On Place Branding, Strategic Communication and Urban Sustainability | Interview with Cecilia Cassinger

In this interview, Cecilia Cassinger, Associate Professor at Lund University in Southern Sweden, discusses place branding as a strategic communication practice, its social implications and potential to support urban sustainability.

Cecilia, do you remember when you first heard about the concept of “place branding”? What got you interested?

I am interested in the politics of representing places. Images of places are strategically constructed, while at the same time shaped by people in their attempts to lead decent lives and cope with everyday hardships. The historian Michel de Certeau beautifully illustrated the relation between planned and lived space in his work on everyday practice as a silent form of resistance to the rationalised order of any place.

I remember visiting the Swedish pavilion at Shanghai World Expo Exhibition in 2010 and being intrigued by the nation branding of Sweden and its close resemblance to the branding of IKEA, which I had just studied for my PhD thesis. I recalled de Certeau’s observation that all places are haunted by ghosts of the past and began wondering over other ghostly narratives haunting Sweden and bordering places.

How has your view on the topic changed since – perhaps influenced by presentations at the recent 4th Intl Place Branding Association Conference in Greece?

I have become more aware of the geopolitics of place branding, which was also an emerging theme at the 4th IPBA conference. Geopolitical analysis means paying more attention to the context of place branding, in particular economic and political conditions, and power relations between places, people and institutions. Such analysis is necessary, I think, if place branding is to support societal development in addition to complying with marketing goals.

The role of place brand communication in advancing urban sustainability is a key research focus of yours. What fascinates you about this topic? And which insights from your research can you share with us?

The research concerns the way place brand communications work in concert with, for instance, urban planners, designers, and policy makers to support the urban sustainable development goal (SDG11) in the United Nations sustainable development agenda. This SDG is about making “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” (undp.org) and provides a framework of how to improve cities in terms of, for example, air quality, transport, housing, green and public spaces, equality, and so on.

Place branding is a vehicle for growth and commodification of urban space and as such the practice seems counterproductive to sustainable development. I propose that place branding should be understood as aspirational talk, a visionary form of communication that may help city governments foster social change, which is key to accomplishing urban sustainability.

Lars Thøger Christensen and his colleagues at Copenhagen Business School show that aspirational talk, under certain circumstances, leads to positive development even though it reflects ideal states and visions, rather than behavior.

The assumption here is that communication does not passively represent a place, but takes part in shaping it.

It is often said that place branding needs to be anchored in the reality of city residents, in their everyday practices. By contrast, aspirational talk is anchored in a future image of the city. In other words, it does not represent the city as it is, but as it could be. Aspirational talk may activate residents to start conversations that shape narratives of urban sustainable development, which could result in new bolder ways of organizing cities.

Overtourism and urban security have become key themes for many city and destination managers over the last years. Based on your research, which are the key issues DMOs and city marketing teams face in this regard?

Together with a team of researchers at Lund University, I am currently researching three key issues in the development of sustainable urban destinations:

  1. communication of urban safety in city centers and experiences of urban safety among visitors and residents;
  2. the role of media for how and where people travel;
  3. resistance to tourism in in cities.

Thus far, we observe that issues related to overtourism and urban safety result from a flexible and reflexive mode of producing leisure and tourism experiences, blurring the boundary between tourist/resident and leisure/work, as well as problems of urban segregation and inequality that have been built up over time. Experiences of unsafety are often related to feelings of not being able to identify with the place, or the individuals who inhabit it.

The future challenge for DMO’s and place marketers will be to find sustainable ways of communicating with and creating community between different groups of people, for instance, balancing the different needs of visitors and residents in their shared space.

For example, visitors who often act as if they only have rights as paying guests, need to be reminded that they also have responsibilities towards the local community and the environment. Here, place brand communication has an important role to fulfill in creating narratives that connect or activate people to come together without fear.

Research has shown that attractive places have multiple and heterogeneous images that include different ideas and perspectives.

Which trends do you observe in place branding and tourism research and practice? Which are the “hot” topics right now?

The hot topic for me at the moment is urban sustainability. There is also a great interest for the sharing economy as an alternative infrastructure or market through which visitors can interact with places without coming into contact with the traditional tourism industry.

Moreover, the phenomenon of overtourism continues to attract attention in popular media and academic research.

I think that the popularity of the concept “overtourism” is due to that it effectively epitomises the limits of growth as the only metric of value in city planning and management. It captures the unintended consequences of the flexible mode of production and unregulated sharing economy for city residents, such as increasing rents and housing prices contributed by short-term rentals of Airbnb accommodations, festivals and themed environments replacing shared public spaces, and high pressure on public transport and cultural heritage sites.

You just published a book on “The Nordic Wave in Place Branding”, which you co-edited together with Andrea Lucarelli and Szilvia Gyimóthy. In a nutshell, what is the book about? How does it contribute to the advancement of place branding research and practice?

The book examines the mobility of Nordic brand narratives and the global relevance of Nordic place branding practices. It is an attempt to unpack the specificity of the Nordic in regards to place branding by gathering different transdisciplinary accounts written by researchers in marketing, tourism, geography, communication, sociology, and political science.

The contributions consolidate Nordic place branding scholarship and its scientific engagement with processes of de-politicization, consensus making, collaboration and transparency.

At the same time, Nordic ideals, policies and values offer a critical lens to explore hitherto unexplored issues in place branding, such as feminism, post-colonialism, sustainability, and equality.

To your mind, are communities in the Nordics generally successful in their place branding endeavors?

The Nordic region is considered a successful example of place branding and Nordic countries and cities often rank highly in international place brand indices.

In 2015 the Nordic Council adopted a strategy for international branding of the Nordic region, but the council and the individual countries began working with public diplomacy initiatives already in the post-war years.

The branding of the region builds on historical Nordic values and attributes, which have been updated according to the needs of the present and made relevant in a global context. For example, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008, the Nordic Model was launched as an alternative way of organizing the economy.

In my view, the success of branding the Nordic in recent years relies on the self-reflexivity brought about by the re-evaluation of the success story of Nordic welfare societies in Nordic Noir crime fiction and narratives circulating on social media of the proclaimed crisis of the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden.

Sweden is currently used internationally both as a model and warning example of generous migration politics and feminist foreign policy. In persistently emphasizing gender equality, openness, and social liberal values, however, the Nordic region successfully stands out in a time marked by new nationalism and right-wing populism.

What is place branding all about, from a strategic communication perspective?

A strategic communication perspective entails adopting a holistic view on the relation between communication strategies, publics, and context. From this perspective, place branding is typically understood as a communicative mode of governance and organisation situated in a particular historical time and geographical place. The focus is not so much on brand management, as on policy implications and social consequences of place branding.

Which research topics linked to place branding should we pay more attention to? Which knowledge gaps are the most urgent, in need to be filled?

We need more theoretically informed discussions about responsible place branding practices that can support urban sustainable development.

I previously proposed that place branding practitioners need to take the lead in crafting aspirational narratives that contribute to safe, resilient, and sustainable urban environments. This means that place branding needs to shift focus from commercial growth to community resilience, which requires developing new approaches and strategies.

Thank you, Cecilia.

Connect with Cecilia Cassinger on LinkedIn or visit her researcher profile at Lund University for latest updates on her work.


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