[The Hieno! Suomi 100] Interview with Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo, the initiator of Design Finland 100.

Finnish Culture, Finnish People, Official Finland 100 Series Endorsed by Prime Minister's Office
Kirsti Lindberg-Repo

Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series celebrating Suomi 100 in 2017, we have the huge privilege of featuring Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo. She is a visiting professor at the Singapore Management University and also the initiator of Design Finland 100 (DF100).

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo has been actively contributing to branding research for the past 15 years and has extensive experience in co-operation with academia and practitioners. She has also published two books on branding: “Titans of Service” and “Titans of Branding”. Today, she will be sharing with us more about Finland as a design nation and also the project DF100.

Enjoy the interview!
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WW: Hello Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo, can you tell us more about yourself and what you are doing?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Hello Wan Wei.

Let’s start with a story:

I had a wonderful opportunity to work as a visiting professor in Singapore Management University in 2013. From my students I learned how unrecognisable a nation Finland is. There are no clear associations with the country brand of Finland.

The only things my students seemed to know of were:

1. Nightwish, a Finnish band;
2. The Finnish baby box; and
3. The best educational system in the world.

This was my calling. Having worked with brands and brand lecturing for the last 15 years in Swedish School of Economics and Aalto University in Helsinki, I felt that something should be done.

In summer 2015, my team and I came up with an idea to market Finland as a design nation in Southeast Asia.

Currently I am in charge of the Design Finland 100 in the Digital Age -project. Design Finland 100 is a two-year-long innovation project, organised for the very first time.

In March we will conduct Nordic Business and Design Case Competition, where students are given unique, real-life business problems to solve. We will ask them: “how to make strategic growth for Finnish companies in Asia?”

The connection between design and trade will be approached from various perspectives, such as fashion, health technology, digital services as well as service design. We are waiting to see innovative ideas, outside of the box -thinking and great team work, creativity, problem diagnosis, applying correct theories and good communications.

Two of the winning teams will be awarded an all inclusive (flight+accommodation) trip to Helsinki to Design Drives Business Seminar on August 30th, 2017.

WW: Wow, that is totally cool!

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Yes! You see, design from Finland is a great brand story.

We try to take the greatest design heritage of Finland forward, which Finland as a design nation is very famous for.

Designing a better customer experience is the strongest growth driver today. It forms a competitive advantage and ensures the consumers’ demand for a product or a service.

WW: You once mentioned that Finland is a “design nation”. Why is Finland a “design nation”?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Finland is a design-centred country.

Finland has received the highest number of design awards globally as compared to the size of the population. And for excellence in design, there is no other measurement for the time being, other than the awards and rewards accorded to the country.

For example, the Finnish company Planmeca has received so many awards and rewards for industrial, service, digital and product design. When we had our executive seminar “Design Drives Business” in Singapore on October 2016, the representative of Planmeca said, “I’d just show you the most recent design awards we have won. This is because we have received so many global awards and rewards for design that if we were to show them all, it would probably take all day.”

So you see, Planmeca is a true design company working in B2B, and has received great global recognition and acknowledgement for design. They produce for example big and colourful dental chairs. 98% of their production goes towards exports.

WW: Wow, that is a very high percentage.

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Yes, very, very high. And Planmeca’s production is 100% based in Finland. They have not outsourced production to any Chinese producers or manufacturers—they produce everything in Finland.

We can say that Finnish design really drives their business and they can be proud of it.

By “design”, we mean: Product design, service design, digital design and design as strategy. And design as strategy is one of the most used in the United States of America right now.

Take for instance, Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi, who is one of top three most influential women CEOs in the world. Nooyi says that design has become so important for them in developing their current competitive advantage. Design is present in each and every decision that they are taking.

Designing a better customer experience is the strongest competitive advantage a company can have today.

WW: It is fascinating that “design is present in each and every decision they are taking”. How would you define the term “design”?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Well, Design is part of everyone’s life. I’m sure that there are many definitions to the term “design”.

Perhaps we could conceptualise a modern view on design as like this: Design is something that tries to reach a better user experience by implementing product design, service design, design as strategy and digital design as a channel to carry them all forward.

My background is actually very strongly grounded in the area of branding, so in our Design Finland 100 project, we are looking at the concept of design from the branding perspective. This means that design needs to bring differentiation for a product or service. It needs to have aspirational features and made desirable for the consumers, whether they are in the B2B or B2C industries.

Only this way, businesses can create a path to win their customers’ hearts and ensure that the experience for the end-customer is an improved one with design management.

Like the wagon in the train, you have a captain who is driving the train, and you have the wagon. And they are all part of the design.

WW: So, what do you think is the differentiating factor of Finnish design?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Well, first of all, its heritage value is huge.

We have had very, very, very good artists who were globally recognised early in Finland’s history, and that integrates design as part of our national identity.

For example, Alvar Aalto stands for the most recognised achievements in regard to Finnish design. One of his most famous consume designs enjoys high awareness, namely the Savoy or Aalto vase.

Sustainability is typically also one part of Finnish design. You don’t get rid of an Aalto Chair, for example, in one generation. An Aalto Chair can last for at least two to three generations without wearing out—it is so durable.

We can even think about Finnish design via the most iconic architectural design in Finland—the Villa Mairea. According to the Wall Street Journal dated 4 June 2015, there are five house designs in the world that are most worth seeing and visiting. On the third position they have chosen Finland’s Villa Mairea, which is designed by Alvar Aalto.

The typical characteristics of Finnish design are simplicity, authenticity and beauty. They have very clear forms and features. These characteristics give Finnish design a recognisable look. In general, Finnish design exudes harmony and form over function.

By form over function I mean that the design of the article does not have to be practical. Only service design needs to be practical. Therefore, we need to know whether we are talking about product design, or service design.

WW: It really seems like Finnish design is the bridge between generations! You’d mentioned that DF100 is targeted at Southeast Asians. Why Southeast Asia, though?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: We try to reach the very prestigious status of design, which Finland should have, but doesn’t enjoy for the time being, at least when we are looking at the issue from Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia is known as the new growth engine of the world economy and considered a significant market for Finnish companies.

Via DF100, we will build new relationships with academic institutions and business partners in the region, the home of 667 million people. In other words, we will crowdsource new ways to market Finland. Students gather together to create new approaches for Finnish companies in business case competition.

The three winning teams of the case competition will be invited to Finland to show their results in August 30th 2017. In this seminar ”Totally Design for Growth”, Finnish growth enthusiasts and Asian students will meet and network.

WW: What are some of the must-knows in Finnish design?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo:

  • Finnish design has a very rich heritage; its history goes back about 100 years!
  • Finnish design is highly acknowledged globally. And now we want to raise awareness for its excellence and prestige in Southeast Asia through our Design Finland 100 initiative!
  • Finnish design is almost like a religion in Finland. This in other words means that design is part of our national identity.

We take design so seriously. Like a religion, the development of the form is more important than commercial value for the Finnish design.

We need to move Finnish design forward such that we have greater commercial value and recognition. Design drives value and design has a clear role when reaching Asian consumers.

And in order to capitalise on Finnish design, we need to find new ways in order to increase its recognition and how it can be used as a tool to commercialise Finnish products and services.

Design Finland 100 project helps companies with this.

WW: Actually, if Finnish design is so good, why don’t Finns commercialise it already?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: You see, the demand for Finnish design is not generating more demand. This is because we want to keep the design for ourselves—we don’t really want to use it for the benefit of the customers.

WW: This is very strange to me. I think in Singapore, few people will be able to continue doing something that does not yield commercial value.

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: This is it. This is why Finland can consider engaging more with Singapore. This is because our design heritage needs to be commercialised.

And this is why the Suomi neito—the young Finnish lady—needs to “marry” the Singapore lion. Like the following Mentos Video!

WW: We have often heard that Finns are as “shy” as the Suomi Neito. The implication is that because of this “shyness”, Finns are not so good at marketing. What do you think about this?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: I think we are actually very good at marketing. However, at the C-level, it is usually the case that our marketing budgets are too small to reach global awareness.

I think Finnish marketing people are geniuses, because they are so creative with what they do on a very small budget.

Let me give you a context: In Sweden, the marketing budget allocated by the CEOs are 5 times bigger than Finland. You can do a lot more with a greater marketing budget.

So I think Finnish marketers have excellent marketing skills because they are able to do so much with so little.

Nowadays, there is more and more that kind of thinking that marketing and branding is made by every employee. I think it is…!

WW: Let’s go back to the truly inspirational Design Finland 100 project. What can Singaporeans/ Southeast Asians expect in the upcoming year?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Design Finland 100 is a platform to celebrate 100 years of Finnish design thinking. Its aim is to build bridges for Finnish and Southeast Asian companies.

I am sure there are Southeast Asians, who have never heard about Alvar Aalto, Marimekko, Fazer or the traditional sauna company Harvia. Each of these companies offer something that no one else can offer.

This year, Southeast Asians will hear and get to know all of these.

For the Asian university students, the business case competition will be an once in lifetime experience! During the competition they will definitely challenge themselves! They will get unique, real-life business problems to solve, they will learn how to work in a team while there is time pressure and they will learn to think in new ways with global perspective.

This experience they will remember for ever! The registration for the competition opens soon, so get ready!

WW: That is so exciting, I look forward to it! Finland celebrates its 100 years-old birthday this year. What is the one birthday wish you have for Finland?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Let’s raise a toast for Finland’s amazing future and for even better future of the design!

WW: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?

Professor Kirsti Lindberg-Repo: Finland should be recognised as a leading design nation. World class design knowledge is an increasingly crucial competitive factor in the global economy. Consumers prefer to buy brands with a strong design element and they are willing to pay a premium here.

Design gives a promise of a better customer experience. And that is what we all want for our customers, right?


The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme: What is “Finnish-ness”? endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office. We hope you have enjoyed reading this interview as much as we did!🙂 Feel free to check out the amazing Design Finland 100 Case Competition, like the Design Finland 100 Facebook Page, or follow Design Finland 100’s instagram @design_finland_100 .

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