Interview with Oliver Zöllner of Stuttgart Media University on Place Branding in Germany

Oliver Zöllner of Stuttgart Media University in southwestern Germany, in this interview takes a down to earth, slightly critical view of the young field of place branding, as we are urged to not disregard negative stereotypes when capturing the essence of places.

Learn about:

  • The difficulty in bringing out the essence of places and fighting negative stereotypes in order to build authentic and meaningful stories about them;
  • Which product marketing norms apply to places and which don’t;
  • The role of diasporas in communicating place bands externally;
  • The potential pitfalls of blindly relying on the algorithms of social media platforms to spread your place brand messages;
  • A critical perspective on place brand value measurement.

Oliver, what do you understand as the “brand” of places, and what is place branding all about?

From my point of view, place branding is all about making people understand a place, and creating a meaningful image of it – be it a country, a region or a city. When I say ‘meaningful’, I do in fact hint at the complex web of meanings a place can be located in: in many cases quite a manifold web indeed, often contradictory, paradoxical, sometimes even hostile or adverse. But that is what place branders and their clients have to come to terms with and need to understand before embarking on their brand journey. They need to carve out a storyline that captures the essence of the place.

Needless to say that essence ought to have a link with the reality of the territory. Fanciful stories straight from cloud cuckoo land, as beautifully concocted as they may read at first sight, won’t make anyone appreciate the place in the long run. One really shouldn’t aim too short-sightedly at a ‘competitive identity’ (as Simon Anholt beautifully renamed place branding).

It can be difficult for place branders to get out the true core of the meaning of a place, especially if the inhabitants of that place themselves are rather unsure of their identity, or what their place is really all about, or what makes their place really so unique at all.

This reminds me of my own place of birth, Bochum, a rather indistinct but largish city in the west of Germany, right in the middle of the Ruhr metropolitan area, where a good dozen or so cities in very close proximity all look very much alike – nothing but a city line on a map to separate them. Really, what is the unique story of Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg or Essen? All of them taken together, along with 50 other municipalities, there might be something like a Ruhr metro area identity, and some interesting and relevant stories to tell jointly, but it took people and administrations in the area decades before they started to act on this idea in a decisive manner.

Or take Germany, the country I’m from: what stories about itself, what identity, or identities (the plural is of importance here), what meanings of that country can be shared in such a way that makes people abroad get an idea of what modern Germany stands for? And how to make a country and its inhabitants start a public debate about these issues?

‘Preferred readings’, as analysts of culture refer to it, i.e. stories that a country likes to tell in order to feel good about itself, may be far from reality or at least may not be in line with what people abroad think about, or expect from, that country. National narratives tend to highlight certain aspects and leave out others. But it’s crucially important to be aware of these and manage them.

As a scholar with strong background in national narratives, images and stereotypes, what role do you think these concepts play with regard to the branding and reputation of places?

National narratives and the images as well as stereotypes that go along with them are crucial to the understanding and the concept of place branding. You may not always like them if you come from a highly stereotyped country, but these narratives exist and they are what springs to outsiders’ minds if they think about your country.

Of course it’s all fine when those clichés are positive, for example when your country is for the most part associated with peace, love, romanticism, good food, wonderful design, beautiful architecture and so on. But once your country has been pegged to narratives of war, genocide, sternness, and a generally unfriendly coldness both literally and figuratively speaking, it becomes very difficult to change that narrative or replace it with some other.

Going back to my earlier example, it seems to me that Germany has achieved this feat over the past 15 years or so – and quite surprisingly, I should add. Not so much as a result of carefully planned branding campaigns (yes, there have been a few but they more or less tanked) but on the basis of a singular public diplomacy event – the football world championship hosted by Germany in 2006 – aided by an unusual string of excellent weather.

I always wonder how things might have turned out had it rained for weeks on end during that summer in 2006: would there have been all those parties at public screenings, all those jolly faces, that wonderfully relaxed atmosphere broadcast the world over? Germany was very lucky, and that four-week football event initiated a reappreciation of the country that is still ongoing and that does not ignore, overwrite or replace Germany’s evil Nazi past, but allows for an unbiased, contemporary, second look at the country.

Other factors contributed to this development as well: cheap airplane tickets for highly mobile young people, the lure of Berlin as a creative hub (and rather inexpensive place of residence), a female head of government with generous gestures towards refugees from war-torn countries. This made Germany look a lot more likable.

In November 2016, amid a rising tide of nationalism and intolerance worldwide, US author Gary Shteyngart tweeted that “Germany and Canada should form the League of Decent Nations”. Germany perceived as a decent nation in the public imagination: what an achievement! This certainly is a story a country can’t pay for or plan in advance. Narratives like this only work bottom up, and it takes a lot of patience and risk-taking to wait for the outcome.

How do you distinguish between branding and marketing?

Generally speaking, branding is a part of marketing. You have a product that you’d like to sell, you transform it into a unique brand of sorts, and then you communicate all aspects of that branded product to prospective customers, always attending to the market(s) in which the product will be bought and sold. That classic textbook wisdom, however, won’t work with nations or other places that we’re talking about here.

A place is not a product (although it is for most people a product of the mind); a place cannot be bought or sold (although if things work well people will pay money to go there); a place won’t be traded on markets (but never mind the competition between various places that will, in the end, get monetized).

So while a place is not a commodity, marketing techniques can be used to work for it nevertheless: to bring to fruition the identity or story that is already locked or nascent in the place. That identity should, however, not be superimposed onto the city, region or country. Rather, it should emerge from within the place. There are real people to tell that story, alongside scenery, architecture, everyday culture, a language (often more than just one), habits. These don’t need to be invented. They already exist but need to be told and be made intelligible.

The challenge is to find an appropriate form for that narrative. That is what makes a place a brand – as opposed to how soft drinks, cars or detergents get branded and marketed.

How do you describe the role of diasporas and nation branding?

Diasporas (or communities of a country living abroad) can play a decisive role in nation branding, although all too often they find themselves overlooked by the ‘old country’.

Speaking in an age of globalisation, it’s quite natural for most nations to have sizable numbers of expatriates or people living far afield. Very often, there is still some link or level of attachment between such diasporic groups or individuals and the ancestral nation.

If there is a positive relationship, diaspora members can be turned into brand ambassadors. This can be crucial as in many territories the local diaspora gives most locals a valuable first impression of that foreign country or may even define its perception.

Think, for example, of the Turkish diaspora in Europe, Italians in North America, or (perhaps most prominently) the many Chinese who migrated to distant shores who have long since become citizens of a new country and yet retain their strong link to China and Chinese culture, proudly displaying versions of the latter in Chinatowns the world all over.

This link may become problematic if the diaspora has lost its touch with the country of origin, resulting in clichés and pastiche (again, think of Chinatowns or Little Italies) or even caricatures of sorts (think of some traditional German communities in parts of South America). It is a challenge then for the countries of origin to readjust those remote diasporas to the realities of the modern nation-state. But it’s worth it. Don’t ignore diasporas.

Your thoughts on the current state of place branding research, teaching and practice in Germany, Austria and Switzerland?

It’s a fairly small community. There are a few academics at various universities in the German-speaking countries who deal with place branding and related concepts, such as public diplomacy. Teaching both these topics myself, at Stuttgart Media University and at the University of Düsseldorf, I must say I feel a bit ‘exotic’.

Students usually don’t have the ghost of an idea of what to expect when they register for the course at the start of the semester, but they attend nevertheless and most of the time seem to enjoy it. I have had the privilege to supervise a number of highly interesting bachelor’s and master’s theses on nation branding and/or public diplomacy.

As to how these academic endeavors will result in an increased awareness of these issues in the consulting business, or will create jobs, I just don’t know.

Which trends and challenges do you observe as a scholar, with regard to how nation branding initiatives use online-based practices and their ethical consequences?

A lot of nations have turned to branding themselves using online platforms. It’s relatively cheap and may generate a relatively high number of clicks, followers and ‘friends’. Posts and their linked stories and websites may attract and inspire quite a number of individuals. One can reach them almost on a one-to-one basis. That’s good.

But there’s a downside to it as well. If a country relies too much on social networking sites, it loses the power to control its messages: followers, friends and foes can comment on your posts and materials in whatever way they desire.

Unfair criticism and nasty parody – never too far away on the Internet – can be hurtful and detrimental to a nation brand. Orchestrated counter-campaigns by competitors are not unheard of. Once you’re out there in the empires of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and all the others, it’s mainly algorithms that decide what aspects of your story will be most visible to users, and those companies will impose their own standards of what is presentable and what is not.

That’s clearly a challenge. So better not make your nation branding too dependent on activities played out on such companies’ servers. Their policies might change.

How can place branding support the sustainable development of destinations? Where’s the link?

Place branding can certainly support the development of destinations, e.g. by attracting more visitors, investors, etc. But as to how such developments will be ‘sustainable’ (oh, those buzzwords!) I have my doubts. What does ‘sustainable’ mean, and to whom? Who will benefit from an increased something-in-whatever-direction? These are critical questions, and they need to be answered.

All too often, it is the lower strata of society that have to bear the costs. Seeing your place develop a better image, or offering more accommodation to tourists, or turning into a hot spot for global investors sounds nice, but brand value is nothing to feed a family on, or pay the rent, if you belong to the rank and file. You see I’m a sceptic here.

If place branding just becomes a self-serving activity in the context of ‘competitive identity’ and the global race to carve out niches of empire and/or business, I feel it will not be good for the global commons.

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

Speaking as a social scientist, I should insist on definitions of ‘success’ and ‘effectiveness’. What does it mean to run a ‘successful’ place branding programme? Does it mean that more people love the place? think more about it? travel there? buy property? send their children to study there? find shelter as refugees?

And how would we measure the ‘effectiveness’ of a campaign or programme? By the amount of money newly invested in the place? the number of immigrants? rankings in opinion polls? And how to link these possible outcomes to the campaign beyond any doubt?

This is truly difficult and I for one would not like to be entrusted with running an evaluation study of such a campaign.

There are simply too many factors and variables that influence the perception, image or brand of a place – too many to control in a single survey. If one has enough time, money and patience, one could do a long-term series of surveys.

In addition, one shouldn’t overlook qualitative analyses based on in-depth interviews, focus groups and the like that can give additional insights into the perception of a place. But let me reiterate: none of these evaluative results will be precise. Resulting information will most likely not be too reliable, nor will they be valid (possibly collecting data on quite something else).

Thank you, Oliver.

Learn more about the work of Professor Oliver Zöllner here.


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