Mary Harris on the Future of Place Branding: Tech, Storytelling, and Strategy

In the fast-paced world of place branding, Mary Harris, CEO of London-based agency Destination M&C Saatchi, offers expert insights into the evolving fusion of technology and marketing strategies that shape cities and destinations.

With a career spanning renowned brands like Unilever and Samsung, Mary’s journey into place branding began with her work for the Bahrain Economic Development Board in 2015, igniting a deep dive into the multifaceted world of place identity and promotion.

Key Points:

  • Perceptions of Place Branding: Mary reflects on her initial encounter with place branding and how her understanding of the concept has evolved over time.
  • Tech-Infused Strategies: Exploring the transformative role of technology in destination marketing, Mary shares innovative methods used to leverage new technologies.
  • Navigating Social Media Dynamics: Mary offers insights into effective promotion strategies and audience engagement amidst the rise of social media platforms, catering to the evolving digital landscape.
  • Harnessing AI-Driven Solutions: With artificial intelligence driving personalized experiences, Mary discusses how AI solutions are integrated into marketing efforts to enhance engagement.
  • Intersecting Realms: Mary delves into the intersection of travel and hospitality branding with place branding, highlighting unique opportunities and challenges in aligning them to create cohesive destination identities.
  • HER(E) Group: Shedding light on the HER(E) Group on LinkedIn, Mary discusses its role in fostering diversity and female empowerment in the place marketing industry.

Mary, do you remember the first time you heard about “Place branding” – what were your initial thoughts?

I started my career in the world of B2C, working with blue chip brands like Unilever and Samsung. It wasn’t until I joined the Destination M&C Saatchi team, and started working with the Bahrain Economic Development Board in 2015, that I encountered place branding. At the time I didn’t realise what breadth and depth is represented within those two words. Even now, having worked in this sector for over nine years, I am still discovering areas that influence Place branding and which it, in turn, impacts.

How has your view on the topic changed since?

Place branding transcends conventional notions of branding and marketing. Michael Eisner once said ‘A brand is a living entity. It is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures’. It extends beyond mere promotion to encompass placemaking and anthropology, and involves vital stakeholders across public and private sectors, as well as the local community.

Forbes reports that 86% of Place branding exercises fail, a testament to the complex challenges in this sector.

A country is not a company. While corporate marketing strategies can offer valuable insights, Place branding demands a different level of consideration and authenticity. Collaboration often supersedes competition, and cultural nuances play a pivotal role in crafting a genuine sense of Place.

Place branding extends far beyond physical locations; it encompasses various facets, from modes of travel to talent attraction. Importantly, it also leaves a lasting impact on the reputations of the companies and individuals who identify a Place as their home.

Understanding and navigating this intricate landscape is paramount for successful Place branding initiatives.

How do you see technology shaping the future of destination marketing, and what innovative methods are you employing to leverage new technologies in your strategies?

Technology has a huge role to play in shaping the future of destination marketing.

Technology can help Places to tell their stories authentically and in ways that their different audiences will relate to. Harnessing influence and social proof, creating opportunities for UGC, encouraging dialogue and switching from ‘search’ to conversation.

Technology can help Places connect. Offering prospects an emotional free sample of an airline, an attraction or tourist experience – like the Spotify playlists shared during our Oman tourism campaign which captured the calm and harmonious spirit of the Sultanate, a complementary counterpoint to the buzz of the Qatar World Cup.

Technology can make Places more relevant. As we move into the era of the Personalised Place, tools like AI can tailor communications at scale. Like the Perfect Fit Prospectus we developed for the UK Department of Business and Trade which created customised FDI collateral at the touch of a button. The UK’s business offering made bespoke to the size, location, sector and subsector of each prospect. Equally our LinkedIn activation for Etihad brought the airline into prospects’ business networking toolkit by mapping their connections onto an Etihad route map making it easy to set up meetings with key contacts when you travel to a destination.

Technology can deepen interactions. Immersive and on-brand experiences allow Places to showcase their character and bring prospects into their (virtual) world. When the pandemic put a stop to travel our ‘Let it Out’ campaign for Promote Iceland encouraged would-be travellers to scream their frustrations out into the Icelandic landscape. Equally the ‘Outhorse your email’ activation gave Iceland ownership of a key holiday symbol – the out of office message.

Technology can create familiarity, and it is familiarity that drives Place appeal. Technology is transforming media planning and buying, with AI creating opportunities to target tourists, talent and fdi prospects with more precision than ever. Contextually, during key cultural moments, through geo-location as a proxy for mindset, utilising day part and weather as part of the media mix and more. Allowing Places to reach prospects at the right moment with the right message and in ways that are compelling.

The future for Place branding should not be about technology for technology’s sake but on blending authenticity with innovation, using new tools not just to showcase destinations, but to forge personal connections at scale. Reaching new audiences and moving people in deeper ways to create lasting and meaningful experiences which come from the Destination’s DNA.

With the rise of social media platforms, how do you navigate the evolving landscape of digital marketing to effectively promote destinations and engage with audiences?

In the midst of the ongoing rise of social media platforms, it’s crucial for destination marketers to navigate the evolving digital landscape strategically. Although social media’s growth has plateaued, its enduring importance is evident, with brands anticipating it to constitute 70% of their total media budgets this year.

The increased competition on these platforms means that the landscape is more cluttered than ever. With more Places competing for the attention of the same audiences on the same platforms and often seeking to do this with the same messages.

Creating cut through with compelling communications is more important than ever as the risk of wasted investment, and misattribution, is high. It’s vital that Places have a strong and single minded story to tell and clearly understand the audiences they are seeking to motivate and convert as well as the challenges they are seeking to overcome.

In the crowded social media space, making strategic decisions about what not to communicate is equally vital, recognising that trying to be known for everything risks being famous for nothing.

The dominance of technology in cultural tastemaking, particularly on platforms like TikTok, has led to increased templating, potentially diminishing uniqueness and stand-out. Novelty, proven to enhance salience, becomes a challenge in such an environment.

Short-form video, although dominant, poses challenges as it has been shown to induce passivity in audiences. Creativity becomes the linchpin, with research underscoring the importance of crafting experiences that are both entertaining and empathetic.

Concerns among marketers about the time and budget investment required for maintaining a presence on multiple platforms underline the necessity for a strategic approach. Understanding the social behaviours of your destination’s audiences on different channels is key to identifying the platforms that matter and their role in advancing your story.

Key trends such as AI conversational search, social search, social commerce, and the rising importance of nano-influence present valuable tools for destination marketers. Leveraging these trends can help accentuate a single-minded and compelling Place story, facilitating deeper engagement with audiences in an evolving digital landscape.

As artificial intelligence continues to advance, how do you incorporate AI-driven solutions into your marketing efforts to personalise experiences and drive engagement?

As the landscape of artificial intelligence continues to evolve, our approach to marketing in the realm of destination promotion has shifted towards embracing the era of the Personalised Place. Recognizing that personalisation is the cornerstone of relevance, we leverage AI to create experiences that resonate and add value.

AI serves as a catalyst for streamlined pathways to insights, transforming big data into modular and segmented targeting opportunities. This lets us construct nuanced messaging matrices and deploy a diverse range of strategies to accelerate conversion.

The versatility of AI enables us to tailor content, itineraries, and experiences based on a multitude of variables, such as prospects’ interests, location, demographics, and mode of transport. This not only increases relevance but also offers utility and maximising investment by fostering potential partnership opportunities.

Beyond pre-trip planning, AI plays a crucial role during and post-trip, fostering engagement, curating content, and channelling advocacy. In talent attraction and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) endeavours, AI becomes a valuable tool to spotlight relevant opportunities and showcase compelling examples of social proof, creating an informed predisposition for prospective talent and investors alike.

Can you share some actionable strategies that you’ve found particularly effective in enhancing the branding and visibility of travel and hospitality brands, such as airlines and hotels, within the context of broader Place branding initiatives?

Travel and hospitality brands play a pivotal role as ambassadors, carrying the narrative of a Place to the global stage while contributing substantially to the proof and credibility that underpin it. As tourism serves as the gateway for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), their influence extends both broadly and deeply.

National airlines, acting as ’embassies in the sky,’ often serve as the first tangible touchpoint for a destination. This becomes especially crucial for Places that are presently more of a stopover than a stayover. The opportunity lies in converting passengers by immersing them in the Place’s story, complemented by strategic offers. Collaborating with Oman Air, for instance, involved initiatives to  align every touchpoint in the customer journey with the country’s positioning, from menus to music.

A successful and compelling Place brand hinges on alignment. Place branding is not about control or persuasion; it’s a collective effort. The organisations and individuals influencing a Place’s perception must be integral to the conversation from the outset. In the words of McKinsey, “Great cities do three things well: They achieve smart growth. They do more with less. They win support for change.”

Our work with Oman exemplifies effective collaboration, with the airline, airport, tour operator, and tourism board jointly driving a tourism initiative showcasing various facets of the Sultanate. Similarly, partnerships with London Stansted Airport, Stewart Airport, Play Air, and Promote Iceland aimed to increase travel from London Stansted to Iceland and the US. In each case, alignment and shared ownership were foundational principles.

Given your expertise in both travel and hospitality branding and Place branding, how do you see these two areas intersecting, and what unique opportunities or challenges arise when aligning them to create cohesive destination identities?

Place branding is a symphony and not a solo. When travel, hospitality and government tell a singular story about a Place then investment is maximised, messaging is consistent and communications are more likely to be effective. However hotels, attractions and experiences within a Place all offer individual benefits and there must be room for fresh and diverse takes on the ubiquity of the Place message to allow the individuality of each offering to be showcased.

Beneath the umbrella of the Place message, distinct offering pillars, such as wellbeing, adventure, or eco-friendly experiences, provide opportunities to segment and unify travel and hospitality brands. This segmentation enables the creation of sub-sector ownership and fosters unity around themed calendar moments.

The alignment of place branding with on-the-ground experiences enhances the visitor journey, fostering a virtuous circle of advocacy. This alignment not only delivers authenticity, the modern currency of place marketing, but also builds trust, leading to increased advocacy, influence, and a higher likelihood of return trips.

Recognising the importance of Public Private Partnerships, the integration of the travel journey with complementary messaging, incentives, and events becomes crucial. This collaborative approach not only enhances the overall visitor experience but also influences visitor behaviour, redirecting over-tourism and encouraging the exploration of new initiatives. In essence, the synergy between travel, hospitality, and place branding creates a powerful narrative that resonates authentically, fostering sustained engagement and positive economic impact for the destination.

You recently founded a new group on LinkedIn – HER(E). Can you tell us more about it?

Women are the drivers of the place marketing industry, but we are still woefully under-represented at the most senior levels. With the launch of HER[E] – the place for women who put places on the map, we’re looking to change that.

HER[E] is a global network for like-minded people who share a passion for promoting places around the world as destinations for tourism, talent and business and who see greater diversity and female empowerment in this space as a path to a better future for the industry.

Both UNCTAD and UNWTO have identified the vital importance of having women in place marketing leadership roles, but they also identified that currently only 21% of IPAs (Investment Promotion Agencies) have a female head and only 23% of tourism ministers are women. HER[E] seeks to change this by creating an opportunity for women and allies of all genders to come together and drive greater diversity at all levels.

When creating this new community I reached out to many women I admire in the sector, including Lyutha Al Habsy, Head of Brand, TONOMUS and former Brand and Marketing advisor for OMRAN and MOHT; Jamila Al Bukhaly, Senior Manager, Oman Air; Dr Natasha Grand Norman, Founder at INSTID; Laura Ryan, Director of Marcomms, University of Limerick; Aoife O’Shaughnessy, Marketing Officer, Limerick City and County Council and Clare Dewhirst, Founder at City Nation Place.

HER[E] is open to anyone from the place marketing world, whether they’re from a Destination Marketing Organisation, an agency, a media outlet, a public or private sector company, or a government department. Members of the community have access to a private LinkedIn group where they can engage with other members, share challenges and learnings, and discover new tools and resources.

Please join us at:   

Given your initiative in establishing the HER(E) LinkedIn group, fostering connections among professionals, we’d love to hear your perspective. What aspects of TPBO resonate with you the most, considering your experience in community building?

To me, The Place Brand Observer stands out as a valuable and authoritative resource within the place branding community. Its comprehensive and diverse content gathers insights and best practices from across the sector, generously sharing knowledge with its audience. The platform serves as a dynamic space for key industry figures to contribute thought leadership, fostering collaboration and growth within the Place branding community. As a team, The Place Brand Observer not only aids in expanding our insights but also serves as an inspirational resource.

Thank you, Mary.

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