Denmark's "Cartoon Crisis" Shows How Corporate and National Reputations Are Intertwined. It Is in the Interests of Both Companies and States to Work Together

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The question we should be addressing is not so much whether national identity still matters, but rather: "how does globalisation affect the construction of national identity and the role companies play?"

In 2006, Denmark became front-page news all around the world. The Danish newspaper Jytlandsposten had published twelve cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Both in Denmark and abroad, Muslims denounced the cartoons as blasphemy and demanded an apology from the Danish government. The government refused, however, citing the principle of free speech. What followed was a period of intense demonstrations and organised protest against everything Danish, including Danish companies operating in Muslim countries.

The Danish dairy company Arla, in particular, became the symbol of Denmark and Danish-ness, both in the Middle East and in Denmark. In the Middle East, Aria was the negative symbol of Denmark and Danish culture and at the peak of the crisis a consumer boycott of Aria's products was costing the company [euro]4m a day in lost revenue. At the time, Aria feared that its revenues in the Middle East, which the company considers a key market, would collapse. Conversely, the Muslim boycott started a wave of sympathy for Aria in Denmark. Danish consumers started to buy Arla products in amounts not seen in years. The week after the boycott began, Arla increased its sales here by 15 per cent, and opinion polls showed a significant rise in the company's popularity. Paradoxically, this support drew Alia more directly into the conflict. It went from being merely a business, to being a symbol of Danish national pride, carrying positive connotations here, and negative ones in Muslim societies.

The period of goodwill for Aria in Denmark was to be short-lived, though. As the conflict developed, the company started to distance itself from official Danish policy. Arla began an advertising campaign in the Middle East that stressed that it was not a political organisation, and that it respected Muslim culture and religion. Symbolically, it also removed the Danish flag from some of its products. In Denmark, such moves were seen as a betrayal of Danish politics, culture land history. Jens Rohde, a leading member of the governing party, called Aria's campaign a "pathetic genuflection to filthy lucre", and several organisations, including Women for Freedom and the Danish Free Press Association, called on Danish consumers to boycott Arla. Arla was no longer just a company producing dairy goods for the world market. It had unwillingly become the focus of an international cultural conflict.

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The cartoon crisis shows that globalisation has not abolished or weakened the need for identity. The question is not so much whether national identity matters, but how current trends affect the construction of national identity.

To answer the questions that arise in connection with national identity and companies, we have established a research program at the CBS, called "National Identity, Branding, History and the Company". Our aim is to look at the role firms play in the building and changing of identity, both at an individual and national level. It is an inter-disciplinary progam which looks at three areas: nationalism, branding and business history--all of which have become increasingly important over the past decade. …