Emma Björner on Sustainable Tourism and Place Branding

Emma Björner, Researcher at Gothenburg Research Institute and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Strategic Communication, Lund University, in this interview shares insights into The Role of Tourism in Multicultural Societies (TiMS), a research project which explores multiple identities and the importance of including diverse stakeholders in tourism development and place branding, to be effective. She also discusses place branding practices in China and how the country is actively engaging scholars and practitioners in developing the country’s soft power, and promoting cultural tourism. Emma further highlights how digital devices and social media play a central role in building smart cities in China.

Emma, when did you first come across place branding, in the context of cities and sustainability?

Place branding and sustainability first caught my interest in 2010, when I was working in the Swedish pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, and finalizing my master thesis on nation branding at World Expos and Sweden’s brand architecture at Expo 2010. The theme for Expo 2010 was ‘Better City, Better Life’, with a focus on creating better living conditions in cities.

The overall aim with the Swedish participation was to strengthen a positive image of Sweden internationally and to promote the competitiveness and creativity of Swedish trade and industry. For the very first time, the World Expo also comprised an area with city pavilions, focusing largely on sustainability and place branding, an area that I found very interesting to visit and explore in my free time.

How have your views on place branding and urban sustainability changed since then?

Since then, my views on urban sustainability and place branding have broadened and deepened. In my Ph.D. research project on the branding of Chinese mega-cities, I elaborated on the shift in conceptualizations of place branding: from it being primarily seen as an economic apparatus and an externally oriented framework, centering on attracting investors, tourists, and talented people, towards a shift to including social, cultural, and environmental dimensions, and thus a wider understanding of place branding, which goes hand in hand with an increased focus on sustainability.

I also developed my understanding of sustainability during my years as a sustainability consultant, working hands-on with sustainability strategy, leadership, and reporting. I am currently working on a research project about the role of tourism in multicultural societies, where my focus primarily is on multiple identities in place branding and sustainable tourism destinations.

I am also learning a great deal from the EU project URBiNAT, which I am part of, in which the focus is on the development of deprived city areas with participatory processes and citizen engagement at the center.

How can destination branding contribute to a more sustainable tourism?

Cecilia Cassinger discussed aspirational talk in a previous interview, and how it can lead to development. I agree and elaborated on similar ideas in my Ph.D. thesis in relation to concepts like imaginaries (Castoriadis, 1987; Ricœur, 1994) and Imagineering.

Branding can contribute to forming different imaginaries, that are grounded in the past, present, and future. These imaginaries can assist in moving the place or destination in certain directions.

Imagineering refers to both imagination and engineering, and thus dreaming something up and then making it real. Imaginaries and Imagineering are both tied to a capacity to see in a thing what it is not, to see it other than it is.

A danger if imaginaries largely originate from the top (e.g. government authorities) – the place branding process is top-down and ignores views of locals and other important stakeholders – is both that the locals may not benefit from the branding, and that the branding risks (re)producing stereotypical images, discredited histories and romantic fantasies (Bruner, 2005).

Over the past decades, bottom-up and grassroots approaches to place branding – starting from the people and reflecting different interests in society – have however gained ground (Ooi, 2011).

Similar to private companies, DMOs increasingly take responsibility for their impact on sustainable development and sustainable tourism, launch various initiatives, and encourage others to be sustainable. For example, in New Zealand, the sustainability promise “Tiaki” was launched aiming to care for New Zealand, while in Norway, people in the tourism sector can attend courses on sustainable tourism.

Today, sustainability has become the new normal. UNWTO has launched a new vision for sustainable tourism, emphasizing that sustainability must be the new norm for every part of the tourism sector. For many, the coronavirus pandemic has underlined the importance of taking a holistic approach to sustainability, not only focus on the environmental part but also on economic and social sustainability.

I think DMOs can take even more of a leading role in communicating and marketing sustainable experiences. Prerequisites in doing so are that branding is rooted in the tourism industry’s offer, that the DMOs have knowledge of the tourism industry actors and offers, and that there is a well-functioning collaboration between the tourism actors engaged in destination branding.

You are currently involved in a project looking at the role of tourism in multicultural societies (TiMS). Could you share first insights?

In TiMS, we explore the role of tourism in multicultural societies, in Sweden and beyond, and act towards the embracement and representation of diversity in tourism development and place branding.

A central starting point is that inclusiveness and participation have been gaining momentum in academic tourism and place branding discourse (e.g. Kavaratzis, Giovanardi & Lichrou, 2017; Scheyvens & Biddulph, 2017). However, tourism and place branding has seldom been considered in relation to notions of integration, migration, and multiculturalism.

TiMS takes stance from the democratic theme and notions of diversity, equality, and inclusiveness as stated in the 2030 Agenda, regarding place development in general and sustainable tourism in particular.

The findings thus far indicate that, in order for inclusive tourism to live up to its promise and develop into a just form of sustainable tourism, scholars and industry actors need to engage in critical discussions and procure knowledge regarding its complexity, including its historical and contemporary meanings. So far, the research has also acknowledged:

  • The difficulties in promoting diversity. There is a risk of stereotyping and exploitation, where multicultural attributes are valued for their difference as opposed to being seen as everybody being multicultural.
  • Tourism as interdependent on place development at large. Public destination management organisations often focus on specific target groups and public-private partnerships, rather than collaborations with the public sector and smaller units such as community-based organisations. Also, citizen dialogue is a well-known concept used in urban planning, however rarely used in relation to tourism.
  • The multiple actors, or authors, that together form the place brand. In many cases, this is an organic and bottom-up process, and without a dominant authority such as a DMO.

As place branding is now increasingly associated with placemaking (more so than with place marketing or promotion) – how can it be used as a tool for sustainable urban development?

Placemaking is about planning, designing, creating, and managing places where people want to live, work, play, and learn. To me, central in this approach is that it should be done by involving and engaging residents and other stakeholders, and by encouraging citizens to take ownership and start new initiatives, e.g. based on experienced challenges and/or shared interests.

This is in line with the development of place branding towards more participatory and inclusive approaches, encouraging bottom-up initiatives and the involvement of residents and other stakeholders, reflecting the different interests in society.

Taking the starting point in the views of residents and other central stakeholders in a place offers great potential for sustainable urban development.

An illustrative example of this is the ongoing work carried out in the EU project URBiNAT, in which I am involved. URBiNAT focuses on the regeneration and integration of deprived neighbourhoods in seven European cities. Interventions focus on public space to co-create with citizens’ new urban, social, and nature-based relations within and between different neighbourhoods.

Citizen engagement is a key element in the project, centering on participatory culture, design of community-driven processes, participatory workshops, and solutions, as well as digital communication. Challenges and interests perceived by residents and other important stakeholders are the starting point for sustainable urban development, putting emphasis on social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

To your mind, what are the main shortcomings of place branding initiatives, especially in a city or destination context? Which pitfalls to watch out for?

In sustainable urban development as well as place branding, a challenge is to involve multiple stakeholders, and especially the ‘unusual suspects’. More and more cities and destinations see the importance of involving residents, business owners, and other important stakeholders; yet it is not always easy to execute, and oftentimes the same people (the usual suspects) attend participatory activities and take ownership of initiatives and projects, excluding others to do the same.

Digital tools, such as apps, websites, blogs, interactive boards, and virtual reality, have both including and excluding effects. Young and tech-savvy people, that commonly are regarded as unusual suspects, can be engaged in place branding initiatives with the help of digital tools. On the other hand, people with low digital literacy and/or limited access to smartphones and computers, e.g. elderly people and people with low socioeconomic status, tend to be excluded from place branding initiatives in an online context.

In times of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to consider a mix of digital communication and face to face meetings, in order to engage a variety of stakeholders in place branding initiatives and development of destinations and cities.

It is common that residents and other stakeholders are involved too late in place branding initiatives, as they often are invited to give input on already developed solutions and ideas rather than asked to provide ideas in a much earlier phase.

DMOs struggle with a similar challenge when it comes to what stage to involve other tourism actors and partners in campaigns and initiatives.

Involving stakeholders at the right stage is important to create inspiration, commitment, and ownership.

“Smart cities” has been a buzzword for several years now. In your view, what characterizes a “smart” community?

A “smart community” uses smart devices to create a smart urban environment to collect, process, and disseminate information of relevance to the development and use of infrastructure and amenities, along with the daily behaviours and actions of residents and other stakeholders. Properly managed, access to data widens the scope for identifying challenges and solutions.

It is often argued that ‘going smart’ can lead to enhanced well-being for citizens and a smaller distance between citizens and city authorities. Yet in some cases, citizens have not sensed much involvement or experienced favourable results. Smart cities and communities have also been criticised for being exceedingly complex to manage and with inherent vulnerabilities. For example, tied to obsolete and failing technology as well as integrity and privacy concerns.

In a western context, smart cities are often conceptualised as similar to sustainable cities. In a Chinese context, smart cities and communities are largely centred on technology and environmental sustainability. In focus is, for example, transportation, security, water, lighting, and food traceability.

When it comes to water, various smart water solutions are developed to monitor water quality. Improved security and safety is exemplified in elevator technology, the lighting of parks, and entrance gates to buildings and public spaces scanning the faces of people entering.

China’s largest cities have reached far in smart city development, with well-developed smart infrastructure, involving Chinese tech giants like Alibaba, Huawei, and Tencent. In Shanghai, a “City Brain” has been developed, with the aim of gathering all data into one platform. The data include information about citizens and their behaviours and is regarded as an important support in government decision making.

Having conducted considerable research in and on Chinese cities – which main trends do you observe in Asia right now, likely to impact the work and success of place branding professionals there, in the years ahead?

In recent decades, Chinese cities have become active participants in the global competitive economy and have increasingly engaged in place branding.

In China, place branding often involves a top-down approach including planned and intentional actions by governments and government officials. Place branding initiatives are aligned with the policies and ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and target both international and local audiences.

Access to smartphones and social media is a must in China today, also impacting place branding strategies and practices. Today, social media is very influential in shaping public opinions in China and stories get reposted quickly, for good and bad.

Over the years, more and more Chinese scholars have come to focus on place branding, also leading to an increased amount of conferences, seminars, and events gathering researchers and practitioners engaged in place branding around China. It is common that place branding researchers work practically with cities and regions, consulting them on place branding strategies and practices. Challenges they face in doing so include collaborating with people that have limited knowledge of place branding and who see it mainly as developing logos and slogans; challenges that are perceived outside China have been addressed at length in the place branding literature.

At the beginning of 2020, China’s National Social Science Foundation outlined a number of areas of interest in terms of future research, some related to place branding, and especially nation branding.

Topics include research on international communication of the concept “Chinese characteristics in the new era”; construction and communication of the Chinese national brand; characteristics and styles of national image design; the relationship between the design of national image and construction of soft power; as well as the development of smart cities.

In China today, there is also a large interest in “cultural tourism”, and culture then refers to a focus on history, cultural and creative industries, movies, and dramas. Furthermore, there is an intention to connect cultural tourism with technology.

The technological development in China is advanced, yet the tourism sector is not up to date.

If money and time were no issue, which research topics would you pursue next? Which knowledge gaps do you consider in urgent need of being filled?

I’m very happy with the research topics I’m currently working on, related to place branding, sustainable tourism, sustainable cities, marketing, and consumption. In place branding, it is intriguing to study the plurality of places, the development and branding of multicultural places, and how places are communicated, represented, and experienced.

In the context of sustainable cities and placemaking, I find it interesting to explore citizen participation, co-creation, and digital communication. I will continue following and exploring marketing trends in China as well as Chinese consumption and the portrayal of it. I would also like to continue learning about China’s place branding efforts as well as China’s relations with other nations, such as the Nordic countries.

Thank you, Emma.

Connect with Emma Björner on LinkedIn.

Enjoyed our interview with Emma Björner on place branding in China, and the importance of stakeholder engagement in the sustainable development of tourism and destinations? Thanks for sharing!


Bruner, E. M. (2005), Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Castoriadis, C. (1987), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kavaratzis, M. Giovanardi, M. & Lichrou, M. (Eds.) (2017), Inclusive Place Branding: Critical Perspectives in Theory and Practice, UK: Routledge Critical Marketing.

Ooi, C. S. (2011), ‘Paradoxes of City Branding and Societal Changes’ (pp. 54-61), in Dinnie, K. (Ed.), City Branding: Theory and Cases, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Ricœur, P. (1994), ‘Imagination in Discourse and in Action’ (pp. 87-117), in Robinson, G. and Rundell, J.F. (Eds.), Rethinking Imagination: Culture and Creativity, London, UK: Routledge.

Scheyvens, R., & Biddulph, R. (2017), ‘Inclusive Tourism Development’, Tourism Geographies, pp. 1-21.


Join us at the intersection of research and practice in place branding. TPBO spotlights impactful place brand stories, from showcases to our flagship yearbook. Learn from leaders in our Who is Who World Map. Connect with us on LinkedIn for insights and join our mailing list for the latest place brand impact stories and strategies.

- Introducing: World's Best in Place Branding -spot_img

Get Your Free Copy

Place Brand Leaders Yearbook 2024

Latest articles