The forum, called "Made in Estonia: the state and the sales," discussed general problems of promoting Estonia abroad and selling products and services made in the country.
Estonia started its brand development project this summer, and hopes to start implementing by the time the Eurovision Song Contest comes along next May.
London-based international branding consultancy Interbrand will guide the Estonian team during the project.
The whole country is talking about how the nation should be branded. Eerik-Niiles Kross, a columnist for the Eesti Paevaleht daily, wrote that Estonia would benefit if its name was Estland. Estonia sounds more like Albania, Armenia, Yakutia, the Gambia, and so on, he said, while Estland is more cool and Scandinavian, like Finland.
Raul Malmstein, vice chancellor of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, said at the forum that the responsibility small countries face in promoting themselves is enormous. "A state must be export developer and guarantor for the future," he said.
"Let's take two brands, Nike and the theoretical Ho Chi Min. Both products can be manufactured in Vietnam, but the second one is unfamiliar, suspicious and can evoke negative emotions," Malmstein continued.
Wally Olins, an acknowledged professional of corporate identity issues, was the conference's leading speaker. He has written bestselling tomes since 1989 like "The Corporate Identity," "The New Guide to Identity" and "Trading Identities." In 1965 he founded a design agency, Wolff-Olins, which later worked out corporate identity solutions for British Telecom, the oil company Q8, Credit Suisse, and telecommunications giant Orange.
"If you are looking at a Mercedes car, it's only an icon for you. You can't say Mercedes is more than Germany or Germany is more than Mercedes," said Olins.
"While most Finns are proud of Nokia and they think everyone in the world knows their country for that brand, most of the people in the world think Nokia mobile phones are made in Japan or South Korea."
But according to Olins, many countries are subject to caricature and stereotype. Even powerful ones like Germany. "Everyone knows Mercedes. But few have heard of Deutsche Bank."
Concluded Olins, "Do we see a nation through a brand or vice versa? Well, national references mean less and less because services do not have a national background."
Who are you?
Olins also shared his opinion on Estonia's own national brand project, started this year. "Only one country has worldwide perception, and that's the U.S. It can evoke an emotion when mentioned anywhere," he said. People have a view about France or Germany, but when there is no view about a certain country it is very hard to start the branding project.
A national brand development basically has three layers, namely tourism, brand export and inward investment. "There must be clear advantages for foreign investors to put their money here. There must be a central idea to build the whole brand strategy on, and it must be clear who Estonia is trying to influence," Olins continued.
And there are 10 years of hard work before the first results are visible. "I think Estonia should produce more visual art, as the Estonian language is very strange to other nations," he said.
Not all Olins' comments were popular ones. Above all, he said, the team behind the Estonian brand project must not overestimate the popularity Estonia has in the world. Because of this, the possibility of a common branding for the three Baltic states should be considered.
Spain and Australia are said to be among the most successful examples of state re-branding in the 20th century.
Raimondas Zestakauskas, a media businessman and former journalist from Lithuania, said Estonians want to be Scandinavians, but all of their complexes are Baltic.
Speaking on the image Estonia has in Lithuania, he said there is no war between those two countries, but no love lost either. "Estonia became the fifth largest foreign investor in Lithuania this year, and we Lithuanians have always been concerned about what Estonians think about us."
Pianos called "Estonia" have been produced since the end of the 19th century and are now considered a higher class of concert instrument.
But Kalev Salupuu, marketing director of the Estonia piano factory, complained that his company has been confronted with ignorance from sales partners in Austria, who want more information about the country for their customers.
"But then there was a widely publicized bank robbery there. Five Estonians were caught. So my partners called me and said that now everyone knows Estonia as being home to a bunch of crooks."
As Salupuu remembers from personal experience, there are four basic (and negative) points the average European knows about Estonia. First is the Estonia ferry accident from 1994, then there is the Marbella drug cartel case, where Estonians were the main suspects, and then came the Parnu methanol tragedy. Oh, and also most Europeans know Estonia used to be a part of the Soviet Union.
"As for our musical culture, some people abroad are familiar with (conductor) Neeme Jarvi and (contemporary Estonian composer) Arvo Part," Salupuu said. But ordinary people are not.
Bengt Eriksson, managing director of Landor Associates brand consulting agency, said the creation of a national brand is all about storytelling.
"A brand is a promise. You need to have something different and unique, and it has to be relevant to the target group," he explained.
"A 'bridge to the east' is not particularly unique for the Estonian brand, in Eriksson's view. "I would rather suggest something like 'Entrepreneurial Estonia.' Now that's more credible and sustainable."