Gert-Jan Hospers on Urban and Regional Development and Place Marketing

Gert-Jan Hospers, Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, in this interview discusses different urban and regional development policies applied to old industrial areas. He also gives an insight into his work on demographic shrinkage and place marketing. 

Learn about:

  • Place branding trends in the Netherlands;
  • Key factors of sustainable urban and regional economic development;
  • How to plan a place marketing program for ‘ordinary’ places;
  • The difference between ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ place marketing;
  • How to measure the success of place branding programs.

Gert-Jan, do you remember what first attracted your interest in the study of place branding as a tool for economic development?

For me, the story of the Ruhr Area has inspired me to pay more attention to place image and identity. Since the 1960s, the well-known German old industrial area has tried to reverse its image with campaigns suggesting that there is more in this region than coal and steel. This policy did not pay off – the audience simply did not believe it, people stuck to the cliché of a smokestack region.

Only at the turn of the century things seem to have changed in the Ruhr Area. The trick: the region started to promote itself by making use of its rich industrial legacy instead of denying it.

While the ‘industrial culture’ – connecting the area’s past and future – has not been the holy grail for regional economic development, it gave the Ruhr Area a more credible image.

As a scholar with strong background in the economic geography of European territories, what role do you think place branding plays (or could play) with regard to sustainable economic development of cities or regions?

In my view, place branding should be less ambitious than is sometimes suggested in the literature. As I see it, sustainable urban and regional economic development is a result of the interaction of the place-specific ‘hardware’ (economic-spatial factors), ‘software’ (social-cultural factors), ‘orgware’ (government and governance) and  ‘mindware’ (image and self-image).

Against this background, place branding is a tool to bring the mindware of a place in line with its hardware, software and orgware. To put it in a metaphor: place branding offers an area an authentic, unique and credible profile, like a Facebook profile does for us as individuals.

In your view, what is place branding all about? And how do you distinguish between branding and marketing on the one hand, and product and place marketing on the other? Where are the similarities/differences?

In my view, place branding is an inside-out-strategy: places send a message to the outside world without paying much attention to the wishes of their target groups. Think of the high-tech area around Eindhoven: it brands itself as ‘Brainport’, even if this term is not common among many people that live in the region.

In turn, place marketing is targeted, starting with the needs of the chosen ‘place customer’, be it visitors, investors, firms, students or residents. Thus, it is an outside-in-approach employed to create a new market for the place. An example is a touristic campaign highlighting the Swedish region of Skåne among Dutch visitors that look for a relaxed holiday.

Place marketing is more complex than product marketing because places are multidimensional and difficult to control. And as a geographer I always stress the importance of a ‘sense of place’: a place that objectively offers nothing special can be very special for someone who lives there.

I do not really believe in rankings, values and other measures to objectify the attractiveness of places. What historian Eric Van Young once said about regions (“Regions are like love— they are difficult to describe but we know them when we see them”), is true for every place.

Which trends and challenges do you observe with regard to place branding, for instance in the Netherlands, or Europe more generally?

One could say that place branding more or less follows the general trends we can see in these days. First of all, there is a lot of interest in what the digital world means for place branding: how are images influenced by different kinds of new media, like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook?

Second, there is increasing focus on citizens in place branding: how do they see their place of residence and what role can they play in branding a territory?

Finally, we live in a world of counting, testing and evaluating. Measuring the effects of place branding programs now ranks high on the policy agenda – which makes it also an issue that gets more and more attention in consultancy and academic circles.

In 2011 you published a study called “Place Marketing in Shrinking Europe: Some Geographical Notes”. Is place marketing useful to beat demographic shrinkage and attract newcomers? What are the alternatives?

As a geographer, I have doubts about ‘cold’ place marketing (i.e. attempts to attract newcomers) as a tool to beat demographic shrinkage. Theoretical and empirical studies show how home-loving most people in Europe still are.

In contrast to what is often suggested in mainstream thinking, people do not simply move to start a new life in a place where wages are higher or house prices are lower. Most of us have location-specific capital that ‘sticks’ them to a region.

In my view, it is more useful for shrinking territories to focus on ‘warm’ place marketing that tries to retain rather than to attract people. And when places really want to focus on an audience outside the region, they should focus on ‘return migration’:  people returning to the region where they lived in an earlier phase of their life.

In 2016, together with Maja Rocak and Nol Reverda, you conducted another study: “Searching for Social Sustainability: The Case of the Shrinking City of Heerlen, The Netherlands”. In your conclusions you highlighted that social capital can facilitate social sustainability in the context of urban shrinkage, but trust is not guaranteed, so cities should invest in fostering “cooperation between civil society and politics and the development of mutual trust”. In which way could a place brand strategy assist in achieving trust and cooperation?

I am not sure whether you really need place branding here. Developing mutual trust and cooperation between civil society and politics is a matter of taking citizens seriously and making sensible local policies. It requires street-level politicians that start with the human scale, in line with Jan Gehl’s plea for ‘cities for people’.

For example, investing in an iconic building or hallmark event can be useful from a place branding perspective, but it is not necessarily a strategy that is beneficial for civil society. Citizens are more interested in measures that facilitate their daily life ‘at eye-level’, what they experience every day on the street and in public space. Should we call such human-based policy making place branding? Or is it simply local policy by ‘good government’? This conceptual issue often puzzles me: where does place branding start and where exactly does it end?

How to measure the success or effectiveness of place branding programs?

In my view, measuring the success or effectiveness of place branding programs is highly complex, perhaps even impossible.

Evaluating the effect of place marketing campaigns is easier, although evaluators should also be modest in what they conclude here. After all, there is always the ‘what if’-question (what would have happened if no intervention had been made?). There are other issues as well, linked to causality, data inadequacies, overlapping policy programmes and other noise factors.

In my view, the evaluation of the place marketing campaign of the Dutch region and city of Groningen is an example of ‘best practice’. This evaluation was targeted and paid attention to the particularities of time and place. For example, it took also neighboring regions (Friesland and Drenthe) into account, instead of focusing only on Groningen.

Also, the sensible empirical studies by geographer Thomas Niedomysl on place marketing in Swedish regions is the kind of evaluation work I like.

Often, when thinking about examples of successful place branding, we come across well-known and established cities such as Copenhagen, London or Barcelona. Do you have examples of place branding done well in less successful, ‘ordinary’ places, such as old industrial areas? In which way does brand development and management in those cases differ from place branding for well-known places?

You are right, due to the ‘Matthew effect’ (success breeds success) it is easier to brand a place that is already well-known than a place that is hidden from public attention. However, I believe that even in the most ‘ordinary’ place something special can be found that can be used as a place brand. As a matter of fact, such regions often have ‘hidden champions’, to use a term coined by business economist Hermann Simon: local firms that are highly specialized but produce for the global market.

Take Germany: the town of Tuttlingen is world-leading in medical technology and the Schwarzwald area [Black Forest] is very strong in mechanical engineering. Or take the region where I am based: Twente, a hotspot for material technology. This place-based specialization is an advantage for place marketing purposes. After all, marketing means making choices – it is the only allowed form of discrimination.

3 books everyone interested in place branding and economic development should read…

Philip Kotler, Donald Haider & Irving Rein (2002), Marketing Places: Attracting Investment, Industry, and Tourism to Cities, States, and Nations, 2nd edition, Free Press, New York

Jan Gehl (2010), Cities for People, Island Press, Washington

Paul Knox and Heike Mayer (2013), Small Town Sustainability: Economic, Social, and Environmental Innovation, 2nd edition, Birkhäuser, Basel

Thank you Gert-Jan.

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