How to Navigate Ethical Pitfalls in Place Branding

Ever thought about what goes on behind the scenes of an international event, particularly the ethical challenges organizers face? Consider the delicate balance between promoting an event and respecting the identity of the place where it’s held.

In place branding, where nations and regions leverage events like sports to influence perceptions, there’s a fine line between seeking attention and making a real impact on the community.

Following our previous article, Towards an Ethical Framework for Place Branding, this time our expert panel offers insights on authentic representation, avoiding ethical pitfalls, and maintaining a balance between branding and real community benefits.

Rather than offering a thematic summary, we decided to publish all answers in full, as this is an important topic and also one with nuances in responses, across cultures and regions (in alphabetical order, highlighting TPBO partners).

Key Takeaways

  • Ethical behavior varies with cultural norms; understanding the host country’s culture is crucial.
  • Positive community impact is key when using events for place branding.
  • An ethical code of conduct helps align branding messages with reality, boosting credibility.
  • Global recognition efforts should align with meaningful local societal development.
  • Transparency in connecting sports events to local issues is essential, avoiding cover-ups.
  • Avoid greenwashing in sustainability efforts; focus on genuine actions rather than just appearances.
  • Open communication and stakeholder involvement are vital for a balanced place identity and ethical navigation.

David Haigh

Brand Finance

United Kingdom | Sustainability in place branding can suffer from greenwashing, whereby communications misrepresent or exaggerate actual performance, inflating/skewing stakeholder perceptions.

Place brands should ensure they adequately review existing sustainability communications and performance, which form the basis for their current perceptions and reputation. It consists of brand-level activities and higher-level city, regional or national sustainability initiatives that contribute to the place’s perceived sustainability.

Greenwashing also surfaces the idea that while sustainability is a vital part of the place brand image, aesthetics and inherent features of the land cannot comprise the basis for developing a place brand image. Besides the inherent natural features of a place and surrounding area that contribute to its appeal, communications must demonstrate what action has taken place (e.g. restoration and protection, climate action) to improve or maintain the integrity of the area.

Overall, place brands should leverage adjacent sustainability achievements and existing reputational attributes to define their communications angle – but not rely on them.

Related to this is greenhushing, a pitfall that can affect others in place branding who aren’t greenwashers. Place brands may refrain from communicating about their green attributes and sustainability work because they are wary of scepticism, criticism, cynicism, and fear of stakeholder backlash. Understanding that place brands need substance for their communications and how false steps have ripple effects on the integrity of place branding is important.

Robert GoversRobert Govers

Anholt & Co

Belgium | Currently, it is hard to answer this question. It is why the International Place Branding Association (IPBA)  took the initiative to create The IPBA Barcelona Copenhagen-Region Place Branding Manifesto.

Ryan ShortRyan Short


USA | The pitfall to avoid is attempting to develop a strategy around ethics without doing the homework of truly understanding the community’s ethics. When that happens, you will find yourself building your platform around individual groups’ morals rather than true community ethics. There is a big difference.

Stuart Speirs

Silver Lining Strategy

Australia | Stay true to the place. 

I am not convinced “sports washing” is a pitfall in the first place. It’s reflective of where places like Saudi Arabia are as a place and culture. If creating relationships through sport is key to their evolution as a place and, in turn, a more sustainable, less extractive future, why is it being demonized?

Todd Babiak, place branding panel

Todd Babiak

Brand Tasmania

Australia | It is where the difference between “places” and “governments” really matters. A place relies on culture, on people feeling like they have a voice and some input into decisions and policy-making. If we have a place brand, we have a strong on/off filter that makes it somewhat easier to avoid ethical pitfalls.

If we are talking about governments, we will disregard ethical pitfalls in favour of public relations and economic development, and we will sleep at night by convincing ourselves that international engagement and pressure will lead to ethical improvement. Maybe it will.

Aparna Sharma

India | Nations and places use sports opportunities to highlight and promote places and cultures. These are limited period and time-bound opportunities that are leveraged by nations and places. It is unlikely for new opinions to be formed based on promotional activities around events such as sports.

Cecilia Cassinger

Sweden | In the context of place branding, all forms of “washing” are based on the idea that there is a gap between what the place branding says and what happens in a place. To some extent, such gaps will always exist but can be mitigated credibly if the place has an ethical code of conduct.

Cecilia Pasquinelli

Italy | I think the answer concerns the capacity to connect the sports event to a local issue and concern, making the problematic sides of that city transparent and evident without using sports events to cover the local problems.

Ed Burghard

USA | Transparency is key. Actions of questionable ethics generally happen in the dark.

We can make an effort to avoid them by studying and understanding precedents. It requires publicly available case studies.

Efe Sevin

USA | The short and easy answer is stakeholder participation. By keeping open communication channels, places can project a more balanced identity. However, if we are to discuss the example of sportswashing, we need to acknowledge that the term itself might be biased. There is a tendency to use the term to accuse non-Western countries. For instance, there is no debate on Paris hosting the Olympics to enhance its image and downplay its labour problems.

Overall, though, places are complex. Not every campaign covers all potential areas of a place’s identity. As long as there is open communication and no intentional attempt to conceal certain parts, it is possible to navigate such ethical pitfalls.

Günter Soydanbay

Canada | The challenge is rooted in the complexity of ethics itself. Ethics are deeply tied to cultural norms, which can vary greatly. Take sportswashing as an example. In a Western context, using sports to distract from human rights issues may be considered ethically dubious. But in another cultural setting where authority and control are highly valued, the same action might be seen as a legitimate exercise of soft power. Over the years, I’ve realized that it’s counterproductive to apply my culture’s understanding of ethical pitfalls to another’s actions.

Instead, I started to educate myself on universal moral pillars, which can serve as a foundation for ethical behaviour. Understanding these pillars can help places navigate the cultural specificities of what is considered ethical or unethical. In this way, they can engage in branding activities, like sports sponsorships, that resonate with their own community’s values while being sensitive to the ethical concerns of the place where the sponsorship takes place.

Gustavo Koniszczer

Argentina | Using sports or other platforms to improve the image of a place is not inherently negative and should not be perceived as such, as long as the initiatives taken to achieve this objective genuinely and positively impact the community and the inherent character of that place.

Essentially, as our field has emphasized for some time now, for a place to be recognized as an attractive destination for tourism, business, or employment, it must genuinely be a favourable location or possess noteworthy positive attributes. Place branding efforts should prioritize community betterment and enhancement of resident well-being. Consequently, when image enhancement leads to measurable, real-world benefits, it establishes a robust foundation for challenging various assumptions.

Hjörtur Smárason

Denmark | Sportswashing is a double-edged sword, as recent examples have shown. Big sports events draw attention not only to the good being done but can also draw forward all the dirt lying beneath. That is why places need to come to terms with their problems and decide how issues are communicated. Place branding is not about being perfect. It is about knowing where you are heading and showing you are taking the first steps in the journey.

Jaume Marín

Spain | It is a clear case of having a code of conduct, and adopting measures of: 

  • transparency and accountability
  • clear ethical guidelines
  • independent oversight
  • community engagement
  • cultural sensitivity
  • balance economic and social objectives

The focus should always be on the long-term well-being of the place and its inhabitants.

Magdalena Florek

Poland | It is a tricky issue because it usually involves politics. Place managers may often not even be aware that they are falling into such a pitfall or realizing it too late. The basis, therefore, is a thorough and wide-ranging baseline analysis (far beyond the issues of place branding), which will show whether subsequent activities can be conducted ethically.

Mistakes in this regard will ultimately hurt the image of the place anyway. We certainly need to pay more attention to what our activities, e.g. sports events, do for the local community, how they contribute to the common good, in what way they support sustainability, and whether through sports one can manifest values that are important to the local community and worth sharing with the world.

Marta Hereźniak

Poland | Places can do that by ensuring that their broadly understood partners/subcontractors/stakeholders abide by the rules of ethical conduct and avoiding connections with those who do not do so. A step further could be, for instance, developing special certification procedures to identify ethically-driven partners.

Martin Boisen

Netherlands | By connecting the strive for global recognition with deep and meaningful societal development of the place itself. It rings hollow when places organize mega-events or sign declarations without delivering at the local and regional levels. Attention-seeking is fine, but more important is how attention will help achieve local and regional goals.

Sonya Hanna

United Kingdom | We need to garner authenticity. To my mind, this means aligning the outcomes of our communicative actions with domestic and international place brand communications. The ethical behaviours of our leaders are being increasingly scrutinised by global and more significantly citizen media, driving demand for greater accountability and transparency in our public/private administrative practices. Authenticity is key.

Stella Kladou

Greece | Places are in the pursuit of prizes/ recognition and revenue/ competitiveness, which often leads to ethical pitfalls of prioritizing an event or specific programs put forward by those with more power in place branding.

The answer to avoid such ethical fallacies lies at:

  • inclusion, i.e. building inclusive mechanisms for building place branding strategies and
  • long-term planning inclusive of impacts, i.e. making sure that each decision (e.g. whether to bid for the Olympics or the European City of Culture) is balanced against its socio-cultural, economic and environmental impacts, as outlined in the place brand strategy.

With thanks

To our panel of place thinkers and changemakers for sharing valuable insights on ethical place branding: Emphasizing cultural understanding, genuine community impact, transparency, and stakeholder involvement.


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