Eduardo Oliveira on Place Branding and Strategic Spatial Planning

Eduardo Oliveira in this interview shares his experience of using place branding as a complementary instrument in strategic spatial planning. He also discusses the digital challenges of city and regional branding and the increasing role of social media in managing place reputation.  

Topics covered:

  • Place branding as an instrument of strategic spatial planning;
  • What a valuable place brand is;
  • How local governance influences place branding;
  • Destination marketing through social media: including travellers as co-creators and opinion-makers;
  • Storytelling as a tool for place branding and examples of best practice;
  • How place branding contributes to sustainable regional development.

Eduardo, place branding is often perceived as something that communication agencies take care of. However, one of your principal research interests is place branding as a strategic spatial planning instrument. Where’s the link?

I have been investigating the theoretical and empirical relationships between place branding, spatial governance and spatial planning for a long time. Two decades of both academic and practice-oriented research are just not enough for me to provide a clear answer to your question. There are various interpretations, perspectives and approaches to the linkage between place branding and spatial planning in general, and strategic spatial planning in particular.

My approach, which has been inspired by the great work of Gregory Ashworth, Mihalis Kavaratzis, Kristof Van Assche, Malcolm Allan and Martin Boisen, is that cities and regions would greatly generate economic and social benefits if they could link and find a fine balance between strategic spatial planning, city and regional development strategies, and thus concrete physical interventions in their territory with place branding strategies. Specifically, I advocate through my writings and conference presentations that place branding could (and, eventually, should) be used as an instrument in the strategic spatial planning approach.

As an instrument in strategic spatial planning, place branding would support the improvement of the social and economic conditions. It also helps reshape responses to contemporary challenges faced by cities and regions and to shape clearly envisioned socially responsible and realistic futures.

Strategic spatial planning is about setting frameworks and principles to guide urban and regional development and to support the location of infrastructure, such as of a new light rail, a cycling path or a public park. It consists of a set of governance practices for developing and implementing strategies, plans, policies and projects.

Given this definition, let us imagine a city associated with images of social and economic deprivation, numerous social issues such as criminality or illicit activities, unable to provide affordable housing, job opportunities or reliable public transportation. Can, in such a challenging context, strategic spatial planning solve all the problems and support a structural change, thereby contribute to reframing the image of the city?

I argue that strategic spatial planning alone would not be able to do it. And, can a place branding strategy provide job opportunities, boost the economic activity in general and at the same time communicate a positive image of the city? Again, I would claim that place branding alone would not be able to fulfill all the social and economic needs of the city.

Physical interventions in the territory of a city, such as the development of affordable housing settlements or the reinforcement of the public transportation network, combined with place branding could trigger processes of reimagining, repositioning and restructuring, helping city authorities to communicate their efforts.

In my view, city branding is not simply about communicating to the world that a city is great or well positioned in rankings. Instead, it is about planning and managing the city to become a good place and letting the world know that city authorities are trying to improve it and solve social and economic constraints.

In a recent book chapter, you state that a strong place brand creates values and gives stability to the place image. This allows the place brand to work as a commander and leave spatial planning at a lower level of intervention. Could you give us some examples of joint place branding and spatial planning projects where the latter has been subordinated to the place image?

Place branding, in my view, is a process of place re-imaging, in order to correct a negative image or to increase awareness of the place. So far, what I have witnessed in practical terms is the combination of place branding with spatial planning strategies aimed at improving a place’s image.

From my experience in dealing with strategic spatial planning approaches from Australia to Canada and also in the Nordic countries, public authorities seek to combine spatial interventions with the potential benefits of place branding.

For example, the strategic spatial plan for the Stockholm region (RUFS 2010) combines physical interventions, such as the expansion of the public transportation network and increase in housing availability, with branding techniques to develop the region’s international profile as a place to invest, to work, to live and to play. There is no domination of the desired Stockholm brand over spatial planning interventions in the document.

However, in reality (though not necessarily in the case of the Stockholm region), public authorities might well implement urban-regional development projects following a place brand strategy. In this scenario, spatial planning is subordinated to the place brand and desired place image.

In your view, what makes a place brand valuable?

Place managers, spatial planners and policy-makers have been embracing place branding as a possible solution for a bewildering assortment of social, economic and spatial issues. Place branding is no ‘magic solution’ for solving social and/or economic issues, nor is there a one-size-fits-all approach.

First, a valuable place brand is one that supports local business, improvement of infrastructure – the physical condition of the territory. This includes improved public transportation and the provision of housing, health and educational services. Valuable place brands also help to create jobs and support talent retention. So, it’s about much more than merely focusing on attracting investment, tourists, new residents and highly qualified workers.

Secondly, if place branding is taken as an instrument in strategic spatial planning, a place brand gains in value and effectiveness. This is because the entire place branding strategy would have a clear focus on a limited number of key place-specific issues. It would involve relevant place actors, including profit-oriented interest groups, environmental non-governmental organizations, citizens, politicians and spatial planners.

You have suggested that more research should be done on place governance and how it influences place branding and strategic spatial planning options. What are your own views on the influence of local governance on place branding?

Urban and regional governance influence both strategic spatial planning and place branding.

First, strategic spatial planning is a process through which a variety of actors in diverse institutional settings come together to prepare plans and develop interrelated strategies for the management of spatial change.

Secondly, a place branding process only makes sense when it involves all, so everybody can envision aspirational and better futures for their territory.

Thirdly, I understand governance as both the formal apparatus of government and the informal agreements and networks through which private interest groups, environmental groups and community groups intertwine with public authorities at the national, regional and local levels, and in that way manage aspects of the public sphere, including spatial planning and place branding.

Interest groups, such as real estate developers or retail investors have the means to influence how a city or region would be developed or expanded further, for example through land use claims or planning intentions. In the same way, place brands are now designed in a more participatory and integrative manner.

You have also studied the digital challenges in destination branding, and the value of storytelling in place reputation management. Could you share some of the insights of these studies?

These studies you are referring to were motivated by two observations, which are still very valid. First, I asked myself when was the last time I consulted a travel agent. Secondly, I tried to remember when was the last time I selected my holiday destination after reading a travel catalogue or a printed travel magazine.

We are currently living in an era where the internet has revolutionized our travel planning process. Nearly 200 million European internet users visited a travel website in January 2017 alone, and 76% of users booked their travels through the internet. Word of mouth has become a megaphone.

Travellers can now create content that can influence future visits to a destination. Posting an Instagram, Facebook post or Tweet of a ‘pastel de nata’ in Lisbon, Portugal, or a selfie near the ‘Manneken Pis’ in Brussels, Belgium, has changed the way the world accesses destination information.

User-generated content affects how a destination is communicated. And the growing number of online communities makes destination branding more difficult.

Understanding the digital challenges and the value of co-creation involved in the branding and management of destinations is an essential element for the success of a brand, and indeed the entire value chain of the tourism activity.

One of the findings of these studies is that tourists as opinion-makers with access to a plethora of information and communication technologies now act as co-creators of destination brands. Therefore, it is wise to engage them and to strategically integrate the content they generate into destination branding efforts.

In your view, which role does social media play in destination branding?

Social media platforms are becoming an increasingly important mechanism for exchanging information among tourists, and for destinations and businesses to learn about the attitudes towards their markets. This freely available information gives destination brand managers the opportunity to look “into the heads” of the tourist/traveller and to monitor their experiences.

In today’s competitive environment, innovation, decentralization, engagement, involvement and having a distinctive voice are essential for successful destination branding. Social media can support this process as they are the optimal platforms to spread a narrative, a story and a message. But it also poses a challenge.

Destination brand managers are faced with the challenge to use social media coherently; maintain communities of interest, collect user-generated content, display photos and videos, promote local events, and encourage word-of-mouth recommendations.

Are there any particularly good examples of storytelling and place reputation management that you would refer to as best practice?

Stories help people to make sense of a place. Especially in destination brand management, storytelling is an effective channel to support communication. Stories are powerful because they turn myths into tangible consumer experience creators; they provide insights and encourage learning. Even though stories make people relate to the narrative by keeping them intrigued, inspired and eventually amused, there are not so many examples of its use in place reputation management, as far as I know.

A good example is the curators of Sweden project on Twitter. It gives voice to a different Swede every week to share their stories, points of view regarding Sweden (mostly), their experiences concerning activities, gastronomy, etc. In my view, this is a very interesting project, which provides in-depth context and sensitive narratives about the country.

Another example is Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York project, featuring interviews with thousands of people on the streets of New York City. What makes it unique is the sheer originality and focus on putting people’s real-life stories, their passions, struggles and hopes at the forefront. This project helps to reveal the real essence of the city, what makes it desirable to visit, or work and live in. It makes us think deeply about the purposefulness and meaningfulness of life and thus generate images about New York which are very different from traditional destination promotion.

What are the three fundamental place branding principles that contribute to sustainable regional development?

There are some unresolved issues within the application of branding principles to places that hinder a greater contribution of place branding to sustainable development. Here, I will only emphasize three aspects.

First, it is important to overcome the issue of the one-size-fits-all approach by capitalizing place-specific qualities through tailor-made and context-sensitive place branding strategies.

Secondly, place branding often works to conceal power struggles and to impose elite-led interests and directions, while suppressing opposing voices or neglecting citizens’ needs and hopes. In this regard, to contribute to social, economic and environmentally sound regional development, there is a need for co-production in place branding. In other words, to produce a place branding strategy collectively, so it meets the real needs of local communities.

Thirdly, there is an excessive concentration on inter-place competition as the ultimate goal of place branding.

It is fundamental to align place branding with regional development plans and strategic spatial planning goals, thus improving social and economic aspects, as well as protecting natural resources.

Could you recommend some recent publications on place branding as a strategic spatial planning instrument?

Specifically, on place branding as a strategic spatial planning instrument, I would recommend my PhD thesis entitled Place Branding in Strategic Spatial Planning: An Analysis at the Regional Scale with Special Reference to Northern Portugal.

I recommend the article by Massimo Giovanardi and Andrea Lucarelli on Sailing through Marketing: A Critical Assessment of Spatiality in Marketing Literature.

I found Jelmer Jeuring and Tialda Haartsen’s article very interesting: Destination Branding by Residents: The Role of Perceived Responsibility in Positive and Negative Word-of-Mouth.

The working paper by Kristof van Assche and Raoul Beunen on the links between governance and place branding is an inspiring read for those who want to know more about how to lend a more strategic approach and geographical/spatial consciousness to the process of place branding.

Also highly recommended, the paper by Fabiana Gondim Mariutti on The Placement of Country Reputation Towards Place Management.

Thank you, Eduardo.

Connect with Eduardo Oliveira on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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