Piotr Lutek on Place Branding in Poland: Challenges, Success Strategies and Trends

If you thought place branding practice looks the same no matter where you are in the world, well – think again. There are significant differences in how the branding of cities or destinations – or indeed entire regions and countries – is approached across the globe. Piotr Lutek, Managing Director of boutique place marketing agency Synergia, in this interview introduces us to his place branding work in Poland. Read about the challenges, success strategies and the trends to keep an eye on.

Piotr, at Synergia you specialize in creating and reviving brands of places, as well as consumer products. Do you remember the first time you heard about “branding” in the context of cities or regions?

It feels like it was ages ago. 2006 perhaps, when I was looking for a good topic for my dissertation. Place branding seemed very fresh and it really was. Only a few books available. White space to explore. Then I set up Synergia and started the consulting business. My doctoral thesis is still ongoing, but I hope to have it finished by next June. Working for cities and regions is so time-consuming that other activities must wait.

In your view, what is city branding all about? And how does it relate to the concept of place marketing?

Good question. There are many different definitions and approaches.

Personally, I am most intrigued by changes that a certain place triggers in anyone who experiences it. Something must happen in the customer’s mind. Basically, the relation should be two-sided, because places also derive from people visiting them, or living there. If this exchange is working and growing, place brands can emerge.

Place marketing is, in my opinion, some kind of engineering. Resources converted to products/benefits, then transferred to chosen people to make their life better and easier. It is tactical. Place branding, on the other hand, is more about feelings and beliefs.

Place Brand Trigger is the methodology you use for place brand implementation. In a nutshell, how does it work?

Easier said than done. This is a general problem of almost all place branding projects in Poland. On a paper you can put anything you like concerning values, brand idea or desired outcomes. Key initiatives as well. So often we have a brand strategy document ready and…nothing happens, or implementation gets messed up.

That was the starting point for Place Brand Trigger. We developed a simple, 12-fields matrix that helps place marketing teams to go smoothly from brand strategy birth to its implementation and management.

In the rows you get the most important areas of management, like the organization that should be behind a brand, product, communication and experience. The columns represent the three crucial phases of place brand development: incubation, animation and maturation. Each field of the matrix consists of set of tasks to do and precisely determines goals to achieve.

How can branding be a driver of economic growth for cities and regions, such as in Central and Eastern Europe?

Place branding has an enormous impact on the economic performance of any city or region. There are obvious benefits, like boost in sales of a place’s products and services, a stable position in consumers’ consideration set, but also mental strength of residents and investors – how likely and willing they are to set up new businesses.

For places located in Central and Eastern Europe, incremental value can be generated by creating strong place brands. I would call it “the shortest way to European standard of welfare.”

Why is it so? To understand this statement properly, you have to go back 70 years, to the time when the new deals after WWII were established. Due to the long-lasting Soviet occupation, many parts of this region had no chance for regular growth, due to limited access to relevant knowledge, money and customers.

Nowadays, branding is one of most powerful tools to reduce this gap and to keep up with the West, by changing people’s attitudes, strengthening perceptions of high quality and increasing awareness.

My home city, Lublin is a good example. Since 2007, the year when the strategy  “The City of Inspiration” was launched, everything has changed. Much more visitors from all over the world, a huge number of investments and new business activities. The city is pretty much alive, with the Old Town often extremely crowded. Lublin as place to visit, work and invest is working well, and has great prospects for the future.

Reducing the many facets of a city or region to one overarching theme for effective positioning can be challenging. How do you go about this – what do you advise your clients?

Simplicity always pays off. That is my most important piece of advice every single time when the future position of a place is discussed. By simplicity I mean: promise only a value you can deliver. “Overpromising” is a common mistake made by many places.

The temptation to tout yourself as the best place for anyone, for anything and anytime is really strong and we have to work hard to bring place marketing teams down to reality.

Many place marketers know that the sweet spot for effective positioning is between our resources and competencies, unfulfilled customers’ needs and a white space of the market.

However, few seem to remember that it’s not about “the best we have to give”. The right question is: “what we are able to propose better than others that helps consumers to live, work and achieve their goals better, faster, cheaper or smarter?”

Once you realize this, you’re on a straight way to success.

My third advice to clients concerns testing the idea on which a place will be positioned: how different is it from other places, and to what extent will current experiences in the city be in line.

My last advice for any place marketer who is facing a positioning process: watch Australia’s 2008 promo campaign “Come Walkabout”:

Andrew Hoyne in his interview points out that there is an unfortunate trend towards a superficial design approach, often resulting in a graphic campaign rather than a strategic brand solution. Is this something you also witness?

Definitely. I also have many examples of that kind from Poland. It results from misunderstanding the core of branding. It is commonly forgotten that a brand with its equity is among a place’s most valuable assets: unique and very hard to copy.

There are three main reasons for the situation you mention. First, local authorities are unaware of the role a brand can play in creating a competitive advantage for a place. They can easily imagine new roads, swimming pools or even facilities for new investments, but it’s much harder for them to understand that something is happening in consumers’ minds and that they are able to drive this process. So, they regard branding only as a promomotional issue and spend money on harmful and expensive campaigns, often widely spread and broadly targeted but not linked to real requirements.

Secondly, heritage. You probably do not know about the case of Kazimierz Dolny, a very small, lovely town in eastern Poland. Full of art galleries, cultural events and lots of visitors year by year. Everything started in 1925 when some young artists decided to settle down there due to the magnificent scenery. The almost 100 years of heritage have created a brand too strong not to be considered. Even though the mayor’s office is not clearly brand-oriented, residents are and know very well how to sustain this source of local welfare.

Lastly, short-term thinking. There is a significant lack of patience among city or regional authorities and their staff responsible for brand management. They are not able to face the fact that place branding is a long journey, not a short sprint.

Which trends or changes do you observe in how cities and regions in Poland approach place branding?

Concerning place branding, I can divide Polish cities and regions into two groups. The first one includes the places that have made the most of European grants, launched their brand properly and step by step have been moving forward. Still investing in brand communication, they also work on customer experience and new products for different segments. A few of them have understood the benefits of placemaking and the importance of local community engagement.

The others are running around in circles. The dead-end group with a superficial design approach, or even withdrawing from the “brand project” altogether. This group is much bigger than the first one.

What does city branding need, to be successful?

You need to find:

  1. a powerful idea for positioning
  2. a good benchmark city to get inspired (but don’t copy it!)
  3. the right people to manage your brand
  4. local community endorsement
  5. enough time to wait for initial results

Which aspects of the place branding process do your clients struggle most with?

Each case is different and should be considered separately. But of course there are some common problems places face constantly: lack of funding for brand building or local elections can easily disturb or even interrupt the process. One of the biggest cities in Poland, Poznań is a good example of this.

But maybe a not so obvious problem lies at a tactical level – going better versus going unique. It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending money on copying or improving solutions already implemented by other places and getting poor results at the end of the day. If something works in NYC, there is no guarantee it will work in Warsaw.

A place should appreciate and understand its identity – culture, history, specific character of people, some kind of local tension or spirit – and create a brand on this basis. Find and go your own way. For more than 10 years we have been trying to convince cities and regions to adopt this point of view.

Which cities or regions have inspired you recently for their innovative approach to place branding?

I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but I find this city a good example to follow in terms of effectiveness, cohesiveness in brand building and uniqueness of the brand idea. The city settled in the middle of nowhere, barely 100 years ago. Unbelievable story and great case to learn and get inspired. A pure concept and consistent actions are enough to accomplish global no 1 position among cities for entertainment.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Place branding is not about a tagline or logo. It’s about the place’s contribution to the world and how it connects with global values.

Thank you, Piotr.

Connect with Piotr Lutek on LinkedIn or visit the Synergia website for further info on services offered.

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