Clare Dewhirst on Changes in Place Branding Discourse and Practice

Clare Dewhirst in this interview gives us a behind-the-scenes account of how place branding – theory and practice – has changed and evolved over the years. Referring to the City Nation Place conferences, Clare illustrates how “hot” topics in Asia differ from those in the Americas, and shares her key takeaways from the recent CNP Asia and Americas conferences.

Clare, as the founder of the City Nation Place initiative, you are in close contact with many of world’s leading professionals and companies dedicated to the branding and marketing of places. Do you remember the first time you heard about “place branding”? What led you to founding CNP?

I first heard about “place branding” from one of the first experts in the field, Simon Anholt. For most of my career, I have been creating and delivering business events for the media sector, and in this role was asked to deliver the logistics for a series of Nation Branding Masterclass events led by Simon, sponsored by BBC Worldwide. We travelled together to Ghana, Delhi, Dubai, Singapore, and then back to London for an event scheduled as part of World Travel Market. I was able to listen to Simon’s storytelling around Nation Branding and became fascinated in the topic.

That was back in around 2009 and a few years later, in 2015, I was fortunate to be in the position to build on that initial introduction and launch the first City Nation Place conference in London.

Simon Anholt has moved on from place branding and has launched the Good Country Index, providing a very different viewpoint on what impact your country’s policies can have for the planet.

I’m delighted that he’ll be leading our pre-conference Think Tank session at this year’s Global conference by talking about what he’s learned from the work of The Good Country Index.

Reflecting on the numerous CNP events so far – especially the annual global forum in London – how has your view on the topic changed since then?

It just gets more interesting! I’ve always understood that place brands are a complex proposition.

After years of hearing marketers talk about the supposedly complex brand positioning of, I don’t know, a pair of jeans, consumer marketers don’t realise how easy their job is compared to the challenges of driving a place brand strategy!

For those whose job it is to bring together the objectives of diverse stakeholders in to a single vision for the future of a city, nation or region, it’s about developing the skills of a politician, a diplomat, a project manager, and perhaps a counsellor, as well as a marketer.

I’ve hugely enjoyed meeting the very diverse range of people who work in this area and love hearing their stories.

Your key takeaways from the recent CNP Asia and America conferences? For instance, are there any differences between those two regions in terms of priority topics, or type of audience/expectations?

I think there are huge differences, and also huge similarities. CNP Asia was a first foray into the region and we were delighted to bring together a group of very engaged delegates from all across the continent: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, The Philippines and Singapore. They represented a very different range of organisations, were at different stages of developing a place branding strategy [as opposed to destination marketing] and all had different challenges.

A particularly interesting discussion during the day was around leveraging cultural assets – celebrating and investing in your own authentic culture. This felt like a newer discussion. Delegates were also very conscious of the need to move from logos and slogans and toward a storytelling approach to marketing to engage tourism audiences, as well as the corporate investor sector.

CNP Americas draws delegates from across Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada and the USA but I think it’s fair to say that there was a higher proportion of delegates focused on city branding rather than nation branding.

There was a much stronger focus on how to increase collaboration between destination marketing and economic development teams.

It was particularly interesting to hear from three cities who have been through the Amazon HQ2 bid process in the USA, on what they had learned about the benefits and importance of developing that teamwork and single vision. There was a greater interest in the connections between placemaking and place branding, with an emphasis on regeneration, citizen engagement and creating more unique place attractions.

To your mind, how has the discourse surrounding place branding changed in recent years? E.g., has its meaning evolved, or perceived priorities changed?

I would guess that, in the earliest days of “nation branding”, this was more the focus of the President or Prime Minister or Foreign Office team and would have been more discussed in the context of public diplomacy, whilst tourism ministries and marketing organisations were more focused on destination marketing and investment promotion boards were focused on the numbers.

There’s now a recognition that the “place brand” has an impact on the people who live there, the people who work or invest there, and the people who travel there and so any organisation involved in attracting talent, investment or tourism needs to think about the brand, and what influences national and global perceptions of your place.

In its most evolved sense, this means that all stakeholders are coming together to understand how their place is perceived, to agree a vision for how they would like to influence or change perceptions and work together on a strategy that helps achieve that.

I think in the past we would have said that this is most effective when driven by the President, or Prime Minister or Mayor – but we also talk more now about how to separate the brand from the politics to support a longer-term strategy.

As event manager with almost 30 years of experience, how important is the brand and reputation of a place as criterium for choosing a conference location?

I’d have to say it’s very important. If you’re planning an international event, the first thing you think about or test with your audience is how they react when you tell them the location. Yes, you need to look at all the practical things – venues, hotels, transport infrastructure – but it’s always also about whether people are excited or interested to go there.

Which trends do you observe in the MICE industry at the moment, in terms of how city destinations market and position themselves as hosts for events such as conferences?

I think there’s a clear recognition that you need to appeal to the non-business moments in any event.  Event planners are always going to be looking for what else their delegates can do besides attend conference sessions or exhibitions.

The image of the UK has been tainted in recent years due to the controversial Brexit vote and negotiations, whereas London’s image seems to be as strong as ever. Are city brands now more important than country brands?

As city brands become more important, the relationship between the city and the country brand becomes more complex, certainly. In the UK, and across America since the last presidential election, you can see that cities are keen to have their own voice and rise above the political decisions which could be affecting international perceptions of the nation brand.

“I heart New York” was perhaps the first globally successful and recognised place brand logo of course – what’s interesting to see is how “second tier” cities are implementing place branding strategies to build their profile.

The key for cities of course is funding – I was chatting to someone from a UK city recently who was a tiny bit frustrated that all the national funding goes to the much-praised GREAT Britain campaign. It’s a hugely effective strategy for Great Britain obviously, and Conrad Bird is happy to demonstrate how the benefits it delivers are country-wide, but it’s interesting to hear that city viewpoint. I’m looking forward to hearing Conrad talk about how his team keep up the momentum of the GREAT Britain campaign at the Global conference in November.

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

I would say that more and more cities and regions have a brand strategy that works for all objectives – investment promotion, tourism development, talent attraction, citizen engagement.

In terms of communication strategies, it’s all about the people. More and more campaigns seem to be centred on the people who live in the place – their stories, the way they live, their attitudes, their ambitions. That feels like the right direction of travel!

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Can I do a blatant plug for the City Nation Place Awards? We are all about celebrating and benchmarking the great work that place branding teams around the world are doing and the Awards give places the opportunity to share their successes. They are free to enter and we’d love to hear from as many places as possible before the September entry deadline!

Thank you, Clare.

Connect with Clare Dewhirst on LinkedIn or find out more about the City Nation Place conferences here.

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