Place Branding in Iceland: Travel, Tourism and Competitive Identity

In recent years, Iceland has succeeded in becoming one of the world’s most successfully promoted tourist destinations, increasing the number of people visiting the country and raising global awareness of its culture and industry. The Cultural Program study trip to Reykjavik and other destinations across Iceland allows you to explore and understand how place promoters in the country have used place branding to develop a compelling national story. 

Professor Charles Talcott, who runs the study trip, emphasizes that place branding isn’t all about tourism. “It’s about community development in a globalized world,” he explains. “It’s not just the commodification of a place and its culture – it’s about trying to package the spirit of a place.” Foreign direct investment, talent attraction and retention, and the concept of national pride are all part of this delicate interplay. 

National narratives have wide-reaching political, social and cultural implications with which students engage via visits to place promoters, brand managers and other professionals across Iceland. A tour of the National Museum of Iceland helps students understand how politics impacts nation branding, for example, while a visit to the Harpa concert hall, with its stunning glass façade collaboratively designed by Henning Larsen Architects, Batteríið Architects and the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, provides vital cultural context.

Students will also visit the country’s natural wonders, including glaciers and ice caves, and engage with local communities impacted by environmental degradation. “Sustainability and the environment are key features of the class,” says Talcott, highlighting how these questions and criticisms are embedded in modern-day debates about over-tourism, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Another visit takes students to a geothermal power plant, where they learn about the country’s carbon sequestration efforts and consider how environmental policy plays into national narratives. “The Iceland trip as a whole was extremely peaceful and therapeutic,” says Zeina Abouel Makarem, a student who attended the 2022 edition of the trip. “It enabled me to reconnect with nature in all its forms.”  

When meeting with local communities, students take part in participatory observation, in which they not only witness community initiatives that contribute to building a national story but also begin to consider the impact of their own actions and voices when intervening in this space. “You will pick up all kinds of interesting things through conversation and field interviews,” says Talcott. The most recent iteration of the trip took this self-reflection a step further, providing students with a chance to attend a talk from a prominent Icelandic academic known for her critique of place branding.

As they visit this exceptional destination, with its unique natural landscapes, and conduct ethnographic field research into Iceland’s promotional culture, students observe how the branding process impacts local customs, habits, traditions and shared senses of place and nation. For those studying contemporary marketing, branding or public diplomacy, the trip provides valuable academic tools and context – alongside an unforgettable cultural experience!