Brands can say a lot about a nation. Look at Germany. Every time you hear that recognisable thud of a bmw door you are reminded of the country’s reputation for reliability, engineering and dignified brawn. So what happens when the brands you rely on to represent the soul of your nation fade, fold or get flogged off to other countries?
That’s the fate that Sweden had to face up to after its car giants Volvo and Saab lost their way and suddenly found themselves with Chinese owners behind the wheel – and then communications giant Ericsson got squished by smartphone players Apple and Samsung.
But luckily for Sweden it had some Norse heroes waiting for their day in the sun and they lived in a fabled territory called the high street. Leading the charge with a self-assembled Viking helmet came a roaring Ikea, conquering lands from Russia to Spain armed only with a set of Allen keys.
Then there was h&m and his little cousin cos, who used their Swedish charm to seduce young men and women around the globe with a very tempting offer and the promise that they would only extract a small sum from their wallets. Finally, out of the mists of the archipelago arose Clas Ohlson with hammers, saws and a diy manual in his armoury and before you knew it he was pitching his tent in the United Arab Emirates and wooing all who came to see his wares.
And today? Well the Swedes should feel chuffed. The world dresses in Swedish clothes and decorates its homes with simple (if infuriating to erect) furniture. And these brands are not static. If you turn to our retail survey that starts on page 95 you will see that Ikea is experimenting with an inner-city format and h&m is trialling a high-service menswear-only store. Our feature on Swedish retail and its soft-power attributes sits in this issue rather like a bridge in a Robyn song. It links two themes that dominate our pages. One is the world of retail (we name our Top 25) and style (we have a whole directory dedicated to that subject) and the other is diplomacy.
It has been a hot summer for the diplomatic community. Russia, Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Isis, Syria – we seem to have been bounced on a daily basis from one crisis to the next. And the bloody rivers from all of these battles flow at some point to the doors of the United Nations. It’s an organisation that can seem ponderous and ineffective but actually it matters and it can hold great sway. That’s why we dispatched our foreign editor, Steve Bloomfield, to New York to spend a week with the diplomats who walk its halls and try to find resolutions – while all the time defending their national interests with gusto. We also wanted to see how the UN operates beyond the Security Council so we also put Andrew Mueller, a long-time contributing editor at monocle, on a train to Paris to look at what takes place at Unesco. Together their two reports offer a fascinating snapshot of diplomacy at work. Whatever you think of the merits of these organisations, they are what we have at our disposal to police the world and attempt to find that hard-to-locate common ground.
On a different note, make sure you visit our culture section. Robert Bound, who runs those pages, has introduced a section on media towns and, for the launch, he asked writer Kimberley Bradley to survey Vienna. What she finds is a city with a rich print industry, including a vibrant news weekly, an impressive state TV company and even good cafés where what would have once been called the intelligentsia hang out. Plus they do good digital. This is the media future: one where ink and screen co-exist and every media brand has to come up with a model that suits them and their audience. And that’s why monocle believes that you’ll be needing those Allen keys for new bookshelves for a long time to come, as well as somewhere you can log on to monocle.com.