Interview with Günter Soydanbay on How to Succeed in City Branding, with Lessons from Turkey

Günter Soydanbay in this interview shares unique insights into the world of city branding by taking us on a journey to the cities of Gaziantep and Izmir in Turkey. He discusses the role of psychology in place branding, frequent mistakes (and how to avoid them), and reveals three points which – based on his experience – he considers essential for city branding success.

The interview is part of a special series with place brand professionals participating in the City Nation Place Forum and Awards, taking place in London, UK on 9 November 2017.

Learn about:

  • What place branding has to do with psychology;
  • Key elements for place branding success;
  • Common mistakes in city branding, and how to avoid them;
  • How to engage and align stakeholders in city branding;
  • Lessons learned from city branding projects in Gaziantep and Izmir, Turkey.

Günter, you hold a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and an MBA. What led you to branding and what is it about place branding that you like?

As far back as I can remember, I have always been interested in meaning. And to me, brands are primarily about making meaning. So, in that sense, you can say that branding chose me as much as I chose it. I first stepped into this world as a strategic planner, working at an ad agency. Yet, I never felt at home in advertising. The use of terms like consumer and target audience irked me. Metaphorically speaking, I think advertising is like fireworks. It’s eye-catching and awe-inspiring yet exaggeratedly present-oriented and short-lived. I was looking for its opposite, a lighthouse so to speak. To me, that was branding.

As per place branding, I owe my introduction to this field to two people. The first one is Jeannette Hanna, who mentored me. Though we never worked on a place branding project together, I learned the intricacies of this métier by observing her. The second name is Emrah Yucel, the founder of I Mean It Creative, who activated my potential. He gave me a platform, through which I transformed my knowledge into experience.

What I like the most about working with places is the fact that even the smallest village is infinitely more complex than the largest corporation. That’s why I see place branding projects as the ultimate platform to cross-pollinate many ideas, from systems thinking to depth psychology, mythology, storytelling, and change management. That fascinates me.

Have your studies in Psychology proved to be useful for your destination marketing work? If so, how?

Psychology has been vital to my work. I am deeply interested in Jungian and archetypal psychology, which is the ultimate discipline that deals with grand notions such as meaning and purpose. That’s the branch of psychology that harvests insights. While I can’t speak for others, based on my personal experience, if you help an organization to discover its authentic purpose, you have a high chance of succeeding.

Could you share the 3 points that you consider necessary for place branding projects to be successful?

First and foremost, you need to get the key stakeholders involved AND engaged. Those two are not necessarily the same. Just because a stakeholder is consulted doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is engaged. A disengaged key stakeholder could quickly turn into an active faultfinder.

Second, I am a firm believer that one should start with “what the place already has.” I think what separates place branding from retail branding is that the latter is built outside in, whereas the former inside out.

Place branding projects are U-shaped. First, you must dive deep, explore within. Once you achieve consensus on your values, stories, assets, then you can start looking outside. Not the other way around.

If you were branding a chocolate bar, you would look at the market trends, customer segments, and then offer a relevantly different brand promise. It’s not that easy for a place to do that. As a place, you must create an authentic promise and then try to lure visitors or investors, who might be interested in your promise. Otherwise you risk not being able to deliver on your promise, which is a sure way to be unsuccessful.

Finally, I believe place branding should not be positioned as a silver bullet. Not to the clients, not in the media. If a place is interested in embarking on a branding journey, chances are it has an underlying problem. Maybe its economy is decaying. Maybe it wants to attract more visitors. Maybe rapid population growth threatens the place’s sacred values. Maybe it wants its exporters to shine. Whatever the problem is, the place branding project cannot solve it on its own. What it can do, however, is it could become a galvanizing platform, through which the problems of the place are acknowledged, analyzed, and addressed.

What do you think are the most common mistakes committed by place branding professionals?

I wrote quite a bit about this topic, for the success rate of place branding projects is quite low. Based on my experience, the most common misconception is that people think the branding principles that apply to a soft drink should also work for a destination. I have already expressed my thoughts on that topic.

Second, place branding professionals often fail to comprehend their role. Some see themselves as a rescuer, attempting to save the city heroically. Some see themselves as a salesperson, focusing on persuading the client to buy into their creative idea.

To me, a consultant’s role is fourfold: A mirror, in which the client sees its accurate reflection. A cross-pollinator, who blends knowledge from outside and inside. A catalyst, who transforms energy into action by infusing enthusiasm. And finally, a storyteller, who discovers and shares the narrative of the place.

Third, I believe some professionals spend too much time trying to “fix” things, which leaves too little time promoting the good stuff. There is a discipline called Appreciative Inquiry. It preaches that studying the root causes of success rather than the root causes of failure is a far more effective approach. Based on my personal experience, that line of thinking is right.

Finally, consultants can do a better job planning the launch strategy. More specifically, they can map out the key messages and create cheat sheets for decision makers so that they can behave and communicate more cohesively. Oftentimes places don’t announce the why of the branding project. When a place doesn’t explain its objectives correctly, the public zeroes in on the visuals, treating the project as if it were a creative endeavor, not a strategic one. Nine times out of ten that does not end well.

Place branding often means working with professionals from very different fields. What are your tips for engaging and aligning stakeholders?

All living systems form from shared interests. So, the most vital step of a project is to discover what’s meaningful – the shared purpose. This is critical because, as [easyazon_link keywords=”Carol Pearson” locale=”US” tag=”tpbous-20″]Carol Pearson[/easyazon_link] says, “People are individually vitalized and collectively galvanized when they can see and contribute to a transcendent purpose.” So, if your goal is to align stakeholders, you may want to find the shared purpose first.

There are all sorts of digital solutions for stakeholder engagement. But I want to focus on a simple yet tried and true method that I use all the time: Whenever possible bring the perspective of children into the conversation. This is especially true when the visions of stakeholders are misaligned. I witnessed even the most rigid decision makers softening up when they see a controversial message coming from kids. They become more receptive to opposing ideas.

Also, you can position the consultation process differently. Usually interviews and workshops are perceived to extract information from stakeholders. That’s true. Yet they can be more. Questions that are appreciative in nature could also help you diffuse information, paving the way for alignment.

There’s an old Jewish wisdom: An enemy is someone whose story you do not know. So, allowing stakeholders to tell their story as well as hear the other side of the story is a great engagement tactic. Interviews are fertile waters for fishing for stories. Find a way to share those stories. For instance, we shot parts of the stakeholder interviews during the Gaziantep city branding project and then shared them as video vignettes. That helped us spread different stories, thus engaging the masses.

[youtube https://youtu.be/yecZm_TyzM4]

In one of your writings you’ve said that “successful place brands are the ones that find their genius loci.” As an external consultant, what are the biggest difficulties in discovering and determining that special character?

Romans used to believe that every place had a spirit. They called it “genius loci: the spirit of the place.” When Frank Sinatra said, “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere,” he was referring to New York’s spirit. There is a reason why “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.” Likewise, it is not a coincidence that the “Velvet” Revolution took place in Czechoslovakia and that the two countries got separated peacefully.

To better illustrate genius loci, let me tell a famous tale, in which an anthropologist interviews a fish. He removes it from the water, then asks the following question: “When did you first notice that you were swimming in the water?” The fish mulls over and then says, “Right now!”

Locals of a place are not unlike the fish. When you live in a place you internalize its values and narrative. Those things become part of the collective unconscious. And that’s why the main difficulty of discovering genius loci is taking the stakeholders’ opinions at face value. When listening you must hear the literal, the metaphorical, and the archetypal voices.

The consultant should read between the lines, connect the dots, and look for patterns of repeated behavior. This can be best done by studying the place’s history, learning about its celebrities and heroes, and analyzing its proudest moments. These are all helpful ways to discover its genius loci as well as sacred values – to me, much more helpful than asking directly to an interviewee.

Could you share your destination marketing experience in Izmir, Turkey? What do you think are the current challenges and opportunities in that region?

Izmir is Turkey’s third largest city and it is one of several cities I worked with in the region. When I got involved in the project, Izmir was getting ready to bid for EXPO 2015. The city’s stakeholders desperately needed an idea, around which they could unite. As a result, they embarked on Turkey’s first city branding project. The primary objective was not to attract tourists, but to align stakeholders and boost self-esteem.

Like all other cities, Izmir, too, exists in an ecosystem. There is the megacity – or the cluster – Istanbul, which is “the capital of everything.” There is Ankara, which is the official capital of Turkey. There is Antalya, which is “the capital of tourism.” There is Bursa, which is “the capital of industry.” There is Gaziantep, which is “the capital of gastronomy.”

Then there is Izmir… An 8,000-year-old Aegean city, with idyllic geography, excellent weather, extremely rich history, and great cuisine. But, those characteristics also describe Barcelona, Marseille, Athens, and Beirut. Natural or historical assets could not be real differentiators for Izmir.

When we started to connect the dots, we realized that what is unique about Izmir was not its natural beauties, but its inhabitants’ pioneer mindset. It is a city of many frontiers, both physically and mentally. It has the largest port in Turkey. It is located at the western extremity of the country. But, it’s also where parchment paper was invented, and where Homer wrote [easyazon_link keywords=”Odysseus” locale=”US” tag=”tpbous-20″]Odysseus[/easyazon_link], where the first geometrical city layout was implemented, and where the first hospital of Eurasia was built. The list goes on for pages. True to its genius loci, people of Izmir keep their frontier mentality alive, for many firsts of modern Turkey are still taking place in Izmir. There are endless such examples, because the “frontier mentality” is the genius loci of Izmir.

The project (learn more about it here) was rolled out with great enthusiasm only to be orphaned a couple of months later. Izmir lost its bid to Milano and sadly the internal resources reserved for managing the brand got assigned to other projects.

On the bright side, the key stakeholders of the city fully internalized the archetypal idea and still refer to the city’s “frontier mentality” whenever they launch a new project. Not long time ago, the Prime Minister of Turkey even suggested that Izmir should build a Museum of Firsts.

As per the greatest challenges of Izmir, it is political instability of the country. Turkey’s national image has eroded a lot over the last 10 years. Also, Turkey had always been perceived as a safe country. While I don’t have data to back this up, my gut feeling tells me that foreigners are thinking twice before traveling to Turkey these days.

Safety and stability are at the bottom of the pyramid. Pull those building blocks and both tourism and FDI collapse.

Any favorite place branding related publications you could recommend us?

The book that influenced my thinking the most is James Hillman’s [easyazon_link identifier=”0882145770″ locale=”US” tag=”tpbous-20″]City and Soul[/easyazon_link]. It is a monumental collection of Hillman’s genius insights on issues such as architecture, culture, beauty, transportation, and politics. To my knowledge no one has ever imagined cities like him, analyzing their depression, joy, growth, and diseases.

While it is not about places, Donella Meadows’ [easyazon_link identifier=”1603580557″ locale=”US” tag=”tpbous-20″]Thinking in Systems[/easyazon_link] is a book that I would highly recommend to fellow practitioners. Simply put; cities – and countries – are complex, adaptive systems. That’s why it is important to understand their three characteristics: the resilience to keep its identity, the ability to self-organize, and the tendency to build hierarchy. Meadows’ book is also a great resource for learning how and where to interfere a system. It is an easy yet insightful read.

Thank you, Günter.

Connect with Günter Soydanbay on LinkedIn, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.


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