Interview with Juan Carlos Belloso on City Branding and the Case of Barcelona

If you ask people where they’d like to spend their next holidays, study or work, chances are good someone will mention the city of Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain. This extraordinary success of city branding is to some part due to the work of Juan Carlos Belloso. In this interview, the place brand expert shares exclusive insights and thoughts on cities, reputation and what it takes for a place brand strategy to be successful.

Learn about:

  • How place branding impacts the economic and social development of places;
  • What place branding is all about;
  • Why changing and improving the image of a place is a long-term effort;
  • Why places should develop their own measurement systems;
  • Why a city brand can be more powerful that the country brand;
  • The role of leadership in place branding;
  • How the city of Barcelona managed to achieve its current level of awareness and recognition;
  • How place branding can support the sustainability of a city;
  • The main challenges in managing the Barcelona brand strategically.

Juan Carlos, what fascinates you about place branding?

I think the greatest thing about place branding is that you have a direct and tangible impact on the economic and social development of places and the well-being of people. The other great thing about pace branding is that it involves so many disciplines in a holistic way.

Those include place design and place making, economic and social development, branding and marketing and/or other specializations, such as citizen engagement and public diplomacy. Working in place branding also provides you the opportunity to get to know, experience and interact with so many different places, cultures and people.

How would you describe your work?

I am passionate about places and about people, and what I do is helping places (cities, regions, nations and destinations) to better compete in an increasingly global and competitive world. I do this by establishing a future vision for the place and designing and implementing a comprehensive place (brand) strategy, so that the place can become more attractive to visitors, talented people, investors, customers and economic activity. All of these are necessary for the sustainable economic and social development of the place.

Rethinking Place Branding book reviewYour favorite 2015 place branding book so far?

I would definitely recommend reading Rethinking Place Branding by Mihalis Kavaratzis, Gary Warnaby and Gregory Ashworth, with great contributions by other place branding experts.

I think the book provides a good opportunity to review the state of the discipline, specially in a moment with so many things affecting places and the way we see, build and manage their brands. Those include the impact of internet technologies and other social trends, such as the sharing economy, or the need for more sustainable places.

What does place branding mean to you?

Place branding is a quite tricky concept because it can mean many different things to different people. For me, ‘place branding’ is about creating a shared future vision and desired image for a place. It includes joint design and effective implementation of the right set of strategies, ideas, projects, actions, investments, and communications in a coherent and consistent way.

A place’s key stakeholders need to collaborate over time in order to build a vision and image so strong that people will want to live, study, work, invest or visit the place.

In my view, building a place brand requires a strategic approach and long-term commitment. Place branding is not merely about creating an attractive logo, a more or less successful marketing campaign or commercial advertisement, or a political campaign.

Place branding is a ‘comprehensive place effort’ involving all stakeholders, aimed at building and managing the image and reputation of their place in front of their target markets and audiences.

What role does place branding play for the city of Barcelona?

Place branding, if understood and done properly, is and will be key for the future of Barcelona. The main challenge for Barcelona today is positioning the city not just as a place to visit (tourism and events), but also as a place to work, study and invest. In other words, as a place linked to talent, knowledge, creativity, innovation and economic activity.

Designing and developing the right brand vision and strategy can play a fundamental role. But in order for this to happen, city authorities as well as private leaders and organizations need to understand city branding as a key strategic element and tool for building and positioning the city, and the need to coordinate all the efforts from the different city stakeholders.

City of Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain)
Case Study: Rebranding the City of Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain)

How did Barcelona achieve its current level of awareness and recognition?

To understand how the Barcelona brand has achieved this high level of awareness, recognition and esteem, we need to go back to the 80’s when Barcelona needed to completely transform after a long, ‘grey’ period of 40 years under the dictatorship of Franco in Spain.

Back then, the city and regional leaders got together with the civil society to create and implement a future vision for the city. Of course, the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games were fundamental, since they marked a before and after, a turning point in the push for the transformation and international projection of the city.

After the 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona became a modern, cosmopolitan and touristic city. Tourists, students and professionals from around the world wanted to visit, to study and to work in the Catalan capital. Barcelona had become very fashionable.

And the city continued transforming itself and also innovating and creating all kind of initiatives, events, etc. that contributed to increase its attractiveness. So it is not just communications that have made Barcelona a strong and powerful global city brand, but the continued and consistent effort from key public and private city leaders and organizations who have transformed the place, together with the effective communication of those transformations and the identity of the city.

How can place branding support the sustainability of cities (environmental, social, economic)?

The ultimate objective of place branding is to contribute to the sustainable social and economic development of places by helping them design and develop a competitive identity that would make them more attractive to visitors, talent, investors, consumers, etc., generating economic activity and employment for the benefit of their citizens.

With regards to environmental sustainability, I personally consider this of fundamental importance for places and any place branding strategy should have this objective in mind.

How important are city reputation rankings for your work?

I believe you need to measure the evolution and position of your place brand over time from many different perspectives. Here city and nation rankings can help, as long as you understand how these rankings are made, by whom, what do they measure (reality, perceptions and what specific area or field) and what are the criteria and professional rigor behind them.

Some of these rankings have real impact and influence on places’ perceptions and we need to be aware of that. However, I advice places to develop their own measurement systems to see how their image is evolving and to ascertain the impact and effectiveness of specific strategies, including place branding initiatives.

To what extent do changes in country reputation (such as Spain) influence the success of a city brand (such as Barcelona)?

City brands somehow live on their own and their image is, many times, not that much linked to the changes in the reputation of the countries where they are located. Having said that, a city brand can be more powerful that the country brand, and their meaning can vary considerably.

This is probably the case of Barcelona and Spain. And the difficulties that brand Spain has been experiencing with regard to its adherence to stereotypes in many occasions really does not help or fit the Barcelona brand.

To what extent does Barcelona’s strong city brand(ing) influence the nation branding of Catalonia as independent European state?

Barcelona is one of the strongest and most valued global city brands and because of that can and, in fact, plays a key role in promoting and projecting Catalonia and its identity as a nation with its own history, differentiated culture and values to the rest of the world.

As you may know, Catalonia is one of the oldest nations in Europe, but people really don’t know that. With regards to your question of Catalonia as independent European State in the future, I guess the real challenge for Spain is how to successfully integrate the different nations and cultures that currently form the Spanish state.

If Catalan people do not feel themselves valued and respected as part of a diverse country formed by different nations with their own cultures, then eventually we will see Catalonia become an independent European State.

What are the main challenges in managing the Barcelona brand strategically?

With regards to brand management, the main challenge is being able to define a shared vision for the city, to agree on a distinctive, competitive strategy and identity. Coordinating the necessary efforts from the key city stakeholders in building and projecting a specific image (brand) of the city is a big challenge.

City leaders need to understand that branding a city, managing its image and reputation is much more than just marketing or communications: it needs consistent and coherent policies, strategies and actions over time and to be put at the highest level on the city strategy making.

Which are the most pressing questions regarding place branding?

I guess the main challenge in place branding is for people, both experts and practitioners, as well as for the people responsible for the branding of their places, to understand what ‘place branding’ really means.

We still see too many places where place branding is something reduced to marketing communications, which entirely ignores the real strategic role of place branding as a way to focus a city’s efforts in place development, place strategy and place marketing on a specific strategic direction, based on a future vision and desired image.

There needs to be better understanding that place branding can only succeed if the leader of a specific place – such as the Lord Mayor in cities – actively promotes a clear vision and coordinates public and private stakeholders and their interests.

Thank you, Juan Carlos.

Connect with Juan Carlos Belloso on LinkedIn or learn more about his work and services here.


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