Case Study: Inspired by Iceland

Iceland is a Nordic island country located at the juncture between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. The country has a population of ~325,000 and a total area of 103,000 km2, which makes it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.

In April 2010, the now-famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland. This event not only turned air travel upside down (briefly), but also did some longer-term damage to Iceland’s image as a safe travel destination.

Projections indicated that Iceland might see a 20% decrease in tourism in summer 2010 against earlier projections. In light of these projections, the government and stakeholders in tourism established Inspired by Iceland, not as a long-term campaign, but originally as a three month burst to save summer of 2010. It was not focused on rebranding the country, but mainly to show prospective tourists that everything was OK in Iceland, and the eruption did not disrupt tourism except in a very small region.

A long-term (or at least, longer) campaign was established the following year, after the success of the initial campaign. This was a three-year program, established to enhance the image of Iceland as a winter destination. It had completely different goals from the initial campaign, but worked with the brand recognition that had already been established through Inspired by Iceland.




As if the global financial crisis were not bad enough, Iceland had to now combat the erupting volcano and its impact on tourism. The numbers of flights and tourists were rapidly decreasing. Iceland had previously been a top travel destination for foreign tourists. The Iceland travel industry chiefs decided that something had to be done fast, and a traditional tourism campaign would not be enough. So the industry and the Iceland Government joined forces. “It was actually the first time so many companies joined forces. This was a bit of a sense of pride for them as well. The government had put so much money into it: more money than we had ever seen before. So the companies decided to put the same amount as well. They almost felt as if it was their campaign,” recalls Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, Director, Tourism & Creative Industries at Íslandsstofa- Promote Iceland.


All the parties agreed on a campaign based around the concept of ‘Inspired by Iceland’. Ad agencies were also involved. As a safety check on the international messaging, the UK agency The Brooklyn

Brothers were brought in. The idea was to invite Icelanders and tourists to tell a story about the beautiful country of Iceland. The ‘big idea’ was to harness all that pride for the nation and visitors’ positive feedback about how they had been ‘Inspired By Iceland’.

Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, Director, Tourism & Creative Industries at Íslandsstofa – Promote Iceland on some of the challenges: “The internal communication was very important for us: to let the companies know what was happening. What was new for us at the time, we had an integrated marketing campaign and were saying the same story in different channels across all countries: social media, trade shows, TV, etc. You would think that you need different messages for different channels and countries. Actually you don’t.”



“We had done research a few years before and we knew that 90% of the people who came to Iceland were willing to share their story,” said Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir.

In 2010 the first task was to overcome the tide of negative opinions surrounding Iceland. A traditional tourism campaign would have seen as a desperate propaganda effort from a struggling country. Instead, they used Icelanders as advocates and created a virtual social movement. People around the world posted stories on Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo. The ‘Inspired by Iceland’ website featured videos of famous Icelanders (and famous friends of the country) and live webcam streams from top tourist destinations locations thank the loyal community (for 1.5 million video downloads within 1 day), the team held a live web concert featuring singer-songwriter, musician and record producer Damien Rice and many others.


The next year, the goal was to boost tourism during the winter period. During the winter, every visitor became an ‘Honorary Islander’. In order to kick-start the campaign, the team called on every Icelander to open the doors into their lives for visitors. Even the president invited guests to visit his residence and have pancakes with him! These video invitations showcased real people and real human experiences. It gave the campaign a very personal touch.


The Promote Iceland team partnered with AOL and The Huffington Post. Together they created a unique content platform to share stories with their fans – the Huffington Post UK’s ‘Inspiration’ section, which allows brands to communicate with consumers through video, blogs and social media. An exclusive 11-minute documentary called ‘Islander’ was published via this platform. A 60-second trailer was first released across goviral’s network to promote the documentary.


Video, visual and digital content reaches a younger audience very effectively, but for Iceland, targeting the older generation was equally important. Traditional posters and other offline advertising were used across key European and US markets. Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir explains how they managed to reach both target groups: “We are working closely with tour operators in Iceland and abroad. They are also targeting different groups. For example, the people in Germany who are not social media users, they are found by tour operators in the market.”


The campaign relied quite heavily on Icelanders’ national pride and willingness to become ‘brand ambassadors’ for their beloved country. Of course, they were proud to contribute. The ‘Honorary Islander’ campaign attracted global interest, convincing people from 57 markets that Iceland is a truly great winter destination. In fact, this was the country’s most successful winter ever for inbound tourism. On a relatively modest spend of £1.25m, the campaign generated a ROI of 61:1, contributing an additional £71m to the Icelandic economy. This story attracted global media coverage, driving further visits.


‘Inspired by Iceland’ is still going strong. In 2012-2013, the main goal was to embrace the uniqueness of Iceland as a destination, and work with the idea what Iceland would be called if it were discovered today. Over 5 months, an extensive line outreach campaign encouraged fans to ‘give Iceland a new distinctive name’, which would describe the country’s best assets. The Mayor of Reykjavik announced the winner as “Isle of Awe Land”. They focused heavily on cultural events in the country. A special event, ‘The Little House of Music’ had 16 of Iceland’s biggest perform live on a tiny stage to an audience of four people (!). However the concert’s live webcast reached 10 million people in 22 countries. ‘The World’s Largest Supper Club’ went the opposite way, bringing together some of Iceland’s best performers and chefs to entertain and feed 300 guests.

“Inspired By Iceland is the campaign, but every year we do something different in terms of strategy, to create attention and focus our work. Of course it gets more difficult every year. We are actually doing very well with tourism in Iceland at the moment and have 20% increase. It’s a fun challenge to think about keeping the attention and that is the job of all marketers,” says Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir regarding the future.


One can argue that this type of tourism campaign could only work with a relatively small country and very democratic government prepared to get involved and fund unusual initiatives. Essentially, however, ‘Inspired by Iceland’ is really about the willingness to share one’s country’s story and work together for a better future. The only ‘must-have’ is a sense of pride in one’s homeland. To this extent, any country could do it.

Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir shares some advice: “It is important to understand that the country is the brand itself. You have to be sensitive on what kind of message you are sending in about the country. You are marketing respect for the nation and everything good it has to offer.” 


“Firstly, you have to create a clear way for working together right in the beginning. It is a public-private campaign and one of the success came in working together with the government and the companies. We agreed on the messaging and worked together to get it across. However, you have to make sure that everyone sees the message in the same way, because every party has their own view and opinion,” says Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir.


‘Inspired by Iceland’ served as a good example to prove that one strong message can work across multiple geographic markets. They also took different age groups into consideration by partnering with tour operators, attending trade shows and putting up posters. The innovative online content effectively engaged the younger target, featuring bands, celebrities and a distinctive minimalist design. It was also a smart move to work with agencies from several countries who provided a ‘visitor’s viewpoint’ of the Iceland campaign.

Importantly, this ongoing campaign has been truly media-neutral, blending offline and digital channels to deliver the most appropriate experience to the various audiences at every touchpoint.

Some final words from Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, Director, Tourism & Creative Industries at Íslandsstofa – Promote Iceland: “Find ways to measure what you are doing. In the same sense, don’t over-analyse it. We went against all strategy rules in the beginning. Therefore, it has taken us a bit of time to get back on track with the strategy and keep the consistency. In a dream world you would have more time for organising and figuring out the strategy.”


kristjan mar hauksson


“Initially, it was about understanding the opportunities that arose. For some, having a blazing volcano might seem threatening, and especially when it starts to halt flights around the world. However, for me it was about the opportunities, and that is what I think was, and still is, outstanding: instead of folding and holding back until things blew over, this became the largest branding campaign that the world has ever seen.

What I also found outstanding was the follow-up. For me, the true success of the campaign was the attention gained from echoing the campaign, and highlighting the brand Iceland. Focus on the opportunities within a threat; it’s maybe not rocket science, and in this case, the creative strategies and communications did the job.”

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