Brian Richards on Place Branding Success Strategies and New Zealand

Join us as we travel back to New Zealand (where the idea for The Place Brand Observer was born and developed), for this interview with Brian Richards, one of the country’s most celebrated branding professionals. Among other things, Brian shares his thoughts on success strategies and pitfalls to avoid, how the branding of places differs from product branding, and whether New Zealand as country brand is on the right track.

Brian, you are recognized as one of New Zealand’s foremost brand strategists. Do you remember what brought you to the topic? Who or what triggered your interest in branding?

My year in France at INSEAD convinced me of France’s understanding of intellectual property. From its luxury goods to its basic wines, everything had a story and in many cases, those stories reached into the provenance of regions. I came back to New Zealand appreciating we had so much intellectual property that had never been realised.

Having advised both businesses and places throughout your over 30 years of consulting practice, which would you say are the main differences in how those clients approach “branding”?

I think the branding of a place is completely different to that of a product. Place branding has to be rooted in cultural origins. It’s less about the backdrop and more about the foreground personality of the people in the story.

Product branding, conversely, is a contrived set of circumstances by comparison. Place branding is so often guilty of too much hype. The best techniques are to create a set of curiosities and intrigue the audience to discover more.

More and more cities, regional and national authorities look for branding advice as a way to not just position their place but also strengthen their community around a central, shared theme. How would you advise them to approach such kind of inward-focused place branding – which should be the first steps?

You need to galvanise the locals into short assignments which produce outcomes chapter by chapter. Winemakers, businessmen, communities, farmers, every place has groups of individuals who contribute to the symphony.

Do not write the score at the beginning. By osmosis, some of the best brands have emerged through anecdotal collections of activities, places, people and their endeavours. Finding these unique gems is the job of the strategists who could well be a group of local individuals familiar with a place’s ‘underground energy’.

The trick is to engage with people of influence sector by sector who are looked up to and will be the vanguard of any new wave.

How can holistic place branding support cultural inclusiveness and help address first nation people challenges?

Place branding is not about the sum of the parts, it’s the reverse. The parts of a community and its diversity of cultures need recognition and acknowledgement in any brand initiative. The worst thing that can happen is that one homogenises everyone as the same sort of people through some inane jingle.

I’m not a fan of taglines for this reason. Finding things out about one’s neighbours is such a powerful way of building trust and integrity across many communities.

We observe a widening divide between urban and rural. Would you say place branding can help to make rural regions more attractive as places to live and work – or is it all down to “hard” economic factors, such as available jobs?

Many cities have already reached intolerable levels of livable existence. Rural regions need to understand this tipping point and attract new settlers through the development of their own commercial endeavours which offer employment.

Rural communities are often guilty of complacent smugness and do not want to be discovered. This inertia is their eventual undoing, becoming ‘tumbleweed’ communities with great sadness. Leaving renewal initiatives until it’s too late is often the case. Branding alone will not solve this challenge, although it will help to package the innovative thinking by communities to rebuild.

You have previously stressed that social economic and environmental capital should underpin any brand initiative. How do you build support for such initiatives?

Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient metrics to measure these factors in a balanced way, but we should. Creating place brands which celebrate, renew and develop these three dimensions is of vital importance. A great program of renewal should act positively in all three areas. There are so many siloed budgets jealously guarded which can contribute to this place brand wellness that can be tapped wisely.

Your thoughts on the current state of “Brand New Zealand” – its international reputation and perceptions within the country?

We have a significantly successful international image, which fortunately attracts the world to notice us. The challenge is that it’s a default image of envy from the frustrations of where one comes from. It’s not a bad thing, but we have to work much harder on creating a contemporary foreground.

Our natural environment is simply the backdrop. It gets people through the door from a tourism perspective, but what is the real experience like on the ground? At present we are chasing volume as opposed to value.

Although we are talking about it a great deal, the models of Botswana and Switzerland are further ahead from the current thinking of our planners.

In recent surveys, visitors are saying that the natural environment is wonderful, but they are critical of our built environment, accommodation standards and the urban experience. Our food doesn’t live up to their expectations nor does our architecture or our approach to waste management.

Which trends do you observe with regard to places and branding?

The most interesting phenomena is the internet and the endorsement of a place by those that live or visit it. Arms-length recognition could be managed a whole lot better by place brand managers by going well beyond the same journalist visit. Defining archetypes of people who best describe a place and telling their stories is now entirely possible on a minute basis. The parts of the sum argument is now entirely viable as a self-generated movement; one just needs to know the story-telling tools, channels and the triggers.

Based on your experience of advising places in the Asia Pacific region, which are the main branding challenges – pitfalls to avoid?

  1. Excessive expenditure on research, as opposed to using sound qualitative information and well-informed intuitive experts.
  2. Avoid long-winded tender processes, but rather, single out the best-of-breed and if necessary, create hybrid teams to deliver.
  3. Engage the citizens of a place. In particular, avoid the luddites and process-driven civil servants. These projects need to be steered by charismatic people who are recognised.
  4. Avoid short-termism. See every project as a three to five year commitment with the correct funding in place to create a step change in identity.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

I think artificial intelligence will soon contribute greatly to the generation of information. Today, places and services can be accessed 24/7 across a wide range of special interest topics with low-level exchanges. But I can see a day when the intellectual grunt of these artificial intelligences will be such that they will become major influencers of places or services due to the development of deep-learning, neural networks and rapidly improving speech and facial recognition.

We’ll no longer read a magazine or look at a website to determine travel plans, we’ll simply interrogate a digital human with our own wishes and desires, and it will probably do a better job in a fraction of the time to respond to the individual needs of the user. Every community, whether you are a visitor or a citizen, will eventually have these tools at their disposal at any time of the day. At last, more leisure time.

Thank you, Brian.

Connect with Brian Richards on LinkedIn or visit his blog and business website.

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