Gwen Zuring, Manager of Brabant Branding in the Netherlands, in this interview illustrates how the Dutch region and economic powerhouse approaches regional branding and place brand management to foster collaboration internally and to attract talent, business and visitors to Brabant.
First published in 2019, updated in July 2023
Gwen, do you remember what got you interested in the branding of places? What led you to your current position as Manager of Brand Brabant in the Netherlands?
Yes, I remember it well! In 2009, the Provincial Executive decided to put ‘Brabant on the map, as a region’. I was asked to take on that rather loosely worded assignment. Pioneering work, because there was no off-the-shelf instruction manual for regional branding.
However, we had a few good starting points. The people here are immensely proud of their region: they are ‘Brabanders’ through and through. The province of North Brabant, popularly known as Brabant, has a reputation in the Netherlands for ‘gezelligheid’ (which roughly translates as conviviality in English), hospitality and a pleasure-loving lifestyle. Something which is very important too, obviously.
In addition, Brabant is a place where countless cool and innovative things happen, often based on a social objective.
However, ‘Brabanders’ are modest to a fault and hardly ever blow their own trumpet. We have a saying in Brabant – “Brabanders juichen met de handen in de zakken” – which translates as ‘Brabanders cheer with their hands in their pockets’. A blessing in disguise, because it also offers a wealth of opportunities for spotlighting Brabant far more emphatically as a strong brand. My pride in Brabant was a strong motivation for taking on this assignment!
What does the “Brand Brabant” stand for – why should visitors, investors and talent choose your region?
Brabant is a powerful economic hub. Although the urban and industrial cluster between Rotterdam and Amsterdam comes to mind first, Brabant is the second largest economic powerhouse of the Netherlands. More than half of all Dutch patent applications originate from here.
In addition, Brabant has a well-developed educational structure, countless (innovative) SMEs and the largest number of open innovation campuses in the Netherlands, in fields as diverse as Green Chemistry, High Tech and Life Sciences.
Talented people from all areas of the Netherlands and abroad can build a fantastic career across a broad spectrum of disciplines here, and also enjoy the great way of life and abundant leisure facilities.
Aside from the economic success of the region, it is exactly that combination of kind-hearted warmth and competence that makes Brabant so appealing and special. ‘Brabanders’ have a natural tendency to collaborate and look for partners. The area is a patchwork of pleasantly easy-going cities nestling in a beautiful natural landscape. There is a great deal of culture and history to enjoy.
High tech and high touch go hand-in-hand in Brabant.
How do you manage stakeholder input and relationships? How to make sure all are on the same page?
We decided against running expensive (international) campaigns, which usually target the tourist market. Since 2017, we have applied Place Brand Management as our strategy. Basically, this means that we collaborate with partners that define the iconic image of Brabant to make their activities as ‘on brand’ as possible. In other words, our objective is a good fit with the chosen brand values. As befits true ‘Brabanders’, we have, of course, defined these brand values together with a large number of Brabant-based partners.
Courageously unconventional, purposefully collaborative, remarkably immersive. These brand values are not just empty marketing claims; they are embedded in our DNA and typify the character of Brabant, which has developed over centuries: open-minded, open-handed, open-hearted. We have produced a short video on this topic, well worth a look!
We work constantly to extend our network of partners and organise well-attended networking events several times a year. These events are an opportunity for sharing professional knowledge and inspiration, and highlighting how Brabant’s DNA shapes the activities of everyone present.
During the year, we maintain personal contact with our partners to ensure we know exactly where their focus lies. With the aim of combining great initiatives and discussing whether we can bring Brabant’s DNA even more clearly to the fore in their activities.
We offer stories, photos and videos via inbrabant.nl, which is an extensive online branding platform and toolkit. We organize creative brainstorming sessions that help our partners overcome specific issues and at the same time add a strong blend of Brabant-style DNA to their activities.
In recent years, Brabant Branding has been organizing positioning sessions for partners, bringing together sub-regions like Noordoost Brabant or clusters such as the pharma manufacturing cluster. These sessions provide an opportunity for participants to collectively formulate their positioning strategies. By aligning their individual positioning with the overall Brabant brand, they not only strengthen their own activities but also contribute to enhancing the Brabant region’s reputation.
If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together!
What role do national and local authorities play in Brabant’s regional brand strategy?
Our partners are actually the most important players in the strategy. The image of Brabant is the collective sum of the image that they all present to their target groups.
We deliberately chose to build the regional brand image around Brabant’s DNA and the results show that this approach works very well in practice.
The innate strong solidarity that Brabanders feel with their region certainly helps here. That solidarity is what connects cities, villages and businesses. Regardless of whether you come from Roosendaal or Oss, or from Breda or Eindhoven, everyone here also shares an identity as a ‘Brabander’.
Furthermore, we consciously decided against a separate logo for the ‘Brabant brand’ to avoid getting entangled in brand competition. Our partners, e.g. cities in the region, are not adversely affected by the Brabant brand values. In fact, they benefit from them. Our Brabant brand values are a fertile breeding ground for their own core values. And they connect them and their activities to those of other partners in Brabant, such as the other towns and cities.
Obviously, you have to find your way to a certain extent. To identify the shared interests, or which actions you need to take to achieve both your own organisation’s goals and also reinforce the desired image of Brabant.
One thing is certain, branding does not happen overnight and luckily ‘tinkering’ and ‘trying things out’ is in our blood, so our persistence will be rewarded.
How do you work with influencers and/or digital media to strengthen your brand and share your stories?
In 2020, we launched our first paid social media campaign to bring the stories featured in the InBrabant platform to the attention of various target groups, including decision makers, influencers and the media.
This campaign, called #inBrabant, has generated valuable results and is a good basis for future initiatives, both domestic and international.
Which are the main challenges when dealing with regional branding – and specifically with regard to developing and managing Brand Brabant?
Obviously, as a team of just five people, you cannot be responsible for the image of an entire region. After all, that image is the result of the behaviour, culture and communication of everyone in Brabant. Our influence on this is limited.
And, despite of all the positive energy we see in our growing network, our efforts continue to focus on ‘arousing interest and persuading’, and ‘inspiring’ as well in many cases, since we are generally not in a position (and have no desire) to get things done based on a relationship of authority or financial strength.
When it comes to innovations, we also see that the national media often choose stories based in the major cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. We look for ways of making the press, influencers and content creators more aware of the innovative aspects of Brabant, for example by offering targeted online promotions and inspiring stories and images via our Brabant Brand Box. To tell a different story, one that contradicts the image that people might have of Brabant as a province full of pigsties.
Finally, the complexity of the field sometimes works against us. Not everybody has a clear understanding of the difference between communication, marketing, promotion and branding. That sometimes clouds the debate.
Which regions and branding initiatives have served you as inspiration for your work – which would you consider great examples to follow?
How do you measure the success and effectiveness of your regional branding initiatives?
Measuring the image of a region like ours internationally among large target groups would be extremely expensive, and we have no way of directly linking developments in the region’s image to our efforts.
In 2019 we have investigated whether there were monitoring instruments that meet our needs regarding monitoring the development of a place brand. There weren’t any. So we developed one ourselves: the ImageMonitor Brabant. Together with Martin Boisen, member of the TPBO panel and place branding expert, and some of our partners we set up a survey that we conduct every other year. In 2021 was the first edition. At this moment we are analysing the results of the 2023 edition
We measure the success of our own efforts by the number of third party activities that have had a greater impact, or become more on-brand, as a result of our interventions. We note these results in a logbook so that we can take stock of our performance at the end of the year!
And of course we measure the results generated by our own branding tools. We use Google Analytics to improve the online platform, Brabant Brand Box, we measure the effects of our social media campaigns, and we do A/B testing to see what works best.
Which trends and challenges do you observe right now, with regard to regional branding in Europe?
On a European scale, the question is how relevant the regional brand is for specific target groups. When analysing a specific target group, the main objective is to determine which brand is the most relevant – country, region or city – and put that brand in the foreground.
Or you can approach it from the opposite direction: you determine which target groups are relevant for your own brand. So putting a region on the map internationally is not always a simple task.
We do see one general trend: more and more regions are moving away from a profile based purely on tourism. Just as Brabant did a few years ago, more and more regions are opting for a broader branding approach that benefits different sectors.
So it seems that our decision to base our branding on the region’s DNA (instead of physical characteristics) has made Brabant something of a trendsetter. Quite an achievement. In Brabant we like to fiddle and tinker, so we enjoy the challenge of breaking new ground.
On that theme, we made a branding film for the region, whose approach differs compared to other regions. The fact that we often saw the same generic type of film over and over again at presentations and during trade events inspired us to take a different tack. We feel that we have created something appealing and innovative. You can watch this video here.
Thank you, Gwen.
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