Imaginative Communities: How Cities, Regions and Countries Become Admired

If asked to name an “imaginative community”, what would you say? Who comes to mind? Some city, town or neighbourhood close-by perhaps, or one you’ve visited recently? Imaginative communities – admired cities, regions and countries is the topic (and title) of Robert Govers‘ new book.

The book has been my loyal companion on many train trips over the last months. I’ve read it on the TGV from Barcelona to Paris, had it in my bag in Antwerp when meeting Robert for a chat over a good Belgian beer, and then again on the Eurostar from Brussels to London (meeting old and new friends at the City Nation Place conference).

The book reappeared on my digital nomad desks in Berlin, in Porto and Lisbon. I even have it next to me right now, in a friend of a friend’s apartment located in a working class neighbourhood of the (otherwise picturesque) town of Faro in the Algarve. All of those places tell a story of imaginative communities – or lack thereof, which is why Robert’s new book has become such a great companion.

Plus, Imaginative Communities is refreshingly accessible thanks to his non-academic, no-jargon writing style, which makes it a good read especially for those new to the topic, and also for those who don’t really like the terms “brand” or “branding” in connection with communities (even though what the book describes is essentially state-of-the-art place branding).

I also like the many cases used to illustrate key points and observations.

But why the book in the first place? And how does it relate to previous books on place branding, and how it is practiced around the world?

Robert, how did the book come about?

That is quite a funny anecdote, actually. Believe it or not, but it was Frank Underwood, POTUS in House of Cards, who triggered me to write this book; quite literally. In episode 8 of season 3, Underwood defends daring new policy that he invented. He explains to the bystander behind the camera – i.e. us, the audience, in the way that is so typical for this Netflix series – that in order to attract attention leaders need to come up with imaginative initiatives. They need to do things in an original, extraordinary, inventive and captivating manner. It is not so easy to do that, Underwood explains. He tells us that ‘imagination is its own form of courage’.

To venture into unchartered territory, which – by definition – is what imaginative initiatives are about, requires real courage. Underwood also explains that policy makers usually prefer to do things that are tried and tested and easy to defend with common sense, but he then intimates to the audience that “there is only one problem with common sense… it is so common”.

Underwood made me see that this is one of the key issues with “place branding”. I have argued many times before that reputation is built on action and not advertising and to stand out is to do something extraordinary. However, policy makers are often risk averse, because of pressures from the opposition or public opinion and the motivation to cling onto power and not stick their neck out too much.

Hence it should not really surprise us that very few communities have been able to launch truly imaginative initiatives that have changed the way in which they are perceived internationally. Such examples are few and far between, but I describe some of them in the book. Yet, from a policy making perspective, to do imaginative things in line with long term strategy in order to build a consistent positioning is even harder.

I have been very frustrated with the lack of recognition of the complexity of this field of “community reputation management”. It is too easily and too often pushed into the marketing domain, which is counterproductive.

Without senior government support and courage; recognition of the need to see this as a perspective to policy making more than anything else; as an overarching task; requiring collaboration between government departments, private sector and civil society; and a long term commitment; there is no hope in hell of ever moving the needle on “brand equity”.

I wrote Imaginative Communities in the hope of moving “place branding” into the mainstream. To convince policy makers, civil leaders and decision makers generally that community reputation management is a serious challenge and requires everyone’s attention.

I therefore also hope that the book makes the lives of place branding and place marketing specialists easier, as they can use the book to authoritatively explain to their superiors and stakeholders what it is that they do and why their jobs are so challenging.

I wrote a completely jargon-free book in easy-to-read language using only 35,000 words (150 pages) in order to provide bed-time reading; digestible because of lots of examples, cases and little theory.

In a nuthsell, what is the book about?

The book is about communities, because places (cities, regions, countries) more than anything else, are about community. We tend to focus a lot on economic sectors, products, services, attractions, infrastructures, borders – i.e. tangible things. However, what really makes the difference when it comes to long term reputation is whether a community of people shares a sense of common history, belonging, purpose and direction. In addition, the book is about imagination, because in today’s media landscape exposure is obtained by those who have the courage to do something unexpected, distinctive, remarkable, yet memorable and authentic (linked to identity).

Imaginative communities are neighborhoods, cities, regions and countries that reinforce or build local character and civic pride, while at the same time captivating outsiders (external publics).

Imaginative communities have a strong sense of purpose that allows them to come up with mesmerizing, innovative, creative, compelling initiatives that capture peoples’ imagination while at the same time showcasing provenance. Examples are:

  • Estonia adapting its constitution to include internet access as a human right and allowing e-residency, to emphasize the country’s tech-savvy nature compared to other countries in the Baltic region.
  • Bhutan, a country where wellbeing has long been prioritized over material gain, inventing and institutionalizing the idea of gross national happiness.
  • Dubai’s man-made islands in the shape of palm trees, which traditionally represent the source of life in the region around the Arabian Gulf.
  • Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival as a celebration of the city’s musical roots.
  • Finland creating its own set of emoticons to express emotional aspects of Finnishness on social media and on mobile devices anywhere in the world, reflecting the tech-savvy and quirky, fun-loving nature of the Finns.
  • The Van Gogh-inspired “starry night” cycle path in Eindhoven, the city of lights in the Netherlands. The path is paved with fluorescent stones that light up at night to resemble the painting by Van Gogh, who lived in the area.

What imaginative communities need is:

  • a sense of identity, belonging and virtue
  • by which to influence international perceptions
  • with access to mainstream and social media buzz
  • by building unique experiences
  • through imagination and leadership
  • and community collaboration.

All these cases and requirements are covered in detail in the book.

Since this isn’t your first book on place branding – which key changes have you witnessed over the last years in how the topic is approached?

Yes, as co-author and editor of four books and an academic journal on place branding, I still believe that the brand concept and metaphor is relevant and appropriate.

However, I have also started to contemplate whether it has obstructed the development and recognition of the field. Sometimes I feel that the terminology has done us a disservice, as:

  • Many still believe that it is about logos, slogans and advertising campaigns;
  • Policy makers have used it to mislead electorates into believing that there is a quick fix to reputational challenges;
  • Commercial branding agencies have jumped the bandwagon with complete disrespect for the complexities that communities deal with relative to “simplistic product branding”;
  • It is categorized as purely a marketing issue, which it clearly is not, and;
  • Has not received much respect as a field of study in many traditional academic disciplines.

Therefore I felt the need to write about this topic starting with a blank sheet of paper, without using any jargon or management terminology, to see whether we could make it more accessible to the general public and the wide community of public, private and civil society leaders generally.

The biggest compliment I received so far was voiced by the founding editor of this august platform himself. You, Florian, wondered why there was no mention of the words “brand” or “marketing” in the book until the last chapter 8. Considering that I did that on purpose, I was glad that this was picked up and not seen to be damaging to the content of the book. I hope that it is an indication of me achieving my aims.

By the way, it is in that last chapter 8 that I aim to explain why place branding is not marketing and why we have to be careful in the way that we use those terminologies.

Among the many cases and examples which you present in the book, which ones do you find the most remarkable, in terms of living up to the aspiration of being imaginative communities?

For me, the most remarkable cases that I discuss in the book are Estonia, the city of The Hague and the Unites States of America. Many of the other examples are one-off successes, but Estonia, The Hague and the USA are examples of communities that have succeeded in achieving demonstrable long term success with their positioning strategies. They have not only resulted in imaginative initiatives that have generated exposure, but they have simultaneously informed guiding principles and enduring values, creating a virtuous cycle driving community purpose, collaboration and, hence, more to come.

Looking forward, which trends do you witness which might affect the capacity and ability of communities to be more imaginative in how they foster community spirit and represent themselves to the world?

Obviously, the current trend towards protectionism, populism and inward focus is not conducive to the idea that it is important to look at how our actions impact on others; to understand how communities see themselves and how they are perceived by outsiders.

Trump, Brexit, Erdogan and Orban have shown that globalisation has led to feelings of insecurity and a sense of loss of identity. Yet, it has also confirmed that many of us are still looking for a sense of belonging, authenticity, and stability and safety. Building a community and its reputation – to be held in high esteem internationally – might therefore be more relevant than ever.

In a world characterised by homogenisation, Disneyfication and McDonaldization, the counter-movement is to advance the international success of uniquely local creations. This new book, Imaginative Communities, aims to contribute to that.

Thank you, Robert.

More about Robert Govers’ new book Imaginative Communities here. Benefit from Robert’s many years of experience in place branding by booking him as keynote speaker or for a workshop.


You know of an imaginative community initiative and would like to tell us about it? Get in touch!

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Founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer. Loves Nature and discovering the world - one place at a time. Believes in the power of storytelling to connect people, to spread ideas and to make this world a better place for all. Founder of the Sustainability Leaders Project.
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Florian Kaefer

Founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer. Loves Nature and discovering the world - one place at a time. Believes in the power of storytelling to connect people, to spread ideas and to make this world a better place for all. Founder of the Sustainability Leaders Project.