One of my most jarring experiences doing business in Norway was when I first encountered the Law of Jante, or Janteloven. While discussing why a Norwegian business was not excelling, a colleague of mine simply shrugged their shoulders and proclaimed “Well, you know, Law of Jante”. Jante?
What was Jante?
He sat me down for an hour and laid out a cultural anomaly that colored how almost every Norwegian (and more broadly Scandinavians) operate, both in business and in life. The Law of Jante is a social concept created by Danish / Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. You may be familiar with a similar concept used in other parts of the world called “Tall Poppy Syndrome”.
In Janteloven, individual success is discouraged and, in many cases, considered inappropriate. Instead society encourages the good of the collective over any one individual. This has shaped Scandinavian culture over many years and helped to create the peaceful, modest, and homogenous society of today.
The Law of Jante
You’re not to think you are anything special.
You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
You’re not to think you know more than we do.
You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
You’re not to think you are good at anything.
You’re not to laugh at us.
You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
BBC Episode About Jante Law
How does Janteloven affect business competitiveness?
The Law of Jante also adds a unique angle when it comes to being competitive in business in Norway. You’re likely to find there’s actually not much competition in just about every industry. Consumers usually have some choice, but not an overwhelming degree as is often found in other markets. For example, there are typically about two real options for any product. Often those limited options are even owned by the same company, so it’s more of an artificial choice. You’ll find a lot of monopolies in Norway.
In fact, Norwegians really don’t mind monopolies at all. Even their state-run wine store is called the Vinmonopolet, or the Wine Monopoly. They literally have so little shame about it being a monopoly they put it right in the name! You see, often Norwegians don’t understand that this is counter to how the majority of other business markets work. Monopolies are usually considered bad for business. To the Norwegians it’s just more efficient to have a single provider who does a good enough job. They prefer this to many competing producers who have to constantly one-up each other. The Law of Jante strikes again.
Dig a little deeper and you see even more of the Law of Jante in advertising. This makes it especially tough to advertise and sell your product. How will a consumer know your offering is better if you can’t directly tell them so? Many of the tried-and-true advertising techniques found in Western markets simply don’t work in Norway. Those play on the emotions of envy, greed and even fear. In Norway you’ll need to focus on other attributes in your advertising instead. You have to talk about the quality of your product and point out that those who use it are content but not exuberantly happy. You cannot say that your product is better than others nor that buying your product will make your consumers better people. Instead tell them or show them that the consumer will be made content. Your product is good, but never exceptionally better than others. If a Norwegian describes your business or product as “nice” it means it’s probably going to be a massive success.
Law of Jante in Advertising
Bad-mouthing competitors, be it in advertising or even private meetings, is also highly discouraged.
To truly respect the Law of Jante in your business advertising you need to do one very specific thing: have other people say why you’re the best or your product is superior. CEOs shouldn’t stand up and claim superiority but instead they should focus on getting all of Norway to say that the product is acceptably good. Word-of-mouth marketing is everything in Norway. For example, the typical Norwegian will be highly skeptical of you and working with you until their friends or family have first validated your offering. Once that happens, Norwegians begin to build trust and are open to engage with something new. Otherwise, there is little risk tolerance in Norway and that is especially true if that product or a person claims to be better. However, if just a handful of Norwegians speak highly of something, news tends to spread very fast. That’s one of the advantages of working in a small country.
How does Jante Law impact setting expectations in Norway?
When it comes to Norwegian business culture and the Law of Jante, I have found one thing to be universally true: Norwegians will always set expectations fairly low. They will almost always exceed those expectations, but it’s important not to over-promise anything or promise things you know you will not manage to do. Remember: you are good at what you do, but you are not to be exceedingly better than others. In Norwegian business it’s actually significantly more important that you follow through on what you say you’ll do versus boldly promising amazing results. In other words: don’t be too American and you’ll be just fine.