Interview with Helena Renström on How to Use City Branding for Investment Attraction

Helena Renström, marketing manager of Skellefteå municipality, has an impressive story to tell – about how this small Swedish community managed to attract the country’s largest battery plant, bringing to the city many new jobs and opportunities.

Our interview with Helena is part of a special series with speakers at the Nordic Place Branding Conference, organized by our friends at Future Place Leadership.

Helena, when did you first hear about “place branding” – and how has your view on the topic changed over time?

Destination development has been an interest of mine since the early 90’s, but focus lay on tourism at the time. Place branding came to my knowledge in 2010. The basic principles of place branding are in many ways the same, but more perspectives and stakeholders are included and often have opposing purposes and interests.

Marketing professionals sometimes regard place branding as a matter of logos and taglines. In your view, what is place branding all about? And how does it link with place marketing?

I’ve always been interested in the holistic view of place development. Everything – from legislation, to (urban) planning, the dialogue with different stakeholders, citizen and company involvement, the collective ownership of a brand, innovation, the psychology and sociology of a place etc. – is what triggers my eager to learn more and develop my knowledge on place branding.

Place branding is, and has to be, a reflection of place development.

My roots are deeply set in services marketing theory, so the philosophy behind the co-creation of value, relationship value as interpreted by customers, understanding the importance of closing the gap between expectations and reality, the role of servicescapes and all stakeholders in a setting etc. has always been my guiding rules. They also determine how I view services marketing and, consequently, also place marketing.

Marketing is not done by a small group of people. It is the collective process of everything that happens, and how this is interpreted by ourselves as well as our stakeholders.

How would you define a well-functioning city brand?

A well-functioning city brand taps into the DNA of a place (also related to the surrounding region and cultural and social heritage of a city). It invokes a feeling that people in general can relate to, and be proud of. But it has to be forward-looking. Nothing will happen if it only maintains status quo.

As Marketing Manager of Skellefteå municipality in Sweden you have been at the forefront of the city’s brand positioning work, which helped attract Europe’s biggest battery factory and 2500 new jobs. Can you tell us how this brand/identity finding process has changed and influenced the city?

The process started long before attracting the battery factory. Both the place branding process as well as a large strategy process involving over 1000 inhabitants in a citizen dialogue lay the grounds for our success.

While working with the establishment of the battery plant, we found a more precise definition of our position and our strengths. We also strengthened the notion of doing things together with companies and citizens, believing in ourselves, despite the fact that quite few believed we would make it.

We found the courage, pragmatism, confidence and strength to act that has been in our DNA for centuries, but hasn’t been very obvious to us until now. People are proud of what we have done together.

Which principles would you consider fundamental for successful city branding  -aimed at attracting business, investment or people (talent)?

  • Knowledge as a guiding rule
  • Delivery on what is promised
  • Short decision making processes
  • Proactivity
  • Respecting and viewing differences as assets
  • People who are nice and down to earth but at the same time experts in their areas
  • Awareness of the place’s unique assets
  • Courage

Those are all very important aspects when attracting businesses, talents and people.

On the contrary, what do you think are the most common mistakes committed by place branding professionals?

Not letting processes take time and the lack of involvement in the process from different stakeholders are common mistakes. If many people have been involved, you also have a broad basis for taking responsibility for the result and invoke ownership of a brand.

Could you share with us some of your favorite projects that have enriched your experience as a place branding expert?

Ge Plats”, a campaign that challenges gender stereotypes and how this affects the view of the leadership of a place is my favorite project. Not because it was the most popular thing we have ever done, but because it has raised important questions that will be discussed and processed many years to come. It also developed my courage to do what I believe is important.

As a speaker at the upcoming Nordic Place Branding conference in Stockholm this April, which aspects of your work will you share with the audience?

I am often quite reflective and open when it comes to sharing success factors but also to mistakes I have made. At the conference I will relate our strategies to practical operative actions which we made when working with our place branding process. I will talk about the process before, during and after the decision to locate the battery plant in Skellefteå.

Thank you, Helena.

Connect with Helena Renström on LinkedIn or explore her speaker profile here.


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