Giannina Warren on Professionalizing Place Branding

Meet Giannina Warren, expert in place branding with a background in marketing, public relations and brand management. Giannina is launching the world’s first MA in Place Branding at Middlesex University this year, designed for professionals looking to enhance their skills in shaping the cities and countries of the future.

In this interview, she shares details on the new program and her insights on how cities can effectively align their brand strategies with the goals of sustainability and climate change.

Giannina, when did you first learn about place branding, and how have your views on its research and application changed over time?

In 2007, while working for the City of Toronto, I first encountered the concept of place branding. At the time, I was part of a team promoting the city’s festivals and events, as well as engaging residents in city pride campaigns.

Later, during my MA in International Communications at Leeds University, I became aware of the larger context of place branding and public diplomacy. This sparked my interest in understanding the profession of place branding within a broader sociological context.

As I pursued my PhD at Middlesex University, I discovered a potential disconnect between theory and practice in the field, as academics developed critical theories without working closely with practitioners to help them better understand their jobs and their impact on society.

Despite encountering initial skepticism about the benefits of place branding within academia, I had always seen its potential for promoting sustainable, inclusive, and resilient cities and countries, particularly as demographic shifts and climate action become more prominent.

Overall, I’m excited about the growth of the field and its potential as a force for good politically and socially in the future.

Your professional path led you from working at the City of Toronto, to becoming an academic in London. How has your practitioner experience influenced how you approach the concept of place branding in academia?

My experience working in government has provided me with a valuable perspective on the challenges and opportunities involved in implementing policy in the real world. This experience has influenced my approach to researching and teaching about place branding by emphasizing the practical implications of the subject, and encouraging me to seek out partnerships with practitioners to ensure that my work is relevant and actionable.

My work in government also gave me a deep understanding of the political and social context in which place branding takes place, which has helped me to develop a more nuanced and critical approach to the subject.

In particular, I have been interested in the way that place branding involves the exercise of symbolic power, which is achieved through a series of unofficial, non-systemic, and largely unseen activities that can have a significant impact on public perceptions and decision-making.

My industry experience has also been valuable in my role as a teacher. For example, I have been able to develop a final year undergraduate module on place branding that includes both theoretical and practical aspects of the subject. This has been a popular class, and the students have been enthusiastic about the opportunity to apply their creative and strategic thinking to developing brand strategies for cities and countries.

Overall, my practitioner experience has helped me to develop a more practical and nuanced approach to researching and teaching about place branding, and has allowed me to build strong connections with the practitioner community.

In your research you focus on the people who do place branding – which key insights can you share?

I believe the talents, networks, backgrounds and unique skillsets of place branding professionals are the key drivers of the process.

While there is a great deal of literature on the theory and practice of place branding and its outcomes, there is relatively little attention paid to the experiences, perspectives, and motivations of the individuals who are responsible for implementing branding strategies.

My research seeks to fill this gap by exploring the everyday practices and challenges of place branding practitioners, as well as the personal and professional factors that shape their work.

Through this research, I have gained insights into the complex and often messy realities of place branding, and the importance of understanding the human dimension of this process.

In addition to the influence and impact of practitioners in place branding, I’m particularly interested in the forms of capital that they employ as occupational resources.

Power in policy and planning processes is often tied to the accumulation of different forms of capital, such as social, cultural, and symbolic. Place branding practitioners are often skilled in leveraging these forms of capital to advance their work and achieve their goals.

For example, social capital can be used to build networks and establish relationships with key stakeholders, while cultural capital can be used to establish credibility and legitimacy in the field.

Symbolic capital, such as the ability to shape narratives and identities, can be particularly powerful in policy and planning processes, as it can influence decision-making and shape the direction of urban development.

“By understanding the forms of capital employed by place branding practitioners, we can gain insight into the dynamics of power and influence in this field, and the ways in which practitioners navigate complex political and social contexts to achieve their goals.”

How are cities incorporating sustainability and climate change into their branding strategies, and what are some of the challenges they face in doing so?

Cities are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of integrating sustainability and climate change into their branding strategies. However, this is often easier said than done, and there are still significant challenges to be overcome.

My colleagues and I are conducting research on this topic, which includes focus groups with climate activists, energy transition actors, and environmentalists, as well as with Destination Marketing Organisations, place branding practitioners, and local officials responsible for city marketing.

So far, we have found that while cities may make policy announcements regarding Net Zero targets, they often struggle to effectively communicate these policies to the public. There can be issues with funding, strategic planning, and resources, and audiences may also resist the message due to socio-economic disparities and competing priorities.

However, our research has also identified some unique and innovative ways to bridge this gap, both internally and externally. We are also partnering with a local council in Greater London on their BarNET Zero Climate Action strategy, and are embedded in their Citizen and Youth Assembly process. This allows us to see firsthand how smaller places are enacting their climate action plans and engaging with the community.

Ultimately, our goal is to provide practical guidance and insights for cities on how to effectively combine place branding and sustainability, and create more resilient and equitable cities for the future.

You are about to launch the world’s first MA in Place Branding at Middlesex University in London – what motivated you to create this new course, and who is it for?

The motivation behind creating the world’s first MA in Place Branding at Middlesex University was to address the gap that exists and the growing demand for professionals with expertise in this field.

Partnering with Bloom Consulting on the programme, we identified that place branding is an increasingly important aspect of urban development and international relations, and there is a need for individuals who are skilled in designing and implementing effective place branding strategies all over the world.

The MA is designed for students who are interested in pursuing careers in place branding, as well as for professionals who are looking to enhance their skills and knowledge toward being effective shapers of the cities and countries of the future. It covers a range of topics, including the theory and practice of branding, implementing brand strategies, stakeholder engagement, sustainability, creativity and campaign execution.

This is the first post-graduate degree globally that incorporates principles of marketing, design, urban planning, governance, climate action, strategic planning, creative conceptualisation and problem-solving for cities, regions and countries. It combines theory with practice; prioritising action into learning and finding solutions, bringing together disciplines, sectors and cultures.

Recent graduates in the disciplines of marketing, advertising, public relations, branding, communications, tourism, hospitality, geography, sociology, history, public administration or planning might see the MA as a launchpad for their career.

It would suit those interested in working in: tourism, local government, DMO (Destination Marketing Organisation) operators, film and culture promotion, public administration, economic development, special events and festivals, sport and attractions, business improvement districts/neighbourhoods, brand agencies with tourism/development clients, development and property management or embassies.

By offering this degree through distance learning there is a greater opportunity for professionals aiming to enhance their skills and knowledge while remaining employed. This includes early and mid-career professionals working in tourism, culture, marketing or economic development. Working professionals might be most interested in the part-time offer, which could be interwoven into their work.

Embedded in the degree will be access to world-leading practitioners, academics, industry experts and firms, agencies, government bodies, DMOs and people working in the field from all over the world.

I’m really grateful to have an opportunity to continually work with some of the brightest, most passionate, skilled professionals in such a varied and dynamic field.

You’re further working with Bloom Consulting to launch the Bloom Place Academy. What is this about and how will it complement the MA?

Malcolm Allan, the President of Bloom Consulting, has been a valued mentor and collaborator for over a decade, after we became fast friends in my first few months in London.

We were introduced by Jeannette Hanna, another The Place Brand Observer panelist, who I had known from my work in Toronto, and who had guided my early academic thinking.

Malcolm and I, along with Penny Bagnall-Smith, an experienced marketer and place branding specialist, have joined with Bloom Consulting to develop the Bloom Place Academy.

The academy will provide a range of shorter training and development opportunities for professionals working in the field of place branding, including workshops, webinars, and CPD-accredited certification programs. The academy is designed to complement the MA in Place Branding by providing ongoing professional development opportunities for graduates, as well as for professionals who are already working in the field.

Thank you, Giannina. We look forward to seeing this new Masters in Place Branding evolve!

Connect with Giannina Warren on LinkedIn and find out more about the MA in Place Branding at Middlesex University in London here.


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