Marta Hereźniak, independent advisor and lecturer at the University of Lodz in Poland, in this interview discusses city branding in Central and Eastern Europe, place branding research priorities and the meaning of place brand identity. She also shares advice on how to involve stakeholders and how to measure the effectiveness of place brands.
Marta, your focus as lecturer and researcher at the University of Lodz in Poland is on place branding and marketing. Do you remember what brought you to the topic in the first place? What triggered your interest?
Yes, I do remember it very well. Back, in 2002, as a Ph.D. candidate, I intended to write my thesis on the positioning of Polish brands in Western European markets, given Poland’s expected accession to the EU. I was looking for organizations and initiatives in the country whose mission would be to facilitate domestic companies to become more competitive internationally – not in terms of price or export volumes, but in terms of brands.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any, until, one evening I saw a commercial of a programme “Brand for Brands”, initiated by The Institute of Polish Brand, a think-tank affiliated with The Polish Chamber of Commerce. This was exactly what I was looking for.
We soon started to cooperate, and I found that what I was hoping to do in my PhD thesis can be seen as a part of a bigger scheme of country branding.
Subsequently, the Chamber commissioned Wally Olins as a leading consultant in the Brand for Poland – the project I was lucky to be a part of for many years. It is thanks to him, and to Simon Anholt (whom I met later), that I owe my deep interest in place branding.
You are also an independent brand consultant and have cooperated with governmental institutions on Poland’s country branding. How would you describe the country’s brand development in recent years, in terms of brand value and effectiveness?
There have been attempts to develop a coherent and strategic country brand programme for Poland over the past 15 years. However, none of them were ever fully implemented, so all we can talk about are really sectoral promotional programmes, or campaigns, but not an orchestrated effort.
I don’t think the issue of a nation brand was ever high enough on the Polish political agenda, since the fall of communism. Whatever initiatives were undertaken, they did not sustain political cycles.
The image of Poland was changing positively due to the strong economy, EU membership and the migration wave in the early 2000s. But recent political developments have partly undermined the achievements of the post-communist period.
Economically, Poland remains strong and performs well in rankings based on macroeconomic indicators, such as Brand Finance’s Nation Brand ranking, where (in 2017) Poland ranked 23rd globally and 7th among the European countries.
However, if you take into account, for instance, the Brand Strength Index that focuses on softer factors, Poland occupies only 51st position.
On a more positive note, a lot of high-quality branding projects are being developed and implemented in the Polish cities, which become increasingly vibrant, European and liveable destinations with strong identities and ambitious leaders with many years of experience in office.
Based on your experience, which is the best way to measure place brand effectiveness?
Places need measurement methods and instruments suited to their aspirations and objectives embedded in their brand strategies.
Single, universal measures help places benchmark. They do not, however, contribute to explaining brand performance in greater detail. Brand effectiveness measurement should reflect the multiplicity of the effects that brands have on places: tangible and intangible, inward and outward, long and short-term, qualitative and quantitative.
Place managers are often confused about what and how to measure, where to source data from or whom to listen to. Currently, together with my two colleagues: Professor Magdalena Florek and Dr Anna Augustyn, we are concluding a two-year project during which we have interviewed international place branding experts and researched all 66 Polish district cities. Our objective is to find out about their challenges, expectations and approaches related to effectiveness measurement.
We have developed a framework for the City Brand Effectiveness Measurement System, which will be tested in selected Polish cities. We hope that it will be a step forward in this area and a useful tool that places will be able to use in the future.
Which aspects linked to place branding do communities in Poland (and Central/Eastern Europe more broadly) struggle with the most?
Contrary to popular wisdom, Central and Eastern European countries are a heterogenic group. They share, however, the experience of almost half of a century of communism, which took a toll on public life and the institutions.
I cannot, of course, speak for all the CEECs, but from a Polish perspective, one of the most problematic issues appears to be building effective public-private partnerships for place branding. PPPs are often perceived as corruption-driven, which does not make place branding any easier.
Another one is linked to the relatively low levels of social trust, combined with historically rooted distrust in government among the Poles, which makes people reluctant to engage in government-initiated projects. This is more visible on the national than regional/ city level.
There is also a widespread misunderstanding of what place branding really is. The prevalent view is that it is linked to advertising and communication, and as such is of very little interest to “ordinary citizens.”
A lot has improved over the past 15 years, since the notion of place brands emerged in Poland, especially on the city level. More and more often, branding is seen as a strategic and inclusive process that goes way beyond marketing communication.
Engaging stakeholders meaningfully is widely regarded a key to success of place branding. Do you have advice of how stakeholders can be involved in a constructive way?
I think that if stakeholders are to be engaged meaningfully in place branding, the key challenge is to make a brand relevant for them, which starts with understanding. If the stakeholders understand what the process is all about and how they can contribute in ways that are also beneficial for them, then they will see it as something natural and worthwhile to participate. Contrastingly, if they see branding as advertising, how can we expect them to get engaged?
Achieving understanding means that our stakeholders need to be informed/educated and involved already at the early stages of brand development. They need to be a part of the discussion on what a place is and what it aspires to be. This becomes easier with the technological advancements, but also more difficult with consistently shortening attention spans and information overload.
How places engage the stakeholders in branding depends on many things: type of leadership, culture of the managing institution, place’s vision, budget etc.
I believe that a very important thing is to provide stakeholders with a space (virtually and physically) to interact and express their insights and doubts related to the place’s brand. Another may be facilitating the formation of networks or partnerships that will work for them and for the brand alike.
But most of all, inclusion is the key. Place managers must not forget that it’s not only highly successful business people or high-profile celebrities that count. Stakeholders are extremely diverse and this diversity (especially internally) is something that the brand needs to embrace. It needs to appeal to the community, to the privileged and the unprivileged, to the leaders and to the followers, as they all can have a lot to offer to the place.
For this reason, it would be optimal to link place brands to the areas, projects and initiatives which people will understand and perceive as something that makes their lives a bit better, easier or more interesting.
And, finally, we need to explain how these things translate into the reputation and image of a place. It is a very complex and long-term process, but certainly one worth undertaking.
Place brand identity is a term frequently used by marketers and brand managers. In a nutshell, what does it mean? And how do you build one?
Place brand identity is a concept that explains the associations, values, themes, narratives and diverse assets that a place wants to be recognized by, appreciated and valued for, internally and externally by the relevant groups and audiences. It must be rooted in the actual place identity, which is a much broader, complex and multi-layered notion. Place identity embraces, in fact, multiple perspectives on the place and also from the place’s vision of its own future.
To answer how to build brand identity of a place is really beyond the scope of this conversation. However, several things should be mentioned.
First of all, place brand identity needs to be co-produced by the key stakeholders and consulted with the members of community.
Secondly, anything that we decide to include in the brand identity must be supported with and translated into real life projects, initiatives, assets – anything that will make this concept alive and will help the place brand deliver.
Thirdly, place managers must ensure the continuous relevance of the brand identity to the stakeholders. Of course, a certain level of political stability is necessary to ensure that there will be no abrupt and confusing changes.
The rest is largely place-specific: how we will arrive at the ultimate concept, what vehicles will be used to make it work, who will be responsible, involved etc.
Your thoughts on the current state of “Brand EU”?
(Brand) Europe is under a lot of strain right now. It is impossible to speak about it without the geopolitical lenses.
With Brexit at the doorstep, tensions with Russia, declared hostility from the current American president, migration crisis, a wave of right-wing populism and anti-establishment sentiment, Europe is probably in the most difficult situation since the end of the Cold War.
All these issues signal the pressing need to re-evaluate Europe’s current policies, leadership and, brand-wise, how the institutions of the European Union communicate with the Europeans. The questions to be asked, therefore, are related to how the Europeans interpret the European identity. Are the European values and the EU itself still relevant and understandable for them? This should be a start of a meaningful dialogue/ multilogue that would help reconnect with the citizens and stimulate much needed changes.
Which trends or developments do you observe in academia, regarding how place branding as practice is discussed and approached?
I would say that currently the topics that are at the top of academic focus are related to participatory/ inclusive place branding, with a more inward focus on citizens and communities as important actors in the place branding process.
The role of place branding has shifted from increasing a place’s popularity among external audiences to creating sustainable, liveable spaces and inclusive communities to whom others will be drawn to. Not only because they advertise well, but because they want deeper and more meaningful bonds with them.
This is linked to something that is not so much a trend as a (hopefully) stable step forward for the domain, namely, moving place branding further away from marketing communications, towards a more multidisciplinary approach where it is seen more as a public policy which impacts the place’s reality as much as perception.
Much in line with this way of thinking is treating place branding as a way to create social and economic resilience of a place. Consequently, treating place branding as a policy triggers questions about its accountability and performance evaluation – this seems to be yet another important issue addressed by the academia: how to evaluate such a complex process.
Another point of interest is place branding in the digital world, the notion of smart places and resulting challenges, such as managing big data, applying ambient intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, three-dimensional virtual environments and other smart tools to improve the quality of life, community participation, visitor experience and reputation of places.
Thank you, Marta.
Connect with Marta Hereźniak on LinkedIn.
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