Interview with Bill Baker on Destination Branding for Small Cities

Place branding expert and consultant Bill Baker is one of very few in the industry who really don’t need much of an introduction. More recently, the Portland, Oregon-based destination branding veteran with roots in Australia has found himself on a mission to simplify issues related to the branding of places. No wonder Bill Baker’s book Destination Branding for Small Cities (now in its second edition) has been an Amazon bestseller in its category for years.

Learn about:

  • Why successful and sustainable brands need to be built from the inside out;
  • When ‘destination branding’ first emerged, and how it has changed since then;
  • The key challenges of destination branding for small cities;
  • Examples of place branding done particularly well;
  • Key insights presented in the book Destination Branding for Small Cities.

Bill, why did you write Destination Branding for Small Cities?

So much of our everyday work has always been education and building the capacity of our clients. It doesn’t matter how good our deliverables may be, if the client’s staff, Board, committee members, partners and stakeholders don’t understand what it is and how to use it, then there’s a big chance it will fail.

Back in 2006 I noticed that there was considerable misunderstanding in regard to the branding of places and felt that we had to start addressing it. One of our guiding principles at TDM is to always work at simplifying the concepts, processes and actions that are needed for the successful branding of places.

Destination Branding for Small Cities by Bill BakerWhich are the key insights from the book?

It’s important for everyone to be aware of what branding is, and isn’t. Successful and sustainable brands are built from the inside out and that starts from the earliest days of the project through outreach and engagement. Among the most important insights I tried to convey in the book is that this is about developing a strategic toolkit and that brand management is more about focus, differentiation and prioritization than taglines and advertising campaigns.

I tried to provide practical information that can be quickly put to use. To aid this there are quite a few tools that have proven effective, as well as checklists and techniques to help strengthen outcomes at various points.

Read our review of Destination Branding for Small Cities

As a practitioner, what fascinates you about the place branding topic?

I have been actively engaged in destination branding and marketing for more than 30 years. During that time, particularly with my work for Australia, we were using many of the principles of branding, without really recognizing them. We never used the term “branding”. It all seemed like the responsible and most effective thing to be doing.

The term “destination branding” didn’t emerge until the mid-Nineties. After marketing Australia around the world and learning from some of the best, I returned to my real passion: working with small cities and regions. This enabled me to start applying many of the concepts and techniques used at a national level and employ them at a local level.

I also started fusing many of the principles of tourism planning and community development with the concepts we employed in the international marketing of Australia. Today, it’s great to share ideas with my colleagues around the world who are constantly refining and adopting the principles of branding to places of all sizes.

As place branding consultant, which are the main challenges?

There can be many challenges, but communicating to clients that branding is strategic with broad benefits and not simply about a logo and tagline is constant. This combined with competing against aggressive salespeople representing agencies that themselves do not understand place branding but shower unsuspecting place marketers with overblown promises of Nike-like brand awareness, or dazzle them with advertising and design examples.

While the client may be swayed by these “bright shiny objects”, very few of them have ever actually run a full page advertisement and so can end up totally missing the point of what branding is about.

The sad reality is that the results of the attempted branding exercise don’t gain traction, the work is placed in the bottom drawer and nobody can speak about branding for another decade. Other challenges can include risk-averse leadership, political interference and not successfully managing the brand after its roll out.

Case study branding Tillamook County, Oregon Coast, USA
Branding Tillamook Country, Oregon – Case Study by Bill Baker

Do you have any examples of place branding done particularly well?

Firstly, I must preface my comments by saying that place branding can be a perilous journey. Some places do a great job with defining their brand identity, but soon falter or fail when it comes to implementation, sustaining unity and consistently following the strategy.

Others are unable to sustain the leadership, funding, personnel and enthusiasm needed to succeed. Success should really relate to whether the location was able to achieve its original objectives and whether it was able to establish the foundation for long-term performance improvements. Invariably this has to relate to focus, differentiation and prioritization.

For many it is about whether they can get their main players onto the same page, build deeper understanding of branding and provide the strategic framework for improved return on investment (ROI) from marketing and product development. In that regard, I would like to nominate some second and third tier cities and counties for their brand work as tourism destinations:

Do you think place branding can support environmental and social goals?

Definitely. Sustainability should embrace economic, social and environmental principles. In theory it should be a fundamental strategic and operational consideration for all place brands, but in reality it is often something that slips between the cracks.

To truly adopt sustainability takes a holistic approach across all governments, organizations and residents in a location. Very often achieving this is beyond the political and corporate influence of the project leadership team to foster the degree of cross-community unity, cooperation and commitments required.

Thank you, Bill.

For more about Bill Baker’s work, visit his Website and Blog or follow him on Twitter (@citybrander)

Bill Baker is Chief Strategist for Total Destination Marketing and is internationally respected as an author, speaker and for his pioneer work in branding places of all sizes – from nations to small cities. He has more than 30 years destination branding and marketing experience in 25 countries.


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The Editorial Team

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!