How to Use Storytelling for Place Branding: Five Ways to Spread Place Stories

Günter Soydanbay in this guest post illustrates why the act of creating place strategy is too important to be left to the city officials, and how to use storytelling for place branding.

Have you ever tried an Air Sandwich? In case you don’t know what it is, here is how Nilofer Merchant, the renowned business strategist and the creator of the concept describes it:

“Strategy gets created incompletely mostly because strategy creation is perceived as an elite exercise, something that only an executive group of people can and should do in a hotel ballroom with walls covered in flip- chart paper. […] The thinking is that execs are empowered to create strategy, so they hole up in long meetings, using models, complex frameworks, and vast amounts of vetted data to decide things. […] Obviously, this approach lacks collaboration, debates, discussions, and the necessary engagement of the (entire) organization. […] In Silicon Valley, we call that gap an “Air Sandwich”: the empty void in an organization between the high-level strategy conjured up in the stratosphere and the realization of that vision down on the ground.”

Every place has its own Air Sandwich

Place branding projects are highly susceptible to the Air Sandwich. On the one hand, key decision-makers come up with a vision and future direction. On the other side, locals live not in a distant, utopian future, but right here, right now. Sadly, there is little practical understanding that connects the two layers.

Let me go a step further and claim that this is “the” challenge of place branding: to align the new direction with appropriate actions. When there is a disconnect between the vision and the behaviours, the place ends up with an under-delivered brand promise, which, in return, weakens the place brand. When that happens, a mutual blamestorming ensues. Stakeholders claim that “citizens failed to live the brand,” whereas locals think, “the people in power didn’t get the strategy right.”

So, is it possible for a place to overcome the Air Sandwich? If so, what is the best way to align place vision and action?

Storytelling is the Meat in the Middle

The Air Sandwich occurs when locals are not engaged or informed enough about the strategy. However, at its core, it is primarily a communication problem.

There is no shortage of psychology books demonstrating that we often don’t make rational decisions. Humans, they say, are not precisely rational beings – more like rationalizers. Consequently, we don’t communicate primarily by factual information, but by narratives.

The human brain has evolved in such a way that we remember stories up to seven times more than facts alone.[1] Carol S. Pearson says, “Children as young as two years old can make meaning of what is happening to them using narrative patterns.” That’s why the missing ingredient that goes in the middle of the Air Sandwich is storytelling.

Positive psychologists say that stories not only inform us, but they also form us. That’s why if the objective is to shape locals’ behaviours, then one should spread positive stories about the place. By doing so, you could not only collectively galvanize locals but also individually vitalize them.

Romans believed that stories have wings, which means that they can spread on their own. All you need is to let them fly freely.

Five ways to use storytelling in place branding

Here are five ways that can help you achieve that.

1. Hire a Chief Place Storyteller

Detroit arguably has the most thorough approach to storytelling. The Motor City has created an official position called the chief storyteller. The objective is to craft a new narrative for the city by telling positive daily life stories. Those anecdotes hint that the subsystems of the city are alive and healthy.

So, when Detroit tells a story about kids doing great things, it communicates that the schools are getting better. Likewise, stories about people buying houses is a reflection of a neighbourhood getting better.

Chances are your place government already has a media or communication department. If so, then why not put together a team of writers, producers, editors, and photographers and create a platform through which they can share their hometown stories?

2. Publish an interview book

Stakeholder interviews are an integral part of the place branding process. Consultants often unearth exciting stories about the history of the place and the achievements of the locals. Once the strategy is finalized, however, those invaluable anecdotes slowly disappear in the dusty pages of history. That does not have to be the case.

During their branding project, the officials of the City of Gaziantep did something unorthodox. First, they used Appreciative Interviews to generate a rich collection of experiences and remembrances. Then, they transcribed the stakeholder interviews, from which they created a book. And finally, they used the book to inform the media and locals about the branding process. The book also served as a reminder that the place’s history is a source of positive possibility.

Appreciative Inquiry stories collected during the interview process are an untapped resource. By publishing them, you can allow the locals to learn from their past, recognize work well-done, and get a sense of vitality.

3. Share video highlights

Let’s stay with stakeholders interviews for a little bit more. The content of the conversations remains a secret, primarily because nobody wants to air the stakeholders’ dirty laundry. That makes sense… only if your interviews focus on problem talk.

The questions one asks shape the reality of the project. If your goal is to fix what’s wrong, then the interviewee will harp on the problems, which would inadvertently cause conversations about who or what caused the problem or to blame.

There is an alternative approach: talking about possibilities. The interview’s sole objective is not to extract information from the interviewee. It should also be to form the interviewee by creating a dialogue that fosters shared meaning and dream.

If you opt for the latter approach, then you can even record the interviews on a video. By capturing the best of the interviews, you make stakeholders’ dreams accessible to the masses. You can, then, place those video highlights in the media that belongs to the place: city’s website and social media accounts, screens at the city buses or subway trains, digital billboards, among others.

4. Run an archetypal campaign

Romans believed that every place has a soul. They called it Genius Loci. The soul of the place could lie dormant for decades, but it never disappears, decays or can be destroyed. No matter how much time passes, it stays intact, waiting to be reactivated. That’s why discovering Genius Loci could be a breakthrough for a place branding project.

Once you are armed with that timeless knowledge, then you can shift your focus on the present. Observe how that soul is being kept alive. Collect contemporary anecdotes. Then create a campaign that draws a parallel among recent achievements and the myths of the place.

To give an example, the first hospital of Asia Minor was established in Izmir, Turkey. Two millennia later, Izmir is still the frontier city of Turkey in modern medicine. That is a powerful insight, upon which one could build an archetypal campaign that highlights that the best of the city’s past is also the foundation for its future.

To be ignorant of Genius Loci causes locals to forget their true nature and eternally search their soul. In return, when locals see that they are living an archetypal story, they start feeling encouraged and renewed. An archetypal campaign could accomplish just that.

5. Have murals and art exhibitions

Story walls are common parlance in the corporate world. By using visual storytelling, companies get their walls talking. They express their values, purpose, and culture on the walls of their reception area and conference rooms. A similar approach could be applied to places – preferably at a much grander scale.

Artists and interviewers could work hand in hand to create a series of murals that highlight the most exciting aspects of the interviews. In that way, the place’s best practices become available to everyone. The project would even create a PR buzz, promoting itself.

Another way to keep the stories alive is to create an art exhibition. The place could tap into the creative power of its poets and photographers to tell positive stories. The outcome of the collaboration could be transformed into an open-air exhibition, through which stories come alive and are spread throughout the place.

Let’s conclude by quoting Nilofer Merchant one more time: “We must treat strategy not just as a noun, but also as a verb.”

The act of creating place strategy is too important to be left to the city officials. The missing link among key decision-makers and the locals is storytelling. By tapping into the power of positive stories, you can make your Air Sandwich disappear.

Gunter Soydanbay panelGünter Soydanbay is a passionate place branding strategist and an insightful thinker, who has years of experience working with cities and countries. Holding a B.Sc. in Psychology, his thinking is heavily influenced by depth psychology.

He also has an MBA degree from McGill University with a concentration in Strategic Management.

Connect with Günter Soydanbay on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter or visit his website.

[1] Bower, G. H., & Clark, M. C. (1969). Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning. Psychonomic Science, 14(4), 181-182.


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