Interview with Bernhard Klein, City and Destination Branding Consultant

Following the Vienna city destination branding case study and reflections by Bernhard Klein earlier this week, in this interview learn more about the challenges in the life of a city brand director and why Vienna is top of the rank as place to live, work and visit.

Learn about:

  • Why destinations are so much more complex than product or corporate brands;
  • The most important task of city branding;
  • How to measure success of place branding initiatives;
  • Sustainability and the related overall ‘Smart City’ theme, and how they have become crucial areas of operation for city authorities;
  • Why tourist boards should either closely collaborate or merge with city marketing;
  • The main challenges in managing a city brand strategically.

Bernhard, when did you first come across the concept of place branding?

Many years ago, the City of Vienna appointed a new tourism director. Vienna is just one of many cities where such positions are filled based on “political affiliation” and loyalty instead of relevant qualification (for example in the field of tourism and marketing or based on university training).

City Branding Expert Bernhard Klein, ViennaNevertheless, the new tourism director was asked to initiate the process of redesigning and restructuring the marketing of the City of Vienna. In consequence, another new position, the “Director of Brand” was created.

At that time, I was responsible for the field of brand development at a large industrial company in the German private sector, and took advantage of this new position as a great opportunity for me to return to Vienna.

Back in 2008, destination branding was still in its infancy in Austria, and we were one of the first cities to apply this concept. Today, the idea of destination branding is more popular and a common tool even used by smaller towns and cities.

What fascinates you most about city destination branding?

In contrast to, let’s say, brands of manufacturers, it is much more complex. Let’s take, for example, a simple detergent: as the company’s brand manager, I can influence not only the design and content of the product but also its price, marketing channels and how it is advertised.

Destinations are so much more complex than product or corporate brands and have “product features” that need to be worked with as a given, with very little possibility to influence and shape them. In addition, a city has significantly more stakeholders and target groups.

What does branding mean to you in a city and destination context?

The characteristics of a city or destination cannot be shaped directly. Well, at least not in the medium run. The most important task is finding out what impresses people, namely visitors, inhabitants and business.

So, from all the facets a city has to offer, you need to determine which ones should take center stage in marketing. A brand analysis with well-conceived quantitative questions would certainly be a recommended first step.

What role does place branding play in the marketing of cities such as Vienna?

Unfortunately, it is considerably less relevant than in smaller cities. If the 20 most important decision makers of a smaller city get together, for example, they have a much larger impact than the tourist board of, let’s say, Vienna trying to develop the city’s image.

Nevertheless, it is still better to use this so-called “drop in the bucket” to the best of your abilities instead of using it the wrong way.

How did Vienna achieve its current level of brand awareness and recognition?

A lot has happened in Vienna in recent years, such as an impressive wave of new 5-star hotels of international hotel chains, the successful renovation of parts of the historic city center with luxury brands opening flagship stores, new train stations, a new airport terminal, etc.

Vienna has remained on the top of the Mercer Quality of Living ranking for numerous years. So it is still possible to enjoy affordable prices at a high quality of living standard.

In addition, international leading magazines like “Monocle” promote second-division cities, such as Munich, Copenhagen or also Vienna, as particularly worthy places to live there.

From your experience, how can place branding be used to improve livability, sustainability and connectivity of cities such as Vienna?

Sustainability and the related overall ‘Smart City’ theme have become crucial areas of operation for city authorities, while new technologies (Internet of Things) fuel new opportunities for a sustainable city.

Example of city destination branding - Vienna in Barcelona
Reinforcing perception of Vienna as world capital of music and culture – in Barcelona

How important have city brand/reputation rankings been for your work?

There is a great diversity of rankings and studies. My associates and I will soon publish an extensive study on measuring the appeal of cities in Austria and Germany:

Stadtmarken-Monitor – Städte aus Deutschland und Österreich in der Wahrnehmung der Bevölkerung” [City Brand Monitor – Austrian and German Cities as perceived by the population].

In the case of Vienna, the Mercer study is certainly the most important ranking in the world, because of its popularity and reputation, as well as Vienna’s continuous success on top of the ranking. But Vienna also receives high scores in many other surveys.

Which accomplishments during your time as Head of Vienna Tourism Destination Branding and Marketing are you most proud of?

In the most general sense, I am really proud that in Europe the Vienna Tourist Board is still recognized as an absolute marketing benchmark in the business. And in particular, I am also proud of all the awards and prizes I have received in recent years.

Your advice to destination branding professionals trying to do the right thing?

It actually pays off to invest money in an initial market analysis with a quantitative market research section. This is how opinions turn into knowledge and how stakeholder debates on matters of taste and personal interest are reduced.

Tourist boards should either closely collaborate or merge with city marketing. They should not be a pawn in the hands of politics and instead unconditionally adapt to market developments. In a perfect world, they are politically independent enterprises.

It would also be a great idea to appoint tourist board directors based on their qualifications, instead of choosing city hall friends and political party troopers.

What are the main challenges in managing a city brand strategically?

Certainly the work environment; the most important stakeholders benefit from close ties to politics and pursue their own interests; or they are tenured, which usually turns out to be bad for their performance and commitment.

Your thoughts on the place branding principles developed by Robert Govers, Erik van ‘t Klooster and Gerard van Keken?

Everything that is able to somehow support the issue and increase professionalism is more than welcome. The more people start thinking about the challenges of our daily lives, the better for all those working in this field.

Thank you, Bernhard.


City Destination Branding consultant Bernhard Klein, ViennaAbout Bernhard Klein

From 2009 to 2013, Bernhard Klein was responsible for Vienna’s international advertising and tourism brand management, for which he received numerous awards and prizes.

Today he is recognized as a successful brand expert and consults countless companies in both the private and public sector as an associate of Hamburg-based business consultants Brandmeyer-Markenberatung.

In addition, he serves as a member of various supervisory boards in Switzerland, as well as in the management of global industrial enterprises.

Bernhard Klein graduated from Werbe Akademie Wien (Vienna Advertising Academy) and studied Integrated Corporate Communications at the Vienna University of Applied Sciences for Management & Communication. He also holds an Executive MBA in General Management from the University of St. Gallen and is a certified member of supervisory boards, as well as foundation board of directors.


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