Alia El Banna on Identity and Belonging in Place Branding

Alia El Banna is a distinguished academic and mentor, specializing in International Business/Marketing and Place Branding. With a background in teaching and research in multiple countries, she brings a unique perspective to the field, focusing on the multidimensional construct of “place” and its impact on consumer behavior and place branding.

Alia, at last year’s IPBA conference, you presented your film “A place I can call home: where are you from?” discussing the importance of belonging and a place to call home. How has this influenced your work in place branding and marketing?

I developed a connection with places early on in my life. I believe that it is with mobility as a child and later as an adolescent and adult that I realized how connected I am to places I had left behind.

As I moved from one place to the other, I became a different version of me, one that carries a combination of place elements.  At first it was the memories and nostalgic feelings about places where I was born or had vivid childhood memories that generated a mix of emotions and brought about a strong desire to connect with those places.

In my research, I later found out from behavioural and psychological perspectives that feelings developed towards specific places in childhood usually sustain a long-lasting attachment in the years to follow.

As I matured, I started to appreciate places and enjoy their distinct offerings in real time! Belonging to a place and calling it home to me was about forming deep connections with the people, terrain, language, culture, day to day routines, etc.

As referred to in my short animation (below):

In each place I searched for this sense of belonging, sense of attachment, a place identity I can relate to, be part of. Regardless of how long I would stay, I wanted to feel home.”

When I decided to pursue my Ph.D., I studied the concept of “place”. Besides Marketing, I explored place in several fields such as environmental psychology, geography, sociology, and anthropology. I wanted to get to the roots of it. Then I furthered my knowledge in areas of ethnicity, acculturation, and attitudes to places and their products.

Recently, I started to work in place co-creation and authenticity.

Having taught business classes for years, what do you view as essential skills for students in this field, and how do you approach teaching them?

I taught and mentored diverse groups of students at undergraduate and graduate levels in Canada, the UK, and Spain. One essential skill I always felt was key to their personal and professional development is communication and world-mindedness. To be able to communicate is everything!

Nowadays, you do not have to physically travel to meet and work with people from so many mixed and diverse backgrounds. The global is in the local as they say! But of equal importance is to be open minded to embrace people, cultures, and places and what they get to offer. To be open to creative ways of presenting your ideas to diverse audiences – whether we are talking about consumers, investors, workers, residents, or tourists.

At the end of the day, you will be surprised that as people we have very similar aspirations seeking quality of life which varies depending on the place and the reason people are seeking place.

Having lived in various countries, how have these experiences of cultures and identities shaped your understanding of place branding and marketing, and what unique perspectives do you bring?

I find that I can relate to almost everyone! I mean I was born in Egypt, grew up in the UK and Egypt, immigrated to Canada where I lived most of my life (so far!), moved back to the UK, and currently living in Spain!

I have also visited several places like Mexico, Belgium, Netherlands, Greece, United Arab Emirates, France and recently Sweden (for the IPBA).

A mobile life has helped shape my personal and social identity as well as my sense of belonging to place. I can see and appreciate diversity as well as uniqueness in places.

I have developed an open mind to places and people that can surpass the “cultural shock” many can experience when faced with another culture. I can say that I see the beauty within places through a lens of cultural openness and adaptability.

In your research on place images and consumer impact, what are some surprising or unexpected findings you’ve encountered?

Woosh! I can talk around the clock about this! But I will try to be brief! A few findings that I have encountered and that have stayed with me are from the interviews I and my colleagues had done with place promotion executives in Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands. I find talking with people who ‘breathe’ place in their day to day can be very insightful.

One of the key findings from the interviews was that the flavour of the ‘soft’ intangible place factors, such as quality of life, varies depending on the nature of the place.

For example, one of the intangible place elements highlighted in Canada was ‘Diversity’, which is key to the Canadian fabric. The diversity of place was considered an asset that contributes to the development of a unique and strong place brand. This sort of diversity was evident through diverse photos of Canadian landscapes, activities, cuisines, sports from a campaign where Canadians were asked to submit footage of ‘their Canada’.

One of the strengths of Toronto, as pointed out in an interview is ‘you can tell people that slightly over 50% of the population of Toronto is not born in Canada’. The diversity of place was considered an asset that contributes to the development of a unique and strong place brand.

In interviews with place promotion executives in the UK, the historic element of place was also a key intangible place factor incorporated in brochures and advertising campaigns designed to attract investment.

For example, there is a place campaign in Northamptonshire based on the number of “lovely big historic houses”. The campaign is primarily promoting Northamptonshire to tourism and visitor attractions; however, the longer-term vision is to link it to attract investment.

Similarly, in the Dutch context, the following remarks show that familiarity with place symbols was key to promoting place: ‘Some Dutch people don’t want to relate Holland to clogs and tulips and the very traditional icons if you like. We do use them as well simply because they work, people recognize them. The symbols are there; they help people recognize the country and then they probably go further down into looking at the different attributes’.

Another finding that came out of a different study of place was about “Place in a place; how places see themselves within a bigger place”.

Places recognise themselves in relation to other places. Small and less recognizable cities aspire to create a positive perception of their image by identifying with their home province, region, and/or country.

Places capitalise on positive links and connections to more established cities within the country to differentiate themselves from other places in the country.

One last one, is about people/human mobility and place attachment. From my personal background, experiencing more than one place made me develop deep feelings toward many places, and since places entered my life through various forms of mobility (residential, travel with family, study, work, etc.), each mobility form was associated with a different kind of place attachment.

However, from my research on place I realized that there is a clear disagreement over disciplines about the impact of human mobility on place belonging and place attachment.

For example, a common assumption of environmental and geographical research has been that there exists a negative relationship between mobility and a strong sense of belonging so that more of one necessarily means less of the other.

From a sociological perspective, “residential mobility” resulted in multiple local attachments rather than a single attachment to one place.

Similarly, in anthropology, the term transnational was initially used to describe immigrants who, despite living away from their country of origin, maintain strong ties to it.

Research on tourism suggests that tourists, due to their mobility, enjoy high levels of world-mindedness, which, from a consumer marketing perspective, as consumers were more likely to have a favourable attitude towards products that belong to foreign places.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in place branding and marketing today, and how can they be addressed?

Authenticity! In times of uncertainty, people look for elements of stability in their lives by drawing on their history, heritage, traditions, and culture which form part of their identity and are seen as bedrocks of their existence. This leads to a search for elements they can believe in, and thence, among others, to the growing importance of authenticity.

In many cases place branding narratives forge an image that can incorporate cultural, historical, environmental, and/or architectural representations, but in many others the narrative follows a ‘globalized’, generic approach.

In the latter case, the unique aura of a place is not actually reflected nor promoted. Whether this globalized image is portrayed by place managers or already is a formed generic perception, both projections often are incongruent with the real identity of a place (“Emily in Paris” is not what one would experience in that city).

This raises several dilemmas:

  • What does a place do about this misrepresentation of reality?
  • Do places need to project what they ‘genuinely’ stand for?
  • Does standing for everything lead to a repeated globalized place image which ultimately leads to ‘placelessness’?
  • Does the importance of authenticity vary between ‘normal’ and ‘crisis’ times, and under what conditions might authenticity be more or less important than other place characteristics?

I am currently looking into globalized versus authentic approaches in place branding, trying to figure out an authentic recipe for place branding. An authenticity “barometer” to guide place managers to reconcile common stereotypical projections of various places which are often incongruent with their real identity. So, stay tuned!

We will! Is there anything else you’d like to mention or highlight in the context of place branding?

It’s a huge area of inquiry. I think we need to simplify things, go back to the basics, be more authentic and to the point, and work with key stakeholders (not only speak about them in our papers), especially practitioners and different audiences directly affected by diverse elements in place brands.

Thank you, Alia.

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Connect with Alia on LinkedIn


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