What Brands Have to Learn from @sweden

I have to imagine that @sweden’s citizen-driven Twitter “experiment” is waking up many a marketing director’s concerns about social media—ergo their brands—in the hands of the masses.

As part of its Curators of Sweden campaign, Sweden’s government-sponsored tourism agency turns the reigns of the @sweden Twitter account over to a different citizen each week. This week, Sonja Abrahamsson’s tweets have taken their followers on a magic carpet ride.

Everyone from Mashable, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes weighed in on the controversy. Even Stephen Colbert riffed on it on The Colbert Report, causing over 4.7MM Twitter users to campaign for him taking over the account for a week (#artificialswedener).

Because of Abrahamsson and her gaffes (or trolling?), many are calling this “experiment” a colossal failure, while a few say it is absolute brilliance. Having worked as a digital marketing consultant for many tourism directors over the years, I felt an immediate concern for the future of tourism social media efforts. I imagined risk mitigation conversations happening everywhere, governors and tourism boards wanting to know how their marketing teams would avoid such calamities as a person speaking their uncensored mind.

There’s the social web for you—people the world over trying to have a conversation with one another. And brands often sound like awkward imposters—as though they’re the only ones who thought it was a masquerade party—hiding the humanity of their very product. Conveying local character and authenticity has been a pursuit in the tourism industry for some time. And here Sweden is, allowing us that from the first moment we encounter the brand online.

I challenge you to think about our long-held views of how a brand creates an “authentic” voice. What’s authentic about a voice that’s always politically correct, oddly disembodied, and doesn’t sound like the locals you would meet along the way? We have unprecedented opportunities today to make the richness of our people, cultures and destinations known. Or, we can be bound by our corporate risk mitigation instincts that tell us to always be careful. I believe the risk for much of the travel promotion industry is greater if played too safe.

Sweden hasn’t embarked on this lightly. They’ve given it much thought from the highest levels, it seems, to modernizing their role as a tourism promotion agency (I found this page intriguing). If you look across their entire social and site strategy, you’ll see everyday people at the helm or in the conversation everywhere, weaving a rich and real picture of the people and places within their borders. The lessons to me are to push yourself beyond your immediate comfort zone, but give it thought and get unequivocal support.

So Tweet on, @sweden, even while some of us wince.