How Iceland Rode a Social Wave to Tourism Success

Michelle Markelz
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

What? After a natural disaster and economic collapse, Iceland needed an unconventional campaign to revive its largest industry: tourism.

So what? Commissioning the help of U.K.-based Brooklyn Brothers, Icelandic advertising agency Islenska and fans of the island around the world, the island embarked on a multi-year social media campaign that has generated double-digit growth year over year.

Now what? All brands, whether destinations or corporations, have a digital brand. As the internet becomes the first step in the customer journey, it's critical to have a top-notch digital reputation.

​“Why Iceland’s Minor Volcano Is a Major Problem.” “Volcano Casts Cloud Over European Economy.” “The terrifying cauldron of lava and lightning that has brought chaos to our airports ... and it’s STILL going strong.”

These were the headlines that brought Iceland into the international consciousness in the spring of 2010. Although the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was less explosive than other notable eruptions such as Mount St. Helens in 1980, the ash it spewed eight miles into the sky complicated life for more than the 800 Icelanders who evacuated its perimeter.

Air traffic came to a standstill at the crossroads of Europe and North America for seven days. Media told stories of floods, air pollution, lightning storms and possible climate disruption. Rather than the glossy images of cavernous glaciers, mossy fjords or the Aurora Borealis, would-be tourists saw towers of ash and bursts of lava. Just more than a month out from the tourism season, the island nation’s summer could go one of two ways: The international coverage could either pique the interest of travelers far and wide, or the tourism industry could take a serious hit.

Within a week of the eruption, the country’s tourism organization, Promote Iceland, put out a request for proposal. The challenge was twofold: reverse the negative perception surrounding Iceland as a tourist destination for the summer and get people to book vacations immediately. The chosen comrades in arms: London-based global branding agency the Brooklyn Brothers and Iceland's largest advertising agency, Islenska.

“In Iceland, they have a phrase, ‘Keen is the eye of the guest.’ That means you don’t see what you walk past every day. It was a very enlightened move for Iceland to appoint a partner from overseas, but they saw the benefit of a fresh perspective,” says George Bryant, strategy partner at the Brooklyn Brothers.

The perspective that Brooklyn Brothers brought was to embrace nontraditional strategy. “Traditionally, we recognize tourism as some of the poorest marketing,” says Bryant. “It often feels like propaganda: ‘Come here; the sky is always blue.’” Compounded by the fact that Iceland’s budget was small compared to its competitors, such as the U.S. and Scandinavia, Bryant says the marketing plan had to defy conventional thinking.


“We started with a fact,” Bryant says. A survey of tourists revealed that 80% of visitors to Iceland would recommend it as a destination, making it the most recommended of any European destination. Realizing the power of word of mouth, the agency turned its aim on fans of Iceland to spread the island’s message. Why not let those inspired by Iceland share their stories?

“We look at ‘Inspired by Iceland’ as an unfolding story, and each year is a chapter,” Bryant says of the testimonial campaign that galvanized Iceland’s rebranding. Although 2010 marked the first chapter of Iceland’s renewed tourism campaign, the rising action of its story began two years earlier. 

Caption: Inspired by Iceland launches new tourism campaign Iceland Academy

Economic Collapse and Marketing Consolidation

Prior to 2008, says Hlynur Guðjónsson, Iceland’s counsel general and trade commissioner for North America, “What we were lacking was some vehicle to give us awareness.” Then, in the span of seven weeks from October 4, 2008, more than 600 articles were written about the island—equivalent to roughly two decades’ worth of content, Guðjónsson estimates. The subject: the international financial crisis. When Iceland’s three largest banks collapsed and its currency, the krona, depreciated by more than 30%, it provided a vehicle, unlikely or not. “After the downturn, suddenly Iceland became a value destination,” Guðjónsson says. 

With multiple marketing offices abroad, however, Iceland’s tourism messaging was mixed among markets, and 2009 saw a 1.6% decrease in foreign visitors—the first drop since 2002—followed by another decrease in 2010, that time 1.1%. The government of Iceland conducted an audit of its international tourism marketing operations in 2008 and deemed them too disjointed. The Trade Council of Iceland, Invest in Iceland and the marketing efforts of the Icelandic Tourist Board were consolidated under one organization, Promote Iceland. More than 100 companies gathered with the government of Iceland and the city of Reykjavik to form a public-private marketing initiative with the unified goals of increasing off-season tourism, getting tourists to travel farther in Iceland and stay longer.

The design target for these goals would be called “the enlightened tourist,” says Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, director of tourism and creative industries at Promote Iceland. “We identify that person to have education and income above average. It’s a person who will travel independently, likes to book on her own—a person who has an interest in culture, is open to taking a vacation out of season, seeks adventure and is ready to share the stories of the country.”


Perhaps the most important trait is the last. “According to Google, 92% of tourists use online tools when choosing their next destinations, 62% of whom use a search engine as their primary source of inspiration,” says José Filipe Torres, CEO of nation- and place-branding agency Bloom Consulting. “The search is the consequence. The cause can be social media, a conversion or something published offline.”

22 Million Testimonials

Iceland’s social push began with a national call for chatter. On June 3, 2010, schools, parliament and shops closed as President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson kicked off “Iceland Hour” with a request for the people of Iceland and its friends abroad to share a story of positivity about the country. The address was broadcast on live TV and live-streamed via the internet. Participants could compose their own stories and share them through their own social channels, or they could submit them through the Inspired by Iceland site and use prepackaged content, such as Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini’s music video for “Jungle Drum,” featuring a montage of people dancing in tourist destinations across the country. Within one week, they answered with 1.5 million stories. 


 Emiliana Torrini - Jungle Drum


“It created a buoyancy in Iceland,” Bryant says. At the beginning of the initiative, more than 80% of the hits “Iceland” turned up on Google were negative stories of natural disaster and financial distress. Ten weeks after Iceland Hour, close to 22 million stories of positivity—from riding Icelandic horses to welcoming locals to “magic” landscapes—had been shared via image, video, post and comment on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube. On the Inspired by Iceland website, visitors could see an interactive map of Iceland with pins dropped around the island geolocating each story. Even celebrities contributed. Submissions from Bjork and Eric Clapton were filmed and circulated through the site and social channels while Yoko Ono endorsed the campaign from her blog and Twitter account.

“The digital country is the new platform that very few countries are looking at with the care, focus and investment they should,” says Torres. “Whatever you find on the first page of a Google search is the ultimate measurement of the first impression someone may have about your country. The country with the best brand—not the biggest budget—and the best positioning wins.” According to Bloom’s digital country index, which measures brand appeal, Iceland ranks 29 out of the top 50 countries in the world for tourism, ahead of the U.K., Switzerland and Argentina, among others.

The summer of 2011 proved the reach of the campaign; the island saw 565,600 foreign tourists, 77,000 more than the previous year and equivalent to a 16.6% increase. “It became the most successful summer in Iceland’s history,” Bryant says. The campaign grew as well, focusing on video aimed at promoting Iceland as a year-round destination. 

Though strong summers were beneficial for the tourism industry, Eyjafjallajökull proved the vulnerability of single-season reliance. “The tourism industry is very sensitive to any issue, like the eruption of 2010,” Pálsdóttir says. “When Promote Iceland took over, we put a lot of effort into increasing awareness of the culture and the people, and that’s why we’ve been getting Icelanders involved to tell the stories.”

Fans of Iceland had proven with their testimonials that they were not just leisure-seekers. “They’re people who love stories and experiences,” Bryant says. “They don’t just want to go to Disneyland and get the mug. They want a story to take home. They want to live it.” Iceland invited these enlightened visitors to tour the country like an islander. They called the campaign “Honorary Icelander.”

Upon deplaning, tourists arriving in the winter of 2011 received an official Icelandic passport and became honorary citizens. They were taken in by more than 1,000 Icelanders, including the president and his wife. They were brought into recording studios for live musical performances. They picked wild mussels with Icelandic families. They relaxed in hot tubs alongside locals. “The president said, ‘Come to my house, and I’ll make you pancakes and we’ll go on a nature walk,’” Bryant says. A British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award-winning documentarian was commissioned to document the most successful winter the tourism industry ever fielded.

Just fewer than 673,000 foreign tourists visited Iceland in 2012, nearly a 19% increase that shattered the previous year’s record-breaking numbers. In 2013, following a marketing campaign to rename Iceland—the winner, out of 10,000 entries, renamed it the island of Aweland for a day—134,000 more foreign tourists travelled to the island than the year before, a 20% increase, making for three straight years of double-digit growth. Contributing to that surge were strong performances in the winter months, starting with a 27% increase in visitors in January 2013, a 43% increase the subsequent February, a still greater 46% increase in March and bookended with a 26% increase in November and a 49% increase in December.


 Inspired By Iceland: Honorary Islander


Continuing the trend in 2014, just shy of a million foreigners visited the island, a 23.6% increase from the year before. The winter months again saw the biggest gains with increases between 26% and 40%. At the end of that year, the tourism industry accounted for 28% of foreign exchange earnings, a 9% increase from 2010. With seasonality effectively mitigated, a third pillar of Iceland’s rebranding had yet to be tackled: getting tourists to travel farther.

Enticing the Enlightened Tourist

The supremacy of digital had thus far proven a true guiding light, so 2015’s chapter opened with another web-based campaign. “We set up a human competitor to Google,” Bryant says of the “Ask Guðmundur” series. Seven ambassadors from each of the regions of Iceland—all citizens really named Guðmundur, or the female Guðmunda—were recruited to answer questions from fans such as, “‘Game of Thrones’ is partly shot in Iceland. Any of it shot in the North of Iceland?” and “Are Akureri’s red traffic lights really heart-shaped?” (They are.) And, “Why are there always three sheeps [sic]? I mean, literally: always!” Curious tourists submitted their questions from spring to fall using the hashtag #AskGudmundur on Facebook and Twitter. More than 200 video responses were recorded. 


Caption: The #ASKGUDMUNDUR Campaign recruited seven Icelanders to answer tourists' questions via social media.

The Guðmundur campaign, much like its predecessors, relied on volunteers, not paid actors. “Citizens are the best ambassadors,” Torres says. “People want to feel the culture and learn.”  

The endearing quirkiness of the campaign has been carried through, setting a new brand aesthetic for “Inspired by Iceland.” Acknowledging that enlightened tourists want to understand customs, respect nature and behave in a culturally conscious manner, and that sustainability is central to Iceland’s brand, the focus has shifted again in 2016 with the launch of “Iceland Academy,” a video series allowing viewers to earn badges for completing different courses about how to visit Iceland responsibly, safely and in a culturally appropriate way. Each “term” has four “classes,” and viewers who complete all the classes can win a “field trip” to Iceland to apply what they’ve learned. The series is led by eight experts, this year referred to as “tutors.”


 Ask Gudmundur – The Human Search Engine Inspired by Iceland


While the production value has certainly gone up with scripted scenes and a departure from the home-video aesthetic of the Guðmundur campaign, the videos still have an artistic quality á la Wes Anderson with a bouncy harpsichord soundtrack, dynamic text (in hip typefaces) and characters with just enough idiosyncrasy to make them intriguing. “Iceland has an amazing Scandinavian aesthetic,” Bryant says. “It has amazing design cues and taste, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a wit and a humor and self-deprecation. It’s a very humble country, which is why it’s so welcoming.”

“Iceland Academy” has garnered nearly 3 million views since its launch in February 2016, and more than 7,000 people have completed courses online. Thus far, viewers have been able to earn badges for avoiding hot tub awkwardness, staying safe in Iceland, travelling responsibly in Iceland and understanding winter sports on the island. Soon, they’ll have the opportunity to prove they know how to eat like an Icelander, drive in Iceland, navigate Iceland’s festivals, capture the Northern Lights and travel farther.


 Iceland Academy | An Introduction


In half a decade, Iceland has reinvented itself, bringing its tourism industry from the brink to a new apex every year. The strategy of “Inspired by Iceland” has evolved with the needs of the country, Bryant says, and rather than fighting the attention brought on by early trials and tribulations, it has ridden the wave

of adversity, says Torres. What’s next for the island will likely reflect new goals, new interests brought by Promote Iceland and changes in international tourism. In Torres’ estimation, Iceland has found the sweet spot for destination marketing, a perfect mix of luck and authenticity, putting it right on trend with the market. “Iceland said, ‘This is who we are, and this is what Iceland is all about,’” Torres says. “Consumers want something exotic, different and not massive. Iceland is a different planet. [Tourists] want to live that experience.”


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Author Bio:
Michelle Markelz
Michelle Markelz is managing editor for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She can be reached at
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