Interview with Adam Mikolajczyk of Best Place Institute on Meaningful City Branding

Adam Mikolajczyk is well known in Central and Eastern Europe for having founded the Best Place Institute, of which he is also the president. We caught up with Adam to find out more about this initiative, and to hear his thoughts on the current state of place branding practices in Poland, especially in connection with cities.

Adam, as international place development and marketing expert, one of your specialities is the branding of cities. Do you remember what brought you to the topic in the first place? What triggered your interest?

I think it was the period between studies and the first job. I studied the experimental subject of “Spatial Economy”, specialization in “City and Region Management” at the University of Lodz (Poland).

Because it was an integrated economic and sociological faculty, we had classes in both social and economic sciences, such as social policy, architecture, spatial planning, regional economics, econometrics and the most intriguing for me then – territorial marketing.

When in the last year of my studies I got a job at the Polish Agency for Tourism Development, which was implementing a new project – the branding strategies for tourist destinations in Poland, I fell in love with place branding. Since then I knew that this will be the essence of my professional career.

In 2010 you founded – and are the president of – the international consulting organization Best Place Institute in Poland. What motivated you to set up this organization?

After several years of experience with branding of tourist destinations I took up a position in the media sector, at a popular marketing magazine. There I started to popularise the idea of place marketing and branding, as well as educating local and regional governments.

Founding the Best Place Institute, I wanted to bring together all my previous experiences. The Institute is a boutique consulting agency for places, as well as an organization gathering experts and promoting place marketing and branding. Not only in Poland, but throughout Central and Eastern Europe. I managed to involve two great “pracademics” for this task – Magdalena Florek and Jarosław Górski.

Based on your experience, how do you combine city or regional development strategies with marketing and branding?

This is actually what constitutes the essence of our approach to place marketing and branding. It is not without reason that our advertising slogan says “marketing for development”.

From the very beginning of the Best Place Institute, we have tried to make our projects support social and economic development of places, as much as possible.

How to do it?

First of all, you need to raise awareness of the function and purpose of place marketing and branding among the city and region authorities. Secondly, you must link the development strategy goals to the brand or marketing strategy purposes.

Ideally, strategies – development and branding or marketing – are developed simultaneously.

When it’s not possible, you must “translate” development challenges (in the process of participation) into branding and communication objectives.

In the end, the coordination system of brand communication plays a key role. Through it the tasks of individual departments are combined with the goals of the brand and communication.

This helps not only to maintain the consistency of the message, but also forces city marketers to incorporate the prism of place development.

To your mind, has place marketing and branding practice in Central and Eastern Europe improved since 2010? And which changes do you observe, for instance in how regional or municipal governments approach this?

When we look at the evolution of place marketing and branding in Poland, as an example of the largest market in this part of Europe, we can see three phases:

  • Starting from the colourful logotypes created blindly by local governments (phase I – show me your logo and let me tell you who you are).
  • Then there are the more or less successful advertising campaigns, financed mainly through European Union funds and placed most often outdoors (phase II – the billboard brand).
  • To phase III – DNA, positioning and coordination – with professional branding strategies (unique brand identity, embedded in a competitive context) and effective platforms for brand participation and co-management. We refer to those as “inclusive brands”.

Place branding is today, in my opinion, the development of this last phase, combining inclusive brands with urban investments and revitalization. So place branding is now more close to placemaking.

There are several examples. Vistula boulevards in Warsaw, the progressive revitalization of Łódź, and Szczecin – The Floating Garden City – where, from the very beginning, the brand idea was closely related to creating new public spaces in the city.

And Cracow, which “adds meaning and touches the minds” (the city’s latest positioning), thanks to dozens of new spaces, places and products, both in the centre and peripheral districts. I won’t hide  that we’ve been involved in making this progress possible.

How can “meaningful branding” contribute to the sustainable development of cities and regions?

Meaningful branding is a term that we have been promoting recently. It fits into the idea of the meaningful economy that we believe in. This is a further development of our approach to combine closely city or regional development with place marketing and branding activities.

In general, the idea is to give these activities even more sense and value (for recipients, and for residents). It is also about complementing brand communication with real, tangible activities and investments: creating substance.

The idea can be summarized in this statement: “Do not boast about (communicate) that you are the best city, region, country. Prove it (by real activities)!”.

Getting rid of ugly ads from the main street or market, building cycle paths or donating urban space to the local community makes a greater impression than many typical advertising projects.

A great example of meaningful branding is the city of Gdańsk, which, as the “City of freedom”, has appointed (as the only city in Poland), a twelve-person Immigration Council, which will support the city’s activities in matters of social integration.

As a frequent keynote speaker, which major challenges do you observe in place marketing?

Let me quote from our report “Place Marketing & Branding 2015+” (prepared with our associate experts at the Best Place Institute):

  • Politics – the place marketing process very often relates directly to politicians’ decisions and election cycles. There is a strong need to educate politicians and place managers what place marketing and branding stand for, and to help them understand the importance of putting the place brand strategy at the highest level and not simply as a responsibility of the communications department.
  • Measurement – it is essential to develop tools for the measurement of the effectiveness, efficiency and impact of place marketing and branding actions.
  • Concept clarity – a vital need is to understand the long-term character of a place brand that demands defining a common vision, setting up long term objectives and achieving clarity about the concept.
  • Implementation and coordination – it is of crucial importance to maintain momentum and visionary leadership in order to sustain stakeholder involvement.
  • Social process – the fundamental role of the residents must be understood. Place marketing should be approached as a social process that engages the local population.
  • Low status – it is necessary to improve the status of place marketing as an academic discipline, so it gains credibility in professional and scientific communities.

Your thoughts on the current state of “Brand Poland”?

It’s a long and complicated story. As you probably know, Poland is being ruled by an extreme right, back-looking party for several years. There are reasonable suspicions that Polexit will be next, after Brexit. This causes (apart from internal problems) that our country image suffers very much in the international arena.

The current government team, as you can guess, is not interested in building the country’s brand. Most of the activities that could be called nation branding are associated with the commemoration of wars and battles and celebration of religious festivals.

There are a few activities promoting Poland to foreign markets as a fully democratic, modern, innovative and creative country of smiling people, which clashes with what those audiences see and hear about our country via the media.

There was one initiative which looked promising at the beginning. In 2003 the Polish Chamber of Commerce hired a well-known nation branding expert – Wally Olins. After two years of research, he set up a diagnose for Poland. It was called “creative tension”. Creative tension is a concept which illustrates work in progress, Polish individualism, polarity, and the fact that Poland faces the West and the East and could be a “bridge” between these two worlds.

It also exemplifies that Poland draws its personality, power and perpetual motion from a wealth of apparently opposing characteristics: Poland is part of the West and also understands the East. Polish people are passionate and idealistic, but at the same time practical and resourceful.

These tensions create a restlessness, unsatisfied with the status quo, and a boisterousness that’s stimulating and often astonishing. It is why Polish people have always tried to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Unfortunately, because of institutional and bureaucratic complexity in Poland, Wally Olins didn’t continue his research and the project collapsed. We can say that, since 2005, the concept of a core idea, or nation brand, for Poland is waiting for smart people to develop and make it useful.

If charged with developing the branding strategy for a medium-sized city in Central or Eastern Europe, how would approach this?

Each project is different and there are different conditions, goals and resources. However, you can actually standardize the approach. We usually start that kind of challenge with developing an extensive and competitive brand identity.

Previously, we used popular brand identity models, such as The Bull’s Eye, Big IdeaL or Brand Code. For a few years, we have been using our own, proprietary model – the Best Place Brand Identity Model TM, which draws from those listed above but is also adapted to our way of thinking and working (as illustrated below).

In practice, at each stage we use primary data (through marketing research) and secondary data sources (available reports and studies). In addition, we try to actively involve local stakeholders in both stages.

Because we are talking about the strategy here, this brand model must be fitted into the typical strategic process. Therefore, we have a shared vision, strategic and operational goals and an implementation program.

In our approach, the implementation program consists of two parts. The first is the schedule of flagship projects, activities and events. As I mentioned earlier, these are activities that usually go beyond the typical understanding of marketing and are more about placemaking, for example.

The second part, probably more important, consists of the brand management system. We can find here horizontal activities that implement and promote the brand day by day, and a participatory platform to involve partners in joint projects.

How would you advise to measure the impact and return on investment of city branding initiatives?

It’s quite simple, in theory. It is crucial to determine what can be measured. You have to set appropriate branding and communication objectives during the strategic process (taking the prism of social and economic development on board). They have to be S(pecific) M(easurable) A(ssignable) R(ealistic) T(ime-related).

Then you set appropriate monitoring indicators (KPIs). For example, the starting point for the development of the monitoring system of the “Cracow Strategic Promotion Program” (2016) was a set of contextual indicators (indirect impact), referring to key issues that are the subject of the impact of strategic undertakings. Among them:

  • the sense of identity with the city (the perspective of residents)
  • the attractiveness of selected city events
  • the scale of foreign investment
  • the number of business entities per 1.000 inhabitants
  • the number of tourists (domestic and foreign)

The monitoring system has been supplemented by 11 strategic indicators (direct impact), such as loyalty of selected target groups, customer satisfaction, recommendation indicator (NPS), image attractiveness or involve indicator.

The source of those indicators are usually tracking studies on representative research samples of target groups, repeated periodically according to the established methodology. The results of the first survey should be treated as benchmark. The study should cover all target groups.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

I would appeal for collaboration to experts and city managers from the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Join us, take advantage of our experience, do not make the same mistakes. Let’s use synergy. Together we can achieve more!

Thank you, Adam.

More about Best Place Institute here. Connect with Adam on LinkedIn.


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