Interview with Chunying Wen on Place Branding Research and City Branding in China

Chunying Wen, Professor at the Communication University of China in Beijing, in this interview discusses place branding research and city branding in China. She tells us about the growing interest in a less marketing-focused and more resident-centered, inclusive approach to city branding, and illustrates how the research community is using “place branding” as shared area of interest to network across academic disciplines.

Learn about:

  • How Professor Wen’s understanding of place branding has evolved over the years;
  • Current city branding practices in China: examples and trends;
  • The main obstacles Chinese city brand developers and managers commonly face;
  • Which academic institutions are leading place branding research in China;
  • The emergence of a more inclusive, resident-focused approach to city branding.

Chunying, as a scholar specialized in communication, do you remember the first time you heard about the term and concept of place branding? And your initial thoughts?

I came across the term city branding in 2008 as the Executive Dean of the Asia Media Research Centre, when was planning the theme for the 2008 Asia Media Forum. The city of Beijing also celebrated the Olympic Games that year. From this I came up with the theme of national image and communication, which is an important new area of academic research.

As part of my preparation work, I talked with many local government officials about this theme to collect ideas and understand their needs. Many of them expressed a view that they needed professional advice and help to promote their cities, to attract investment, tourism and to develop a positive reputation. I therefore added a parallel sub-forum to the conference, on “City Image and Communication.”

How has your view on the topic changed since then?

Reflecting on the past 10 years, I now realize that my view on place branding has been driven by practitioner’s needs.

In the beginning, I approached city branding from the perspective of communication. My research team had done some communication strategy projects for local cities. It typically included communication positioning, logos, slogans, brochures, advertising strategies, publicities, events, etc. This was all around the year 2008.

When we were undertaking more projects, we realized that place brands were not a communication issue – nor even a marketing issue – and that the articulation and visuals of a place brand should be just one part of the entire branding process.

In practice, we were not working merely with publicity departments, but had to deal with all other related departments at a municipal level, such as tourism, cultural heritage, urban planning, regional development, media groups, and local communities.

My original area of expertise is advertising and mass communication. In 2008 I realized that I needed to think of the place branding from a broader, more cross-disciplinary perspective; a view which includes regional development, urban planning, tourism, cultural geography, public diplomacy, film and TV programme production, communication and marketing, and more. We can hardly even set a boundary for “place branding”.

At that time, I was pondering several questions:

  • What are the key differences between product branding and city branding?
  • What should the difference be between branding and marketing?
  • What kind of role should be expected for the municipal government in place branding?
  • How can place branding be conducted in a more professional way?
  • Is it possible to establish a new professional practice called “place branding”?
  • What kind of curriculum could be ideal for cultivating capable students and researchers in the field of “place branding”?

Trying to answer all those questions, I went to Purdue University in the US as a Fulbright scholar. Not to the Communication Department, but to the Hospitality and Tourism Management School.

My team and I had established the Lab for Regional Branding Studies jointly with the Beijing Tsinghua Urban Planning and Design Institute (a Tsinghua University-based and -owned urban planning company).

I set up a specialized Master Degree in Place Branding at the Communication University of China, and also co-operated with a big data integrator to work out a city brand evaluation platform to provide a more stable base for place branding decision-making.

While doing all this, 10 years have passed. Most of the questions I raised many years ago have been resolved, but still many remain and many more have come up. That’s why I continue to concentrate my research in this area.

You are organizing a conference on place branding at the Communication University of China in Beijing in early June. What motivated you to take this step?

Firstly, I have seen the rise and boom of the field of Place Branding with the incredibly rapid urbanization in China. But at the same time, I also witnessed the blind, unscientific, bureaucratic ways of doing “so called” place branding.

I am part of the first generation of researchers who dived into place branding in China. I think it is our generation’s responsibility and mission to disseminate more professional and science-based theories and methods to professionals, and to also call for more researchers to participate in this area.

Secondly, since the late 1990’s, the public is receiving extensive media and targeted branding messages sent by cities and tourism destinations. With more and more researchers from diverse disciplines now engaged in this area, we feel the need to be connected as a new academic group specialised in this area of research, so we can share our work.

Thirdly, city managers, researchers – professionals – are eager to learn, share and exchange their knowledge and challenges. Both within China and with our overseas counterparts.

Place branding can be seen as a kind of “survival need” originating from the forces of globalization and urbanization, which are affecting all of our cities. But place branding practice is also rooted in the context of locality.

As academics we feel the need to connect more actively with our overseas colleagues, to keep pace with the world. Chinese cities are also very motivated to exchange ideas with overseas cities, to acquire more experience, get inspiration for finding solutions to problems. but also to enable more Chinese practices to be known around the world.

In short, the needs emerging from our evolving research and implementation in practice led us to establish a regular, place branding conference in China.

In a nutshell, what is the conference about? What kind of participants are you looking for?

The theme of this forum is “Sharing & Co-creation: The Value of a Place Brand”. There are two sub-forums within this. One is more focused on connecting and converging the practices from different disciplines, namely urban planning, public diplomacy, sports marketing, regional development, place making, film making and the application of new media in place branding, etc.

The other sub-forum is more academically oriented, in that scholars will present research papers from diverse perspectives, for example on tourism, literacy, city management, social media analysis, national image, etc.

We intentionally invited several city managers to join the forum and share their “real life” local challengesj, so we can discuss those with all our participants.

With regards to participants, at this forum we will hear from experts from the research fields of urban planning, regional economic development, advertising, marketing, tourism, human geography, big data computing and more.

Additionally, city managers and practitioners from city publicity and tourism departments, and media managers will also participate in this event.

In your view, how has the practice of strategic place branding evolved in China in recent years?

In the late 1990s, cities in China began to realize the positive effect of city branding. According to my research, until 2015, out of China’s 660 cities, 306 (almost half) had undertaken advertising campaigns on Chinese Central Television.

Generally speaking, city branding in China is in the midst of several major transitions:

1) Move from a top-down, authoritative approach to a more open communication, focused on dialogue;

2) Move from controlled mass media to relying more on new media;

3) Move from a formalized administrative matter to market mechanisms;

4) Something that was the sole domain of the government is now open to more stakeholders, but their scope is still limited;

5) Was the domain of just one government office, now involves multiple organizations – like tourism boards, Chambers of Commerce, the Cultural Ministry and urban planning authorities.

Which are the main obstacles Chinese city brand developers and managers commonly must overcome?

Chinese cities face a long list of problems. For one, China’s regional development has been uneven.

The east coast of China and more economically-developed regions have a strong concept of city branding and have the means to understand and implement it. Meanwhile, some inland cities may not yet even have it as a budget item.

Fundamentally, most provinces just lack an understanding of strategically planning, linked to city branding. The spectrum of understanding and interpretation of the term ranges from simple slogans, to some tourism promotion, to event spectacles, right up to building a good “city brand” reputation.

Only a few provinces and some cities truly understand city branding from the perspective of brand management and planning. We are hopeful that many others will soon see the full potential of city branding, and its opportunities.

Furthermore, most cities lack the expertise and organizational setting needed for meaningful place branding. Government officials normally lack the professionalized knowledge needed for place branding, partly because they often have to rotate among different departments.

Local governments still have no dedicated organization, such as a Direct Marketing Organisation, to oversee and support city branding activities. At the moment, materials and efforts are scattered and spread across isolated departments. Moving forward, better integration and coordination across departments is a big issue.

This is all happening, however, as we transition to a more integrated approach in the future.

Which cities or regions in China would you consider good examples of place branding?

There are not as many good examples as unsuccessful ones. That’s why we need specialized professionals.

The cities of Chengdu, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Wuzhen are among the best in terms of place branding. The city of Chengdu could be a good example of positioning and communication. The city of Hangzhou is highlighted as having place branding well-coordinated between public governance and local community development. The city of Wuzhen has arisen as a good case of combining festival, convention and industry development.

Let me discuss Suzhou in more detail, a city situated in the Jiangsu province near the eastern coast, about 66 km west of Shanghai. It launched a campaign on social media to attract more North American visitors in 2016.

Suzhou applied different strategies for different platforms. On Twitter, they focused on product transformation. Users could directly click on the links to buy tourism products. On Facebook, there were a lot of beautiful pictures and videos to promote the classical cultural aspect of Suzhou, such as Kunqu opera, tea art, bonsai and its stunning gardens. On Instagram, they put further emphasis on themes and participation. The campaign brought more than 40,000 new fans. And a total of more than 8,200 posts with the tag #TravelSuzhou attracted the attention of more than 38.6 million participations.

As modern communication methodologies shift, especially with the rise of social media, managers charged with place branding are turning their attention more towards the range of available new media platforms. Not just as a channel of communication, but also as a new way of thinking, one with active multi-party engagement.

Taking Suzhou as an example, we see how the cities in the region are trying to include wider participation from their stakeholders, as well as provide more entertainment content in their place promotion. Based on their successful campaign, the Suzhou Tourism Bureau has been ranked by social media as one of the top three cities in China.

Which cities enjoy the strongest reputation within China right now – for example in terms of liveability?

Liveability is the very basic requirement for a place and it is also an important goal of place development.

Generally, the liveability of Chinese cities is weaker than the cities in Europe and the U.S. The combination of traffic congestion, air pollution, high housing costs and ecological deterioration are just some of the problems that Chinese cities are facing. Because China is a truly vast and diversified land, it is hard to say which city is best for liveability.

However, I can give some general comments. The south-eastern part of China may be the strongest for social, cultural, and economic development, as well as liveability at the moment.

Guangdong Province comes thereafter, especially the cities located in the Pearl River Delta.

Several cities in Hainan and Yunnan provinces belong to the third tier. The north-eastern and north-western parts of China are experiencing a very difficult period at the moment.

Please also bear in mind that Chinese cities are arranged hierarchically, based on their administrative level. The liveability level is highly correlated with the administrative level. According to the Annual Report on China’s Urban Competitiveness (No. 14), the higher the administrative level the better the liveability quality. This is because medical care, education and transportation resources are concentrated in higher levelled cities.

Those cities at a higher administrative level also have a more advanced understanding of place development, which means a better ecological environment for residents.

Are there any research programs or institutions focused on the branding or marketing of places in China which you’d recommend our readers to keep an eye on?

There are two institutions which are pioneers in place branding in China. One is the National Image and Communication Research Centre (NICR) at Tsinghua University, which was founded in 2014 as a joint initiative between the schools of Journalism and Communication, Public Management, Liberal Arts, Architecture, Fine Art, Economics and Business Administration.

The purpose of NICR is to help shape a national image and enhance the soft power of China. The NICR today works as a national think-tank.

The other one is the Laboratory for Regional Branding Studies at Communication University of China (CUC). CUC, together with the Beijing Tsinghua Urban Planning and Design Institute (THUPDi), founded the lab in 2017. Before the lab, the CUC team conducted related research and projects under the City Image and Communication Research Base, which was founded in 2011. After 2017, the Base naturally merged into the new Lab.

Both CUC and THUPDi are working hard to develop the laboratory into a disciplined research platform that embodies a range of relevant activities. These include exploratory research, consultancy projects, practical applications, a bi-advisor educational system, training programs and international conferences.

The upcoming conference in June is to celebrate the founding of the Lab in 2017.

Which trends do you observe in China with regards to how cities or regions develop, manage or communicate their brand?

Firstly, as the General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly said: “To shape our national image and improve the national cultural soft power”, there is an unprecedented attention on the topic of image and communication from the city managers and academia.

The regional competition among cities and counties also triggered many practices, intentionally and unintentionally, related to place branding, even though most are from a market(ing) perspective.

Throughout this period of change in China, city officials and professionals are now embracing the idea of place image, and are keeping the international market in mind.

Secondly, cities are very open to new methods and new applications. For example, place placement films and TV programs are very popular among Chinese cities. Many cities and counties are issuing a series of short videos which are suitable for mobile devices such as smart phones, especially aimed at young people.

Large scale live place-themed performances, mega-sports events and international conventions – just like any other new communications approach or idea which proves to be effective will be taken up by other cities and regions.

Thirdly, the needs and visions of local residents in China are getting more attention than before.

Place branding practices used to be greatly influenced by marketing ideas in the beginning, with professionals and managers mainly focused on how to attract investment, tourists and new talent to a place. The residents’ needs were missing in the previous approach to creating a vision of the city planning and branding.

More recently, there has been stronger focus on the inclusion of public governance, local cultural identity and local cultural-societal community issues. The practices in the city of Hangzhou are exemplar of this integrated approach.

Thank you, Chunying.


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