How to measure the effectiveness and success of place branding initiatives is a question often asked by those in charge of city brand development, destination marketing or economic development. Answers provided on this page are especially relevant for those in public administration whose budgeting requires accountability and the ability to measure return on investment.
A word about place branding
Because the term branding is used in all sorts of contexts and disciplines, some clarifications upfront. One of our favorite definitions of place branding comes from American marketing veteran (Procter & Gamble) and economic development advisor Ed Burghard. He describes place branding as proactively managing a location’s identity and its ‘future state’, which requires a strategy plan (Ed suggests 10 years) on choices such as asset creation, infrastructure investment as well as public policy reform.
Malcolm Allan of Bloom Consulting in London draws a clear line between “fluffy and surface approaches to place branding (logos and tag lines and advertising campaigns), and the substantial and robust nature of an in-depth strategy, executed in a professional way.”
In short, contemporary place branding goes beyond marketing, PR or promotion in that it seeks to create, rather than “just” communicate place identities. This is a challenging task, which requires sound approaches and ways to measure success.
Below a few ideas on how to achieve the latter, and the main challenges involved in determining the effectiveness of place branding initiatives.
Why and how to measure success of place branding initiatives
Time is of the essence in place branding, as Juan Carlos Belloso of branding consultancy Future Places in Barcelona stresses, because “changing and improving the image of a place (its brand) is a long-term effort, you need to be able to understand how the image of the place is changing over time and what is the impact and effectiveness of the different place branding and marketing strategies.”
The time dimension clearly is a main reason for making sure appropriate measurement mechanisms are in place. Sebastian Zenker (Copenhagen Business School) thus describes place branding as a marathon rather than a sprint: “If you for instance change something in the brand communication, the effect will be measurable much later – maybe after a couple of years. That is not very politicians’ friendly”.
Asking the right questions is key. For Raquel Goulart, brand strategist and expert at Best Place, the European Place Marketing Institute, suitable questions include: Is the message clear? Is it fully understood and embraced by the place’s publics? Do target audiences recognize the brand promise at different contact points?
How to measure the effectiveness, success or ROI of place branding activities depends on the initial purpose of such initiatives, which ranges from attracting foreign investment to increasing student or visitor numbers, to public diplomacy or even strengthening a sense of community among the local population.
As nation branding scholar Keith Dinnie (Middlesex University, London) notes, in theory, measuring the success of place branding isn’t difficult: “you should clearly define your objectives, implement your strategy, and evaluate to what extent the objectives have been achieved.”
In a similar line, place brand consultant and university lecturer Martin Boisen (University of Groningen, Netherlands) suggests to agree on the KPIs before each funding period and set realistic and measurable targets.
Sebastian Zenker also stresses the need to clearly define goals, such as more visitors from a particular country, in order to measure success of place branding. For example, Roger Pride during his time at Visit Wales created the “Magnificent Seven” KPIs, which were then used as proxy to evaluate the success of the nation’s destination marketing.
Also referring to KPIs, Robert Govers, Managing Research Partner of the Good Country Index and a leading scholar and advisor on the branding and reputation of places, stresses the need to differentiate between outputs, outcomes and impacts: “Often, agencies claim or insinuate that their actions had real economic impacts in terms of increased visitor spending, export growth or new investments or residents. However, any causality between such inputs and impacts would be very hard to prove.”
A better approach, in his view, would be “to measure the effects of brand initiatives on the outcomes that are specifically intended, i.e. increased name recognition, awareness and improved image among international publics and an enhanced sense of pride among residents.”
For Jörgen Eriksson and Svetlana Masjutina (formerly Bearing Consulting), benchmarking is the best way to measure the effectiveness of place branding, since “the results of place branding cannot be measured in absolute values, but in comparison and ranking with comparable and competing places.”
Benchmarking can be particularly useful in times of recession, where the mere fact of not declining might mean a great success in comparison to competitors, argues Sebastian Zenker, for whom measuring a place’s own performance without regard of its peers is not sufficient.
On a destination level, Kevin Bowler, CEO of Tourism New Zealand, tells us that his organization uses multiple approaches, always keeping in mind the DMOs main purpose – to increase the value of international visitors to New Zealand. To measure the effectiveness of the country’s commercially very successful 100% Pure New Zealand branding and marketing campaign, Bowler uses intermediate measures and indicators: intelligence generated through tracking studies in key markets. Those intermediate measures include intention to travel to New Zealand and a range of destination brand attribute ratings. Most of Tourism New Zealand’s marketing now focuses on responsive digital channels, which allows the organization to capture exposures, interaction levels, and referral levels to travel sellers and operators as a measure of success.
While most leading place branding professionals interviewed by The Place Brand Observer regard stakeholder involvement an integral element of successful place branding initiatives, few focus on qualitative indicators, such as stakeholder satisfaction, which Robert Govers considers an essential KPI.
Equally, Magdalena Florek, urges to “take into account the consumers’ perspective which in this case is provided by place stakeholders, external target groups and internal inhabitants.” In her view, “this is a superior mode of evaluating completion of any place-related strategy and marketing activity.”
Challenges of measuring place branding success
While measuring the effectiveness or success of place branding initiatives might sound easy in theory, in practice this can be a challenging task.
A key challenge lies in establishing a link between place branding activities and improvements of a place brand. Ares Kalandides, CEO of Berlin-based consultancy Inpolis and Director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, sees the problem in the fact that “you can register economic growth or a positive urban place development and you have ways of measuring the improvement of a place brand, but it is practically impossible to show links between the two.”
Lack of causality was also a topic addressed by Robert Govers during his keynote at the Economic Forum in Poland, September 2015, in which he reported that while agencies often claim or insinuate that their actions had real economic impacts in terms of increased visitor spending, export growth, new investments or residents, causality between such inputs and impacts is very hard to prove.
The fundamental challenge, for Martin Boisen, is that “in place branding we deal with the overall perception of a place, and there are many factors that influence this perception. A lot of these factors are external, and often beyond the control and beyond the influence of the organizations in charge.”
Lack of clear goals and KPIs
Lack of formulated goals and success criteria in place branding projects are a major hurdle, according to Martin Boisen. He further points out that, while vague and loosely formulated KPIs might be understandable in the beginning, this becomes a large problem later on – when evaluations are based on (often failed) expectations, instead of agreed measures. In his opinion, this forms one of the reasons why a lot of place branding projects have a very low life expectancy, as it’s too easy to blame politics when the managerial aspects aren’t professionally implemented.
Lastly, insufficient funding can hinder proper measurement of place branding success, reports Sebastian Zenker from his work with cities: “Budgets are very small in place branding – and a measurement of brand image or customer satisfaction on a regular basis could easily take 20-30% of your budget. That is hardly something you can do every year.”
Limited budgets are also a key challenge on a country level. As Gustavo Koniszczer, Managing Director of FutureBrand Latin America, tells us, for place branders the usual dilemma is: should I spend available funds in actions or in research? Establishing clear KPIs and setting apart funding to measure place branding success according to those might be the best way to overcome this dilemma.