Interview with Sonya Hanna on Strategic Place Brand Management

Sonya Hanna, Lecturer in Marketing at Bangor University, Wales (United Kingdom), in this interview introduces her Strategic Place Brand Management Model, reflects on the current state of place branding research and how the digital age has changed the practice of place promotion.

Learn about:

  • The basics – what place branding is all about;
  • Challenges facing place brand developers in the digital age;
  • How strategic place brand management models can help cities, regions or destinations become and remain competitive;
  • Some of the differences between theory and practice.

Sonya, in your view, what is place branding all about?

Place branding is about generating visibility and recognition, in various contexts for a multitude of stakeholders. It is about the coordination of a coherent message grounded in an identity that not only resonates with the places’ stakeholders, but one that is also rooted in the places history and character.  This in turn draws our attention to the wide range of networks and planning processes that influence a place’s offerings and composition, all of which are about building relationships with the aim of creating supply and demand, and thus economic prosperity.

In developing the place brand, practitioners should engage in and focus on the interactions between these various relationships and their manifestations, for the brand to remain competitive yet resonating.

How does the digital age change the practice of place branding?

The digital age has made it more difficult for marketers to reach and influence their potential consumers through traditional marketing tactics. Nowadays, an important component of any brand is its web presence.

Given that a DMO’s [Destination Marketing Organization] web presence is often supplemented by other websites, such as those of the local council or citizens’ organizations, in addition to social media chatter, there exists a potential for a lack of control and communicative alignment by the DMO and in between stakeholders in various contexts.  This in turn, may negatively impact the representation of a coherent message.

The digital age does provide management opportunities that should be capitalized on; it is a more cost-effective and measurable channel of communication.

For instance, real-time engagement means access to local stories and content that not only enables the DMO to showcase its ‘place’ in an emotive and natural manner, but also provides an opportunity for in-depth stakeholder engagement and insight.

Do you know any strategic place brand management models that could be used as tool by cities, regions or destinations interested in branding?

There are models which focus on the process, while others are case-study dependent. By proposing the Strategic Place Brand Management Model, or SPBM, my aim was to explore place branding as a broader strategic process. SPBM delineates a number of interlinked brand components, including leadership, stakeholder engagement and infrastructure regeneration. The relationships between these components show the complexity of the brand landscape associated with the place. The politics associated with meandering these complexities are very much recognized, and remain so, by practitioners working in various organizations for various geographical entities.

Infrastructure, for instance, is pivotal in delivering the brand promise but it is owned by a range of stakeholders and may be beyond the control of leadership. Given the infancy of the place brand field, there remains a great deal to be learned, and there is a great need for further empirical research, testing and retesting.

Bangor University Wales United Kingdom
Bangor University in Wales (UK)

Your thoughts on the current state of place branding research?

Current research is based around various themes, including brand identity and image, politics, country-of-origin, communication and media, and heritage. Presentations of research findings are scattered among a wide variety of academic journals.

Interest in destination branding remains particularly strong, with the largest number of articles relating to the field of travel and tourism. Some research has been published in top ranking journals, but the majority of articles appear in specialist place and brand management journals.

Among specialist journals, the Journal of Place Branding and Public Diplomacy leads in terms of breadth and scope of the issues covered, reinforcing the need to further develop the scope and theoretical foundations of the field.

To your mind, how far is place brand theory from practice?

While the need for studies that specifically contribute to theory development will remain, many publications in the field continue to be case-study based, reflecting on practice. Whilst this research does give us some insight, there is a lack of empirical research aimed at testing the various theoretical frameworks proposed in place branding. I also believe that, given that places are dynamic entities, current research is lacking a longitudinal perspective so as to determine how place brand practice evolves over time and in what context.

One of your latest publications “Place Brand Practitioners Perspectives on the Management and Evaluation of the Brand Experience” received the Best in Track Award (Tourism Track). In a nutshell, what is this article about?

In a nutshell, when considering the complexity of ‘place’, the article reflects upon its functional and experiential attributes.  These attributes not only take account of how a place’s physical infrastructure, its maintenance, and regeneration produce various manifestations, but also the role of stakeholders in this process.

The findings of my research revealed that, from a practitioner perspective, ‘experience’ rather than image takes centre stage when evaluating a place brand.

Link to the article published in Town Planning Review

Thank you, Sonya.

Connect with Sonya Hanna on LinkedIn or visit her academic profile at Bangor University.


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