Call me by my name: The Netherlands

The country’s quest to rebrand itself away from the Holland tag highlights the challenges of all cultural transformation efforts.

Holland has a New Year’s request: stop calling it Holland.

Holland refers to a region of the Netherlands, but the name itself has frequently been used to refer to the whole country. Now, through an effort led by the country’s board of tourism, the country’s government has decided that “all official government communications and promotions” will reference “the Netherlands” exclusively.

It’s a step that comes with challenges. Indeed, experts say any large-scale organizational rebrand requires unique discipline, a well-thought-out strategy, and patience. Plus, “Holland” has been used as the country’s name, either formally or informally, for several centuries. “It is about deciding what you want to be known for and what you don’t want to be known for,” says Madeline Dessing, Korn Ferry’s managing director for the Netherlands. The next question is how to change the image in the minds of customers.

On its own, Holland conjures up bucolic windmills, wooden clogs, and tulips. But not all of the moniker’s connotations are so pleasant—in particular, a reputation for boozing and drug use. “The Netherlands doesn’t want that anymore,” Dessing says. “We want tourists who want to spend more money.”

To that end, Dutch officials want the Netherlands to conjure artistic heritage and amazing watersports, among other features. That requires targeting an audience, Dessing says. While reaching this group was once possible through TV ads—the traditional way cities and countries have advertised themselves to tourists—such marketing campaigns may not be enough anymore. Individuals rely far more heavily on recommendations from people they know. “It’s the referral economy,” she says.

A key component of any rebranding effort is ensuring that the employees who are delivering the service or product buy in to the greater vision. If the desired image is one of ultra-high service, then the employees involved need to get on board with that idea and deliver it, says Marleen Rechsteiner, Korn Ferry’s marketing and communications advisor for EMEA. “It is about living the brand, and only then is it authentic and therefore credible,” she says. Getting that to work for a whole country is tricky, but it can happen in smaller increments such as cities.

For example, the north Spanish city of Bilbao was once a large industrial port, but then it transformed itself. These days, thanks to the singular vision of its tourism industry, the city is known more for the Guggenheim Museum and fine dining. “Bilbao has some of the best restaurants in Europe,” Rechsteiner says.

The Dutch city of Rotterdam is trying to pull off a similar transformation. It is still Europe’s largest port, but now it is becoming an attraction for tourists and others, Rechsteiner says. Over the last two decades, the city has opened a slew of museums and is home to the high-profile Rotterdam School of Management. “It has been years of work,” Dessing says. “Now it is included in tourist guides.”