Interview with Øyvind Såtvedt on Brand Development and Management of the Oslo Region

Øyvind Såtvedt, Managing Director at Osloregionen (Oslo Region) and former Chief of Staff for the Governing Mayor of Oslo, in this interview tells us how the Oslo Brand Alliance was formed and how the organization manages stakeholder relationships with the 79 municipalities and 5 counties which are part of the wider Oslo metropolitan region. He also shares his thoughts on the latest trends in city region branding, and how to measure impact of place branding initiatives.

Learn about:

  • How place branding and storytelling are related;
  • The biggest challenges of the Oslo Brand Alliance and how they are being dealt with;
  • How to engage local communities and manage relationships with key stakeholders;
  • How Oslo Brand Alliance differentiates between place branding and marketing;
  • How the Oslo Region measures the success of its place branding work.

Øyvind, what do you understand as the “brand” of places, and what is place branding all about?

The “brand” of a place is its essence. I believe there exists still a common misconception that a place brand is something you “make”.  In my view, it’s more about uncovering the attributes of a place, as defined by those who live there or visit.

Branding has to do with researching the “DNA” of a place, by talking to people, and trying to extract this essence of place. Branding, for places at least, is not the same as marketing.

Importantly, there are no quick fixes in branding. The essence of a place cannot be communicated through a logo or a simple slogan. Place branding is about telling your story. And it is an ongoing process.

If you want your place to be perceived in a positive way, it must have a quality which justifies it. It must be true – you cannot invent it.

Place marketing is most useful when there is an obvious gap between the realities of a place and how it is perceived. If there are shortcomings in both, you should start by improving the actual assets of the place, rather than trying to hide the realities behind “propaganda”.

Since April 2013, you have been the Managing Director of the Oslo Region (Osloregionen). Which is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in relation to the development of the regional Oslo brand?

Our biggest challenge is the complexity of our place brand. As a regional brand it includes 79 municipalities in five counties. In the beginning there were a lot of skeptics, questioning how it would be possible to unite all the mayors and other important stakeholders behind the effort to define a common brand proposition and brand management strategy for this entire area.

And of course, this is not the type of challenge that can be overcome once and for all – it is a continuous job where you have to build trust, constantly answer questions such as “what’s in it for me”, and provide results which convince people that this is a good idea.

In our case, the threat of losing out in the competition between cities and regions to attract investment, talent and visitors has been very important.

The Oslo Region has to confront a situation where oil and gas export, the basis for our very positive economic development over many decades, will be gradually weakened.

We are now heading into a period of transition towards a greener economy. How we will be able to tackle this transition depends to a large degree on our ability to be attractive for international talent, investors and partners. Although we are a small country with an open economy, we really have not paid much attention to how we are perceived as a place to live, invest or locate as a business, until now.

I believe that this realization is a very important reason why it has been possible to agree that we are in fact a place with a brand, and have to position ourselves as such. And even more importantly, that it is a good idea to spend money to find out more about how we need to improve the qualities of our place in order to become more attractive.

Related to this, we had to find out how to communicate to those who want to listen, and what we can offer to those who are considering relocating to or investing in our part of the world.

The fact that our neighbors in Stockholm and Copenhagen have been very active in this area for a long time has been an additional source of motivation.

The Oslo Brand Alliance is a voluntary cooperation between 79 municipalities and 5 counties within the broader Oslo metropolitan region. How do you manage stakeholder input and relationships? In other words, how do you make sure no one is left out and all are on the same page?

Let me first of all point out that until 2013, not much had been done in terms of branding Oslo, besides as a tourist destination, and in conjunction with specific events. We got our marching orders from the politicians in our region in 2013.

The brand management strategy was developed in a joint project with Oslo Business Region. Fredrik Winther from Oslo Business Region and myself headed the project group.

We worked in two stages. First, we had a very extensive strategy process, where we asked stakeholders from business, academia, the cultural sector and non-profit organizations to help us define our brand. That was in 2014 and 2015. Altogether, more than a thousand stakeholders with vested interests in how we are perceived internationally took part.

We also established an international advisory board, headed by Professor Greg Clark of Business of Cities Ltd and Martin Boisen of For the love of Place. This advisory board helped us learn from the experiences of other cities around the world.

We also took part in an EU-project within the Urbact program, where we were able to discuss and test our ideas in dialogue with brand managers from other cities in Europe. This resulted in a very elaborate and, in my view, convincing strategy document, which we then took to the politicians. They adopted the recommendations in the strategy almost unanimously.

Then, in the second stage, we wanted to go from strategy to implementation as fast as possible. Instead of a time-consuming process of creating a new organizational entity that should be in charge of the implementation, we created an alliance based on three existing organizations. This Oslo Brand Alliance, in addition to the Oslo Region Alliance also includes Oslo’s business development agency (Oslo Business Region), and the city’s destination marketing organization, VisitOSLO.

Next came the work of trying to convince the politicians to put money into the execution of the strategy. The City of Oslo was on-board immediately. The others were – and are still – a bit more reluctant.

Oslo Business Region and VisitOSLO both play instrumental roles in the implementation of the strategy as the two partners of Oslo Brand Alliance with most marketing experience.

I have spent a lot of time on the road these past two years, visiting mayors and local councils, trying to get them on board as well. So far, 25 municipalities and two counties have committed to contribute to the brand management budget of Oslo Brand Alliance. We agreed that this should be a voluntary decision for the members of the Oslo Region Alliance, hoping to create a stronger commitment this way.

And, as mentioned earlier, getting stakeholder support for a place branding initiative is not something that is done once and for all. In our case, for instance, there is a permanent underlying tension between the interests of the City of Oslo and the rest of the Oslo Region. The other municipalities and counties are constantly watching to see if Oslo is getting too much attention at their expense. At the same time, they acknowledge that Oslo must be the common brand for the whole region, and that a positive perception of Oslo will also benefit them.

How do you distinguish between place branding and –marketing, for example in Oslo?

I think that branding has much to do with management or orchestration. It is about networking within your own region, getting as many stakeholders as possible on board to address the need to improve the qualities of the place, and also telling its story to important target groups elsewhere. And then we have to monitor how we are perceived, our shortcomings and our qualities, as well as obvious perception gaps.

Marketing, on the other hand, is more about ad hoc, time limited activities in relation to, for instance, events or campaigns. In order for marketing to be beneficial for branding, the marketing should be based on the values and main components of the story of your place.

A brand toolbox can be very useful for this end. For the Oslo region, we have established oslobrandbox.no – a website with free access to photos, films, key facts and tips on how to use social media and other digital media channels. The website also contains a test, which helps you find out if your communication is “on brand”.  If you fail the test, you are advised to go back and change your communication and work methods.

Oslo Brand Box website screenshot

Which trends and challenges do you observe with regard to city- and regional branding?

One important trend is the growing importance of city and regional brands. Country brands are still important, but less so compared to city and region brands. This move from national to regional or local presumably has a lot to do with size, and the cultural characteristics of the place where you feel more at home, but also the growing interest in “urban qualities”. Do you feel more at home in the countryside, or in the city? This question is now more important than in which country you want to live in.

In Scandinavia, the common Scandinavian culture, design, liberal values and quality of life, are on the rise. This growing importance of the Scandinavia brand reduces the importance of individual country brands in the region.

Another trend is that, while branding has traditionally been most closely associated with tourism, we now start to look at brands from a more holistic approach. I strongly support this more integrated take on branding.

If you are really true to the essence of your place, it will be hard to have one brand for tourism and another for business. Of course, this is also reflected in the way the travel industry now sees travel not as something that necessarily can be defined as either “business” or “pleasure”, but more often a combination of the two.

The largest challenge for all European brands – both cities and countries – is how the places are able to cope in the face of economic and political challenges: The refugee crisis, risk of terrorism, economic turmoil, political radicalization and division, as well as climate challenge.

We are living in “interesting times”. None of these challenges can be overcome through marketing. We have to keep our focus on retaining our values and preserving and developing our positive qualities and assets, in order to be attractive.

Which is the secret for creating and maintaining a genuine, unique brand for a place? How to keep true to the idea that the brand is the place itself?

This is not easy. The brand will of course evolve, as does the place itself. In order to keep the brand a true expression of the essence of the place, you have to repeat the processes of investigating its attributes and qualities, and adjusting the values and your brand story accordingly. This should happen in an incremental way, rather than through qualitative shifts in paradigms.

In some places, brands tend to become politicized – a type of ideological success story, that is waved in the face of political opponents. This is something which can make it impossible to retain a sustainable brand over time, and is just as bad as when the brand is hijacked for purely commercial reasons.

In our case, we have taken great effort in taking the discussion about the brand out of the realm of the political discourse. All the political parties have seen the positive consequences of this, although I will not rule out that someone in the future will challenge the brand effort from a political point of view. We will be vulnerable to such critique if we are not able to substantiate that what is invested in public funds is in the long-term public interest.

I would not be too worried about maintaining uniqueness, however. No other city can ever become “Oslo”, and there are so many things that define a city’s “DNA” that there will never be two cities alike.

It actually can be a good thing to have similar qualities and assets as other cities. “Oslo” is both a city brand, a regional brand, and shares qualities with the place brands of “Norway”, “Scandinavia” and “Northern Europe”, to name a few. But Oslo has its own version of what is Norwegian, Scandinavian or European – that’s what’s unique. And we must be able to get that across to those who are interested.

City of Oslo
City of Oslo

Which strategies did you use to involve inhabitants of the Oslo region, in order to get their contributions and ideas?

We had a lot of discussions about the need to include the population in the brand strategy process. We actually tried quite hard to find ways to include ordinary citizens in the process. We also tried engaging students through a student competition with quite good prizes, actually.

We did not really manage to engage them. So we tried talking to the media: Do you want to be our partner in this discussion about what sets us apart from other cities and regions, help us define our “DNA” as a place brand? – Well, do you have an idea for a logo or a slogan? We could work with that, said the journalists. After they found out that there was no political controversy, they quickly lost interest.

In retrospect, I am not so sure that we would have gained much by engaging the broad public in the development of our brand management strategy. It’s not something that people really can relate to. What they can relate to is how the city is marketed, for instance, if a particular event is a good way of presenting our city and region to an international audience.

So, rather than asking the public philosophical questions about values, we ask them what they think of such events and their marketing. This has given us helpful feedback that we can use to further develop our marketing strategies.

That said – it is important that the development of a brand management strategy is not something that is developed top down. In order to get input on our brand management strategy, we spoke with the stakeholders, the people that had a vested interest in how our city and region is perceived internationally.

These stakeholders already had a lot of knowledge about these issues, partly because they are used to looking at our city and region from an outside-in perspective. They are in contact with international target groups every day, and quickly see where there are gaps between reality and perception.

We coupled this existing knowledge with statistics and analysis based on international benchmarks. Together, this gave us a good platform and basis for our brand management efforts.

Øyvind Såtvedt, Oslo Business Region
Credit: Arash/Nye Bilder

In which ways does digital media offer new solutions and possibilities for telling a place’s story?

Digital media has really revolutionized the way in which place marketing can be targeted to specific groups, and also be a source for measuring the impact of events, campaigns and news coverage. But it also makes it possible for ordinary people to take an active part in telling a place’s story.

In Oslo, we saw this after the terror attack in July of 2011. The grief and horror in the aftermath of the attacks later became a source of a stronger sense of community and love of the city and its people. “Oslove” became one of the most used hashtags in social media. Quickly, several sites on social media emerged, where people shared images and stories about the city. Many of these still exist.

This spontaneous way of communicating about the city repeated itself, although against a totally different backdrop, during the 2016 X-games. And the athletes also joined in. During just a short week, more than 530 million people had been reached through social media in conjunction with the event, many of them focusing on and sharing images of the urban and modern aspects of the city – helping to fill one of our perception gaps.

Our sister organization, VisitOSLO, also uses social media to measure the digital footprint of events, something that can be used to inform us about how we can get the best attention from the right target groups. This is fed back into our marketing strategies.

The best thing about social media is that it is considerably less expensive, and often more effective, than traditional marketing channels. You are much more likely to take interest when someone says something nice about a place without being paid to do so.

How to measure the success or effectiveness of place branding programs?

When we started talking about how to measure our results, we first imagined that we would have to have goals that were related to the number of visitors, the level of inward investment, the number of talented professionals that located to the region and so forth.

Then someone said – those are not the goals of brand management. Those are the goals of VisitOSLO, Innovation Norway, Oslo Business Region and others. What we need to focus on is how we are perceived. And so, that’s what we did.

We actually call our KPI’s “Key perception indicators”. We have three:

1. How much attention does Oslo get?

2. Is the attention in accordance with our brand?

3. How many stakeholders are on board and engaged?

The results are measured through analysis of international benchmarks, media analysis, digital media footprint, stakeholder surveys and other sources. Now in early 2017, we don’t have the complete results from our first year of operation yet, but the preliminary results are positive.

Thank you, Øyvind.

Connect with Øyvind Såtvedt on LinkedIn, or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


Featured image: Øyvind Såtvedt with Marketing Director Marit Høvik Hartmann of Oslo Business Region, receiving the Place Brand of the Year award in 2015. Credit: City Nation Place


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