Bridging the Language Barrier: A Chinese Place Branding Literature Review from 1996 to 2018

Chinese place branding: in the latest issue of the Journal of Brand Management, Bowen Zhang (School of Business, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK), together with Yingying Wu (Asian Media Research Centre, Communication University of China, Beijing) and Dian Wang (School of Media, Communication and Sociology, University of Leicester, UK), share insights on place branding literature in China and the West, the differences and similarities. TPBO caught up with Bowen to learn more about his research, the importance of investment attraction as a key motivator for place branding initiatives, and how city branding practice is evolving in China.

Bowen, you recently published an article summarizing Chinese literature on place branding. What brought you to investigate this topic?

My PhD research is about Chinese place branding. While combing for relevant research, I found that many Chinese scholars have cited a lot of English literature, while European scholars know little about China’s research because most of the research on China’s place branding is published in Chinese academic journals. So I decided to sort out the mainstream Chinese place branding literature and publish it in English journals, to improve mutual understanding, hoping that the research on Chinese place branding will get more international attention.

Which are the main insights from your research?

I think the most important thing about research in place branding in China is the lack of normative research paradigms. In addition, Chinese place branding lacks systematic theoretical research, including but not limited to clarifying the definition, constructing a place branding model (or at least examine Western models suitability in China), and summarizing brand management structure and process. Only by clarifying these issues can we better improve Chinese place branding research.

Are there any differences in how the Chinese approach place branding, compared to the “West”?

The reasons why places engage in place branding in China are no different than those in the West. The driving force for places engaging in place branding has always been attracting investment, which is also the most direct benefit of place branding activity. In the case of many Chinese cities, it is the fundamental reason why place authorities started branding campaigns. At the same time, place branding is considered a plan for the future of the region, and a compass of future development. There is no significant difference in the brand templates used as Emma Bjorner pointed out. 

But from the perspective of branding agencies, China’s place branding is completely different, mainly because of the participation of the government. Overall, Chinese city brands are very fragmented because of the different areas of responsibility of each department (tourism, business & commerce, culture, spiritual civilization, etc.). However, there are attempts to achieve coordination in place branding strategy and practice in China, as elsewhere.

Although no place branding case has been observed that systematically integrates all aspects of place branding, the feedback from several Chinese city branding cases shows that “place brand” is a system that includes objective, visible regional shaping (infrastructure, urban development and planning, regional products and industries) and the perception of invisible audiences (services, history and culture, resident image, etc.).

Systematic brand engineering includes the overall integration of the contents of a place brand (tourism, business, resident identity, investment, culture, etc.). This comprehensive and systematic integration is an ideal state for place branding, and there are many difficulties in real-life operation.

Due to the number and diversity of stakeholders involved in place branding, western multi-party government countries are basically unable to achieve a high degree of integration, but as a single-party country, China has the practical and theoretical basis to implement systematic, comprehensive brand construction.

How have place branding research and practice in China evolved with time?

Unlike in Europe and the United States where relevant academic research began in the 80s and 90s, Chinese scholars and practitioners began to pay attention to this field around 2000. Before that, place branding in China was in the unconscious stage, that is, it did not take any initiative in brand building and communication.

Then China entered the stage of the marketing mix, as named by Mihalis Kavaratzis. In this period, the publicity of cities and regions combined in many ways, such as city advertisements, city slogans, city landmark construction, and mega-events.

Since 2010, with the development of new media such as Weibo and TikTok, place branding has been de-centralized, and traditional channels have been greatly impacted. At this stage, China’s place branding research and practice pay more attention to the integrated brand strategy. It is at this stage that place branding has really transformed from the past, fractional promotion and marketing activities into real branding.

Which trends do you observe in China, likely to impact the practice of place branding in the years ahead?

From my doctoral research and practice in China at that time, place branding in China is controlled and managed by the government to a large extent. However, with the development of China’s market economy and government reform, there has been an obvious trend that the construction and management of place branding is increasingly authorized or assigned to market entities by local government. The advantage of this is that it can reduce the workload of the government and improve efficiency.

In the future, China’s place branding practice will be a balanced combination of market behaviour and government behaviour. How to balance the two behaviours will be one of the future research trends.

Which topics linked to place branding in a Chinese context would you consider important to address in future research?

Resident identity building in place branding is the topic I would recommend and consider as essential for future research. Although existing research often emphasizes the importance of residents as place branding stakeholder, little research has pointed out how residents should participate in it.

We often think that Chinese residents are top-down passive participants in place branding. This situation mainly occurs in content that involves ideological education. For example, in China, Chinese dreams and patriotism are often combined with place branding. For resident attachments that are closer to residents, residents have more voice and tend to be bottom-up. However, there are not many related studies.

Clarifying how residents participate in place branding and how resident identity is established through place branding is a topic with social significance in the future.

Link to the full article (Journal of Brand Management)


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