7 Deadly Problems of Place Branding Projects: Lessons from Guadalajara

In case you were not following, Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, recently launched its new brand, only to experience significant public backlash. Although the logo was based on an iconic asset of the city -which triggers positive memories around the world- the public discontent about the visuals became widespread. Moreover, while the project did not cost a peso to taxpayers -as the design process was managed pro-bono by local talents- Mexicans blamed their officials for being cheap.

What went wrong with brand Guadalajara? Could the real problem be something other -bigger- than design? Let’s use Guadalajara as a case and analyze the seven deadly problems of place branding projects.

Problem #1: Misconceptions about what a brand actually is

Many place branding projects get off to a poor start -mainly- because the project team fails to educate the public about the proper meaning of a brand. More specifically, they make the crucial error of not differentiating brand identity from brand image.

Brand identity is what we see: a logo, a slogan, visuals.[1] The design exists within the sphere of influence of the place. That is exactly what Guadalajara have created: a brand identity.

What really matters, however, is not brand identity but brand image, which is the public’s perception of the place. Unfortunately, that cannot be shaped merely by creating a brand identity. Visuals and promotional materials could contribute to changing a place’s brand image, albeit that impact is limited.

Before launching a new logo, officials are better off educating the public about the difference between brand identity and brand image, so that the negativity would be compartmentalized.

Problem #2: Failure to communicate the objectives

As a rule of thumb, when launching a place branding project, the goals need to be as clear as day. Usually, though, this is not the case, ergo the vagueness of objectives is a systemic problem.

The officials of Guadalajara yearn to attract tourists, investors as well as boost their citizens’ pride. These are conflicting objectives, for each a specialist brand is required.

To attract visitors, one needs a destination brand. To attract investors, one must create an investment brand. And to charge a premium for the products originating from the city, one needs a place of origin brand.

Generalist place brands, however, are often ineffective in achieving topic-specific goals. For example, a brand that is built on culture, nature, and leisure could make potential investors cringe, for their decision would be based on hard work, efficiency, and cost savings. Likewise, the same tourist-driven messages could cast a shadow over the products originating from that city. After all, images of fun and fiesta contradict with the perception of quality and precision.

When the stakeholders are not on the same page about the city’s priorities, they usually end up creating a place brand, which aims to position the city as a place to visit, live, and work. Sadly, such a trifocal objective could be a fool’s goal. As the cliché goes, being the Jack of all trades also means being the master of none.

Problem #3: Failure to sell the problem

William Bridges, the famous organizational development consultant, says that when change is introduced, usually 90% of leaders’ energy and time is put into selling the solution.[2] However, most people are not in the market for solutions to problems that they do not see or understand. They first have to realize that there is a problem.

Different cities work on their brand for various reasons.[3] Some need to be introduced to the masses, some need to focus on the right audience, and some need to correct their image. If the reason behind the creation of brand Guadalajara was the lack of global awareness, then selling the problem to the citizens first might have changed the public’s reaction to this initiative.

As a general rule, before kickstarting a branding project, the officials should acknowledge the information asymmetry that exists between them and their citizens. The project team might have access to the latest research, data, and surveys. The residents, however, do not know anything about those. They only know what they read in the newspapers. That is why always the problem should be sold first, so that the desired solution can be deemed as useful.

Problem #4: Focusing on the wrong feedback

Unfortunately, many cities and countries terminate their branding initiative within a year of introduction. Some of those projects die prematurely precisely because the officials focus on the wrong feedback.

In reality, even the smallest village is infinitely more complex than the largest corporation in the world. That is why the branding process must keep the key stakeholders and inhabitants engaged. However, once the brand identity is launched, then the focus should shift to what really matters: the feedback coming from the brand’s intended community.

So many place brands die because timid officials are too concerned about the negativity coming from the locals. Ironically, most of the place brands are created to attract non-locals. If that simple fact is kept in mind, then dealing with negativity becomes easier.

The sad truth is that, when you launch an identity for a place, you cannot please the masses. Therefore, officials have no option but to grow a thick skin. They should also realize that what they hear the loudest, is just one voice among the many.

Problem #5: Conflicting vision and actions

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you are saying.” His wisdom has a lot to do with place brands like Guadalajara.

It is important to conduct research. It is admirable to think analytically. And it is vital to have a strategic plan. However, the rubber really meets the road once the brand identity is finally launched. That is why tactical brilliance has a lot to do with a brand’s success.

In Guadalajara’s case -arguably- attracting Americans and Canadians is the priority. Riddlingly though, most of the promotional materials are not in English, but in Spanish. Granted, tactical problems are not unique to Guadalajara. Attention to detail is the cure for such execution hiccups.

Problem #6: Overlooking the change management side of the project

In its essence, every place branding project is a change management project. That is why the road to success for cities and countries goes through understanding how to change people’s opinions and behaviours.

According to the five-step ADKAR Change Model, the first condition of change is the awareness of the need for change. As discussed above, before embarking on a branding project, officials are better off selling the problem, and not the solution.

Then comes the desire to change. To achieve success, a place branding project should address people’s real motives and mitigate their fears. What do the inhabitants really want? The answer might be different for every city. However, finding that emotional trigger is a vital step.

Next follows the knowledge of how to change. Public needs to be fed information regularly and transparently. Publishing weekly blog posts, organizing town halls, creating a wiki page for the project are effective tactics to keep people informed.

The ability to change is the fourth condition. A place could have a yummy logo or an award-winning campaign. However, if the promise is not backed up by action, then success would be temporary. As the legendary Wally Olins once said, “Behaviour is almost always the most significant element in service brands.”[4] That is why successful branding projects identify desired behaviours, then provide people with resources for self-improvement.

The final condition is to provide reinforcement. The laws of physics say that left to its own devices, everything decays. That is why reinforcement is vital. Successful places set realistic goals, measure success, and use reinforcements to continuously calibrate their direction.

Problem #7: Lack of clarity over ownership

Finally, many place branding initiatives suffer from the abandoned baby syndrome. Usually, a project starts with great enthusiasm. For about six months, it becomes the primary focus of the communication specialists on the client side. That said, once the identity is launched, everybody goes back to their everyday jobs, orphaning the newborn brand. In the absence of a dedicated manager, the brand’s social media accounts get deserted. The reactions to the ad campaigns are not followed. In a nutshell, the brand goes silent.

Looking from afar, that could be the case for Guadalajara, for it does not have a clearly-defined project sponsor. To avoid such problems, a separate entity could be created and put in charge of managing the brand. ProColombia is a good model to study in that regard.

To sum up, brand Guadalajara -just like many other initiatives- suffers from the seven deadly systemic problems of place branding. Fortunately, none of the obstacles above are difficult to overcome. They just need to be acknowledged and taken care of. It is my hope that this article would help Guadalajara -and other cities- to achieve success.


[1] Anholt, S. (2016). Places: Identity, image and reputation. Springer. Chicago | Amazon

[2] Bridges, W. (2010). Managing transitions: Making the most of change | Amazon

[3] Anholt, S. (2007). Competitive identity: The new brand management for nations, cities and regions. Journal of Brand Management, 14(6), 474-475 | Amazon

[4] Olins, W. (2008), The Brand Handbook, Thames and Hudson, United Kingdom | Amazon

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Gunter Soydanbay

Günter is a passionate place branding strategist and an insightful thinker, who has years of experience working with cities and countries. Holding a B.Sc. in Psychology, his thinking is heavily influenced by depth psychology. He also has an MBA degree from McGill University with a concentration in Strategic Management.

Gunter Soydanbay

Günter is a passionate place branding strategist and an insightful thinker, who has years of experience working with cities and countries. Holding a B.Sc. in Psychology, his thinking is heavily influenced by depth psychology. He also has an MBA degree from McGill University with a concentration in Strategic Management.