How Media Portrayal of Places Influences Branding Strategy

Places form the basis of a storyline in movies and TV shows. Many times, the portrayal of the city or region influences the way we perceive the place.

We wanted to know from our panel (in alphabetical order – highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research, or as speakers) if any place which was ridiculed or made fun of in the past in movies (think Borat) or mass media, took the portrayal in the ‘right spirit’ and used it to their benefit? Here is what they had to say.

Our key takeaways:

  • Places that have taken the light-hearted criticism of their city or country in their stride have enjoyed positive attention from the audience online.
  • In the globalized world that we live in where almost every city has a similar look and feel, standing out helps.
  • Any negative portrayal of places, when handled cleverly, can be used to change the perception of the place.
  • Towns or small regions which are relatively unknown have a chance to take advantage of the new attention and spin it to their benefit.

Andrew Hoyne

Andrew Hoyne

Hoyne Design / Speaker

Australia | Switzerland’s recent campaign tackles the perception that their country is rather boring with a fun and effective video.

While Switzerland is often portrayed in the media as being quiet and without drama, through their recent tourism campaign, they’ve turned a negative into a positive. They’ve taken the Volvo approach, whereby owning the positioning of safety has set their brand apart and created global appeal. At a time when the world is so unpredictable, the idea of visiting a country where there is ‘no drama’ is very appealing.

Caio Esteves panel

Caio Esteves

Bloom Consulting

Brazil | Unfortunately not. Most of the time, I see places spending millions to change an image that often matches reality (albeit less caricatured) rather than taking some control over the narrative.

Christopher Hire

Christopher Hire


Australia | I think to some extent, Borat is a dangerous idea. Ridiculing people and making fun of a place is a dangerous ruse by so-called creatives like Sacha Baron Cohen. Thus owning the joke could backfire as it reinforces the joke. Satire is rarely sophisticated enough – like sites such as Onion or Babylon Bee in the 5-second world of a tweet, they can be reported as fact.

Rather, as place branders, we can own attributes that could be ‘criticised’. Thus a negative could be positive. For example, narrow streets for car traffic – are quaint cobblestone streets.

  • As also are old less reliable cable cars in San Francisco (a bankable tourist highlight of the unique cable car system with the mystique of gripman and a cable car museum atop a hill).
  • Dubai on the other hand is ‘modern’ and ‘has no history’ (both an attribute and frequent criticism by international people).
  • Chicago is a ‘windy city’ which is more like a ‘warning’ about the weather before travelling.
  • Melbourne likewise has four seasons in a day, but that’s why so many people spend so much time in cafes and bars.

So I would consider it is better to look at the positives of a place than reinforce any ‘assigned’ negatives.

Gunter Soydanbay

Günter Soydanbay

Soydanbay Consulting / Speaker

Canada | A great example that comes to my mind is Danbury, Connecticut. The story starts with the HBO comedy host John Oliver publicly criticizing the town.

He rants about how Connecticut excluded residents from districts that account for a predominantly Black and Hispanic population. He even says, “F— Danbury! You can eat my whole a—.”

What follows is a months-long, playful feud with the mayor of Danbury and John Oliver. Finally, The City ends up renaming the local sewage plant after the comedian, saying, “it’s full of crap just like John Oliver.”

The feud ends with Oliver offering to donate $55,000 to local charities if the town follows through on his initial proposal to be more racially inclusive, which the mayor accepts. In return, Oliver quietly visits Danbury to celebrate the sewage plant named in his honour.

Jeannette Hanna panel

Jeannette Hanna

Trajectory Brand Consultants / Speaker profile

Canada | Canada’s most Eastern province, Newfoundland & Labrador used to be the butt of many jokes for its quirky, rural culture. The Province’s tourism agency has done a remarkable job over the past decade leveraging sly humour to celebrate “The Rock’s” naturally maverick culture.

Martin Boisen panel

Martin Boisen

For the love of place / Researcher profile

The Netherlands | The German city of Bielefeld immediately springs to mind.

It became a national joke that “Bielefeld doesn’t exist”. The joke started sometime in the 1990s and quickly gained momentum. It details a conspiracy of powerful people and organizations joining forces to convince the general public of the existence of a city that doesn’t exist in reality. Hence, the joke has become known as “the Bielefeld conspiracy”.

Whilst having tried to combat this joke for quite some time – thereby mainly (and hilariously) reinforcing the joke by spending money to tell of the city’s existence – the City of Bielefeld finally decided to turn the tables and ‘own’ the joke. In 2019, the City of Bielefeld promised a prize of €1 million to anyone who could deliver irreversible proof that the city didn’t exist.

Robert Govers panel

Robert Govers

Independent advisor / Speaker / Researcher

Belgium | Wales is a great example that comes to mind.

Sebastian Zenker panel

Sebastian Zenker

Researcher profile

Denmark | Bielefeld and the Bielefeld conspiracy (i.e., Bielefeld does not exist): they were announcing a price of €1 million to the person who can prove that Bielefeld did not exist. This was all over the German news and created a positive picture of the place.

Todd Babiak, place branding panel

Todd Babiak

Speaker profile

Australia | Where I live and work, Tasmania, our interviews showed that Tasmanians have been mocked, ridiculed, underestimated, and misunderstood by mainland Australians for generations. Instead of being ashamed of the ‘Tasmanian difference’. We are turning it around.

Globalization has a leavening effect. Places feel more similar than ever, which is both a good and bad thing. We’re encouraging Tasmanians to own and enhance what makes them different, to see it as extraordinary in an ordinary world.

Andrea Lucarelli

Sweden | Ah, this is a good question. Kazakhstan is, of course, a good example.

This is a very similar communication practice that many places have embarked on ( i.e. turning something negative to positive, since communication regardless of the content is always communication!).

Think of how Northern Ireland used terror as a way to promote being a thrilling place to be. Or for example, many cities or neighbours with issues linked to criminality problems, like Malmö, have attempted to use the negative media as a way to present multiculturalism.

Bill Geist

USA | Rockford in Illinois turned the ‘miserable city’ ranking into an engaging video in response.

Cecilia Cassinger

Sweden | This is an interesting question, and we know relatively little about how humour and satire affect brand images of places. Humour is usually seen as an effective strategy of nonviolent resistance to oppression (i.e. mocking authority). Place brands are typically ridiculed for either being too aspirational (i.e. when the gap between the perceived reality of the place and the place brand is too wide), or too stereotypical.

In the Nordic context, stereotypes about Swedish gender equality and egalitarian society are often used in popular cultural expressions. They are also humorously reflected in the way that Sweden is promoted as a destination abroad, for example, The Swedish Number by the Swedish Tourist Association in 2016.

Irina Shafranskaya

Russia | Of course, in Russia, in the city of Uryupinsk. The plot of the anecdote is clear only when you understand the peculiarities of Soviet times but in general, it’s a joke about the city in the middle of nowhere. Now the city uses this anecdote as part of its brand narrative.

Jaume Marín

Spain | Maybe the best campaign about laughing about their weaknesses and transforming them into a strength would be, “Where is Vilnius?”

José Pablo Arango

Colombia | Switzerland had a great campaign debunking the myth that they are boring.

Rick Buck Song Koh

SingaporeSingapore has a little story that has its own Wikipedia entry.

Previous questions answered by the panel here.

You’d like to ask the panel a question? Get in touch!

Enjoyed this snapshot of expert views on how cities and countries have responded to mass media portrayals of their place? Thanks for sharing!


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