Interview with Gary Warnaby on City Marketing Trends and Branding Retail Destinations

This interview with Gary Warnaby of Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom is part of our mission to connect place brand developers, managers and marketers with place branding researchers. A fellow of the Institute of Place Management, Professor Warnaby is particularly interested in and contributes to the Institute’s expertise in managing and positioning high streets and retail destinations.

Learn about:

  • The importance of place branding for retail destinations;
  • How physical retailing places can compete with increasingly seamless digital consumer experiences;
  • How to best align stakeholders behind a shared place vision;
  • A golden, yet simple metric to measure place brand campaign effectiveness;
  • Advice on the must-read books for any place branding professional.

Gary, what drew you toward the idea of the marketing of towns and cities? Do you remember what first stirred your interest in the topic?

My industry background is in retailing, so I got interested in the idea of marketing towns and cities from this particular perspective and in particular, in relation to retail location and network management decisions. On leaving industry and moving into higher education, I did my doctoral research on how towns and cities in the UK market themselves, with particular reference to retailing.

This was of specific relevance in the UK, as more and more retail sales moved from traditional city centre retail locations to out-of-town and edge-of-town destinations, many of which are developing a broader range of attractions and attributes that go beyond retailing. As a result, this has placed them in much more direct competition with traditional town/city centre retail areas.

How important is marketing – or more broadly, strategic place branding – for retail “destinations”? Where are the links?

I think it is very important. As mentioned above, in terms of retailing, traditional urban areas have found themselves in greater competition with ‘off-centre’ locations. More recently, all these retail destinations, irrespective of physical location, have been subject to even more competition that is essentially a-spatial in the sense that we, as consumers, are spending an ever greater proportion of our disposable income online, thereby by-passing traditional retailing altogether.

Moreover, we are also witnessing a trend towards multi- and omni-channel retailing, whereby the consumer expects integrated and seamless interactions between all the different ways in which goods and services can be accessed from those organisations that provide them. The management of this process is perhaps the most important current challenge for retailers, and in so doing, many will have to, sometimes fundamentally, re-assess the locations of their store network.

For those responsible for the management and marketing of traditional retail sales ‘places’ in our towns and cities, the trend towards multi- and omni-channel retailing has significant implications as to the role(s) that these places perform, and how space is managed.

So for example, is there too much urban space devoted to retailing? How flexible is this space, and can it be used for other purposes – either commercial, residential, or put to some other use entirely? Moving beyond retailing, and broadening the perspective to take a more overtly ‘strategic’ point-of-view, this may mean that in particular places, there needs to be a fundamental appraisal of what the purpose of the place actually is.

In your view, which are the main challenges in city marketing practice today?

Linked to the above point, many places are facing an increasingly uncertain future, so the need to have a clear vision about the place for which you are responsible is really important. Of course, this is easier said than done, in the sense that there are numerous stakeholders in any place, and thus getting an inclusive consensus vision may be very difficult. This highlights the need for effective interaction (both formal and informal) and working between all those responsible for the management and marketing of the place, otherwise the whole will definitely be less than the sum of the parts.

City marketing is also about how the city is represented, and with the rise of social media, there is the potential for there to be many – often incompatible and competing – representations of the place which potential target audiences can access.

Perhaps the marketer’s traditional desire for consistency of – and control over – what is offered to customers (always more difficult with places, given their inherent complexity!) needs to be moderated.

Those responsible for place marketing will need to accept the fact that places will be viewed in multiple ways and that there is no single place image – after all, image, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder!

Are you noticing any trends in place marketing or place branding?

If a place can be thought of as a ‘product’ to be marketed (and indeed, that issue is subject to debate), then it is inevitably an experiential product, and how that experience is communicated to potential place users  – incorporating all the senses as much as is possible – is an important issue.

Likewise, the need for any place marketing activity to be inclusive in its orientation is important.

Whilst marketing more generally is always about seeking new markets and new opportunities etc., in the context of places, don’t forget about those already in the place, such as residents. They can be the place’s most important ambassadors, and if they don’t believe in the place, then you’ve lost.

What does place branding need to be successful? How to determine whether a place branding initiative has been effective?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my answers to the above questions, if place branding is to be successful it needs to be inclusive and those in the place have to believe in it – that’s the fundamental criterion.

Your advice to those interested in becoming urban developers, place marketers, or city branders?

Get involved. As I’ve mentioned, residents and other ‘internal’ place stakeholders can have an increasingly important role to play in influencing and guiding place management and marketing activities – if you feel strongly about some issue relating to your place, then get active about it.

One other thing, when in a place, look around you and not at the screen of your mobile device (of whatever kind), and take out your earphones and listen to what’s going on around you  –  you will find out a lot more about the place(s) in which you live as a result of those simple actions.

3 books everyone in charge of urban marketing or managing city reputation should read…

Stephen Ward’s book Selling Places: The Marketing and Promotion of Towns and Cities 1850-2000 is an excellent overview of the practice of place marketing from a more historical perspective, and is a book I constantly go back to.

In a shameless plug for my own work, in the more recent edited collection Rethinking Place Branding: Comprehensive Brand Development for Cities and Regions, we have tried to incorporate a range of more critically-oriented perspectives on place marketing and branding practice.

Finally, for a more lyrical and artistic meditation on place, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is unsurpassed.

Thank you, Gary.

More about Gary Warnaby’s research and publications here.


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