How will the branding of cities and countries after Covid-19 differ from before the pandemic?
That’s what we wanted to know from our panel of place branding specialists. Here their answers (in alphabetical order – highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research, or as speakers).
Our key takeaways:
- City branding in particular will focus more on domestic audiences and locals.
- Destination branding will be less about landmarks and more about (safe) experiences.
- Covid-19 is an opportunity for rural hubs and “new” destinations, as they’ll be perceived safer to visit and offer new experiences in times where access to international destinations is limited.
- Country branding will see a shift in focus from tourism to public diplomacy, communicating that the country is “safe”. From a country image building standpoint, governance could take center stage.
- More place branding projects will be centered around citizen engagement and public place development activities (placemaking).
- There will be more talent attraction campaigns – both at the national and international scale.
- Country promotion agencies should address how their nation contributes to the common global good.
- This is a golden opportunity for city branding teams to incorporate messages of sustainability and resilience in public discourse.
Both city and country brands will have to focus more on domestic and local audiences due to the disruption of international travel. So branding will be less about internationally recognised landmarks but more about experiences.
Where Australia is concerned, regional rural hubs will be the big winner because a vast majority of people live in cities, and now is the perfect opportunity to convince them to experience more of what’s accessible by car or rail.
Cities will be more focussed on domestic tourism and regional tourism. In many ways, it will be a return to the days when aircraft were less long haul, as the A380 and similar large format planes will be retired. Innovation will remain critical but require better-localised communication.
General campaigns will not work, nor will campaigns based on ideas. It will require knowing who your customers are and backing it with a conceptual framework.
For some cities, more money will be made than ever before, but it will be highly unequally distributed. The winner and loser phenomenon will be magnified and we will reside in a Balkanized branding world. Bland will not cut it.
Countries will be driven by their perceptions of safety during and after Covid-19. As perceptions of safety are based on fear and often not a rational response, reassuring brands (a cup of tea and a biscuit for comfort) will win big. Safety will be the country brand driver.
It’s likely that initially, nightlife destinations will not be the push, rather a more balanced city brand with attractiveness.
As a reminder, a brand is a promise. It sets the expectation of an experience. It guides a location’s strategic choices around public policy, public programs, infrastructure and investment. These choices should be made to ensure the promise remains authentic, competitive, and relevant. Assuming you have a well-articulated brand promise, the Covid-19 pandemic will have its greatest impact on the execution of the strategies selected.
It will obviously impact the tourism revenue stream, making original execution timetables challenging. And, it will increase the relevance of visitor safety, which encompasses transportation (e.g. cruises, plane flights, rail) in addition to lodging. However, safety has always been a concern and will remain so even after a vaccine is commercially available.
In both cases, I expect some strategic changes to take place. Until international travel restrictions are lifted, cities’ focus could shift from foreign visitors to domestic and to a certain extent to domestic tourists.
Moreover, I see more place branding projects centred around citizen engagement and public place development activities. As the municipal elections approach, elected officials could prioritise projects that target the electorate.
Finally, as the Chinese saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Visionary cities will be investing in their future. So, I expect more talent attraction campaigns to take place – both at the national and international scale.
The dynamics are quite different at the country level. The primary objective should be to put itself in the list of safe countries, which requires a shift in focus from tourism to public diplomacy. That means, from a country image building standpoint, governance could take centre stage. International visitors will pay much less attention to tourism-centred messages while focusing more on how a country deals with the pandemic.
The branding of places in a post-pandemic world will need to focus on what is of most importance to a place’s target audiences. There is likely going to be a need to focus on health and safety issues, cleanliness, open spaces, and outdoor environments, and also ease of travel to the place.
Place branding has always been about differentiation, but many place branding campaigns end up as merely logos and taglines that do not make any real differentiation. Post pandemic place branding now really has the opportunity to ensure places focus on what differentiates them from the others on the elements target audiences find relevant.
For context, we must assume that there will be outbreaks of coronavirus (or new variants) happening in various parts of the world for several years to come. For cities as well as countries, a track record of effective crisis management will be important in terms of rebuilding trust – whether in the eyes of visitors, talent, or investors.
Having a reputation as a “safe” place – out of harm’s way in terms of violence, social upheaval, environmental catastrophes, and health risks – will take on far more currency as people reconsider the global map for new options. This will benefit many off-the-beaten-path locations that can promise great amenities with less perceived risk.
Probably, we will have to differentiate between the two periods.
In the short term (while Covid-19 is still among us), the branding of places (cities, regions, countries, destinations) will have to focus mainly on local citizens and domestic visitors:
- First, to ensure that the place is (and is perceived as) safe to live, work, study and visit, and to explain what are the changes and measures in place in terms of mobility, public spaces, workspaces, etc. – also in terms of tourism attractions and experiences.
- Second, to make sure the place is seen as attractive and worth visiting or investing.
- Third, to engage citizens in the response to the pandemic, creating a sense of community and actively engaging them in the new direction defined for their place.
In the longer term, while the place is coping and responding to Covid-19 challenges, place branding should help places set the future vision and strategic direction. Also, plan the future and bring all the place stakeholders together, uniting them around a common vision and purpose, to make the place more resilient, sustainable and attractive.
Cities and places at the sub-national scope
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought branding closer to home: local and national residents are becoming the primary lifeline for the sectors that had previously relied on foreign visitors.
Places would do well by not merely providing their services, but also placing themselves within a broader national narrative: how they have contributed to the history and culture of their nation, what they bring to the economy today, and the future of their country tomorrow.
The pandemic has posed some existential questions that are universally relevant and poignant: the meaning of technological progress, the possibility of a global society, the future of the planet and the human race. The nations that have the cultural clout, political will, and economic capabilities to provide leadership in answering these questions will see their country brands strengthened as a result.
Country promotion agencies would do well to ask and answer the question of how their nation contributes to the common global good in the post-pandemic times.
If we have a strong city brand, we can use it for effective placemaking – even during and after a crisis. If we know who we are, at our best, we can use this “brand lens” as a way to encourage small interventions in our cities that bring our story to life. So many cities have expanded sidewalks and fast-tracked protected bicycle lanes, to provide safe alternatives to public transit and to use outdoor space for gatherings. I hope all of this quick action can show city administrators and citizens that they can be imaginative and take the right kind of risks, right now, and allow them to endure.
We’re already seeing stark differences between countries and their approaches to the pandemic. Like everything else, it reveals culture. So much of economic development and place branding is about attracting tourists, students, investors, talented people, and great companies. Have countries emerged from Covid-19 with a reputation for safety, care, community, cleverness, and competence? Have they privileged personal freedom and economic growth? Or will they come out of this pandemic looking weak, divided, and dangerous? For some countries, this will be a massive opportunity to build on competitive strengths. Other countries will have to think hard about who they are, what they offer, and how they might heal.
Place branding is a tried and tested process, so this shouldn’t change. However, the messaging by cities will have to, at least, in the short-medium-term until Covid-19 is a distant memory – ideally after widespread vaccination. And this will affect cities’ marketing communications.
People are avoiding cities in favour of less crowded rural areas because of concerns about crowds and the difficulty of social distancing. So, cities will have to:
- Firstly, manage their place effectively, develop and enforce socially distanced measures, manage traffic and pedestrian flows, provide basic facilities and keep them clean (e.g. litter, toilets), and address public transport capacity – particularly the number of people per carriage/bus, etc. Inspiring confidence in these safety/hygiene measures will be critical to visitors returning to cities. Destination management will become more important than ever.
- Secondly, all destinations will have to include reassurance about hygiene and health security in their marketing messages, but very subtly, to reassure people but not ‘scare the horses’. This is a departure from normal post-crisis promotional advice, which stresses the need to focus exclusively on positive future messages and avoid mentioning the past crisis (e.g. “the worst is now over”; “we’re safe now”) as this merely serves to remind people of the risks and induce fear.
But all surveys are indicating potential visitors now expect reassurance on measures places are taking to manage infection transmission risks and want this addressed overtly and clearly. The ability to provide such reassurance with credibility will, perhaps counter-intuitively, become an element of competitive advantage for destinations, as well as hotels, attractions, and other tourism establishments. “Visit us because we’re safe” (or at least have robust hygiene-health precautions in place) will no longer be a reminder of risk, but a reassurance that it has been minimised!
I think city branding needs to change at least in its outer layer, which is communication. In some cases, this would be enough, whereas in other cases, there will emerge a need to restate key values and associations to be projected. In many cases, a radical change of path was needed before the pandemic but certainly, the current moment not only represents a push to rethink branding critically but also a concrete opportunity in a time of discontinuity.
For instance, the discontinuity in tourism certainly represents a relevant side of city branding, especially in practice. I am thinking of “overtouristified cities” from pre-Covid days: a more sustainable tourism path is now necessary for tourism to survive in these cities, while before the Covid-19 crisis, the “success” of big numbers made it politically unviable.
City branding has to mirror and sustain a deeply changed discourse on city development and liveability, starting from key “communicators” of the city, such as policymakers.
As marketers we learned the “four P’s of marketing” (Product, Place, Promotion, Price). More recently, a fifth P was added for Purpose. The pandemic obliged everybody to add a sixth P for Protection.
For all destinations or origins, the idea of having “protected” environments will be essential. Or at least having an environment that makes the audience feel protected and cared. To make a comparison with the airline industry, no company would say “our planes are safe” because that’s hygienic, it’s a must. Well, now, it will be time to reinforce those ideas and concepts such as “safe, clean, hygienic, etc.”
Public spaces will be more dominant as part of branding. In cities where public spaces are significant, when more integrated and emphasized in the place branding – the brand value will go up.
We can see that in NYC, for example, where the brand is clearly on a decline. But in clean, airy, spacious cities, with pocket tourism, and with gardens and well-kept public spaces – the brand value will go up. These are cities like Sydney, Christchurch, Tel Aviv, Nordic cities like Copenhagen, Japanese cities, and beach cities.
Place branding will differ post the pandemic in that sustainability and responsibility will be a larger factor in all branding and development, no matter if it is a city or a country. That shift started before Covid-19, and I think that it will continue, now with an even stronger focus.
Also, placemaking, destination management, and innovation will be a larger part of the equation.
Branding will be essential. It is an opportunity to rebuild the brand after Covid-19, and it will have to involve all the different stakeholders, including inhabitants. Now, most of the destinations have realised what happens when there are no tourists, and that they should have started thinking about what kind of tourism they would like.
It is now time for serious planning and branding strategy, to build up a strong brand that can survive, and therefore needs less marketing campaigns, if any other pandemic happens.
It depends on the performance of the city or country in relation to the virus. And if a location’s reputation has been affected, surely it will be necessary to contain the damage. As a short-term strategy, showcase how effectively the crisis was managed, in a manner that does not affect the long-term narrative of the place.
I’m afraid quite a few cities, regions, and even countries will be carrying a certain form of COVID-19 related stigma with them which will feel ‘tainted’ to some people, as it were. While of course, this is unfair from an epidemiological perspective (provided the virus is safely gone), from an emotional point of view the stigmatized brand perception might understandably persist for some time.
Therefore cities/regions/countries will need to do their best to communicate credibly:
- that they’re safe places to visit (that’s the no-brainer)
- that they are enforcing distancing rules and hygienic measures
- that they’re nonetheless enjoyable places
- that it’s still possible to meet, and talk to local people and experience local culture and sights and
- that local people won’t be afraid of, or be hostile towards, or reluctant to meet, foreigners visiting their place.
I think that places will need to invest a lot of ideas into how to communicate the above messages, as well as, live them, that is, to become hospitable places again to welcome travellers, visitors, and tourists, and make them have a good time.
In a nutshell, future place branding activities will need to focus on human relations.
It doesn’t seem all cities and countries have realised that Covid-19 marks a significant change in their destination and place branding practices, if only! Still, for those cities and countries that wish to see this pandemic as an opportunity to reconfigure and rebrand their regional and domestic landscape, the development of a sustainable place brand may become a reality rather than just an objective.
Cities and countries turn to information technology and various management tools, to:
- provide value first to internal and subsequently to external actors
- achieve happiness and memorable experiences by boosting engagement even from a ‘distance’, in new and evolving ways
Following the outbreak of the pandemic, as each place resets its management, rebranding exercises will build on the essence of the place, adequate management, and branding tools that reduce uncertainty.
However, that there is no solution or branding practice that fits all sizes; the essence of each place may change depending on how long this crisis will last and the tools employed for managing it. Such factors may leave a permanent mark on national culture, as described, for instance, by Hofstede’s dimensions. Thus, for any rebranding exercise to be developed and marked with success, what comes first is the collection and analysis of up-to-date research data describing the present reality and identity of the place.
Previous questions answered by the panel here.
Enjoyed this snapshot of expert views on what place branding will look like after the Covid-19 pandemic, in terms of strategies and priorities? Thanks for sharing!