Chris Fair, President of Resonance Consultancy, in this interview shares insights into destination branding, marketing and placemaking. He further reflects on the key challenges destination branders face.
- How the branding of a city differs from the branding of a product or service;
- Resonance’s approach to the branding and marketing of places;
- How the “software” of the city in terms of arts, culture, entertainment and recreation is becoming more important than the “hardware”;
- The biggest issue for destination marketers and branders.
Chris, when did you first come across the concept of place branding? Do you remember your initial thoughts?
I first came across the term at a conference about 8 years ago when I described what I did to a fellow attendee who told me it sounded like we were specialists in “place branding”.
As I researched the topic, I found that much of the dialogue and discussion around place branding seemed to approach the branding of cities, communities and countries in much the same way as consumer products and services, which isn’t surprising as that’s the root of most theory and practice around the topic of “branding” itself.
Now at the end of 2015, how much of that initial view is still there – what has changed?
I think that more work and discussion is happening from a theoretical perspective that understands that the branding of a city is quite different from the branding of a product or service. However, I find that most practitioners continue to approach the branding and marketing of cities and communities from the same consumer-centric point of view.
We continue to use the word “branding” because it’s widely valued in business circles. But for most people, “branding” carries the connotation of just creating logos and taglines and, in the case of a city, these actually have very little to do with the identity and success of cities today.
Your key professional insights as President of Resonance Consultancy?
As a practitioner with a history in consumer branding and marketing myself, we initially approached the branding and marketing of places in much the same way.
While you can manufacture and impose an identity and a “brand” upon a product or service, we’ve learned that it’s impossible to do this with a city because you are not just branding a thing, but a community that is made up of an incredibly diverse range of people who all have an attachment to the place for varied reasons.
Trying to impose a single, manufactured identity on a community is the single biggest reason why the majority of place branding initiatives fail.
Over the years, our approach to the branding and marketing of places has become much more research driven and strategic, and we usually position the projects we do as “development strategies” rather than place branding initiatives.
Our process helps a city identify its differentiating characteristics and competitive advantages, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. Based on those we then create a positioning strategy for a city or community to attract specific types of talent, tourism and/or investment.
A logo or a “brand” might be a final outcome in that process, but it’s only one of several deliverables and not the raison d’être for the initiative itself.
You hold a Master’s degree in Future Studies. In your view, how is the place branding and marketing field going to change in the next years?
I think the field will become increasingly important – whether we continue to call it “place branding” or something else I’m not sure.
The effects of globalization have had a profound economic impact on both developed and developing societies. But while goods and capital can move around the world in the blink of an eye, the mobility of people is still relatively restricted in comparison.
As the global labor market becomes ever more fluid in the years ahead, I believe cities and countries are going to place even more importance on the branding and marketing of place to not only attract, but retain the talent that will increasingly drive progress and prosperity in the future.
Your thoughts on the current state of place branding practice in North America?
In my view, we are 10-15 years behind Europe in terms of the understanding and development of place branding theory and practices in North America. Which is somewhat ironic considering the strength and expertise of branding as a practice in the United States in general.
I believe this has a lot to do with the number of countries in Europe versus North America and obviously the history of regions within each of those countries who have competed with one another for longer than the U.S. or Canada has even existed.
You recently published the European Union Place Equity Index: What is this all about?
The European and the U.S. Place Equity Indices measure the key assets and liabilities that shape the identity of place today, based on our research; the purpose is to measure the overall strength of one city’s “brand” versus another.
While there are numerous indices out there that use core statistics with respect to livability or others that are based on perception of cities using consumer surveys, the Place Equity Index is the first that uses data gathered from social media channels to include a benchmarking of the experiential quality of one city to the next by analyzing the millions of ratings and reviews produced by both locals and visitors.
We’re using this research in our own consulting engagements and hope others will want to access the database we are building to produce customized reports that benchmark their city versus their competitive set.
We always tell people that the overall rankings are relatively unimportant – what is important is using the data to better understand and measure what makes your city unique or different from your specific competitive set.
Which are the key findings from the latest study, and the key implications for city or destination managers?
It’s no surprise that the largest cities like New York and London come out on top overall in our analysis. But there are many smaller cities such as Portland, Oregon that vastly outperform other cities their size. Understanding the polices and initiatives these cities have used to build their Place Equity and how they have been able to develop such a strong competitive identity are great learning tools for city and destination managers.
If I had to boil our brand equity work down to one general conclusion, it’s that the “software” of the city in terms of arts, culture, entertainment and recreation is becoming more important than the hardware of the city, as these are the things that are the strongest attractions for Millennials when considering a city to visit or live.
Various of our experts interviewed so far see DMO’s charged with the task to reinvent themselves in order to remain relevant, for instance by putting a stronger focus on destination management rather than promotion – do you agree?
Absolutely. As the influence and reach of traditional media declines, Destination Marketing Organizations have less and less control over the messaging and identity of their destination. However, they have a tremendous opportunity, and responsibility, to focus on the management of that identity by helping communicate with and curate the guest’s experience within their destination – both through new product and experience development and via the management of social media channels and other forms of in-destination digital communications.
In our interview with Kevin Bowler of Tourism New Zealand he mentions that maintaining authenticity of a destination brand over time is a key challenge. From your experience, which issues do destination marketers and branders struggle most with?
I think the biggest issue for destination marketers and branders continues to be figuring out a way to justify the return on investment to politicians and policy makers.
The equation used to be relatively simple: x media spend = y visitors or investment. It’s no longer that simple.
However, there has been some excellent work done by our friends at Tourism Economics to demonstrate that destination marketing is not only linked to but actually helps stimulate economic growth. It’s work like this that will help educate policymakers as to the value and importance of destination marketing initiatives.
Three books every place branding professional should read?
Thank you, Chris.
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