Place branding is a capital-intensive undertaking. Is it worth the effort for cities, regions or destinations? How do a place’s citizens and businesses benefit from place branding? Where are its limits?
Our key takeaways:
- Place branding helps to build an identity with distinguishing features so that a city, region or country can stand out from others and clearly communicate its benefits and strengths to potential investors, visitors or residents.
- Place branding is foremost about ensuring that those currently calling the place their home are well and happy, which will attract skilled labour, lucrative investment, and visitors. It is thus more about placemaking than about promotion.
- Place branding provides a blueprint to take decisions around city planning, capital attraction/retention, infrastructure investment, and public policy creation/reform.
- Places are generally composed of various stakeholders with different priorities Place branding helps in reaching common ground and focusing on the strengths of a country, city or region.
- When done creatively, place branding can bring a city or region to life, seeking inspiration from its culture, cuisine, technology, architecture, heritage, art, future vision etc.
- Place branding is not an activity restricted to elite countries or cities like Paris, New York or London. It can help any place or destination to prosper and be in the limelight.
Place branding has never been more critical to a city’s success. With over 3,000 cities globally targeting talent and investment, it is an extremely competitive market out there. So I’m truly shocked when I hear intelligent, business-minded people fail to understand the power and importance of a great place brand.
Do they want their city to flounder amid myriad better branded, engaging cities and bid farewell to the significant social and economic benefits a strong place brand could bring?
Place branding helps to shape a community and increase economic opportunities for citizens and for businesses of all sizes. It can create competitive commercial advantages, communicating why people should visit, open a business in a place or invest money there. This helps to future-proof your city, ensuring success now and for decades to come.
It should be seen as an optimistic, positive endeavour that creates value. It amplifies positive differences and celebrates what makes a place unique. It’s a call to action and today it is a non-negotiable factor for any city wishing to prosper. The right outcome will also deliver an improved reputation and increased civic pride.
Places of all sizes still labour over the decision to develop a brand strategy. If a city is allocating funds to programs without defining its brand identity, then it is risking (and possibly wasting) public funds. No matter the city’s size, a formalized brand strategy can set and manage its competitive identity and channel the energies and resources of partners to orchestrate the best results from their combined investments, however limited.
Branding may provide attractive logo designs, but more importantly, it’s a strategic guidance system. When it comes to branding a place, it’s about revealing who you are (brand essence), who you want to become (brand vision), what differentiates you from other options (positioning), the voice (personality), key messages and placemaking tools that will guide your focus and consistency. Importantly, it can be done on a small budget by optimizing all resources, communications, and investments that are already in play.
Place branding is a strategy for making informed decisions on placemaking investment priorities and how to communicate them. It starts with a clear definition of a location’s core promise, followed by a select set of strategic actions to ensure the promise is relevant, authentic and competitive over time.
Place Branding = Place Making + Place Marketing
There are a number of reasons to engage in place branding but, the fundamental reason is to increase the probability that residents will be able to lead the kind of life they desire. The definition of what that life looks like is embedded in the brand promise. Having a defined blueprint to guide choices around capital attraction/retention, infrastructure investment and public policy creation/reform is a more efficient and effective way of delivering a location’s brand promise. It also allows for the creation of a systematic set of success measures to ensure intended results are delivered.
My general counsel to community leaders, however, is to not engage in place branding unless you are willing to:
- let it guide your strategic planning process
- build accountability into the process
- fund the effort sufficiently for success
This is similar counsel I give to business owners looking at branding their products/services. If branding is not seen as a guiding strategy for decision making it will end up being a frustrating exercise and a money pit. Admittedly, CEOs seem to understand this more readily than elected officials.
Places need to engage with place branding because it is no longer optional. Gone are the days where place branding was equated solely to promotion campaigns.
Place branding should be seen as a coherent management initiative in which decision-makers reflect on what their communities stand for, what they have to offer to the rest of the world, and what makes their communities unique before formulating their policies.
It is useful because it ensures proper stakeholder engagement; policies need to balance what all these different stakeholders – for instance, students in the city, short-term visitors, potential residents, actual residents, businesses – see as the “identity” of a place.
The usefulness resides more in the place branding “process” than in the place brand strategy or place promotion.
When I look back at my experience, I see that the chances of a project succeeding increases when we focus on solving the problem and not the solution, which, in this case, is place branding. Ultimately, each place is unique. So why force-feed stakeholders one solution?
Along that line, the most significant benefit of the place branding process is that it creates awareness among stakeholders about what matters. It brings a diverse group of interested parties together, informs them about the shortcomings and strengths of the place, and fills them in about what comparable areas are doing.
Finally, when done right, the place branding process would engage the decision-makers, so that they can own a piece of the solution. After all, people support only what they help create.
Let’s go back to basics. Since marketing gurus Philip Kotler and Sidney Levy back in the 1960s proposed that places could be marketed, academic and practitioner interest has grown in this area and it is the realm of branding that marketing practices have most widely been applied to places.
The basic principles of branding apply as equally to places as they do to any other product or service. Branding makes something identifiable through naming and visual design and branding also make it distinctive with meanings conveyed through the brand’s personality and positioning.
Put quite simply, place branding is about creating a positive identity for a place and differentiating it from other places. Place brand identity, therefore, involves reputation management and image creation/re-creation to make a place competitive in its market, whether that market is global, regional, or national. Through differentiation, we try to make our place attractive for people to live in, work in, and visit, and we aim to grow our place through economic development, attracting direct investment, and to have a positive impact on a place’s exports.
The easiest way to describe this is that, you want to be on the map. And not only that, you want to choose which map you are on and what you look like on that map. The correct brand positioning of your place will attract the right talent, the right investments and the right partnerships to make your future achievements become a reality. A strong brand must also have considerable soft power in its diplomatic efforts. Words and actions are always weighted in the context of one’s reputation.
Every place, large or small, is challenged to answer one simple, but powerful, question: “Why choose here?”
Place branding can be an effective tool for addressing that question in a compelling, coherent way – for investors, talent, residents, businesses, visitors, students, and more. Those different audiences will be attracted to a destination based on specific criteria, but a smart place brand brings all those individual strands together like a one-of-a-kind, well-woven tapestry. Something highly desirable and attractive, yet very functional.
Place brands are a way to identify and harness collective strengths like talent, knowledge and social values and they enable a community to leverage their essential assets (e.g. location, geography, resources, infrastructure, culture). They should be forward-looking – here’s where we’re going and why that matters. Most importantly, place brands offer a way to mobilize a community’s sense of pride and collective ambition.
Place branding can be a mechanism where different stakeholders have a say about the future of a community. For this reason, engaging with place branding can be a useful way to unite communities by giving them a common purpose.
Place branding, if properly understood and applied, can be a powerful tool that can contribute to the strategic objectives of a place or destination. It can help to understand the place identity (who we are), what the existing perception of the place is (how a place is seen by target groups) and what would be the future vision and image of the place we would like to have. Experts can design the appropriate strategies to achieve this vision and image, through a set of comprehensive and consistent strategies, actions, relations, and communications.
It can be really useful as long as we understand that this is not a marketing or communications tool, but a strategic one that needs a clear shared vision for the future, doing tangible actions over time to change the place, engage the key stakeholders (public and private) and communicate them in an attractive, meaningful and credible way.
We should consider two related aspects here: place branding as a process and a place brand itself perceived as an outcome of this process. The two could be viewed from an internal and an external perspective.
From an internal perspective, a brand speaks in a single voice, providing a common vision and a single concept for many actors; it reinforces place identity, gives a sense of pride and self-esteem of its residents. Place branding involves the cooperation of various stakeholders and engages to co-create their own place.
The latter seems to be of special value to place branding success. And from a managerial angle, a place brand distinguishes a place by stressing its unique features, helping to build, modify or strengthen place image. It also determines clear communication, helps to compete effectively for various resources and supports local products and brands.
To external targets, a brand is an aggregate of place features; it also provides a reason to get interested by adding value, defining a promise and providing an experience.
In 2000, when I first started thinking about how to adapt the discipline of product and service brand strategy to places, in the field of town planning and local government policymaking, in general, a key belief was that consultation with the people and business of a place was a fundamental tenet of a professional approach to placemaking.
Since then, and often stimulated by those who are pioneers or practitioners in the field of place brand strategy, consultation has been seen as the limiting exercise which it often was (“here is a plan we made earlier, what do you think”) and has come to be replaced by a commitment to engagement (“what are the issues you think we should be tackling and should be planning for?”).
It’s time for place brand strategy to fully make this move and to “discover” the benefits of full and meaningful engagement of people in the development of their strategies, or, in other words, participation in their development and implementation. Let people invest their skin in the game in activities, projects, events, and policies that they feel exemplify the kind of place they currently live in or want to live in.
I don’t think anyone who has engaged in place branding as a client has ever regretted it (grey hairs notwithstanding). It is a hugely rewarding exercise, professionally and personally. I won’t mention the usual deliverables as they are well known. What is less often talked about is the unusual, unexpected privilege of defining a meaning for your place.
Usually, the politicians tell us who we are and what we should be striving for as a nation. Their own fortune depends on how well they can engage the public nerve, touch our collective spirit. But at a more immediate and local level, there are often only executives, no fervent patriots ready to offer what makes us special, what holds us together and what our goals are.
You have to work it out, and the introspective journey that you take with your colleagues and compatriots in the course of a place branding project brings unexpected enlightenment, consciousness, and a sense of appreciation. It makes any official related to place promotion naturally and intuitively better at their job.
To take control of your reputation; or would you rather let someone else determine the image of your city, region or country?
Places have brands – if they want or not. The question is thus if you want to use it strategically or leave it out in the open. Ideally, a strategic branding approach can give guidance in which directions place can/should develop. It can give aims and a bonding identity. At the same time, I would like to quote Gregory Ashworth: “But get your place fixed first”. Therefore, there is no tool to cover place problems.
All cities, states, and nations are in the place branding business. They might use different languages but they’re already doing it. Like any decentralised organisation they’re also doing it randomly. Governments, businesses, universities, arts organisations, and leaders of all kinds rely on a strong image and reputation of the place where they operate. It’s often random, with competing brands born of clichés, fads, and campaigns.
The usefulness comes through a unified cultural expression and strategy. It creates more value for everyone, reduces duplication and expensive nonsense, and if the research is correct a place brand invites citizens to own it.
It sets a place apart from every other place. It helps it stand out and establish a reputation for its distinctive characteristics. It makes it memorable, recognizable and, importantly from a social media perspective, easy to communicate when space is limited and attention spans are short. This is invaluable in an increasingly homogenized and competitive world. But it must be true! You can’t brand your way out of anonymity or mediocrity!
A place brand can only ever be a succinct summation of a place’s most striking attributes, which comprise its personality. It is built on centuries of culture, people, history, geography, and tradition. To think it could be instantly created like a cool new beer would not just be inauthentic, it would be arrogant folly and insulting to local people and potential visitors who would see such superficial manipulation of a place’s soul for what it is – no more than carpetbagging.
The main issue I see is that, regardless if one likes it or not, it is rather unavoidable not to engage in place branding. The idea of branding from the commercial to the public spread in a very invasive manner. Thus, in order to make it useful for a place and all its stakeholders, it is proper to ask ahead what “we” (i.e. all the parts involved) want to do with that and what one wants to achieve.
Place branding can provide the blueprint for city planning, promotion of industry, culture, and tourism, in case approached methodically on a sustained basis. It can facilitate better coordination between government, industry, and people to gain a holistic and more long term planning perspective towards common goals. The success of place brand strategies inevitably depends on the understanding that can be reached between players and agencies.
As a particular type of communication practice and strategy, place branding is useful for influencing public perceptions of and behaviour towards places. In particular, there are many examples of how place branding is conducive to re-image marginalized and declining urban places and spaces. Sometimes its objectives are misinterpreted as being about solving the problems of a place by means of adding a brand veneer. On the contrary, place branding efforts often concern mobilizing diverse stakeholders to find common ground and work toward a shared objective.
Maybe an issue to consider before thinking about ‘why’ engage with place branding, is ‘who’ should engage with place branding? There are a wide variety of potential place branding stakeholders within a particular place, including politicians, governmental organisations, residents, businesses, promotion/marketing agencies, infrastructure/transport providers, cultural/sports organisations, local universities, etc.
They will have different agendas, some complementary, some conflicting, that will have to be managed or accommodated. A key marketing/branding challenge will be in developing a singular positioning that incorporates these potentially disparate agendas without going to the ‘lowest common denominator’.
Often, the decision to develop a branding strategy is taken by one or a few key stakeholders within a place, and it is going to happen anyway. So in such circumstances, by engaging with place branding, a specific stakeholder has a greater chance of influencing the associated activities and messages, whilst defending and/or promoting their own particular point of view.
Place branding is about actualizing a place’s DNA and identity, and bringing them to life. It’s an actual tool – you need to “package” the place in the look and feel that you devise as part of your strategy. It helps to make a place more desirable to live or work or be in and, thereby, attract target populations. It also helps to cultivate a passion for that place as a place of residence, commerce or leisure.
Place branding is not about increased sales or market share; it is about creating a sense of belonging, pride and improving the lives of people. This has strong social and economic benefits.
I think there are many reasons for engaging with placing branding. To me, two reasons are more important than others.
- Through branding strategy, the local uniqueness and attractiveness can be dug out and such key branding values/resources will be kept as differentiation and be cherished.
- In China, over the past 40 years of development and urbanization, the places (i.e. cities and towns) have become similar and lost their authentic values with the local historical features fading away.
Branding helps to find the competitiveness of places that can be derived from their unique strengths, including economic, cultural, industrial, architectural, heritage, art, and so on. Therefore, it is very useful for cities to have a competitive brand.
By engaging with place branding; cities, nations, and places are deciding and finding out who they are and what they want to be and be known for today and for the future – to their stakeholders.
The reasons to implement a place branding strategy is to get a long-term shared vision from both the public and private sectors that they commit to, and then be able to be focused on communication, decision making, and goal setting. This will create the desired interest in a place and relevant awareness for the future.
However, in order to succeed, leadership in relation to cooperation and implementation needs to be clear. Public-private approach and buy-in on all levels is vital, where both have an important role and commitment to reach the goals. Be authentic, sustainable, measurable, consistent, resilient but also creative in the place branding and it will be useful for stakeholders in the long-term for the place.
In my opinion, place branding represents a modern and contemporary view for place management. There are many initiatives that demonstrate the value of place branding as a global philosophy for places e.g. Good Country (Simon Anholt) or Imaginative Communities (Robert Govers).
In both cases, these actions look for a better world. It sounds romantic and idyllic, but it is true. These initiatives apply its main focus in areas as, for example, spatial planning, environment, among others, far from merely place promotion.
A place brand is as powerful as its administrators want, it allows to support changes in the culture of care, strengthen the identity of a place, improve its knowledge and present differential arguments that make it more competitive with tourists and Investors. A good place branding job can change the history of a place.
Places engage in branding hoping to successfully address at least several issues.
The first one is that through branding, places are able to (re)discover and (re)articulate a place’s identity and its distinctive elements. This, in turn, facilitates defining the strategic direction for the place’s development. Place branding practices are moreover useful for place managers to understand, communicate with and attract specific audiences like investors, talent or tourists. It raises awareness of the place, its attributes and offerings (enacted through place policies) among these groups.
Internally, place branding has yet another role to play. If the brand strategy is inclusive enough to address diverse needs, expectations and agendas of local stakeholders, it can stimulate multi-stakeholder cooperation aimed to develop projects, initiatives, and policies beneficial for the place.
Last but not least, branding has strong potential when it comes to placing citizens, especially in fostering the sense of community and local pride.
Place branding is an activity one does as a consequence of creating a place that works for its inhabitants and draws others to its unique charms – whatever they may be. So the question for me is not why you should engage with place branding but why it’s vital to engage in the creation of a place people want to live in and visit.
Branding is about developing the promotional material around an artificial identity so that it becomes a brand that consumers buy into.
Places are multidimensional and dynamic, selling them involves a great deal more than just giving them a label. Their reputations are based on their natural and cultural attractions, and stakeholders (government, public/private sector organisations, as well as residents) i.e. their “cheerleaders”. It is these “cheerleaders” that deliver on the place experience.
In other words, everything in a place communicates something, but we do not want that communication to be a polaroid expression from others. So we need an identity that is built on the local culture, and with stakeholders, one that is evolving. This identity is then communicated through the stories that are being told about the place.
Places are no longer competing on a regional or national level but on a global platform. In the face of the elite (e.g. Paris, Milan, etc.) who have it all, and given the rise of localism, as they aspire to become ‘the place to live, visit and invest’ if executed well, place branding can evolve into a legitimate necessity.
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