The town of Nokia, once proud, begs for rename now
Very few places in the world have given rise to truly global brands: Evian and Cadillac in France are two. But possibly the most famous of them all is Nokia in Finland.
Not that you would know it from visiting the town. The centre consists of a parade of rather bleak shops, an apartment block that would be at home in Soviet-era Estonia and the Bossburger “meathouse”. This is the sort of town from which teenagers dream of escaping.
As 14-year-old Iiris Majamaki, with the hood of her coat protecting her from the sleet, tells me: “It is a little town in the middle of nothing. There’s not much to do here.”
Even Merja Vainio, 59, a postal worker delivering letters on her bike, says: “If you want to see some action, you have to leave and visit Tampare,” talking about the city 15 minutes up the road. “All my three grown-up children have left here.”
They are not the only ones.
The company that made this town in south-east Finland so famous has packed up and moved out. Nokia was once a brand so famous and so instantly recognisable that in parts of Africa a mobile phone was called “a nokia”.
But Microsoft, which bought Nokia’s handset division for £4.61 billion last year, has announced that the next phone it releases will no longer have the Nokia logo stamped on it.
It would appear that the brand, once considered more valuable than Apple, Google and McDonald’s, has bitten the dust. Where does this leave the town that gave birth to the company?
“Nokia was the first global consumer brand to come out of Finland,” explains Kari Kankaala, the director of economic development for Tampare. “The Finnish people were so proud of the national brand, they loved that everyone recognised their Nokia phones. It meant so much for the public sentiment that when the whole thing vanished, when our national jewel went down, we felt betrayed.”
Johanne Korhonen, a taxi driver, says: “It is very, very sad to see Nokia go down, down, down. When Nokia was doing well, it was good for the taxi business. Many people would come here.”
The residents of Nokia have had a few years to get used to the idea that the company which bore its name is much diminished. Before Microsoft bought the handset division, the company had been slipping severely.
But it is no exaggeration to say that Nokia and Finland’s success were yoked together. In fact, Nokia the company is older than Finland itself. The company was founded in 1865, while Finland – after centuries of Swedish rule and 109 years of Russian rule – became independent in 1917.
As Nokia grew, so too did the country. At its peak in 2003, Nokia was responsible for 23 per cent of all Finnish corporate tax receipts and 21 per cent of its exports. Its share of the country’s GDP hit 4 per cent in one year and it employed one out of every 100 Finnish people. It was the world’s biggest phone manufacturer by a country mile. In 2005 it sold its billionth phone – a full two years before Apple brought out the first iPhone.
This powerhouse of a company helped drive up standards in the country. Its insatiable appetite for a highly skilled and educated workforce was partly responsible for the rapid improvement in the country’s schools, now among the best in the world.
Mr Kankaala, who still has a Nokia phone, says: “It had many-sided implications for the society. It made people proud of being Finns abroad. It made millionaires of those who had Nokia shares – and it was the first time Finns felt unashamed of being rich.”
He adds that it “changed the brand of Finland”, a country that once would only boast of being humble.
That may be true, but in the town of Nokia it is hard to find any surviving civic pride. Maybe it is the unrelenting grim architecture, possibly the fact slot machines seem to outnumber people, but mostly it is because when I ask everyone to name the best thing about Nokia they say: “It’s close to Tampare.”
But if you walk out of the grey town centre you soon find the remnants of the early days of the company. A tall, red-brick chimney stack is belching smoke into the sky. It is attached to a paper mill, a business started by Fredrik Idestam in 1865, next to the fast-flowing Nokia river – the original Nokia business.
It nearly went bust in 1919 but was saved by the Finnish Rubber Works, which was keen to ensure it still had a power supply to carry on making its galoshes, hoses and tyres. Long before mobile phones, or even radios were developed for the Finnish army in the 1960s, Nokia was famous for making rubber boots. The only pair I can find is a child’s pair in a charity shop.
But there is still a very large tyre factory on the edge of town: Nokian Tyres, which explains why there is a definite smell of rubber that hangs over the town. It was only in the early 1990s that Nokia Corporation sold off the paper, rubber, television and radio divisions to concentrate on mobile phones.
“They saw an opportunity and they grabbed it with both hands,” says Charles Arthur, a technology writer.
It embraced and helped to pioneer the GSM network that would become standard across Europe. When Mikhail Gorbachev was pictured making a call on a Nokia Cityman 1320, one of the first “brick” phones, it cemented the company’s reputation.
Though by the mid-1990s the company had moved its headquarters out of Nokia to Espoo, just outside Helsinki, it still kept much of its research and development in the Nokia region, and thousands flocked to the area to help develop phones. Many of those workers have lost their jobs in recent years, though Nokia as a company still employs 50,000 people working on its digital maps and networking business. Not everyone is despondent.
Matti Eskola, the chief executive of a medical technology company who lives in Nokia, says: “Nokia, the town, became a symbol of technology. But it is also a symbol of radical change. Nokia has started many businesses, sold them, and moved on. Mobile phones, after all, were only part of the company for 20 years or so.”
He too has a Nokia phone in his pocket, but says: “The capacity for change in the region is amazing. We are a strong people in Nokia.”
It is true that in the last few years several small tech companies have come out of Finland, including Rovio, which made the Angry Birds game.
Ida Lehtinen, 22, a barmaid at Pub Nokia, a slightly grimy bar that offers its construction worker clientele heavy metal and chicken nuggets in a basket, says: “If I had to name the three things that Finland has given the world, I’d say it was Santa Claus, Angry Birds and ice hockey.”
And how about Nokia, I ask? “Maybe. Yeah, okay, it might make it on to the list.”
She has a Samsung Galaxy smartphone in her pocket (with a cracked screen). “I think most of my friends have a Samsung or an iPhone. It’s sad, obviously. It was something Finnish people got right. But it’s not a big deal now.”