Interview: Anupam Yog on the Branding of Nations and Destinations in Asia

This interview with Anupam Yog on the brands and branding of nations and destinations in Asia is a must read for anyone professionally interested in place branding, especially those working in public diplomacy or economic development in India, Singapore and China. Anupam offers a very detailed account of place brand initiatives in Asia, and discusses the challenges, tendencies and opportunities.

Learn about:

  • The origins of Brand India and the India Brand Equity Foundation;
  • How place branding creates competitive advantage for retail spaces;
  • The difference between good and great destination brand concepts;
  • Common trends in place branding across Asia;
  • Why successful country branding links tourism and investment marketing with public diplomacy initiatives;
  • How to set up and organize effective country branding;
  • India’s unique opportunity to differentiate itself in the global community of nations.

Anupam, how did you first become interested in place branding?

As a practitioner, I have come to believe firmly that place branding is the sum of the experiences which make a “place” distinctive, and perhaps more importantly, the ideas that have the potential to develop and position it as a “strong brand”. It’s this combination that makes a place-brand, as opposed to just being a place.

My interest in place branding goes all the way back to my first job, when I began my career in branding with marketing guru Shunu Sen, who co-founded Quadra Advisory with Sir Martin Sorrel, CEO of WPP and Suhel Seth, Managing Partner of Counselage.

One day, somewhat out of the blue, Shunu asked me to think about how I would brand India. Later, I was invited to join a meeting to share my ideas with a team from the India Brand Equity Fund (IBEF), who had reached out to Shunu for advice.

A few months down the road, IBEF’s CEO, Ajay Khanna, approached me to join his team. At 23, this seemed like a terrific challenge, and indeed, it was. In due course, Ajay and I co-founded the India Brand Equity Foundation (an evolved version of the India Brand Equity Fund), with help from Arun Maira, Chairman of the Boston Consulting Group in India.

With a vision to “build positive economic perceptions for India, globally”, we set out to deliver a series of strategic initiatives for Brand India, including the historic “India Everywhere” campaign at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in 2006, which was the brainchild of Nandan Nilekani, Founder of Infosys. The results of this campaign are well documented.

My work with IBEF motivated me to explore setting up my own brand consultancy with a focus on nation and city branding. I reached out to Sian Davies, CEO of The Henley Centre (which had acquired Quadra Advisory when Shunu passed away) for advice. Sian encouraged me to start my own practice, and introduced me to the London Mayor’s office that was apparently on the lookout for a consultant to help position Brand London in Asia.

Armed with this one lead, and unbridled enthusiasm, I flew to London (exhausting my meagre start-up capital) and met with David Adam, Head of Emerging Markets at the London Development Agency. Dave had not only heard of IBEF but seemed to know a great deal about my work as lead strategist for the “India Everywhere” campaign – he had done his homework!

Dave invited me for dinner with the Mayor’s Economic Advisor, John Ross, and Cultural Advisor, Jude Woodward. Conversation over dinner felt very much like a job interview! This was later confirmed when Dave offered me a role as the Mayor’s Chief Representative to India. For a variety of reasons, I had decided to become an entrepreneur, and made a counter-offer to Dave to hire me as a consultant. Fortunately for me, Dave agreed, and we signed a contract a week later, giving birth to Mirabilis Advisory.

At Mirabilis, I cultivated my interest in cities in particular, and in turn, place branding, through a range of diverse projects: writing a report on sustainable cities for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature; bringing the Volvo Ocean Race – the world’s longest yacht race – for the first time to Asia; exploring the feasibility of Personal Rapid Transit pods (automated transport) as an alternative to more conventional transport solutions for India’s cities; partnering GTZ to develop a positioning strategy and place brand for a new state in India called Uttarakhand; and initiating a thought leadership platform with the Delhi-based India Habitat Centre, called the Urban Habitats Forum, to explore ‘alternative urban futures’.

You worked for one of the largest retail property developers in Asia: What role does place branding play in the retail context?

In today’s post-Uber, post-Amazon world, place branding is perhaps the most important strategy that retail developers can pursue to increase their odds for both critical and commercial success.

Retail formats – whether high streets, shopping malls or mixed use destinations – need a distinctive identity, rooted in a ownable truth. There’s increasing acceptance that designing unique experiences for shoppers and visitors is a necessity, not an option.

However, in my view, and particularly in Asia, what makes the all-important difference that separates great destinations from good ones, is appreciation of context. Truly unique concepts that appeal and endure, respond positively to their context. Concepts that have embedded stories about a place’s heritage, its future potential; the people who live there, lived there, or will live there; its cuisine, its customs and traditions; and so much more.

Let me elaborate with an example.

In the case of Virtuous Retail (VR), where I worked from 2010-15 as Marketing Director, we launched a completely new paradigm for retail design and development in India. By positioning VR’s retail centres as community destinations and places where shopping was incidental, we were able to connect with people in a unique way. We went beyond being a transactional space to emerge as a place with personality and character – a public art installation celebrating a 100-year old boat race showcasing the city’s heritage, inspired; while a quirky streetscape offering local cuisine evoked pride in the city.

Introducing ideas such as walkability, contextual public art, cultural events, and embracing a local identity all helped ‘make’ a new ‘place brand’, that continues to endure, and evolve organically. What worked was catalysing an amorphous, organic entity that engaged with its urban context, with the people, to create something relatable and human. An oasis, yes, but not a walled one – a destination with porous boundaries, if you will, not a gated community.

In contrast, in Singapore, where I now live, place branding for retail is a serious challenge, because the entire city has been developed as a place brand! What then, does Orchard Road, for example, do to differentiate itself? Perhaps the answer for Orchard Road lies in a deeper and more creative exploration of context?

I believe Orchard Road needs to tell a story, not Singapore’s story, but its own. It needs physical, identifiable markers beyond the iconic malls that comprise the retail offer on Orchard. It must go beyond shopping and lifestyle to become a contemporary, cultural landmark. For this, it needs a positioning idea. From merely being a place…to a place brand!

From your experience, what is usually the focus of place branding activities in Asia, and does it differ from our understanding of what place branding should be all about?

It would be difficult to distill the diverse range of place branding activities being undertaken across Asia’s diverse landscape to one focus, but perhaps we can glean away a few common trends.

From Dubai hosting the World Expo in 2020 to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022, from Disneyland in Shanghai to the spectacular Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, mega events and experiential tourist attractions are clear drivers for place branding activities in Asia, with cities being a focal point.

However, if we are to look at place branding through the lens of nation branding, there seems to be an unhealthy obsession with advertising-led tourism campaigns in Asia – Uniquely Singapore, Malaysia Truly Asia, Incredible India, 100% Pure New Zealand, etc. I will probably incite the wrath of media and creative agencies as well as the government organisations who commission these campaigns, but if we do a data-based evaluation, many of these campaigns would not pass muster.

In particular, ‘Incredible India’, while creatively compelling, has yielded very poor results – perhaps due to the lack of an integrated marketing strategy. After years of advertising ‘Incredible India’, in 2015, India attracted a mere 8 million tourists from overseas, up from 4 million international visitors in 2005.

To put this in perspective, Singapore attracted 15 million tourists in 2015, up from 9 million in 2005; Dubai succeeded in pulling in 14 million visitors in 2015 up from 8 million visitors in 2010. Even Times Square in Manhattan attracted 12 million international visitors in 2015!

In even sharper contrast, and a comparable benchmark for India, is China, which uses advertising as part of a cohesive place brand and public diplomacy strategy, linked to broader economic development goals and objectives. The country has witnessed a sustained tourism boom, and received 26 million visitors in 2015. If visitors from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are added, the total is a staggering 55 million tourists.

I would argue that countries in Asia (and perhaps even elsewhere in the world) need to stop obsessing about advertising, and focus on more structural issues in how they develop and deliver their positioning and marketing strategy.

Linking tourism and investment marketing with public diplomacy initiatives to develop and drive a coherent strategy, supplemented by a co-ordinated implementation programme, is key to long-term success.

This requires a fundamental change in the way countries approach and deliver a positioning strategy and market themselves.

For large countries, such as India, there is a need to bring together federal, state and city level initiatives onto a common platform – in terms of branding strategy, not through straplines!

Which would you consider your key insights – or lessons – from the city and nation branding activities you were involved with, especially in India? Are there any emerging trends?

IBEF’s experience in positioning India as the ‘fastest growing free market democracy’ may offer some lessons. This was done through a series of co-ordinated campaigns during 2003-06, in partnership with government organisations across several ministries, and in conjunction with the private sector.

Building on my earlier commentary, I would emphasize the need for structural reform within government to enable smart brand building for the nation, and effective marketing of economic and tourism assets, such as cities, attractions (natural or man-made) and business enclaves.

Smart and effective place branding for countries is best achieved by creating an empowered and independent national agency that is mandated with carrying out the mission of nation branding and charged with developing a positioning strategy for the country. I believe such an agency should be business led, government coordinated and community owned – after all a nation’s brand doesn’t really belong to any one organisation. At best, the brand can, and should, have a custodian.

IBEF was set up as a public-private partnership between the Government of India and the Confederation of Indian Industry, but operated as an autonomous public trust under the leadership of a small 4-member management team, which reported to a Board of Trustees drawn from across sectors. It had strategic linkages with the Ministries of Commerce, External Affairs and Tourism, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office. This was the organisational structure we created, and that was key to IBEF’s global success at that time.

At the federal level, India has recently launched a “Make in India” campaign, along with several other marketing initiatives. Mostly as a consequence of the current Prime Minister’s vision, as well as his belief  in the power of marketing, Brand India is undergoing a positive resurgence.

However, unless there is an institutional approach, advertising campaigns and slick slogans will only succeed in creating noise, and will eventually be drowned out in the din. After all, an advertising campaign does not in itself represent an integrated marketing strategy.

To stand out, India needs to do more. It needs a new positioning strategy, in the context of a post-Trump, post-Brexit, digital and social world. Policy decisions such as demonetization, which from a marketer’s perspective is a master-stroke, has not been appropriately leveraged to position Brand India.

As India enters its 70th year of independence, it has a unique opportunity globally to differentiate itself in the international community of nations.

At a state and city level, there is a tremendous opportunity to shape a coherent positioning and marketing strategy. Urbanisation is an irreversible trend, and it’s still not well understood by either policymakers, business leaders, media or even citizens.

An independent agency, such as the IBEF, needs to drive a new paradigm that transforms “Cities of India” to an “India of Cities”. A marketing agency for India will not be able to implement policy reform, but it can certainly inspire a change in mindsets, and focus attention on strategic opportunities, which is what its remit ought to be.

Brands live in people’s minds – and India’s cities, and other assets, have much to offer to craft distinct, unique and compelling narratives to stitch together a new story for modern India.

Place branding as a tool can play a crucial role in helping cities and towns of all shapes and sizes to position and market themselves as part of a new national movement.

As member of the Placemaking Leadership Council, which approach would you suggest with regard to measuring the success or effectiveness (ROI) of place branding programmes?

The Placemaking Leadership Council is a global collective of which I’m fortunate to be a part of. My view on measuring success, however, is based on my own experience. As far as I know, there isn’t really any established consensus on metrics, partly because this is still an emerging discipline.

I believe any place branding programme must be approached like asset management. Both the place, and the brand, are assets, and must be considered, and measured, as such.

There are many good practices that can be adapted from the world of finance, economics and accounting for effective measurement of place branding programmes. Indeed, progressive organisations like the Urban Redevelopment Authority in Singapore, and enlightened real estate development companies around the world, can offer valuable lessons. A good resource to tap into is the Urban Land Institute, which has a great library of resources on this, and other relevant subjects.

Eventually, good place branding programmes must create value – experientially, economically, and ecologically.

Where do you see the priorities for place branding in Asia generally, and Sri Lanka/India in particular? Are there differences in how place branding is approached in Europe versus Asia?

For the vast majority of countries and cities in Asia, place branding isn’t a priority.

India and Sri Lanka have an emergent sense of the importance of place branding within certain sections of government and the private sector, but this is a strategy that needs attention, and sponsorship, from the highest level of policy and political decision making to become a strategic tool for driving economic and social change.

In Europe, place branding as an idea has been institutionalised over the decades, and tends to receive a sustained, if uneven, focus at present. The challenge for Europe, now, is a higher order one – political and economic re-positioning in a post-Brexit world. The rules of globalisation are being rewritten as new, unexpected events continue to shake up the status quo.

I think place branding is still approached tactically by nations and cities. It’s very much a political agenda, not a policy focus, thus advertising campaigns are commonplace.

For place branding to become institutionalised, initiatives like the Journal of Place Branding and Public Diplomacy are very important. Equally, academic institutions need to develop this discipline to bring more rigour and enable the development of frameworks that can then be deployed by policymakers and practitioners.

At the moment, I’m working with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore to develop an executive education course, which will feature modules in place branding. The course will launch in November 2017. Perhaps there is a need for an Institute that is focused entirely on the study of place branding.

What are a few of your favorite examples of best practice in place branding or placemaking?

London, perhaps, is my favourite example. It really does outperform most places in the world, as far as placemaking and place branding go. Bicester Village outside London, has done a great job, too, in creating a contemporary place brand.

VR Surat, a community-oriented retail and lifestyle destination in the heart of the historic port city of Surat in Gujarat, is a favourite in India, though clearly, I have a personal bias.

In India, I believe the desert state of Rajasthan has enormous potential, and has a natural place brand, though lacks in placemaking. In the south, Kerala, which was successfully marketed as “God’s Own Country” is a terrific place brand.

I believe the most exciting opportunity in India is the North East of India –  the so-called ‘Seven Sister States’ that connect India with the ASEAN, and have tremendous potential for both placemaking and place branding.

I first spent time in this region when working on a public diplomacy initiative called the India-ASEAN Car Rally, wherein we took 60 cars from NE India to Singapore – travelling 8000 km in 20 days!

In complete contrast, my other favourites are in the US. The university town of Berkeley, and more generally, the Bay Area has the potential to be a great place brand (Silicon Valley isn’t really an effective positioning for this region), and I feel, punches below its weight in terms of placemaking as well.

Further south in California, Los Angeles can be a great place brand, but does not have as much resonance globally, as it perhaps should command, given its creative capacity.

The overall winners for me are Singapore and Dubai – emergent global cities of the future, which excel in placemaking, and it’s only a matter of time that they get their place brand strategy right, too!

Thank you, Anupam.

Connect with Anupam Yog on LinkedIn.


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Hi there, we hope you've found this article useful. Want to stay up to date on latest place branding insights, stories and examples? Sign up for our free email newsletter! You might also be interested in our services. Have a question or suggestion? Get in touch!