Dominic Medway on City Marketing and the Future of Town Centres in the UK

Dominic Medway, Professor of Marketing at the Institute of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University, in this interview discusses the state of place branding in the UK with a focus on city and town centres. He pays specific attention to the needs of places to start future-proofing themselves in response to the current trends of austerity and decentralisation. 

Learn about:

  • How place brands are socially constructed by the people that have a stake in them;
  • The challenges faced by place branding in an age of increasing austerity and distrust against top-down strategies and systems of governance;
  • Why listening to those who live in a place is crucial for place branding success;
  • How smell and other senses can benefit place marketing and branding;
  • How the UK High Street can be revitalized by repositioning it as experiential communal space.

Dominic, do you remember what first attracted you to the idea of place marketing and branding?

After completing my PhD back in the mid-1990s, I obtained a post-doctoral post to study the (then) fairly new concept of town centre management (TCM) in the UK and Europe. In those early days of TCM, a lot of schemes were focused on janitorial issues, such as street cleaning, putting up Christmas lights, and graffiti removal.

However, it was not long before TCM, and subsequently business improvement districts (BIDs) started to have a more strategic marketing orientation, addressing issues such as place promotion and place branding in relation to town and city centres.

Back then, these ideas, which appeared to have ‘blown over’ to Europe from the U.S. BIDs model, seemed quite new and fresh. As a geographer by academic training, I remember being intrigued by the idea that places could be marketed and started to look at the practice in more detail through my research.

How does geography as an academic discipline approach the marketing or branding of places?

I don’t think geography can tell us too much about marketing, but it can tell us a lot about place. One of the key things we can understand from human geographical inquiry is the fact that places are socially constructed by all of those individuals, groups and organisations that have a stake within them. Because of this, marketing and branding efforts that fail to appreciate this diversity of stakeholder perspectives are unlikely to have any sustainable and long-term traction.

Geography reminds us that place marketing may have the best chance of success when all place producers, users and intermediaries can make sense of the vision a place promotes and projects.

From your experience and observations, which are the main challenges facing city marketers today?

Building on ideas discussed in the previous answer, I think the main challenge for city marketers today is getting urban stakeholders to buy into any proposed marketing and branding visions for the place in question.

For countries like the UK there are some instances in which an appropriately diverse range of people and organisations have not been properly consulted on place marketing and branding visions and practices for the town, city or region in question.

Moreover, this kind of work has sometimes demanded the exorbitant fees of place consultants, which may not sit well against a backdrop of global economic downturn and public sector austerity cuts. This is the case especially if the public sector is paying for the development and implementation of some, or all, of a place marketing and branding plan.

We also live in an age in which conventional systems of power and governance are increasingly distrusted. It would not be a surprise, therefore, if place marketing and branding, especially when imposed in a top down manner, is the focus of such a malaise. This in itself could be the biggest challenge for city marketers to overcome.

What about the role of smell in the marketing of places?

I think there is a growing appreciation in marketing practice generally, and place marketing specifically, of the potential for multisensory engagement with existing and prospective consumers.

The sense of smell, in particular, has a huge appeal in this regard. This is partly because olfactory processing occurs in the limbic system of the brain, which is linked to pleasure and, perhaps even more importantly, memory, both of which can be important in building brand identity, even for places. The possibilities here are increasing as technologies for synthetic smell production and diffusion, pioneered by companies like ScentAir and brandaroma, become more sophisticated.

There have already been efforts to produce scented guides for tourists visiting places. And the ability to diffuse smell remotely to place users, via gadgets like the oPhone, holds huge marketing and branding potential. And that’s just smell; there are equally exciting and under-explored place marketing and branding opportunities with the senses of hearing, taste, touch and of course sight.

What does place branding need to be successful? And how to determine success or effectiveness of place branding initiatives, e.g. in a city context?

Every place is different, so I’m not convinced there is any ideal formula for successfully branding a place, urban or otherwise. That said, there are probably two basic guiding principles that place branding can try to adhere to:

The first of these would be listen to how a place’s stakeholders – its residents, visitors, institutions and organisations – talk about it, and see if this provides some guidance and inspiration for developing a coherent and relevant place branding approach.

Second, ensure that any proposed place branding approach is understood by all place stakeholders, and that it is clearly and uniquely connected to the place in question. Successful place branding in any context is most likely when those doing it ‘listen to’ people rather than ‘talk at’ them.

Being a good listener could, indeed, be the critical difference between a good place branding practitioner and a very bad one.

Town centres in the UK and elsewhere have undergone considerable changes with regard to attractiveness and as retail destinations. How can place branding or marketing help to put them back on the map in the minds of city residents?

I think a vital and vibrant future of town centres in countries like the UK might be most immediately dependent on a fundamental repositioning of their purpose, and then promoting this change effectively to place users.

Retailing has irrevocably changed due to seemingly irreversible social, economic and technological trends, which have been evidenced with mass retail decentralization from urban cores and the rapid rise of online shopping.

Further to this, increases in remote home working mean that even town centre office space may face a less than certain future.

Perhaps, we need to re-imagine our town and city centres as spaces of leisure, experiential entertainment, hubs of knowledge, and residential areas, rather than mainly retail and office hubs. This requires a reappraisal of what we mean by a ‘high street’, and any resultant definition needs communicating to the planners and property developers who produce urban space, as well as to place users.

3 books everyone interested in city marketing or city brand management should read…

To get deeper insight into the multisensory potential of places and place branding, I recommend the following books and book chapter:

Henshaw, V. (2014). [easyazon_link identifier=”0415662060″ locale=”US” tag=”tpbous-20″]Urban smellscapes: Understanding and designing city smell environments[/easyazon_link]. London and New York: Routledge.

Medway, D. (2015). Place branding and the ‘other’ senses. In: M. Kavaratzis, G. Warnaby, & G. J. Ashworth (Eds.) [easyazon_link identifier=”B00S1603I4″ locale=”US” tag=”tpbous-20″]Rethinking Place Branding: Comprehensive Brand Development for Cities and Regions[/easyazon_link], (pp. 191-209). Heidelberg: Springer.

Porteous, J. D. (1990). [easyazon_link identifier=”0802058574″ locale=”US” tag=”tpbous-20″]Landscapes of the mind: Worlds of sense and metaphor[/easyazon_link]. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Do you have examples or cases where place marketing or branding techniques were successfully used to make town centres more attractive and competitive as retail destinations?

Without naming any names, a couple of the smaller market towns close to where I live have revitalized their place image and overall attractiveness over recent years by nurturing, encouraging and effectively promoting an attractive mix of alternative and innovative food and beverage offers, coupled with unique experiential consumption opportunities, ranging from community cinemas and pop-up shops, to periodic farmers’ markets, antiques fairs and cultural festivals.

Most critically, these developments have grown through an organic enthusiasm and belief by local businesses and residents that a place could be made better, and have not been part of some strategically imposed place branding master plan. This suggests that place branding works best when it is done by people for themselves.

Thank you, Dominic.

Connect with Dominic Medway on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter or learn more about the Institute of Place Management here.

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