David Gertner, Associate Professor at Pace University in New York City, in this interview, tells us what got him interested in the marketing, branding and reputation of places and where he sees the main challenges – both in terms of place branding research and practice.
- How strategic place marketing can help places promote economic development;
- Why there needs to be more empirical research contributing to the field;
- Some of the possible gaps between research and practice;
- A few of the ways to measure the success of place branding initiatives.
David, what got you interested in place branding?
My interest in the topic began when I moved to the USA to pursue a doctoral degree at Northwestern University. Then, I was staggered by the limited knowledge average Americans had about foreign countries.
Most people I met knew practically nothing about Brazil, and Rio de Janeiro, where I grew up. When they did and asked me questions about the country and the city, they seemed interested only in confirming the stereotypes they held. I kept thinking about how place images, particularly troubled ones, affected their tourism, exports, and investment attraction.
Coincidentally, my first doctoral seminar was with Professor Philip Kotler who was writing, with Professors Irving Rein and Don Haider, “Marketing Places: Attracting Investment, Industry and Tourism to Cities, States and Nations” (New York, The Free Press, 1993).
Due to my interest, Dr Kotler invited me to assist him in the research for the manuscript. I also conducted experimental research and wrote my dissertation on the topic during my doctorate. Years later, Professor Kotler offered me the opportunity to co-author Marketing LAC Places, a version of the original book focused on the Latin American and Caribbean context.
I have also had the honour to be Professor Kotler’s co-author in a couple of articles on the subject, besides publishing a few solo articles.
In your view, which aspect of place branding is the most crucial to get right?
In my view, place “branding” is a very narrow delimitation of the field, as suggested by a well-known brand consultant. Place branding, that is, endowing places with the power of brands, is an important activity, but it has limitations.
Professor Kotler’s original work was in fact about strategic place marketing. Place marketing is a much more wide-ranging planning process that can help places to promote economic development.
I think it is crucial that scholars and practitioners understand place marketing. They should not restrict the field to place branding and place image assessment and management. This is a myopic understanding of what places actually need to be competitive.
What do you think about the current state of place branding/marketing research?
When Professor Kotler and I published our first article together in a special issue of the Journal of Brand Management, in 2002, very few scholars were interested in the subject. Today, there are countless scholars doing research in the area.
Nevertheless, a significant share of the publications in the field continue to be case-based, sometimes even anecdotal, and descriptive.
Place branding and -marketing research needs further empirical research and theoretical contributions.
As a US-based academic, do you see any differences regarding place branding practices between USA and Europe, or other areas?
I have never thought about it. My general impression is that place branding/marketing has received more attention from European scholars. However, the differences, if any, between the research in place branding developed in the United States and in other countries might be better explained by the size of countries, competitive environment, stage of economic development, dependence on tourism, etc.
My impression is that most articles in the place branding field address places with image problems and are developed by people who have some connection with these locales.
Along with your research and teaching activities, you have also consulted many companies. To your view, is there any gap between research and practice?
I always thought my academic work in the area would create opportunities to assist places marketing themselves. However, this has not happened. Places seem to prefer to hire brand consultants and advertising agencies, rather than scholars in place marketing.
Which are the key challenges in place branding?
There are many challenges. I will focus on two of them. The first is that places battle in, possibly, the most competitive environment I can think of. There are approximately two hundred nations in the world, and an incalculable number of regions, states, cities, communities, etc. all interested in luring visitors, investors, talents, events, etc.
The second is that each place is unique and impacted by myriad uncontrollable factors – economic, social, cultural, natural, legal, competitive, and technological.
Building generalizable theories in place branding/marketing is quite a challenge.
In your view, which is the best way to measure the success of place branding initiatives?
The metrics depend on place objectives. They could be changes in awareness, interest, action, or just how people perceive them.
Depending on the objectives, the metrics used to measure success can be a number of visitors, industries attracted, changes in perceptions, etc.
Do you have examples of place branding done particularly well?
There are many place branding initiatives considered successful in the last two decades or so. Examples include Chile, Costa Rica, Ireland, China, Israel, etc.
However, the 2008/9 financial crisis and the economic slowdown that followed has proven that place branding is not a panacea for places’ problems. It is not a guarantee of continuous growth.
What happened to some successful places in the aftermath of global crises poses a question about the extent to which place branding is effective and sustainable. Some of the more affected places by recent global crises were hard-core adopters of place branding.
Your advice to emerging researchers interested in place branding and place marketing?
Be creative, analytical, and insightful. There are too many descriptive and anecdotal articles published about places in trouble. The same with conceptual models that cannot really be tested. Relate your research with a theoretical background. Also, think about the discipline as part of a broader strategic planning process.
Thank you, David.
Want more? Connect with David Gertner on LinkedIn.
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