Differentiating the Place Brand: Insights from the Revived Gold Coast (Australia) City Brand Story

Place brands can be thought of, in a very broad sense, as a story simultaneously co-authored by a range of individuals and groups. That is, we may dissect the reputation and image of places into constituent pieces (e.g. associations, beliefs, impressions) in the name of evaluation or research. However, the symbolic and emotive potency of place brands comes (in part at least) from how these pieces form more overarching place brand stories.

The notion of a ‘brand story’ has gained traction in a variety of branding contexts (products, services, retailers, and so on). Fundamentally, compelling brand stories with a clear central character or ‘brand persona’ provide a basis for forging deep, emotional connections with stakeholders (e.g. Herskovitz and Crystal, 2010). Although the core persona provides an anchor, effective and enduring brand stories evolve with the entities (products, cities, places etc.) they develop around.

Singing the same tune, place and destination branding literature reinforces the potential value of storytelling as a place branding communication tool (see Keskin et al., 2016 for example). But, perhaps more so than in any other branding context, place brands are shaped by a multitude of incredibly diverse storytellers, from individual residents to local businesses and sporting clubs.

Place brand story revival on Australia’s Gold Coast: “The GC”

Australia’s Gold Coast is currently enjoying somewhat of a cultural evolution spearheaded by the birth of a thriving food scene, but also supported by street art and local music. The old, and much leveraged, surf culture remains but this surfing heritage now forms part of an overarching Gold Coast city brand ‘story’ that appears to appeal equally well to tourists and locals.

The stronger and more favourable place brand connections engendered by compelling brand stories sometimes also manifest at a more surface level. For instance, the phrase ‘GC’ has taken on a new, far more positive, meaning in the context of the revived city brand story. Many locals now refer lovingly to ‘the GC’.

The Gold Coast City Council has recently began stepping up to the plate, with more support for what they classify as Arts and Culture in preparation for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Regardless of such ‘official’ branding intentions though, many, many, other storytellers have empowered the recent Gold Coast city brand revival. The street press magazine Blank GC provides an illustrative case in point.

blank gold coast magazineLocal media shaping the city brand story: The Blank GC case

Founded three years ago by two local residents tired of the boring stereotypes associated with the Gold Coast, Blank GC has evolved into a prominent publication with 250 distribution outlets spanning from Byron Bay in the south to Beenleigh in the north. An estimated 24,000 – 30,000 readers enjoy the magazine in print each month. Online, the magazine reaches an audience of over 20,000 per month.

Working with 132 emerging writers and a team of seven remote part-time staff, Blank GC provides a fiercely independent voice on music, art, culture, surf, food, the environment, health and lifestyle. As well as diverse written content (interviews, articles etc.), visual content curated and fed through the magazine and associated online channels, subtly yet effectively, moulds the overarching Gold Coast city brand ‘persona’.

I asked one of Blank GC’s co-founders, Samantha Morris, about the role of Blank GC within the revival of the Gold Coast city brand story.

Samantha, how did Blank GC come to be the city’s independent cultural voice?

We launched three years ago with the idea of putting together a street-style magazine to let people know what was happening in terms of music, art and culture locally. What we ended up producing was more than that though.

Both myself and the other owner, Chloe Popa, come from a non-governmental-organisation (NGO) background, which saw us in roles that included government liaison, policy, managing NGOs, sitting on boards and later as consultants. I don’t think it’s even been a conscious process, but as we were creating the magazine, we were also building capacity of the musicians and artists we were interacting with. We were building relationships with Council and organisations like Gold Coast Tourism, and identifying other gaps that needed to be filled.

Have Gold Coast residents’ perceptions of the Gold Coast changed since Blank GC started three years ago?

This is such a slow process. Change is hard. There are people who still think Surfers Paradise is a dingy, beer-fuelled hell-hole. There are people who still want the Playroom [iconic live music venue] to magically reappear after a 25 year hiatus. There are people who genuinely believe there are no music venues on the Gold Coast or that the city has no “culture”. Gold Coast residents are both the City’s best ambassadors and its greatest detractors. We’re not trying to convert people. We’re striving to be an independent voice that shares stories about the depth and diversity of cultural activity that happens here. Some people will connect with that and some won’t.

Overall have residents’ perceptions changed? I say yes. Because there are more cultural events and concerts and outlets for creative expression. That means people are getting out of their homes and into new places. That must mean their perceptions of the city has changed, right?

How has Blank GC contributed to these changes in perception and the overall Gold Coast city brand story?

Our goal has always been to “bust the boring stereotypes” that existed about the Gold Coast. As I travelled for work or pleasure people would either be surprised or try to sympathise that I lived on the Gold Coast and I always had to remind them that I CHOOSE to live here. There’s no question that Gold Coast’s brand needed to change and most of our major corporations, shopping centres, theme parks, tourism bodies and council have contributed to that dated brand.

To have a city of people who love living here and are proud to tell people why they love living here, you need to be telling stories they can connect with and own. Before Blank Gold Coast existed, there were very limited options for independent artists, cafes, venues, musicians or business owners to have their stories told. The only paper here on the Gold Coast is owned by News Corp (previously News Limited) and unless you have thousands of dollars to spend on advertising, or have a story that compounds that Gold Coast stereotype, they’re just not going to be interested.

We’re telling the stories because they deserve to be told. We thought we’d run out of content or have to start rehashing content after the first year but that is not the case. Every single edition we’re cutting stories due to space and the cost of printing extra pages.

A flow-on from that has been that the mainstream newspaper has had to pick up its game in terms of cultural content – because people expect it. Event managers have had to book Gold Coast bands, because people expect it. People know they exist and deserve to have their music shared.

Do you feel Blank GC is recognised and supported as a group/publication shaping the Gold Coast city brand?

To be honest, I think decision makers get a bit nervous when they see an organisation like Blank GC that’s privately owned, with a history of activism going full guns blazing in a space like this. And it’s a bit confusing at times (for us as well). Are we the media? Are we representing local artists or musicians? Are we just another corporation? Are we a creative enterprise ourselves? Is it even our job to stand up when we think bad decisions are being made about culture? We’re still working that out ourselves, so of course other people are too.

There’s anecdotal evidence that people are slowly recognising the role we are playing in shaping the city brand, although we aren’t exactly invited to the table to participate in any formal discussions. Gold Coast Tourism has invited us to speak candidly about what we’re doing and why, they’ve offered support in a number of ways and they contact us if they’re doing something that fits with our brand (for example, if they’re looking for bands for an event or for new imagery).

But most significantly, we’ve got an incredibly strong connection with like-minded organisations such as Bleach, Swell, Buskers by the Creek and Gold Coast Film Festival. That connection sees us sharing resources and expertise as well as facilitating connections inside and outside of the Gold Coast. The arts and culture team within City of Gold Coast have also been incredible cheerleaders for our work.

Storytelling and place branding today

Everyone loves a good story. Place brand stories in particular have a lot to offer communities, especially as we go forth in a psychologically disconnected and rootless world.

Moreover, we now live in a time where almost every place offers lively food, music, visual arts and sporting scenes, or claims to at least. Thus, as the emergent role of Blank GC in the revival of the Gold Coast city brand story illustrates, the manner in which different storytellers help to integrate various components into an overarching perhaps ‘loose’ place brand story anchored by a core persona represents a viable opportunity for enhanced differentiation and competitive advantage.

So, look after potential storytellers and the local networks they foster and feed off, it seems to make good place branding sense.

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Amelia Green

Amelia Green is a PhD Candidate at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. Her current research focuses on city brand meaning and qualitative research methods. She is particularly interested in multidisciplinary approaches to place branding research and practice that embrace the multiple dimensions of places including culture, society, consumption, the arts, history, media and various forms of symbolism. Amelia has published in the fields of city branding, green events, sustainability, fashion brand management and brand authenticity.

Amelia Green

Amelia Green is a PhD Candidate at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. Her current research focuses on city brand meaning and qualitative research methods. She is particularly interested in multidisciplinary approaches to place branding research and practice that embrace the multiple dimensions of places including culture, society, consumption, the arts, history, media and various forms of symbolism. Amelia has published in the fields of city branding, green events, sustainability, fashion brand management and brand authenticity.