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Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

1. Don’t ignore rural citizens

In late 2019 a series of protests by Dutch farmers brought attention to growing urban-rural divides, and the need to manage stakeholder tensions amid the transition to a more sustainable society. The so-called “tractor protests” (in which protesting farmers snarled urban commutes by driving their equipment into metro areas) were notable for the way that they challenged policies aimed at reducing livestock emissions, among other aspects of the sustainability agenda. Beyond the specific policy issues at play (the government has indicated it is willing to provide more compensation for farmers, while the protestors complain they are being scapegoated while the “real polluters” run free), the protests are a reminder that rural Netherlands remains a potent agricultural and political force; Policymakers and business should not overlook the needs and concerns of these citizens in the coming decades.

2. There’s a new retirement math

Recently, several major Dutch pension providers warned that they might have to cut their payouts due to insufficient funds in the face of historically low interest rates. While policy responses are being debated, the news is already reshaping how ordinary Dutch people think about spending and saving for the future. There is declining trust in social institutions like pensions, and a growing belief that people need to look out more for themselves. For the finance industry, new retirement math will likely result in increased consumer demand for long-term investment products. Beyond this, the wider effects of these pension scares on retail psychology is as yet uncertain (Will people feel the need to sacrifice now in order to retire later?) but is likely to be profound.

3. Manage concerns about fair play

Amid contentious debates over a planned 2021 corporate tax rate cut, notions of “fair play” have returned to the center of Dutch political life. Disclosures about whether and how major companies (Dutch and foreign) pay their taxes have gained significant traction in the Dutch media; look behind these discussions of “royalty payments” and tax deductions, and what’s emerging is a cultural consensus that all should to contribute their “fair share” to Dutch society in challenging times. In this climate, brands that talk grandly about corporate responsibility while exposing themselves to withering media criticism face significant reputational risks. Conversely, those align themselves plainly with values of fairness and equity should fare much better.

4. Beat the heat

It seems as if every summer now brings record-setting, “once in a generation” heat waves to Dutch cities. It may be time, then, to stop treating extreme heat as an emergency aberration, and start dealing with it as a new normal – a recurring challenge that’s ripe for disruptive solutions. Indeed, many in the Netherlands are wary of simply turning to air-conditioning when facing summer heat, as that technology typically comes with strong sustainability downsides. Instead, there’s room for a wide variety of brands and businesses – from industrial designers to home furnishers to beverage-makers – to innovate and educate around the subject of cooling off.

5. Remix adult leisure

Changes in technology, laws, and consumer taste have offered businesspeople new opportunities to innovate in two “adult” product categories that many associate with Dutch culture (frequently for the better, and sometimes for worse). In the alcohol industry, brands from Heineken on down have found success with new low -and zero alcohol formats. At the same time, the business of providing marijuana and psychedelic substances – which scaled back considerably last decade as the Netherlands rejected “stoner tourism” – is being remade as a more innovative category as new chefs and wellness experts combine these materials with gourmet ingredients and “body-hacking” superfoods. Beer is about so much more than “getting drunk” these days, and psychedelics are about more than “getting high.” Given this, the prospects for remixing adult leisure seem bright.

6. Bet on digital logistics

With its world-class seaports and airports, the Netherlands has long enjoyed a reputation as a major logistics hub. This is becoming increasingly true in the digital world, too – and while servicing these B2B aspects of the digital economy may lack the allure of more consumer-facing tech ventures, diversifying into the world of digital logistics holds significant value for the Dutch economy. Examples include the ways Philips has harnessed big data in its Innovation Services and Logistics businesses; Thor Equities’ plans to build and lease major e-commerce distributions centers in the Netherlands; and the work being done -- by fintech startups and major Dutch banks alike -- on using technologies like AI and blockchain to simplify payments and invoicing.

7. Celebrate national pride

This year the Netherlands will field strong teams at the Summer Olympics and the European Soccer Championships. These events have historically spurred feelings of national pride, and have offered brands the chance to tap in to feelings of patriotism through both official sponsorships and more informal tactics. In addition, this year the Netherlands is playing host to several Euro 2020 matches – and, just as excitingly, is staging the Eurovision song contest following Duncan Laurence’s win last year. What these hosting opportunities provide is a chance to define how the Netherlands presents itself to the world: should it be reverent of the country’s past glories, or look forward to a new vision of Dutch culture? (Or both?) Should it be strong and serious, or cheeky and irreverent? (The latter seems likelier for the camp pageantry that is Eurovision.) One interesting development is that for the first time, the country has officially ended the practice of referring to itself as “Holland” during international events, opting instead for the more modern and geographically inclusive “Netherlands.” At core, the switch is about the Netherlands actively defining itself on its own terms, rather than being defined by outdated names (and clichés) held by others. It’s a sign that national pride can be rooted in forward-looking, contemporary values.

8. Move beyond meat

As Dutch people report trying to eat less meat, a number of Dutch brands are moving to provide diners with alternative options. Some recent examples: Commercial agent VeganXL has worked with supermarkets like Jumbo and Albert Heijn to expand meat-free and vegan shelf space; frozen food brand Mora has collaborated with Dutch meatless brand The Vegetarian Butcher (recently acquired by Unilever) on a range of crave-able snacks; and Rabobank brought a “Brasserie 2050” food future concept to the Lowlands festival, serving tasty meat alternatives like a “celeriac shawarma.” And then there’s Mosa Meat, the Maastricht-based startup at the forefront of lab-grown “clean meat.” Eat up!

9. Embrace social justice

Recent debates over the use of blackface in “Black Pete” celebrations have surfaced an important generational divide. While 68 percent of Dutch people surveyed in 2017 supported keeping the character in blackface, sentiment among young people trended in the opposite direction, with more than half of Dutch people between the ages of 18 and 25 opposing the practice. It’s a reminder that younger Dutch people are more eager to see “social justice” - not to mention multiculturalism and diversity - as essential facets of modern society.

10. Ease burdens at work

According to Dutch government’s Central Bureau of Statistics, “more employees are reporting work-related mental fatigue… One out of six employees (17 percent) report this fatigue as occurring at least several times a month, up from 13 percent in 2015. The most commonly cited complaint is feeling drained at the end of a working day: 32 percent of employees suffer from this at least a few times a month. 20 percent get up in the morning feeling tired.” Similar proportions of employees report feeling significant information overload in the form of emails, phone calls, and social media messages. Brands and businesses have a role to play in alleviating this stress – both through the products and services they offer the population at large, as well as through the policies they offer their own employees.

11. Labor is in demand

Record low unemployment rates have led to high feelings of security for Dutch workers. According to official government statistics, people feel less worried than ever about losing their jobs, and more confident that they would be able to find new employment. Going forward, the high demand for workers could make employees feel more empowered to advocate for improvements like flexible hours, telecommuting, and mental health support. Employers, meanwhile, may start looking toward automation technologies to them cope with labor shortfalls.

12. Explore biophilia

The Netherlands; has long been at the forefront of creating sustainable, energy-efficient projects. The next step is biophilia: embracing and incorporating nature into all aspects of design. Projects like the Alliander business park in Duiven go beyond green roofs and solar panels to incorporate large windows, living walls, open breezeways, and ample vegetation throughout their floorplans, in order to truly bring the outside in. A leading global proponent of biophilia is the Dutch couturier Iris van Herpen, whose 3-D printed dresses are inspired by the hidden math of nature, and who recently made her architectural debut directing the renovation of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden according to Biophilic principles.

13. Consider the transcendent

In 2019 the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that, “for the first time in history, a majority of the Dutch population [51 percent] had no religious denomination… Attendance of religious services, too, has declined over time.” But while official religion may be on the decline, people still desire community and yearn for transcendent experiences. Consider, for instance, the continued popularity of travel and camping, or the that way music festivals and “fitness tribes” might fulfill some people’s need for communal rituals and rites of passage.

14. Support the “New Frugality”


When Martine Postma started the first Repair Café in Amsterdam in 2009, she helped to position the Netherlands at the forefront of a “New Frugality” trend that married typical Dutch thrift with modern concerns for sustainability. Today, that energy has spread to digital platforms as well, thanks to their algorithmic ability to match excess supply with demand (for goods and infrastructure capacity) so that nothing goes to waste. Marktplaats, of course, is the legacy player in enabling Dutch people to buy used goods online (though it’s facing new competition in the fashion space from foreign resale platforms like Vinted and Micolet, which recently launched in the Netherlands). But also note the rise of platforms like Too Good To Go and Quicargo, which match users to suppliers in hopes of reducing food and shipping waste, respectively.

15. Learn today’s love codes

Love and romance – not to mention flirting, sex, and dating - will always be timeless themes in culture and in marketing. So here’s a statistic to consider when depicting courtship in today’s Netherlands: according to a 2019 survey by the Rutgers foundation, some 48 percent of Dutch people under the age of 24 have made a profile for an online dating site such as Tinder. (This is compared to a figure of 20 percent for the Netherlands’ overall adult population). Just as algorithms are increasingly determining people’s shopping lives, so, too, are they influencing the Dutch dating scene.