Interview with Efe Sevin on Exurban Place Branding Opportunities, Brand America and the American Dream

Efe Sevin in this interview discusses exurban place branding opportunities, city brand strategies and differences in public diplomacy approaches in the US, Turkey and Sweden. He also shares his thoughts on Brand America and the American Dream.

Efe, your research focus at the moment is on exurban place branding. How can smaller urban centers in close proximity to larger metropolitan areas best brand themselves?

I would recommend cooperation. We are talking about areas that figuratively live in the shadows of the metropolitan areas. It is almost impossible for these places to compete with the urban centers in terms of infrastructure as well as goods and services.

For instance, Chicago has 25 Michelin-starred restaurants, whereas Evanston – the next town over – barely has 25 restaurants. It is possible to reach 80% of the US population with a 2-hour flight from Atlanta. Yet Canton – a city 40 miles to the north – is not even on the main interstate system.

Therefore, a strategy that complements what the metro areas have to offer (focusing on what they cannot) will be the most beneficial for exurban places – such as outdoor sports, specialized business areas, and unique culinary offerings.

Do you have examples of small towns and cities near metropolitan areas which have used innovative approaches to place branding to benefit from the proximity yet perhaps also healthy distance from metropolises?

I appreciate what Woodstock, Georgia has been doing – but then again, I live in Woodstock, so I might be biased. Recently, the city unveiled its new branding project, A City Unexpected. It positions Woodstock as a quasi-urban environment, which pushes itself away from being a bedroom community to Atlanta and towards a livable community. The city has been revitalizing its downtown through small businesses, increasing walkability through trails, and organizing events to create a community spirit.

The innovative part of this approach was to bring together two seemingly contrasting identities: a small yet diverse community, and an exurban environment with a city vibe.

In your view, is overcrowding of city centers benefiting peripheral places? Is suburbia becoming fashionable again?

Suburbia is not becoming fashionable per se, but it is becoming financially and logistically more and more difficult to live in urban centers. This is why I believe it is important to start thinking about how we can conceptualize the relationships between urban centers and exurban areas.

Urban centers are still attractive, at least in the case of the US. The urban population is still growing (albeit in slower rates).

The concentration of professional opportunities, as well as goods and services, attracts people towards these centers. The increasing demand spikes housing costs. It is not uncommon to hear rents amounting to 30% of household incomes. In Boston, an individual needs to make $50 an hour to be able to afford the average rent of a mid-range apartment. In Mid-town Atlanta, average rent is around $1800, whereas in Marietta (20 miles north), it is $1100.

We are not looking at the revitalization of the house with white picket fence here. Rather, we are looking at smaller – and more affordable – communities replicating urban life in scale. Yes, overcrowding actually is helping these regions to develop.

Which are the main challenges of small cities, in terms of building and maintaining a strong place brand?

Let me name two that I have observed during my research: resources and uniqueness.

More often than not, the destination management organizations are funded almost entirely by tourism / hotel taxes. We discuss how place branding is more than tourism in theory but when it comes to practice, the budget comes from taxes charged to tourists. A smaller budget tends to limit what can be done to create and promote a place brand.

The uniqueness part is more intriguing. As the places try to promote themselves, they start to look more and more similar. In exurban branding, we are looking at a very crowded scene.

Let’s take Atlanta as an example. The city is surrounded by I-285 highway that divides the region into two – Inside the Perimeter (ITP) or Outside the Perimeter (OTP). The city of Atlanta is in ITP. The first layer of OTP includes cities that give direct access to I-285 or I-75, such as Marietta and Sandy Springs. The second layer includes cities with indirect access to the major highways such as Holly Springs and Woodstock. Last, we have the more pastoral regions such as Blue Ridge, Ellijay, and Helen. By the way, the cities I named are only some of the actors that are in the north!

Nearly all of the cities I have visited as part of my research have the same combination of stores in their main streets, similar offerings, and even similar events. This is partially because all the cities I listed above are within 100 miles from each other – meaning that they have comparable resources and traditions.

There also seems to be a similar level of learning from best practices. As these cities are very close to each other, practitioners get to experience what other cities are doing first hand. However, it becomes difficult to differentiate towns from each other.

As strategic communications expert, how do you distinguish between place branding and place marketing, for example in a tourism context?

I believe this is another area where practice and study differ.

In strategic communications, we tend to differentiate between communication concepts based on their objectives: place branding is about managing and promoting the reputation of a place, whereas place marketing is about short-term behavioral change.

In terms of tourism, for instance, would you like to make a place known as “the best place to go for Oktoberfest in Georgia” or increase the number of visitors over the summer? The former objective requires branding – a combination of policies, development, and communication. The latter requires successful sales.

In practice, I see more and more of an audience-centric approach, where place marketing is for visitors, and place branding for residents and businesses.

Having researched, lived and studied in Turkey, Sweden, Switzerland and now USA, which are the most striking differences in how those countries approach their strategic communications, public diplomacy?

Well, this literally takes a dissertation to answer, which I did in my comparative study of three of these countries. Let me group these countries by two, to show the differences.

For both Turkey and the US, public diplomacy comes in handy as a crisis communication tool very frequently. Practitioners find themselves in situations where they need to formally and informally explain what their governments are doing.

Yet, while American practitioners saw no problem with criticizing American policy makers, Turkish practitioners saw such criticisms as attacks to the country. The Turkish approach to public diplomacy was closely influenced by governmental policy priorities and not about a long-term nation brand image, whereas Americans considered their criticism to be part of the American identity.

Sweden and Switzerland, on the other hand, have “easier” jobs – at least compared to their Turkish and American colleagues. Both countries use their neutral stances and soft power assets for self-promotion.

Your thoughts on Brand America and “the American Dream”? 

I am glad you have both concepts in the same question. Brand America is based on the American Dream – the dream that is desirable and achievable by many. It is not based on what the US government can do or does, but rather what one can do in the US. I mean, as one can see from the Good Country Index, the US government is not working as hard as, let’s say, Scandinavian countries. But that is not what the American brand is.

The current administration’s policies can be seen as a radical shift. There have been several questionable policy moves, ranging from climate change to immigration reform. Some of these moves indeed made the American dream less accessible for many people. But if we are talking about Brand America, we need to have a more inclusive view.

There were reactions to and protests against these policy moves. When the federal government failed to fulfil its commitment to the climate change convention, the cities stepped up. The administration’s travel ban caused protests across the nation.

Part of the American identity is the ability to criticize government policies even while being employed by the government. The policies might be detrimental to Brand America, yet the reactions of Americans compensate for the shortcomings of the administration.

Not all place branding initiatives succeed – do you have examples of strategies which failed, and the lessons we could learn from those?

This might sound controversial, but I cannot name any place branding initiatives that have failed. Each and every project influences change to a point.

A few years ago, I discussed Turkey’s “Home of” campaign in satirical terms. The project was, in my opinion, an unnecessary burden on taxpayers as it was trying to promote Turkey to potential tourists through minor details that were unlikely to be appealing to foreigners. But the posters were welcomed by the Turkish diaspora and encouraged a community spirit among expats.

Recently, Gaziantep – a city in southeast Turkey – launched its ambitious branding campaign. The city is close to the Syrian border and is facing a myriad of issues ranging from refugee influx to terrorism. So, a city branding campaign does not sound like the best idea. But the campaign ended up raising the spirit of residents.

Both campaigns did not necessarily reach their target audiences or promote a better brand image, but they did something.

The short lesson is this: we should adjust our expectations from place branding campaigns and be honest about their capabilities / limitations.

In your view, how to best determine the brand image and reputation of a country or city? Which methods would you recommend, or which rankings would you take into consideration?

I would recommend staying away from rankings and figures. Place branding is not a competition. There is no “best place to visit” or “best place to work”.

Las Vegas is a great place to visit if you like casinos, and a horrible place to be if you don’t. Sweden might be a great country to work in thanks to their social welfare system, and an absolute nightmare if you support libertarian policies.

Assessing place branding is not about seeing whether you are doing better than other places – it is about whether you are effectively telling the story of your place to your residents, visitors, and other stakeholders through your policies and communication projects. An attempt to quantify place brands is futile.

The best way, in my opinion, to assess brand images is through a combination of social and semantic network analyses. I explained this process in more detail in an earlier article. Basically, we need to understand what people are saying and who they are talking to, rather than a composite number.

Place branding is about the unique characteristics of places, and not about competition.

Thank you, Efe.

Connect with Efe Sevin on LinkedIn, Twitter or via his website. More about Efe’s work and thinking in his contributions as Observer.


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