Interview with Cecilia Pasquinelli on Urban Competitiveness and the Cultural Economy

Meet Cecilia Pasquinelli, Postdoctoral Researcher at Gran Sasso Science Institute, in Italy. Cecilia is specialized in place branding, geographical associations of brands, urban competitiveness and cultural economy. In this interview she tells us how place branding thinking and practice differ across countries, and introduces us to the concepts of place brand co-opetition and networks of brands.

Learn about:

  • What “co-opetition” means in place branding and its challenges;
  • The role of creativity and innovation in place branding;
  • The concept “network of brands” and how to measure success of branding initiatives;
  • The differences between place branding theory and practice;
  • Different application of place branding in various countries.

Cecilia, do you remember who or what got you interested in place branding?

The first time I heard of place branding was in 2007 when I was working in the MAIN Lab of Scuola Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy, where took my first steps in academic research. Together with the research team, we started a discussion on the ‘weaknesses of a strong brand’ – that of my own region, Tuscany in central Italy.

During that time I learned something that has influenced my research significantly: the importance of reflecting on the meaning of place branding in the framework of local and regional development and the linkages between place brands and regional industrial identities.

Taking into account your research and working experiences, do you believe that there is a consistent understanding of place branding in research and practice? How easy/difficult is it to put theory into practice?

I think there is no normative theory of place branding that may be “easily” applied.

Rather, we have a body of knowledge whose contours are fuzzy, constantly changing and enriched through different languages. This is the richness of this field, but I think this is also why to “put theory into practice” is not easy, hardly possible, perhaps not even completely meaningful.

The growing body of knowledge on place branding can certainly give a sense of orientation to practitioners and policy-makers, with an opportunity for them to be aware of risks and pitfalls.

In the construction of this body of knowledge, however, I think we might have been rushing into the question “how can we build a place brand?”, while less attention has been given to forces and dynamics that, being outside of brand strategics, do create a brand (an example might be counter-branding).

In terms of brand management, we need to focus not only on “brand building” but also on “brand harnessing”.

City brand co-creation - Example Prague
The Lennon Wall in Prague: A reminder that place brands are co-created and beyond full control. Picture by Cecilia Pasquinelli

The recent agreement on common tourism marketing between Jamaica & Cuba is already in effect, while a multi-destination agreement which includes Mexico is expected. As you have thoroughly studied this topic, which is your opinion on it and how do you define “co-opetition”? Where is the borderline between cooperation and competition in such cases?

A multi-destination agreement in the Caribbean region has to be read in a context characterised by two elements: first, increasing competition, also following recent developments concerning the Cuba-US relations; second, evident margins for tourism growth in the whole Caribbean region.

Co-opetition refers to the blending of competition with collaborative policies grounded in the awareness of interdependencies that push stakeholders to pursue a common interest to maximise their own individual benefits.

Competition in attracting tourists and investors in tourism-related sectors is high and strengthening the destination network’s connections, improving access to the region and between the different destinations in it, as well as harmonising quality standards represent a way to aggressively target new markets and strengthen the presence in the global tourism arena.

In my studies, I discussed the various forces driving the formation of network brands, including a search for critical mass to design competitive destinations, marketing costs sharing, standard enhancement but also visionary political projects or political ambitions beyond a strict market rationale. I have found, however, also forces challenging network brands, especially in the medium-long run when administrative barriers, lack of shared planning and monitoring tools, lack of clear authority and a fragile legitimacy of the “artificial” network brand might undermine co-opetitive strategies.

My impression is that two elements are critical to maintain collaborative schemes within a competitive arena over time: first, the monitoring of the collaborative policy implementation to provide all the involved stakeholders with evidence of what has been done and in what directions (in a sense, ‘internal branding’ is necessary in a network organisation); second, a co-opetitive rationale might fruitfully expand to connected domains, such as culture, education, climate change, in order to expand and further legitimise the collaborative method into other fields where benefits can be significant.

What role do creativity and innovation play in place brand development and management?

There are different levels at which creativity and innovation might intersect place brand development, from brand design through participatory methods, to communication through social networks enabling brand co-creation, just to give a couple of examples.

Personally, I am particularly intrigued by those cases in which place branding becomes part of an imaginative process aimed at envisioning future development, while generating new regional economies in present time. So I find the attempt to brand “places in progress” particularly ‘innovative’, compared to the “perfect places to be”.

Recently, I came across the experience of Spaceport Sweden in Kiruna, Swedish Lapland, an initiative to establish human spaceflight facilities in order for the town to become “Europe‘s gateway to space” and so to make Sweden a pioneer in space tourism. Beneath this futuristic initiative, we find the story of an ongoing national innovation agenda, ongoing research and development for new products and services, aviation and space operators, visitors, talents and investments attracted to this peripheral area (over 100 km above the Arctic Circle), where remoteness and wildness are combined with high-tech and innovation, so generating a learning experience, training programs and space adventure for today visitors.

One of your research interests is the city as “network of brands”. What exactly does this mean and how to measure the success of city branding initiatives, following this perspective?

The city as “network of brands” refers to the network of person brands, product and corporate brands and cultural institution brands that are associated with a place.

In my research I focus on the spatial and temporal circuits in which such associations take shape. I think an analysis of such connections is an important background for city branding initiatives. This map of relations speaks of power relations and mechanisms of value appropriation.

A good city branding approach takes into account the urban network of brands, tries to draw value from it through initiatives of co-branding and brand alliances by establishing fruitful relationships with local stakeholders. It further monitors and tries to prevent ‘brand saturation’, ‘brand pollution’ and alike mechanisms of symbolic value destruction.

View from Milan Duomo
Milan: cities always face both co-branding opportunities and risks. Picture by Cecilia Pasquinelli

Cecilia, you have lived and worked in Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom and France. Based on your experience, do you see any differences or common practices in those countries as regards place branding in connection with local economic development?

In my opinion there are several differences how place branding is conceived and practised in these countries.

In Italy, there has been relatively scarce attention to and much skepticism regarding the practice of “place representation”. In practice, this has provoked clumsy, counterproductive and short-lived campaigns, though with a few exceptions.

France has historically shown interest and engagement in place marketing since the foundation of DATAR (Délégation interministérielle à l’aménagement du territoire et à l’attractivité régionale) with much focus on foreign direct investment promotion, driven by purely industrial development goals. The French approach to urban public services/city branding deserves attention, and has interesting cases such as the “Eau de Paris”.

The UK has been particularly active in terms of place branding practice and academic debate, and has allowed us to learn about the potential and limitations of place rebranding, especially in the context of the post-industrial city.

Finally, I think Sweden is an excellent example of country branding connected to public diplomacy, paying particular attention to raising the overall profile of the nation as ‘equal’ and ‘democratic’ in any initiative.

Thank you, Cecilia.

Learn more about Cecilia Pasquinelli’s research here or connect with her on LinkedIn.


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