Interview: Jeannette Hanna of Trajectory Consulting on Creating Authentic Place Brands

Jeannette Hanna of the strategic brand agency Trajectory in Canada, in this interview touches on the intertwined destiny of the fields of place branding, placemaking and place management. We also discuss place brand authenticity and how a qualitative approach to place brand development can help distill the meaning of places.

Learn about:

  • How to create authentic place brands;
  • How an inductive, qualitative approach can help to distill the meaning of places;
  • The link between place branding, placemaking and place management;
  • Good practice examples of storytelling and engaging communities in place branding;
  • How a systems perspective can help us better understand how to balance chaos and order in place management.

Jeannette, advising on place brands is an important part of your strategy consultancy Trajectory. In your view, what does a city or destination brand need, to be authentic?

Just look at the definitions of authentic: Done in an original way; based on facts; being emotionally appropriate, significant, purposeful and responsible. All those apply. The challenge is to create a process for capturing a broad range of inputs and then bring them together in a meaningful synthesis – a “masala” of facts, voices, experiences and perspectives. As media seer Marshall McLuhan once said, “I don’t know who invented water but it wasn’t a fish.”

Because cultural customs, stories and values are so integral to the way of life in any place, it’s often hard for locals to see how their environment is distinct. The job of place branding is to help surface those one-of-a-kind qualities. That’s where the “genius loci” emerges.

The biggest mistake is to create some live/work/play pastiche of a place and then try to get the populace to “buy-in.” That’s the create-a-tagline-and-flog-it approach. It’s deadly.

What’s often missing, yet critical for place brands, is to capture the aspirations of a population – what kind of future do people want to build together? There are no easy shortcuts to those answers. A critical part of the role we play is provoking those conversations. We call it FutureCast™ because it’s about shaping the future trajectory of a destination.

Much of your work evolves around the question how to engage citizens and communities in the strategic brand development for their city, region or country. Which examples of good practice in this field would you recommend place branders to study in order to ‘do it right’?

Happily, there is a very robust and rapidly evolving suite of cost-effective tools for engaging people in different ways, at different stages of brand development. Today, there’s little excuse for not building this into the process.

It’s important to remember that every place is unique, so avoid cookie cutter solutions.

There are many tactics to incorporate. Both traditional and innovative surveying techniques are useful. Community workshops are always valuable. Of course, social and digital media have a role. But so do low-tech, in-situ installations, art projects and one-to-one conversations. It’s important to ensure that kids, youth and seniors have input too.

As anyone who’s studied Appreciative Inquiry knows, the questions you ask matter enormously in terms of the quality of the response.

We were part of an Appreciative Inquiry-led project in Bermuda that was trying to understand the importance of performing arts in the cultural identity of the nation. The project team trained high school students to have personal conversations with elders in the community about the importance of music, dance and other creative arts in their lives. We reviewed almost 500 deeply personal transcripts describing transformative arts-based experiences. The details of people’s hopes and wishes that emerged were very powerful. Traditional surveys and focus groups would never have surfaced the richness of insight we gained from these interviews.

Strategist Gunter Soydanbay’s work in Gaziantep,Turkey is another example of a creative approach to engagement. The 10,000-year-old city of 1.5M people near the Syrian Border, dealing with an influx of 300K refugees, is also facing the challenge of how to protect its historic culture and plan for the future.

In addition to qualitative interviews with key stakeholders, the place branding team wanted to collect “next generation” voices about what the future of the city should be like. They asked 200 school children and their teachers to paint the Gaziantep of their dreams. Clear themes emerged that mirrored the stakeholder concerns: Preserving culture and heritage, parks and green spaces, role of women, balancing celebrating life vs. work ethic. Seeing children express these priorities gave the team’s recommendations a powerful authenticity.

Berlin city identity marketing campaign
“Like Berlin” city identity campaign

The power of the “Like Berlin” local engagement campaign was in the provocative questions that were posed:

  • What are Berlin’s three basic values?
  • How do you know that you are in Berlin?
  • When are you a Berliner?
  • What is absolutely forbidden for Berliners?

The thousands of answers will be distilled into a “Berlin Code” booklet, which will be shared with new residents and visitors. These types of approaches validate the potential of original, evidence-based authentic engagement.

It’s understandable that people have a healthy skepticism of place branding. Our role is to show how creating a shared, authentic narrative can be immensely powerful for communities.

In your view, what is the connection between place branding, place management and placemaking?

They are deeply interdependent in ways that we don’t always acknowledge or appreciate.

Place branding focuses on expressing the vision, values, narrative, ideas, sense of purpose and promise that fuel the momentum of a place.

Placemaking (and the economics behind it) is about shaping the actual environment and experiences of a place – where we invest and why.

Place management is key to delivering and sustaining the experience over time. Places are dynamic so stewardship is essential. You need a team that’s monitoring results, that can adjust and navigate as conditions evolve.

You can start at place branding, placemaking or place management but, ultimately, you need all three aligned to ensure long-term success.

How can systems thinking help us better understand the dynamics of places, and facilitate the often daunting tasks of strategic place branding?

Donella Meadows, one of the early proponents of systems thinking, wrote, “We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them.” I think the “dance” metaphor captures the kind of dynamic responsiveness and adaptability that we need to be successful in this work.

Places are complex but, like natural systems, they thrive on simple rules and patterns. We need to build strategies that embrace their “chaordic” nature. A “chaord” is that space between chaos and order. It’s a fine balance. Too much chaos and things spin out of control. Too much order and things die. No one entity controls a city. But we can help them with better choreography.

Understanding the dynamics of systems and how to manage in complex environments is a whole new field of management thinking that draws on lessons from biology, physics and social sciences. But it’s a very exciting way of approaching this work.

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

Measurements have to be tied to the goals and aspirations of a place. Is the focus economic development? Tourism growth? Creating a sense of belonging among residents? Or strengthening a place’s reputation?

Brand perceptions take years to evolve so you need different ways of calibrating long-term impacts versus short-term indicators that help you see what’s gaining traction.

If you think of places in terms of relationships, the robustness of your network is essential. Practitioners at GloComNet.com, a global network of consultants dealing with systems thinking and complexity, have developed innovative tools for measuring the health of networks based on factors like resilience, adaptability and alertness to changing conditions. This gives us completely different ways of quantifying and monitoring vital the vital signs of a place.

More and more place branding and marketing initiatives now encourage citizens to co-create and communicate, for example through hashtag-driven social media campaigns. Do you think those have a lasting impact on a place brand, or what else is needed to take full benefit of place branding exercises, in terms of citizen participation?

There are lots of social campaigns like “I Amsterdam” and #SeeYourCity but the hashtag-driven social media campaign is not a panacea for engaging communities. I think these are great initiatives as far as “internal” marketing to residents. This is often an overlooked dimension of place branding.

There are lots of other approaches (see above) that can engage broader demographics and be intentionally more inclusive. We need to think of engagement for different purposes including:

  • Local tourism marketing (as above)
  • Local “visioning”: What do we want our place to be like in the future?
  • Local decision-making: Participatory budgets, input into planning and development etc.
  • Local community building: sharing images, stories, being brand ambassadors

The most interesting developments, to me, are the ones that enable real participatory decision-making and capturing the human stories of places. New York’s “City of Memory” web site, created by the firm Local Projects, is a great example.

Your key insights so far from your work linked to place branding? Which trends to you observe?

We live in an interdependent world. Today, no business, no organization, no place succeeds alone. It’s the connections we create, the communities we engage and the collaborations we enable that drive real value. I think this is the real work of place branding – helping to create a sense of shared identity and possibilities.

Having a shared vision, meaningful narrative and heightened sense of identity are the platform for future placemaking. To maintain momentum over time takes smart place management. My biggest learning from our work to date is how tightly coupled these disciples need to be.

Thank you, Jeannette.

Connect with Jeannette Hanna on LinkedIn or learn more about her work at Trajectory here.


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