Peter Pirck on City Branding Practices and Trends in Germany

Peter Pirck of German brand consultancy Brandmeyer Markenberatung in this interview reflects on latest city branding trends and practices in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. He further discusses how to measure the success and economic value of place brands, and how traditional city marketing is increasingly replaced by strategic city brand management.

Learn about:

  • Place branding trends in Germany, Austria and Switzerland;
  • How place branding practices can support the sustainable development of cities;
  • How to demonstrate the economic value of place brands;
  • Participatory city marketing;
  • How to measure the effectiveness of place branding programs.

Peter, do you remember what first attracted your interest in cities as brands?

I was lucky enough to get involved with brands that went beyond the definition of classic branded products more than 20 years ago, while I was still a sociology student. Back then, we examined and analysed things like non-profit organisations, football clubs or even countries as brands – so in my case, viewing cities as brands wasn’t actually that big a jump.

Even so, it only really became concrete in 2004, when Hamburg Marketing asked us to help the city with its branding. After that, a lot of other cities followed.

As a professional with a strong background in marketing, what role do you think marketing and advertising play with regard to the reputation of places – cities, countries, destinations?

It’s hard to answer that in general terms. There are plenty of cities and countries that have become strong brands without any help from marketing – just look at New York or the USA as a whole. But there are also lots of cases in which cities, countries or general destinations are quite simply “undersold”. I mean the kind of place that has a very attractive feel but is barely known outside its own local area. In that kind of situation, the right marketing can work wonders.

There are attractive aspects to every city, no matter how grey and nondescript it might seem from the outside. Marketing can help make these facets visible and thus increase the city’s attractiveness.

In your view, what is place branding all about?

Place branding’s job is to communicate the qualities of a place in a targeted and convincing way and boost its appeal as a result.

This increased attractiveness can relate to all sorts of different target audiences – from the resident population, tourists, students or skilled workers all the way to companies or investors. But the approach is always the same: it’s crucial to coordinate the various measures and gear them to a few convincing themes.

Which trends do you observe with regard to the branding of cities in Germany, Austria or Switzerland?

For years now we’ve been seeing a paradigm shift, away from classic city marketing and towards the focused management of city brands.

Traditionally, city marketing aimed to cover as many players and topics and as much content as it could with the budget available – as well as serving as many markets and target audiences as possible. But that’s like trying to please all of the people all of the time: you just can’t.

Nowadays, cities are increasingly focusing on just a few, brand-defining themes and topic areas and sticking with them for the medium term, rather than just on a short-term basis. That’s the way to establish a strong city brand.

And we’re observing another definite trend: participatory city marketing is playing an increasingly significant role. More importance is being attached to involving citizens in everything, from the analysis of the city’s strengths all the way to the development and implementation of concrete measures.

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

If marketing is practised systematically, it can have huge economic and social benefits for a city. Because increased attractiveness – whether it’s for new residents, tourists or companies – means increased prosperity for the community as a whole, i.e. more money for the maintenance and expansion of the urban infrastructure and more funds for developing the city sustainably.

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

Measuring the success of marketing activities is common practice for branded products, but it’s only just starting to establish itself in relation to place branding.

Evaluation is actually indispensable for ensuring systematic brand management and an efficient use of resources. Partly because monitoring their impact is the only way to determine which measures are working and which need optimising. And partly because it’s essential to ensure transparency for stakeholders, politicians and the general publicAt the end of the day, it’s a question of making efficient and responsible use of public funds.

However, the methodology for measuring the impact of marketing for city brands is still in its infancy – mainly due to the extremely complex nature of what’s under investigation. Whereas the impact of marketing activities for classic brands can be measured quite precisely on the basis of brand or advertising monitors and sales figures, the factors that influence the image and perception of a city are incredibly diverse.

One cost-saving approach is to combine existing data from all sorts of different areas, use it to generate key brand figures and then document and scrutinise their development (tourism, population development, economic performance etc.).

City rankings that show how the city is developing, as compared to its competitors, are also useful in this context. And finally, surveys of target audiences can be used to gain a detailed indication of how the city’s image and perception are changing. There’s still a lot of work to do in this area.

If place marketing wants to justify its relevance long-term, it can’t afford to be a black box; it has to demonstrate its benefits as concretely as possible and be willing to be judged on its success.

How to demonstrate the economic value of place brands?

There’s a whole series of proven professional tools that can be used to measure the brand equity of products or companies in monetary terms. I’ve had many conversations about this topic with Dr. Ottmar Franzen, one of the leading brand equity experts in Germany. In his opinion, the brand equity of a city could be measured using the same kind of techniques, e.g. on the basis of a brand funnel (i.e. awareness, liking, interest in visiting etc.) – at least in principle.

However, there are at least two problems with that: the sheer number and differences of the target groups and stakeholders involved – i.e. residents, visitors, companies and so on. And the question as to how a city’s “earning power” can be quantified. Because in order to calculate brand equity, you need a monetary benchmark for measuring the economic success of a place. In this case, the problem is often that no differentiating statistical data is available.

So the same applies to measuring the economic value of a place brand as to measuring its success: there’s still quite a lot of work to be done at a fundamental level. But it’s a fascinating subject, partly also because measuring a city’s brand equity on a regular basis could also be used as a controlling instrument for its marketing activities. Always assuming, of course, that cities actually express interest in this kind of measurement.

In 2013 you were the co-editor of a book called Städte als Marken (Cities as Brands). Which are your key takeaways or lessons from the book? And how is your upcoming book building on the earlier edition?

With the first book, our main goal was to lay the foundations and provide content that cities could use as a basis for managing their brand. Although it was already obvious that a growing number of people in the German-speaking world are involved with brand management in areas like city marketing, politics and administration, there was a lack of specialised literature at the time.

Since then, however, the practice of treating cities as brands has become much more dynamic: a lot of places have redesigned their branding processes, a series of specialist articles have been published and there are entire congresses dedicated to the topic.

At the same time, it’s clear that the challenges and parameters for successful city marketing are continuously changing. That’s why we felt encouraged to start working on a sequel relatively soon after the first book was published.

Städte als Marken 2 (Cities as Brands 2) isn’t just a revised edition of its predecessor, it’s completely new. It’s meant to add new facets to the first book, rather than replace it. Whereas we initially focused on laying the strategic groundwork, we’re now aiming to go one step further: the authors address the current and future challenges facing city marketing and propose solutions that show how brand management can continue to be successful in future.

As in the first book, this publication features a lot of practitioners who are responsible for place branding processes in cities of all different sizes – from Berlin and Zurich to Romanshorn, Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Unfortunately, however, this book will also only be published in German to start with.

Thank you, Peter.

Connect with Peter Pirck on LinkedIn or learn more about his consultancy work here.

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