Jesper Falkheimer on Place Branding, Media and Strategic Communication

In this interview with Jesper Falkheimer, Professor in Strategic Communications at Lund University, we explore current trends in place branding from a strategic communications perspective. Learn about his research on regional branding in the case of the Danish-Swedish Öresund region, and why journalistic approaches to communicating place brand identity trump marketing. 

Learn about:

  • Journalistic vs. commercial approaches to communicating place brand identity;
  • The role of media and strategic communication in place branding;
  • Strategic communication trends likely to impact place branding practice;
  • Tips for city leaders in China on how to apply place branding to their cultural context;
  • Recommended reading for strategic communication pros interested in place branding.

Jesper, one of your main interests as Professor in Strategic Communication at Lund University (Sweden) is the role of media in place branding. Do you remember what first attracted your interest in this topic? Why the focus on the media?

My interest in the role of media in place branding started when I did research for my doctoral dissertation in the beginning of the 2000s. In those days only very few attempts had been made to connect place branding to media research.

The focus in my research was regional and well known to me: the evolution of the Danish-Swedish Öresund region. This transnational region was and is still mainly a strategic social construction – one may call it a brand – founded in the 1990s. The region is linked to the building of the Öresund bridge, inaugurated in 2000, which connects the South of Sweden with Copenhagen in Denmark.

When I did my research on the Danish-Swedish Öresund region I realized that the role of the media in Denmark and Sweden was crucial for the public opinion and the development of place identity among the residents as well as external stakeholders. The traditional branding campaigns did not have the same effects as the journalistic coverage and stories that were spread.

My research showed that the traditional marketing logic using a commercial mode of communication did not work as well as a communication logic that used journalistic tools. In other words, public relations tactics seemed to be more relevant than marketing tactics.

As a scholar with strong background in communication, persuasion, relationships and management, what role do you think media coverage plays with regard to the branding and reputation of places?

Things have changed considerably since my research on the Öresund region. Traditional journalism is still relevant for place branding but not in the way it used to be. Today social media is an increasingly important platform, as well as new digital monitoring technologies. The digital revolution has created both opportunities and obstacles for organizations. New ways of communication challenge our cognitive capacity. The result is an increasing feeling of uncertainty due to the fact that we have to make more and more choices based on more and more information.

For place branders it is important to use and create media platforms that are experienced as safe, serious and clear. Trust is the most important capital for all forms of strategic communications.

From a strategic communication point of view, what is place branding all about?

Strategic communication is an umbrella concept, which tries to embrace all forms of goal-oriented communication between organizations and their  stakeholders. Scholars and professionals who follow this thinking neglect traditional boundaries between old disciplines and take an outside-in-perspective on what is done. Communication in its oldest sense, creating shared meaning, is put in the center.

As a form of strategic communication, place branding practiced well means to involve different stakeholders and encourage participation in order to reach one’s goals.

Which trends and challenges do you observe as a communications scholar with an interest in place branding, for instance in Scandinavia?

I think that the communication trends that are valid for other forms of strategic communication are also valid for place branding. Some trends are easy to follow and act upon, such as abolishing the top-down approach and instead inviting stakeholders or users to become active actors in place communication.

An excellent example of this is the campaign The Swedish Number by the Swedish Tourist Association. People interested in Sweden were invited to call a specific number and were randomly connected to a Swede that had agreed to answer questions about the country. Almost 200,000 calls from 190 countries were made in the 79 days that the campaign ran in 2016.

This campaign was framed as typically Swedish, connected to the freedom of the press and free speech that was made a part of our constitution in 1766. I guess we will see more campaigns like this in the future.

Since October 2016 you are Honorary Fellow at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Which would be your advice to city region planners, managers and marketers in China with regards to building a strong and competitive city brand?

That is not an easy question since place branding is a very political issue in countries such as China. Some years ago I visited a city branding conference in Beijing and listened to how Chinese city planners and branders worked. In some ways it was similar to how we do things here, in other ways it was very different.

I think that place brands must be built bottom up and that elite strategies are questionable. I would recommend Chinese professionals to do the best they can following this advice, but at the same time adapting to the context and culture they are in. There is no best way, but several best ways.

Very recently you published an article in the journal Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, where you discuss how place branding has transformed the Øresund Region from a transnational region to a bi-national city-region. In a nutshell, which is your key insight from this case study?

Referring back to the earlier answers I propose a communicative turn, building place brands bottom up, involving residents, focusing more on journalism than traditional advertising when possible, using digital platforms of course and accepting that place branding also is a form of political strategic communication.

Rethinking Place Branding book review3 books everyone interested in place branding as a form of strategic communication should read…

I think books by social theorists, media scholars, rhetorics and geographers sometimes give more inspiration than place branding books. This aside there is an excellent anthology edited by Mihalis Kavaratzis, Gary Warnaby and Gregory J. Ashworth:  Rethinking Place Branding: Comprehensive Brand Development for Cities and Regions. It is a thick book but well worth reading.

Thank you, Jesper.

Connect with Jesper Falkheimer on LinkedIn or learn more about his research and work at Lund University here.

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