Recap City Nation Place Forum 2016 – Insights for Place Brand Professionals

There aren’t many conferences or workshops out there for those in charge of the brand development, management and communication of cities, regions, destinations or countries. Thankfully, this year’s flagship event for place brand professionals – the City Nation Place Forum in London (November 9-10) offered just this: networking space and ample opportunity to learn from each other.

Now in its second year of existence, the City Nation Place Forum was an opportunity for us to put faces to names, get hands-on advice from the best, but also to take the pulse of the state of affairs among practitioners from around the world. Below some key points from the workshops (day one) and forum (day two).

How to Do Successful Rebranding

The first workshop was about rebranding. Sometimes, rebranding is attempted through a new promotional initiative (place promotion), whereas in other instances the focus is on refreshing a place’s identity (place development, or place making).

But what if a place already has a brand proposition – when is the right moment to change it, and how? The following insights resulted from the roundtable discussions during the workshop:

  • Brands are always evolving. The most important is not place/brand promotion but brand/reputation management,
  • Place brands have to be constantly monitored,
  • Place branding is about giving strategic directions to many stakeholders and, as such, should be based in the presidency office,
  • A newly elected political leader might trigger a new place brand strategy,
  • While city branding can be done via storytelling and deliberatly de-politicized, on a national level (nation branding) politicians are essential for implementing a new brand strategy,
  • You do not always need to change the brand. With the same brand, you can launch different campaigns. Don’t confuse brand communications tactics and campaigns with strategic place branding,
  • Rebranding is a strategic, long-term endeavor, and as such cannot trigger quick change in place perceptions, for example following negative situations or events,
  • Don’t engage in rebranding for egoistic or partisan purposes. Successful place brands are those which are consistent over time and don’t change with every government,
  • As a rule of thumb, a place brand is the sum of your place’s reputation and its identity. Rebranding requires a focus on both,
  • When rebranding, make sure the new brand is developed based on research, not anecdotes,
  • Above all, engage your citizens, so they can become ambassadors of the brand.

How to Manage Stakeholders

Just like the when and how of rebranding, stakeholder involvement is a key challenge encountered by almost every brand manager at some stage. Frequent questions include:

  • How to identify and prioritize stakeholders?
  • How to allocate responsibility for stakeholder management?
  • How to encourage stakeholder participation?
  • How to deal with problematic stakeholders?

One point made during the roundtable discussions was to not confuse stakeholders with customers, but to make sure all four main stakeholder groups are on board and part of a brand strategy: 1) Government, 2) Civil society, 3) Businesses, and 4) Media.

Examples of stakeholder engagement discussed at the workshop include South Africa’s “Play your part”, and the Canadian city of Edmonton, which won the 2016 CNP Award for best expression of place brand identity.

For successful place branding initiatives, stakeholders need to be part of both the process (defining strategy and decision making) and projects (living and implementing the brand).

No place brand can be successful if it is developed by a committee and does not involve local residents and businesses.

But how to get stakeholders on board in the first place? One useful piece of advice: When approaching stakeholders, offer them to tell their stories. Show that you are serious about this and that you go beyond your duty as place leader to inform, engage and educate the public.

Equally important: Unlike marketing communications campaigns for specific seasons and markets, results of place brand strategies can only be measured mid- to long-term, so make sure to manage stakeholder expectations and to agree on measurable, realistic KPIs.

Lastly, make sure you invite the right persons to form part of your place brand committee. Change the language if needed to reach problematic or skeptical stakeholders. For instance, you may want to avoid the term branding (which is both disliked and often misunderstood) and instead focus on talent attraction or destination competitiveness.

One example, the GREAT Britain campaign – 2016 CNP Award winner for best communications strategy – doesn’t talk to the government about place branding, but about economic development to create jobs and attract investment. Likewise, the team in charge of I Amsterdam avoids the term place branding, which really is just a short form for the sum of brand strategy development, reputation management (monitoring, assessment) and place promotion.

A Tale of Two Cities

Moving on from the workshops to the actual conference, a very engaging presentation was called A Tale of Two Cities, in which Fred Dixon, CEO of New York & Co, and Frans van der Avert, CEO of Amsterdam Marketing, shared their respective work experiences and city branding challenges. Did you know that..

  • Amsterdam now has a problem of biking space. There are more bikes than people. Frans van der Avert himself has three bicycles,
  • Amsterdam has stopped marketing the city destination outside of the country because of too many visitors (see above point on overcrowding). Instead they focus on improving visitor experience and try to soothe frustration among residents caused by overtourism,
  • To take pressure off the inner city, Amsterdam Marketing increased the destination by including surrounding places under the Destination Amsterdam umbrella.
  • Right on the other side of the Atlantic, New York City brand leaders have been working hard against the perception of New Yorkers being unfriendly and not welcoming towards tourists. One way to change attitude: turn locals into tourist through the #seeyourcity campaign,
  • Naturally, New York has also an overcrowding problem in its massive inner city, so tries to break seasonality and to create new destinations city-wide. Sometimes, unique hotels or venues become destinations by themselves.

Global Trends

Because reporting on all presentation is beyond the scope of this summary, I’ll instead highlight some of the trends we now see around the world, linked to place reputation and place branding:

  • Symptoms of success: City destination are moving from place marketing/promotion to reputation management,
  • Sharing Economy: Regulating the Sharing Economy has become a key focus for cities, such as Amsterdam and New York, not least to minimize reputational threats and loss of perceived authenticity,
  • Countries versus Cities: Capital cities in particular now get more attention than their regions or countries, and are taking center stage in place branding. But strong nation brands also benefit regions and cities,
  • Accountability: Place brand(ing) measurement and definition of KPIs as tricky as always. Robert Govers suggests three ways to measure place brand performance: Impacts, Outcomes and Outputs,
  • Uniqueness: Every place is different, which means there are no standard KPIs to use. Get inspiration from the place branding work of others, but don’t copy/paste. Adapt strategies to your place’s needs and specifics,
  • Experience: Focus on creating memorable experiences. Be trustworthy, interact, engage – Magdalena Florek.

To conclude this summary of the 2016 City Nation Place Forum in London, a quote from the presentation by Jeremy Hildreth:

The best place brand stories aren’t those manufactured or created, but those already there, waiting to be (re)discovered and found.

Place branders, use your imagination and remember that this isn’t about concepts, but about concretes.

With thanks to Natalia Ferrer Roca and Tanya Makarova for sharing notes and contributing to this summary of key insights from the City Nation Place Forum in London, 9-10 November 2016.

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Florian Kaefer

Editor at The Place Brand Observer
Independent researcher, journalist, entrepreneur. Founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer and the Sustainability Leaders Project. Follow me on Twitter or let's connect through LinkedIn.

Florian Kaefer

Independent researcher, journalist, entrepreneur. Founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer and the Sustainability Leaders Project. Follow me on Twitter or let’s connect through LinkedIn.