City Branding: Which Factors Are The Most Crucial For Your City Brand?

What factors do you consider the most crucial for your city brand?

Another great reader question for our panel of place branding experts. Here their answers (in alphabetical order –  highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research or as speakers).

Adam Mikołajczyk

Resilience, sustainability and engagement (networks are the key). And the political long-term agreement (real shared vision).

Anupam Yog

Distinctive positioning.

Buck Song Koh

For a city brand, the most crucial factor of all is authenticity.

There is nothing like actual people – instead of paid actors in commercials – representing facets of what a city has to offer.

I believe there has been a sea change in this respect.

You could say that, overall worldwide, there is much less capacity among audiences today for the “suspension of disbelief” that they used to have for “traditional advertising”. (“Suspension of disbelief” is a term borrowed from literary criticism to describe how audiences in theatre allow themselves to be drawn into the make-believe world onstage, as they enjoy a stage production like a Shakespeare play.)

One of the contributory driving forces for this shift is the whole way of social media, in which nothing catches attention like user-generated content, the most powerful examples of which are always based on real life.

In practice, one example is Singapore’s current brand for tourism and investment – “Passion Made Possible” features almost exclusively the real-life experiences and examples of people like artists and entrepreneurs.

This mode of presenting content is much more effective than the old way of using actors to re-enact scenarios.

Caio Esteves

Places for us

The central question is: Does your city even have a place brand?

Well, mine does not. São Paulo, the largest city in the Americas, with more than 11 million inhabitants, as incredible as it may seem, does not have a brand.

Of course, I’m not talking about a logo.

Previous administrations have tried to sell it as a global city, which in fact it is. The problem is that today we have more than 40 cities in the Alpha category, such as São Paulo.

Why would anyone come here, that alone is enough? Certainly not. Global cities is a concept that unites more than difference, it has to be something more than global.

Christopher HireChristopher Hire

2thinknow innovation agency

Alignment to the city’s value and uniqueness of the city, is the core.

In our (2thinknow) view, city brands should be based on data – as most people are deciding with a ‘confirmation bias’ – they just assume that everyone is like them.

This is visible by watching talking heads commentary – assuming that a majority of your audience speak English for example. What is important to Japanese speakers is different to Chinese speakers, and again this is sub-regionalised.

The data about visitors, businesses, residents or other ‘users’ of a city (people with a stake in the brand) rarely matches the cities’ assumptions. The surprises are one thing 2thinknow have uncovered with our data. For example, one city in Asia was unaware that their largest homogenous outside users of city brands spoke Arabic and Korean, thus they had been doing the branding all wrong targeting Chinese speakers (the third group who also had been over-marketed). These users also were relatively wealthy and stayed for a longer period. This explained the failure of their strategy and we were able to re-educate them. Also, they could focus on not alienating all groups with inclusive brands.

This is something we often find when doing our city-level data on actual visitors and stakeholders. Brands may target the wrong gender as well, because usually decision makers for actions are not 50/50 but dominated by a gender.

Efe Sevin on social media and city brandingEfe Sevin


All the aspects residents appreciate. A city brand can – and should – not go against the needs of the residents. Cities are our homes. We are not trying to put them in nice packages and sell through branding. Rather, we are using branding to better provide to the residents.

The most crucial aspect of city branding is to understand what residents think and how they see their hometowns grow in the next few years.

Gregory Pomerantsev

The most crucial factors for Minsk city in my view are development, study and career opportunities, services, internationality and the general atmosphere.

Gunter SoydanbayGünter Soydanbay

Soydanbay Consulting / Speaker

“Attention is the cardinal value of psychology. What gets attention tends to grow,” says  James Hillman, the legendary psychologist. That’s why awareness of the place would be at the top of my most crucial factors list.

Second, I would specify the kind of awareness metric. It could be aided awareness (have you ever heard place X?); spontaneous awareness (please list all the UNESCO World Heritage sites you know?); and finally top-of-mind awareness (what’s the first place that comes to your mind when you hear UNESCO World Heritage site?)

If I were to rank the three awareness measures, I would discard aided awareness, keep an eye on spontaneous awareness (as it tells me if my place is a part of the short list,) and heavily focus on top-of-mind awareness. The more frequently a brand comes to mind, the more likely it is being purchased.

Even that, however, does not suffice. Especially when working with a small-town or a specialist destination brand, the primary goal is to focus on micro-segments. So, sticking to the UNESCO World Heritage sites example, I would zero in on the top-of-mind and spontaneous awareness levels of tourists with -what’s called- higher travel career, who are visiting the closest major tourist destination. That would give me the most realistic chances to get a qualified lead.

As crucial as awareness is, it tells only half of the story. Do potential visitors have positive or negative attitudes towards the destination? Attitudes would have a direct impact on visitor behaviour. That’s why visitors’ emotional proximity is a crucial factor. Consequently, I would look at the affinity towards the destination, trying to understand visitors’ opinion of the destination.

Finally, I would look into the interest to visit. They know about you. They have positive feelings about you. But how likely it is that they will visit your place? What is their intention? So, understanding how likely they are to visit the destination is a crucial factor. 

Hila Oren

When I think about the core components of a city brand, I imagine a triad between residents, private enterprise and City Hall. The connections between them help to strengthen and enliven the brand.

Bringing all of them together and leading them is the Mayor. The Mayor is the main champion of a city’s brand. S/he cannot be considered the “owner” of the brand (in an organizational sense) because a city brand belongs to its residents and is shaped by so many things: culture, history, geography, etc. However, the Mayor is crucial to ensuring there is constant interaction and collaboration between the three components and, thereby, to advancing the brand.

Practically, this ongoing process is part of “city-making” – creating urban reality. Once a city has a brand, the Mayor must continue to engage its residents, private enterprises and public servants in the process of creating, building and producing in ways which ensure that the city’s development and activity are aligned with its brand.

An amusing anecdote to illustrate this. The brand of Tel Aviv-Yafo is “the non-stop city”. On New Year’s Eve (or Sylvester, we call it), there was a range of Municipal events happening and establishments were open extra late as part of the festivities. Social media was active, and people were celebrating in the streets. Just before midnight, the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo posted on Facebook, ‘Jerusalem, are you still awake?’, mocking the fact that not much was happening in Jerusalem that night. The post went viral and sparked a hilarious social media battle across Israel!

What’s the significance of this in terms of branding? It shows how one little social media post can highlight so powerfully the differences between two cities and how Tel Aviv’s core components operate to reinforce its brand.

Jaume Marín

Sustainability, networks, and brand engagement by all different stakeholders.

Jordi de San Eugenio

In my opinion, there are two critical factors for any city brand.

First of all, is the initial engagement between the city brand and the residents. It implies a real process of bottom-up strategy to decide the values and attributes of the territory, according to the opinion and values of local citizens. In other words, it’s mandatory that the population will be part of the city brand strategy since the beginning of the process. This action adds credibility and, finally, the population acts as ambassadors of the city brand to external audiences.

Secondly, it’s important to share the city brand’s strategy to the territorial plan of the city at any level (environmental, economical…) That is, to search different arguments to understand the creation of a city brand as an initiative to reinforce the economic development of the territory, not only as a promotional action to project a certain image of any place.

Jose Filipe TorresJose Filipe Torres

Bloom Consulting

The most important thing in any type of Place Branding strategy (Country, City and Region also) is the foundation of the project.

Having a clear mandate from the relevant stakeholders that will support/endorse the project is a make or break. (Both public and private)

After this, proper funding and a management structure to execute the strategy with staff with 100% of their time committed to this.

José Pablo Arango

Especially in a city brand, I believe that the most important thing is the commitment and appropriation of citizens.

Secondly, continuity; and for that it must be separated from the government’s campaigns.

Juan Carlos Belloso panel

Juan Carlos Belloso


Understand that a city brand is about the city’s image and reputation, and that building this is a long-term process that needs a long-term vision, time and consistency in the way you design and promote your place (city). That this is not about logos and campaigns but about place making and providing the right environments and experiences.

As usual, two of the key challenges for cities are how to overcome political terms and influence for politicians’ short-term view and short-term political interests. and how to make sure that the brand (image / story) represents all stakeholders and engage the citizens.

Marta Herezniak

There are several factors which are critical for my city’s brand, currently:

Continuity of leadership: the city’s political stability in the long run is at risk due to the tensions between the municipality and the central government. The current city mayor with third term in office has been capable of implementing coherent and resilient development strategies that resonated with the idea of the city brand. Thus, it is only with this continuing leadership that the city brand will stay on track.

Revisiting city brand concept and the alignment on-brand activities: the current brand concept and associated strategic documents were created almost nine years ago and while its fundamentals have not changed significantly, the brand idea could use some refreshment and possibly re-interpretation to become more inclusive. Along with it come multiple activities undertaken by the municipality that need to be more closely linked to the brand concept.

Internal buy-in: reinforcement of local pride/ place attachment: in spite of the positive shift, my city still suffers from the insufficient community awareness of the brand as well as support for the brand-related activities. The old and outdated internal image of a city that had very little to offer and overly critical attitudes towards it are still present within the community and jeopardize the potential using community members as city ambassadors.

Establishing a dedicated city brand unit and increasing the municipality’s brand orientation: currently, it seems that the branding effort is not coordinated enough on the part of the municipality. In spite of the existing fragmentation, not enough units seem to be aware of how their activities translate into building the city’s brand.  Establishing a unit that would serve as a brand master-mind could help increase the brand focus and raise the issue of branding on the city’s political agenda.

Paertel-Peeter Pere

Pärtel-Peeter Pere

Future Place Leadership

Housing, placemaking, women in tech (Stockholm).

Less car-centered urban planning and more safety (Tallinn).

Sebastian Zenker

Openness and structure to let residents participate in the branding approach.

Financial structure and resources.

Political support to let the city brand manager do their jobs.

Tom Buncle

Yellow Railroad Consulting

A distinctive, compelling brand essence, underpinned by clear brand values.

Honesty amongst stakeholders and politicians – to understand and accept where the brand is competitive and where it is not.

Residents’ buy-in, generated by involving them as participants from the outset.

Recruitment of brand advocates, who will proselytise within their own organisations and circles; and brand champions, who will endorse the brand publicly in a much wider audience.

Previous questions answered by the panel here

You’d like to ask the panel a question? Get in touch!


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

FREE Download

Place Brand Leaders Yearbook 2024

Latest articles