Place Branding Accountability: Why and How to Measure Success

How do you define success in place branding and -marketing, and how can we measure it?

This is a frequent question and also one which Sebastian Zenker asked us to put to our international panel of place branding specialists for research which his team is currently undertaking at Copenhagen Business School. Diverse and intriguing, here are the panel’s responses (in alphabetical order –  highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research or as speakers).

Our key takeaways:

  • Place branding has different objectives than place marketing, which means that success metrics differ.
  • Place branding success measurement involves asking a community’s existing residents, businesses and other stakeholders, not just external audiences.
  • A set of clear key performance indicators needs to be articulated and agreed on before embarking on a place branding project.
  • Success in place branding is always relative – to other, competing cities, regions or countries. Benchmarking and comparing performance with those can help determine impact.
  • Economic indicators and quantitative data are important, but need to be complemented with qualitative indicators of place branding impact, such as changes in perceptions.


Andrew Hoyne

Andrew Hoyne

Speaker

Success can be defined as a highly strategic brand or campaign that creates competitive commercial advantages, communicating why people should visit, open a business in a place or invest money there. A successful place brand should drive investment, tourism and talent attraction and strengthen the prominence of the place and its services and/or exports. The right outcome will also deliver an optimum reputation and increased civic pride.

  • Measuring success is to determine a very clear set of goals at the outset of the exercise and see if those were, in a specific timeframe, met. Putting in place the parameters and methods of measurement is part of this process. This sounds simple but you’d be amazed how often this isn’t done or is done badly.
  • Benchmark yourself against other comparative cities or destinations. These may involve numerical markers, such as the local economy, investment, jobs, and the number of people moving to your city. Numbers are not the only measures, though, and some are much harder to quantify, including happiness, quality of life and access to opportunities. 

With the advent of a new wave of benchmarks, urban growth and management agendas have become far more holistic. Today, we look at factors like resident and long-term liveability, national and international identity and perceptions, smartness, culture, and neighbourhood vibrancy, resilience, business, and institutional investment, social cohesion and integration, leadership and institutions, plus innovation ecosystems. These all help to understand whether a city has the ingredients required to attract and stimulate growth.

At times a very specific goal may have necessitated a place branding exercise, one linked to ‘reputational’ change. This could be tied to specific social, economic, cultural or environmental challenges experienced by a place. Measuring success in this situation requires market research before and after the work has taken place alongside straightforward statistics on changes – commercially or culturally – in the relevant spheres.

For instance, if a city is keen to position itself as a “start-up capital” then statistics on how many start-ups have eventually established themselves is mandatory. Similarly, if a place has undergone dramatic environmental damage (think bushfires) and wants to reassert its position as ‘open for business’, then tourist numbers and spend will be measurable. In both cases, one could argue positive media coverage around these topics would also be pertinent.


Caio Esteves panel

Caio Esteves

Places for Us

If we imagine that place branding is something beyond the image of the place, we can conclude that the success criteria must go beyond the external perception. When I work with the private sector in new neighborhoods or cities, I always insist that it is necessary to change the traditional approach, where success is measured exclusively by the commercial result.

It is necessary to include the quality of life in the equation, and also the happiness of the people who relate to this place. It seems that we still lack an understanding that the locals are the most important, not the visitor or any external interest.


Christopher Hire

Christopher Hire

2thinknow

Success in 2THINKNOW’s view is a well-established city brand that represents the city in all its elements, so a successful brand ties to the strengths (and potential strengths) of the city, which is reflected in our 162 indicator framework.

Importantly, a great city brand does not promote one sector of society or a city above others. A successful city brand truly represents the city, not just a small group.

In our view, people should say ‘aha, that is so obvious;’ for the great city brands!


Ed Burghard panel

Ed Burghard

The Burghard Group

Start with the definition: Place Branding = Place Making + Place Marketing.

Success can then, in general, be defined as creating a place where residents can thrive, and ensuring that both the residents and possible residents understand why. From a measurement perspective, that means creating a brand equity monitor and routinely (think annually) evaluating progress.

A brand equity monitor is a comprehensive metric that evaluates relative preference based on both rational and emotional attributes of the place brand. Emphasis is placed on the term “relative”. This requires the selection of a competitive cohort of locations to compare against.

Statistically significant differences in attribute scores help identify points of parity and points of +/- differences. Points of negative difference are addressed with strategic choices to reduce competitive disadvantage and points of positive difference are addressed with strategies designed to expand competitive advantage.


Efe Sevin

Researcher profile

The answer really depends on the project – it is all about whether the marketing and branding campaigns reach the pre-set objectives. And places can use branding campaigns for a range of objectives, such as increasing resident satisfaction and attracting businesses.

I am a firm supporter of the logic model. A proper place branding campaign should have clearly laid out objectives and tactics. It is then possible to look at the inputs, outputs, and outcomes to assess whether an intervention (branding campaign) has been successful or not.

In my research, I rely heavily on semantic and social network analysis. At the end of the day, place brands are – as Prof. Zenker has defined a few years ago – all about networks of associations in people’s minds. So, I look at who says what to whom about given places. I see whether the tone, topic, or participants of conversations change following a branding campaign.


Gunter Soydanbay

Günter Soydanbay

Soydanbay Consulting / Speaker

Though it is not a success criterion in and around itself, the foundational task of a place brand is to survive. Otherwise, the project cannot achieve any of its objectives. With this, a somewhat organic definition of success might be appropriate.

All living organisms share specific characteristics, most of which apply to place brands. They all grow, adapt, and reproduce. As per the former, one could measure target audiences’ top-of-mind awareness levels, amount of foreign investment, citizen well-being, among others.

In terms of adaptation, one can look at how well the brand responds to its environment. 

  • Does it alter its value proposition to different target audiences?
  • Can it form a symbiosis with different place brands (regional, national).
  • Does it contribute to the most pressing global issues, such as global warming? (though I prefer the term global flooding).

Finally, as per reproduction, one may measure the adoption rate of brand identity. 

  • Does it create offsprings among key stakeholders? 
  • What percentage of decision-makers sing from the same page? 
  • Do local NGOs use it? 
  • Does it interact with local exporters as a place of origin brand?

Heather Skinner

Heather Skinner

Researcher profile

City marketing and branding efforts tend to be made in order to attract inward investment and/or tourism. Many marketing and branding strategies for other types of places are solely aimed at attracting more tourists, so I don’t think we can take tourism out of the equation when discussing success measurements.

At the city level branding, success is usually based on attracting more people to live in, work in, or visit the city, and measured in terms of how these numbers grow year on year. I think that this is one of the basic problems that measurements of success tend to be based almost exclusively on growth and economic impact.

Even when the quality of life is included as a measurement of success, it is also usually linked to economic improvement and how the place can improve its competitiveness against others. Also, if and when sustainability is included in place marketing and branding strategies, that tends to be linked only to its environmental impact and not measured in either economic or social terms. So there doesn’t seem to be any joined-up thinking here with regard to how we define success holistically for places.


Hjörtur Smárason

Hjörtur Smárason

Scope Communications / Speaker

The correlation between the name of the place and certain words, describing feelings, traits or whatever else the brand is based on. This can be measured through surveys.

The basic question is what are the three words that first pop into your mind when you hear the name of a city, region or country – followed by more specific questions that are based on the brand strategy.

Another simpler way is media monitoring, measuring how often the place is mentioned and if it is growing or not, and how often specific keywords are in the same sentence as the place.


Jeannette Hanna panel

Jeannette Hanna

Trajectory Brand Consultants / Speaker profile

Success metrics for place branding are different from place marketing. I’ll focus on the place branding piece.

As Charles Landry writes in ‘Cities of Ambition’, the first thing a place needs to do is create a sense of ambition. In Landry’s words, ambitious places recognise that, “it’s not OK to be OK”.

That requires having an honest conversation among key stakeholders about a place’s current realities on a number of dimensions including:

  • human capital (having the talent we need and want)
  • social capital (sense of belonging and connectedness)
  • cultural capital (identity and shared values)
  • creative capital (inventiveness, curiosity and artistic expression)
  • scientific/technical capital (advanced and practical know-how)
  • environmental (sustainability)
  • economic capital (business climate)
  • civic capital (engagement and good governance)

In the earliest days of a place brand initiative, the level of honest dialogue assessing local strengths and weaknesses is a key metric to watch. Are locals willing to identify challenges and opportunities?

Another metric of success for a place branding project is the extent to which a committed group of people feel they can collectively influence the trajectory of their place.

In Canada, Sault Ste Marie, Ontario – a city of 73,000 people – was grappling with the economic and social impact of an imploding steel sector that had been the region’s primary employer. It created a citizen-led Committee of Adjustment that worked for a year to identify ways to move the city forward. The first recommendation was to forge a new brand strategy for the Sault. That strategy enabled the city to reframe its positioning around under-appreciated advantages of its location, sustainable energy generation, indigenous cultures and ‘maker’ ingenuity that have sparked substantive new initiatives.

These kinds of initiatives, each have their own metrics of success but the degree to which residents and businesses are supportive and buoyed by them are key markers of a successful rebranding.

It has focused the city’s collective ambition on specifics that are very tangible for residents. That local confidence, in turn, generates external interest. A project that mobilizes people around the idea transformation is galvanizing. This can be measured in terms of a broad level of support as well as a general sense of optimism.


Malcolm Allan

Malcolm Allan

Bloom Consulting

In my opinion, the ultimate measure of success of a place brand is the strength of emotion that a person experiences when its name is heard or seen. Does it stimulate a very positive emotion of love for the place, of association with it, of desirability to be there, of interest to find out more about it, etc?

But how to measure emotional interest? Here lies a challenge. Without an accepted and proven numeric emotional index (and one may exist) you need one or more proxies to assess such reactions which should be related to the stated goal and objectives of the place brand strategy.

You want to be measuring two separate types of variables:

  1. Changes in perceptions and viewpoints (which can be a proxy for emotions) about the place among target market and target geography audiences; such as an increase in the degree of warmth (again an emotion) about or awareness of the place or an increase in willingness to explore its offers and opportunities.
  2. Changes in clearly defined and easily measurable key performance indicators of expected or desired impacts of the brand, such as economic impacts like the scale of investment inquiries, the conversion rate of inquiries into investment decisions, etc.

Many of these KPIs can be measured through analysis of data drawn from online behaviour as we do at Bloom through our Digital Demand analyses or from specific surveys of the audiences.

The lessons I have drawn from my recent work and thinking on these issues and its challenges are:

  • be specific about the action to be taken to influence perceptions and behaviours
  • be precise about the impacts of those actions you wish to measure
  • identify the behaviours or types of impact that will demonstrate positive, negative or neutral response
  • identify measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) for those responses and impacts
  • know, in advance, where you can get the data you require and that it can be collected and analysed in a cost-effective and timely way
  • be willing to take action to change your brand’s implementation plans to respond to the results of your analyses – improving or extending an action or offer, or halting it if it is not creating the desired impact

And finally, understand that it may, and often will, take time for your analysis to show either positive, negative or neutral impacts of your brand strategy.


Sebastian Zenker panel

Sebastian Zenker

Researcher profile

The aims of place marketing and branding have certainly changed in the last 10 years, from purely promoting the place to new target audiences (talents, investors, companies, and tourists) to a stronger focus on internal target audiences (existing residents, for instance).

This means we target a much broader aim:

  • Creating awareness for the place (external)
  • Creating a strong and positive image for the place (internal and external)
  • Creating a strong identification and satisfaction with the place (internal)
  • Activate stakeholders as brand ambassadors (more internal)

To quote Ashworth and Voogd (1990, p. 41): place marketing aims “to maximize the efficient social and economic functioning of the area concerned, in accordance with whatever wider goals have been established.”

The wider goals, however, are case-specific (e.g., changing the perception of a place to be more bicycle-friendly).

This means, measurement-wise we need to add to the existing awareness and brand image measurements, also measurements about customer satisfaction, engagement, and identification. And we need a deeper look at the political /place planner’s aims of how the place should develop and to find indicators on how to measure that.


Todd Babiak, place branding panel

Todd Babiak

Speaker profile

I see place branding and marketing as ‘a unifying cultural expression and strategy.’ It is excruciatingly hard to achieve because it has to be both bottom-up, top-down, and tied to action. Do citizens feel they helped create it? Does it feel true? If so, how is it more than marketing? How can they bring it to life through action?

There are fewer people to include, for the top-down aspect of the strategy, but depending on the administration of the city, state, or country there are nearly always multiple competing agencies and organisations that feel they are in the business of branding the place. Bringing them along is really hard, as human beings tend to build empires and fiefdoms, and we all want to preserve our marketing budgets and to do it in our own way.

Few people tend to be experts in neuroscience unless they have been trained in that discipline and have plenty of experience. But everyone tends to be a branding and marketing expert. This is both a strength, as we can use it to bring people along, and a weakness.

Unifying our top-down efforts is easy to measure: either it’s working or it isn’t. Bottom-up efforts are harder to measure, but I like to attach numbers and data to project work more than vague indicators of awareness and sentiment.

Marketing is easier to measure. What are we selling? Who are we selling it to? Are they buying or not? If not, why? And how can we change our strategy, based on the answers to these questions, without leaving our brand behind?

We understand success as changed behavior within the place and a change of the perception of the place on the outside.

Changed behavior means that the place identity defined during the place branding project becomes more salient – there are more opportunities to witness and experience it. If enthused and inspired by their place identity, local residents take it up in their everyday life and work. As a result, it starts to transpire in local services such as hospitality; products such as food and fashion; culture such as music, art, and architecture. Each new product and service is important in this case and useful as a measure of success.

On the outside, the success of place branding is a more consolidated and consistent image of the place in the eyes of target audiences or the global public. It can be measured with data and media analytics tools that are ever-improving. Has the place become more pronounced in global conversations (social networks, films, books, media articles?) Does it have a clearer and more consistent or different image?


Adam Mikołajczyk

In my opinion, there is no such thing as general success indicators in place marketing and branding. They must always serve to support the socio-economic development of places (cities, regions, countries). Depending on the context and purposes they are used in, their impact and benefits will be described as a success. And they will always be specific to each place.

In addition, success indicators must be separated for marketing and branding activities (in the literature there are hundreds of indicators to use). However, at the end of the day, the effects of both (which of course often intertwine) must be embedded in the social and economic purposes of the place.


Andrea Lucarelli

Success, or indicators of success, should be agreed by each city, region or nation and tailored according to different necessity or strategy. And this is the same for measurement.


Erling Fossen

I believe there are only two fundamental ways of measuring success in place marketing.

  • How many people were involved? (Most important, how many participated in workshops but also participated in different surveys)
  • How many stakeholders are ambassadors of the key messages brought forward by the branding/place marketing campaign?

Successful place marketing needs a broad variety of stakeholders from the city hall, the business community and the civic society to herald the message.


Gary Warnaby

I think success inevitably has to be defined in terms of communication measures such as awareness (of the place and its attributes), understanding and perceptions, that is, opinions and feelings about the place, and the nature and extent of associations (positive and/or negative) with the place.

I feel it is problematic to define the success of place marketing/branding activities using non-communications criteria (e.g. increased inward investment etc.) as there is a range of other potential factors contributing to that, and isolating the effect of marketing/branding activities on such broader issues alone is virtually impossible.

In terms of measurement, as mentioned above, using communication-oriented measures is critical and having a clear idea of KPIs articulated in those terms is fundamental.


Hila Oren

There are indexes that allegedly define success, such as potential client awareness and perception, lodging costs such as hotels and Airbnb, global students, Michelin restaurants. To these indexes, I would add “hosting sizeable international events” such as Expo’s, Eurovision contest, Olympics, International Beauty Pageant competition and the like. I would also add the ability to create a “vibe” to the place through human factors such as its people, the food, etc.


Hong Fan

I think success in place marketing and branding can be defined in different ways, mainly:

  • An increase in audience recognition of the place
  • Increased number of visitors (or tourists)
  • Increase in total investment or new investment
  • Enhanced local government administrative efficiency
  • A greater sense of belonging and thus engaging residents in the entire process of place marketing and branding

Measuring success in place marketing and branding is far more complex than that of products or services. However, there are possible ways to measure the success due to the flexibility it offers.

  1. Conduct a comparative study to understand the numbers before and after the marketing and branding efforts. Quantitative data collection methods can be applied to gather details on the number of visitors (tourists) and investment.
  2. Examine the level of recognition that residents have of the place by designing a questionnaire to examine any change in their recognition of the place.
  3. Analyze positive or negative tendencies toward marketing efforts by studying media coverage and social media communication content.
  4. Survey residents on their perception and satisfaction of the marketing and branding efforts. A focus group interview can be conducted to learn about their recognition of the core value and attractive symbols of the place. This study helps to see if the perceived matches well with those that are designed and set in the branding efforts.
  5. Observe the taken actions or progress made by the government by studying their work efficiency. Based on my observation of the Chinese context, when the local government sets to brand and market the place, they will give it all in to make their place well-known and attractive to drive the local economy.

Jonathan McClory

It’s important to remember that there are a variety of ways to measure progress when embarking on a new place branding initiative. In order to deliver long-term impact and value for money, any given initiative must first set out an overarching long-term objective.

  • What is at the core of the initiative? 
  • How will it help the city/region/country be better in 10, 15, 20 years’ time?

With that in place, then we start working backward from there.

Short-term performance indicators could be built on a combination of metrics that capture changes in the perception of target audiences. These could take the form of polling, gauging media coverage, focus group testing, and even social media chatter.

The measures of success between the short term and the long term are likely to be more economic in nature or at least objectively assessed statistical indicators. These are likely to be things like inward investment, visitor numbers, increase in residents, tourism receipts, etc.

But in addition to the outward-facing perception-based metrics and more objective economic indicators, a place branding initiative should also be assessed on the level of engagement with citizens and domestic stakeholder groups. As such it would be useful to include metrics on citizen engagement, community recognition and participation in the place branding project.

Support among trade bodies, unions, and other community groups can give a sense of whether there is genuine buy-in from the community and also sense-check an initiative’s authenticity.


Jordi de San Eugenio Vela

The success in place marketing and branding is something related to creating a better place in general terms (economy, urbanism, environment, social services, etc). It can sound romantic, but it is in my view, the best indicator to measure the effectiveness of these strategies. There are many examples in this line: Imaginative Communities (Robert Govers) or Good Country Index (Simon Anholt), among others. I’m talking about creating a better world, not only related to promotional or positioning issues.


José Pablo Arango

Defining success in place marketing is something that has always worried those responsible for management. It all comes down to the perception that interest groups may have as a result of communication and marketing actions.


Rebecca Smith

Success is different for each place depending on their starting point. For New Zealand, we had a strong position in the tourism sector, however we were not as well regarded in other sectors that generate diverse economic returns, such as technology/services.

So for us, success was initially about shifting perceptions beyond natural beauty. Measuring this is relatively straightforward through qualitative perception research, although funding the work can be a substantial challenge.


Previous questions answered by the panel here.

You’d like to ask the panel a question? Get in touch!


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