Innovative place branding for location sustainability: which are the key barriers, obstacles and challenges? We asked our panel of place brand specialists, and here is what they said:
- Sustainability communication is a tricky one. “Greenwashing” (over-claiming sustainability credentials) continues to tarnish honest efforts made by place managers and developers.
- Politicians sometimes have a different agenda or goals to that of place managers, which can make it challenging to implement innovative ideas.
- We need better coordination between government programmes and the private sector, e.g. property developers.
- Money matters and needs to be invested if a city or destination wants to adequately communicate the benefits of sustainable development – internally or externally.
- There is a lack of foresight and long-term vision and too much focus on immediate returns.
I think the challenge is to communicate the benefits of sustainable development to people. Yes, we all understand conceptually that sustainable development is hugely important and very desirable. But unless you clearly explain how this will impact people’s day-to-day lives and give them benefits they can relate to, rather than a lot of statistics, your brand won’t resonate no matter how good it may seem. Also, brands that have used ‘greenwashing’ techniques have undermined the market’s trust when it comes to sustainability. We need to regain that trust by creating brands that operate on principles of sincerity and honesty.
Misunderstanding and misalignment of need. Many people who have spent too long in hierarchical organisations like universities forget supply and demand. We must ensure place branding delivers and communicates features demanded by businesses and stakeholders. Rather than white elephant vanity projects or greenwashing favoured by a lot of leadership.
Often ensuring sustainability meets a need would result in faster sales rates for developments. The features demanded will vary by the target audience: end-of-the-trip facilities, vertical gardens, outdoor gyms, kinetic energy, and light reduction. The current offerings by developers often seem stale and tired – thus hard to brand.
Innovation must come from demands made by stakeholders, not ‘ideas’.
Politicians need to be educated on and embrace place branding as a strategy for making political decisions.
I have written in length at TPBO about NEOM – the Saudi Arabia-backed smart city. In the long run, I believe such utopian projects will fall short of delivering value. If that happens, place branding cynics will feast on such high-profile project failures – probably rightfully so.
Another challenge is what the Google-backed company Sidewalk Labs had to go through in Toronto. Technology is the future of both cities and place branding. However, so far ‘the smart city’ promise has caused more unrest than good. Especially in less democratic countries data is collected aggressively.
Place branding professionals will have to work harder to address the concerns of civil rights activists and researchers about the invasion of privacy.
- Political cycles, incompetence and electoral scheming
- Lack of vision
- A lack of ambition
- Status quo bias
Car culture, traffic engineers, and leaders who are afraid of powerful voices who believe a place is only a parking lot or a thoroughfare for vehicles.
Politicians’ inability to change their mindset, particularly on metrics, has long been a roadblock for many destinations. The measure of destination success needs to change from focusing on visitor volume (numbers) to visitor value (spending) and community benefit.
Changing the metrics will drive a more sustainable approach to tourism development. Destination managers have been banging their heads against this brick wall in many countries for years. Sadly, it is all too often easier for politicians to talk about legs (number of visitors) than dollars (earnings) because it makes a better media soundbite.
The challenge is to develop strategies that fulfil visitors’ needs and create a positive impact in the local community, like regenerative tourism.
In my experience, the major barriers are a mix of:
- Failure of imagination – failure to understand, envisage and explore the potential contribution of brand strategy to the development of a place, as well as promoting and marketing its current attractions and experiences.
- Lack of coherence and coordination in government programmes and private sector development in place development, whether for tourism and destination development or the holistic economic development of the place; seeing tourism development as an exemplar of place development alongside economic, social and cultural development of the place.
- Failure to think beyond the present day in telling and promoting the story of the place. By this, I mean planning for, allocating funds for, spending and managing innovative improvements for the offer of the place, to show the trajectory of its future development, that it is a place with a future, one that is worth investing in, one that it is worth staying in as well as a place to visit.
There is a high level of static and cynicism around sustainability claims. Stakeholders and communities are becoming increasingly aware of greenwashing, so it is important to develop substance behind any attempted positioning.
The objective of place branding is to contribute to socio-economic development, this includes sustainable infrastructure regeneration. Wherever the place is in its journey, the latter will require demonstrating the long-term view on sustainability and evidencing its return on investment.
It would be beneficial to publicise which locations are doing the best work in implementing sustainable development models that attract talent and investment aligned with their place’s sustainability goals.
More about the panel – including previously published insights – here
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