Per Ekman on the Future of Place Brand and Identity Management

Is place branding a linear process? In an agile world, can it be done in silos without any knowledge exchange among other place brand professionals?

In our interview with Per Ekman, the Founder & CEO of Tendensor explains the latest PIM (Place Brand & Identity Management) framework – and how it was developed by the Nordic Lights project involving 17 cities and regions from Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. He illustrates why place branding needs a multi-faceted approach. Especially now, since the pandemic has paved the way for smaller cities and remote regions to benefit from the move towards digital and remote working.

Per, do you remember when you first heard about “place branding” – how has your view on the topic changed since you started as a place consultant?

I started my place branding career in 2003 under the company name Geobrands, probably a bit too inexperienced to really master my new profession. However, I paved the way for open and collaborative processes for defining the brand identity of places, with strong stakeholder engagement as a result. Many Nordic cities and regions followed this path.

It took me many years to really understand the complexity of places and brands at a deeper level. As many of TPBO’s readers have probably experienced, I often find it challenging to capture and express a place’s authentic values. It is easy to get caught in wishful thinking.

My view on place branding has evolved over time. As I see it, today place branding is more oriented towards place transformation than ever before. Moreover, generating citizen engagement and local identity has become a top priority for many place branding cities and regions. Both of these shifts have led to the vitalization of place branding, in my opinion.

In 2019, I decided to create a new framework for place branding based on co-creation. I arranged the project Nordic Lights, partnering with 17 Nordic cities and regions. Our goal was to show how place branding can be managed in times of innovation and change. The result is called PIM (Place Brand & Identity Management). At the moment, the framework is being implemented by a range of Swedish places and it will be continuously updated and improved.

What is PIM (Place Brand & Identity Management)? How does this new approach to place branding differ from others?

Instead of describing place branding as a linear process managed by a single actor, PIM focuses on connecting an ecosystem of actors together. To make place branding successful, two new concepts are brought to the table: Roles and Capabilities.

There are three roles – partnership, team, and master – that can be established independently of how the organizational structure of the place looks today.

  • The PIM Partnership – The backbone of the place branding ecosystem – an alliance of key stakeholders that sets the overall goals and secures long-term commitment.
  • The PIM Team – A cross-functional operational team that serves as the hub of PIM. The team supports leaders and other teams around the ecosystem with brand insights and initiatives.
  • The PIM Master – Generates engagement in place branding and a sense of urgency. Leader of the PIM team.

Next, the PIM framework identifies three capabilities for place branding: Think, Feel and Do. These build a foundation for agile yet sustainable place branding. The PIM team can cooperate with other teams and experts in order to master the three capabilities, and the team must be capable of working proactively (taking initiative) as well as capturing external opportunities that arise.

  • Think – An in-depth understanding of people, places, and trends.
  • Feel – Build trustful relations with citizens and other target groups.
  • Do – Create the total place experience.

Naturally, many proactive places around the world already have some of these roles or capabilities established, to a greater or lesser extent. My hope is that PIM will provide place managers with a comprehensive framework for long-term investment in place branding. PIM is free for anyone to try out and the concept needs to be adapted to local conditions.

(How) can a place branding framework based on Nordic experiences be replicated in other destinations with different cultures?

Good question. Time will tell and I am eager to get some feedback from place branding professionals in other parts of the world. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Since PIM highlights the need for open collaboration and promotes an explorative way of working it may suit places with non-hierarchical organizations and a change-oriented culture.

However, I am optimistic that PIM can be used globally since the framework reflects the general shift towards agile teamwork and strategic capabilities that is currently gaining ground.

What are the challenges faced by participants in the Nordic Lights project? What measures have been taken to mitigate them?

Most significantly, many of them emphasized that it was difficult to create what is sometimes called a brand orientation, in the sense that political leaders (and other leaders too) do not adopt a genuine brand perspective when making decisions. As a consequence, the place’s unique and authentic values are not taken into consideration in the overall place development and become lost in the communication landscape.

Another closely related challenge was pointed out: How to make the place branding process more trustful, collaborative, and sustainable over time?

As mentioned, PIM addresses the need for sustainable and trustful collaboration. While more challenges were brought up by the Nordic Lights participants (such as: How can we better engage our citizens and local businesses? How can we express the place’s unique place brand identity that sets it apart from other locations?) these are not the focus of the framework.

How does Tendensor’s model TAM (Talent Attraction Management) help locations during pandemic times, when remote working is going to be in place for the foreseeable future?

The pandemic has given us a glimpse of the future landscape for talent attraction. Now that employers have experienced the potential of virtual teams and remote working, the traditional approaches to recruitment will be challenged. When it comes to work location, we will probably see a shift in power – from the employer to the employee.

As a result, there are two opportunities to be seized for a wide range of places.

  • First, places can invest in well-designed infrastructure that caters to freelancers and remote workers, most notably attractive co-working spaces.
  • The other opportunity is to attract investment from those companies that are moving away from expensive office spaces in larger cities. This could benefit smaller cities and remote regions, as long as they live up to the often high and diverse life-quality expectations that today’s talents have.

The TAM framework is a great help for places as they establish Attract-Welcome-Integrate services for talents. As I see it, TAM is just as relevant in the post-pandemic world, but the new work-life patterns that I mentioned must be carefully explored. 

Outside the Nordics, which city or region do you find especially innovative and inspiring, in how they have used place branding strategies for attracting talent, visitors or investors?

My global outlook is not too oriented towards short-term initiatives but more on place transformation and building reputation.

  • Dundee in Scotland. A city that has reshaped its identity since the 90s, from industrial decline to design and creativity. The BBC article ‘The city with grand designs‘ (by Steven Brocklehurst and Graeme Ogston) gives us the full story.
  • Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia is building a well-deserved global reputation for its dedication to sustainable tourism, top-notch waste management, and car-free zones, and for providing a wonderful visitor experience. Hats off for bringing out the best of a city.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

If any of your readers have direct experiences or ideas that could be brought into the PIM concept, I would be happy for them to contact me. I’m particularly interested to hear if anyone has taken on a role similar to PIM’s master, team, or partnership and has learnings to share.

And lastly, thanks Florian and the TPBO team for bringing the international community of place branding professionals together. I think we can all do our part for a better world.

Thank you, Per.

Connect with Per Ekman on LinkedIn. Learn more about Tendensor’s PIM, TAM, and BAM models here.

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