Guido van Garderen on the Grand Challenges of Branding and the Ultimate Course on Brand Strategy

A former Strategy Director at Interbrand, Guido van Garderen now combines best practice and academic insights in the courses “Building brands and Influencing behaviour” at the University of Amsterdam and “Brand Strategy” at the London School of Economics (LSE). We sat down with him to hear more about his work and to pick his brain for latest place branding insights and advice.

Guido, do you remember what (or who!) got you interested in place branding?

I was always interested in the development of countries, in particular in Africa. During my MPA at Harvard, I noticed that both Michael Porter in his class on cluster development and Ricardo Hausmann in his class on economic inequality focused on the enabling environment, after which they adopt a logic of “If you build it, they will come” [from “Field of Dreams” ed.].

Sure enough, countries need to offer upon the expected, but that doesn’t make them automatically a destination of choice.

I felt there was a perspective missing in economic development. Governments only focus on how they compare to each other, thanks to influential reports, such as the WEF Global Competitiveness Report and the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business.

However, if you want to attract FDI, tourists and talent, then you also need to know how to stand-out. To make my point, I wrote the paper “The Brand Advantage in Economic Development” and joined Interbrand to advocate for Nation branding.

What do you understand as the “brand” of places, and what is place branding all about, in your view?

We are still lacking a common definition of ‘brand’. In practice, I refer to a brand as “A Promise Made and Kept”. This is a simple, operational definition, that explains that a brand goes beyond design and communication. First, you need to define a clear direction (“a promise”), then you need to deliver upon that promise with action, before you can communicate it (“made and kept”).

It is a simple explanation, but also an initial framework for analysis. Has the Nation delivered upon its promise? Is the promise concrete and clear? How are we communicating the essence of our brand?

Place branding in practice is a lot about cooperation and education. All stakeholders, government entities, local businesses and citizens need to be consulted and educated on the topic. Together, they need to advance the brand image of the destination. In practice, that means that you need to do a lot of workshops to raise the level of understanding; get everybody on board and empowered.

Having just taught a summer course at the University of Amsterdam on building brands and influencing behaviour – can you share how to go about this?

I have done extensive research on how branding is taught at universities. The focus is often on brand management, rather than on building brands.

Moreover, key topics are missing from the curriculum, such as how to utilize design, or how to link branding to marketing. That blows my mind, since these are the first questions you’ll get in practice: “Where is my logo?” and “How does this help with my marketing objectives?”.

You might not like the questions, but they need to be answered. Even the mainstream textbooks from Kapferer and Keller ignore these topics. So we need to bring the theory and the practice of branding closer. This course is a first step towards that goal.

What is the second step?

I‘ve written down many questions about branding that haven’t properly been answered yet. From “What is the definition of a brand?” to “Do all brands need a purpose?” and if not, then “What, as a bare minimum, do you need to define a brand?”.

These grand challenges of branding need a more definitive answer, if we want to move our field forward. So I am seeking out other strategists and academics, as “A little bit of friction, creates a good fire”. Each one of us holds a piece of the puzzle.

Your most memorable moment during your time as Strategy Director and Global Nation Brand Lead at Interbrand?

I once flew to Sri Lanka to give a keynote speech at the launch of the Best Sri Lankan Brands, a local version of Interbrand’s Best Global Brands. My suitcase didn’t arrive, so I quickly bought a suit, took a shower and went straight to the event. I was ushered to the front and chatted to the person next to me, who minutes later was introduced on stage as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. That happens only in movies. The global reach of Interbrand definitely had its advantages.

For your PhD at the University of Cape Town you are currently researching the place brand image of Africa. Would you like to share first insights?

There is a whole body of literature on Afro-pessimism; the conviction that Africa isn’t capable of social, economic or political progress. In my research, I explore if Afro-Pessimism can only be found in the Western literature, or if it is also a genuine belief in the minds of people living in Africa.

Through my research I hope to find sparks of Afro-Positivism and therefore possible avenues to re-position the continent.

Which trends do you see in how places are branded, especially in Africa?

I see an increased interest in place branding, beyond the mere creation of a logo. That is a huge step forward, as it opens the door for real change.

A year ago, I facilitated several workshops with counties in Kenya on regional branding and they understood how it could support their economic development plans. A few years ago, that would not have happened.

From your experience, what is the best way to measure the success of nation branding initiatives?

It depends on the purpose of the initiatives, but in general, it helps to think of a Nation brand in terms of its brand associations. What is the Nation known for and how do we like to change that over time? That is a metric everybody immediately understands.

Five tips for place brand managers, eager to ‘do it right’?

In general:

1) Make sure to educate all stakeholders and raise the level of conversation.

2) Think in terms of associations you can own, rather than an overarching brand promise. The latter often turns into a “we are everything to everybody” one-liner.

3) Citizens are key. Turn them into ambassadors.

4) Be pragmatic. An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox. Any step forward moves you forward.

5) Hire a second consultant to counter argue. Painful, but it is better to hear from a friend, when you have spinach between your teeth.

Thank you, Guido.

Connect with Guido van Garderen on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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