It’s a special pleasure to start our 2023 series of who is who in place branding with Olga Rauhut Kompaniets, researcher at Halmstad University in southern Sweden. Not only because she has been among the most engaged TPBO community members over the last years but also because we got to know her in person at an IPBA conference some years ago – the flagship research event on place brand thinking, which her institution will co-host in 2023. More about this and other highlights from Olga’s professional journey in this interview.
Olga, do you remember when you first heard about place branding – and your initial thoughts?
I got to know place branding in 2007. I was a PhD student and consultant in retail marketing at that time; loved consumer branding and was fascinated about the brand strategies.
I was very happy when I got a new task from my supervisor – to teach a course in strategic brand management for undergraduate business administration students. The focus of the course was on FMCG, but while piling up the extra reading for students and digging deeper into brand management, I got a suggestion from a search engine – a place branding paper.
That was definitely something new and exciting – my first thoughts were about different cities I’ve visited as a tourist, and their image and identity. And I wondered, is there any difference between branding consumer goods and cities? I was hooked and decided to continue exploring this field, coming across some impressive research.
Later, while discussing place branding with my colleague and friend who got her PhD in tourism, we came up with some ideas of researching together in this field. Still, place marketing and branding as research topics had to wait some more years, until I got my PhD in February 2012. Since then, all my research focuses on place marketing and branding.
In our earlier conversation you told us about Destination Halmstad and its sustainable approach to city branding, which you will also be presenting at the 7th Annual IPBA Conference in October 2023, co-hosted by your institution, Halmstad University. Briefly, how does Halmstad approach destination branding?
Destination Halmstad, the local DMO, is in the process of creating a place brand strategy for the city of Halmstad, with the main focus on the importance of cooperation, inclusivity and sustainability.
During the autumn of 2020 a National Attitude Survey was conducted, showing that more than half of the respondents did not know that Halmstad municipality has more than 100k inhabitants, a university (Halmstad university) and a prosperous business environment. Swedes considered Halmstad mostly a summer destination.
That was what motivated the city to begin to work on the city brand development to change place perceptions. The work is in progress now, with active cooperation and engagement of the local actors and residents.
The first step was to increase resident pride, attachment and willingness to stay in the city. The “tourist at home” campaign (Swedish – Turista hemma) with suggestions and tips for local experiences was organized, encouraging residents to explore more of Halmstad sights and surroundings.
“Shop local, eat local, love local” is the slogan of Halmstad city – the association of the local business and tourism and hospitality actors – promoting sustainable and responsible consumption in the city all year round.
During summer 2022 the “Nature hosts” sustainability campaign was organized together with the local government, when the group of hosts was moving around different nature areas, shores, beach sites, parks, islands etc. in and near Halmstad, taking care of the places, picking up trash and talking with visitors about the importance of keeping natural environments clean for future generations. They also provided visitors with important information about camping places, rules for camping, and ideas on how to make your stay in Halmstad more sustainable and responsible.
I look forward to presenting Halmstad and its sustainable place branding at the upcoming 7th Annual IPBA Conference in October 2023, which will take place in Helsingborg, Sweden. I am proud to be part of the organizing team of this important annual conference, which this year will be hosted by three universities in southern Sweden – Lund University, Kristianstad University and Halmstad University.
How important are resident engagement initiatives in place branding? Do you have any examples of a destination successfully involving the community in its brand development?
In my opinion, resident engagement is the core of place branding, as residents are those who are influenced the most by the place marketing and branding strategies of local governments. That is why they must be not just involved in place branding processes but rather engaged in a bottom-up process.
We know from the classics that citizens are the best ambassadors of the place, but unfortunately lots of local decision-makers and local governments are still not accepting residents as a serious stakeholder.
It is with great pleasure that I note quite some examples of resident engagement in Nordic countries though. Finland has good examples of listening to and engaging residents in place branding processes. “Rent a Finn” is probably one of the most impressive examples, when any visitor could get in contact with a local ready to guide, provide information about the place or even invite for the local experience.
Faroe Islands and their several campaigns engaging locals, for example, “Remote Tourism” campaign during the pandemic, recreating a Faroe Islands’ experience for those who were stuck in isolation and could not visit the destination. During the virtual tour tourists could see the islands with the eyes of the locals and even control the movements of the local Faroese.
“Discover Jämtland” is a wonderful bottom-up project where two locals took an initiative in promoting local sights, nature, cafes and restaurants, accommodation, etc. of Jämtland – their home region in mid-Sweden. After a few months their community in social media reached more than 100k persons, and millions of views in Google maps. Now they even organized a community of local ambassadors who are willing to help you explore different parts of Jämtland in the best local way.
“Smart Move Örebro” is a project collaboration between the local DMO, businesses and other stakeholders aiming at attracting and keeping competences in the Örebro region, Sweden. Residents are the natural protagonists of the project, with their views on the local quality of life and attractiveness of the region.
There is a growing call for destinations to shift focus from marketing to destination management to ensure inclusive and sustainable tourism. What are your thoughts as an expert in destination marketing?
In my opinion, this focus shift is quite reasonable and definitely in line with the complexity of sustainable tourism development. Nowadays, DMOs are no longer just promoters of the destination: they are supposed to manage, lead, and drive sustainable destination development in cooperation with stakeholders and residents. It is time to guide tourists and visitors in terms of their responsibilities for the destination they visit and with respect to the local environment and culture.
Marketing is an important part of the management process though, so this shift won’t be a radical one. Rather, destination marketing strategies will be seen as a logical component of sustainable destination management.
In our recent panel post on sustainability and place branding, our experts shared that sustainability will be a prerequisite for strong place brands, and vice versa. In your experience, which city or region has done a great job in implementing sustainable development strategies into its place branding initiatives?
Sustainable development is the key for building a strong place brand, a long-term strategy taking into consideration the needs of future generations and not just tourist attractions of today. Since this requires a long-term strategy, in most cases it is too early to talk about “best practice”. Time will show if strategies that are implemented now were really sustainable, or just a passing trend in the practice of place branding.
As for now, I think that Iceland does a great job implementing sustainable and responsible place branding, oriented towards the local population as well as visitors.
Faroe Islands are also a good example of sustainable and responsible place development strategies.
Sweden with its focus on the local gastronomy shows the first great examples of how responsible and sustainable place development can change the perception of food and beverages. The Swedish wine sector is a very good example – according to international experts, it is 100% sustainable. This is really a unique situation in the world, as very few agricultural sectors manage to be fully sustainable.
What suggestions do you have for country and destination branding professionals in the Nordics who are renewing their marketing efforts, as we put the days of the pandemic behind us?
Don’t make things complicated by using a top-down approach. Just because you’re a professional doesn’t mean that you always know how things must be done. Listen to the people.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, and don’t copy-paste from neighboring municipalities – create your own place brand positioning and strategy! Unfortunately, some DMOs in Sweden constantly try to reinvent the wheel. I wish these DMOs could open up for collaboration and cooperation with other stakeholders of their destination, and especially to the residents as a valuable source of local knowledge and ideas.
Focus more on sustainable place branding development of rural areas as a way to make these areas alive and prosperous again, and attract new residents, business and visitors by highlighting local experiences.
Your advice to emerging researchers interested in place branding and place marketing?
Learn from all the research that is already out there. Especially during the last two decades, place marketers and branders did a great job in creating and sharing knowledge, providing the professional community with numerous examples, cases and theories.
Focus on theoretical discussions and take the time to evaluate concepts. Go beyond “best practices” and single cases as well as short-term campaigns attracting target groups now and here. As a researcher you’ll want to follow the development of place branding strategies, and how those are being implemented.
Thank you, Olga.