier to face various crises and challenges regarding the country’s reputation.

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