What is the current state of place branding practice in Europe? In this post, learn what leading place developers, managers and advisors think about the branding of cities, countries and destinations in Europe.
- Which cities, regions or destinations in Europe are leading in place branding practice;
- How approaches to place branding differ across Europe;
- Which challenges European cities, regions or destinations face regarding brand development and management.
A word on city branding practice in Europe
Europe is widely regarded as the region most active in place branding. This, however, doesn’t mean that the continent’s many cities, regions and countries all adhere to best practice.
In 2011, Robert Govers, together with Bill Baker, commented on city branding and the branding efforts of European cities. The article (no longer available) was a response to a report by the EUROCITIES network, at a time where city branding as concept was still fairly new to most city policy makers. The report, they found, was well intended but lacked the broader picture. It also fell short on including existing literature on city branding. Govers and Baker observed “deficiencies in the report and misrepresentation of cases as ‘good practice’.”
This illustrates that even in Europe, city branding – or place branding more generally – is still often misunderstood as a matter of logos, slogans and promotional campaigns.
Place branding in Europe: Snapshot
What follows is a snapshot of current place branding practice in European cities, regions or countries (in alphabetical order). When reading, keep in mind that it is neither complete nor the last word on the topic – we will add new thoughts and perspectives as they come in.
While back in 2008 destination branding was still a fairly new concept to Austria, it has since become a popular and common tool used not just by destinations but also smaller towns and cities, tells us Bernhard Klein in his interview. During his time as Head of Marketing for Vienna, Klein was among the first to strategically apply city branding for a capital city and major tourist destination. A process which he describes in his case study on the branding of Vienna.
Asked about the role of place branding in the booming city of Barcelona, Juan Carlos Belloso noted that:
Place branding, if understood and done properly, is and will be key for the future of Barcelona. The main challenge for Barcelona today is positioning the city not just as a place to visit (tourism and events) but also as a place to work, study, invest, etc., as a place linked to talent, knowledge, creativity, innovation and economic activity. And designing and developing the right brand vision and stagey can play a fundamental role.
Such rebranding is a challenging task, and Juan Carlos Belloso in his case study on the rebranding of Barcelona shares valuable insights into how to go about it, and what to avoid.
Turning from the city of Barcelona to the region of Catalonia, Jordi de San Eugenio of Universitat de Vic observes that across the region place branding is slowly emerging as a topic for scholars, practitioners and governments.
As example he mentions the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, which the independence-seeking Catalan government established in 2011 to foster dialogue and to build relationships between the citizens of Catalonia and the rest of the world.
Moving from sunny Catalonia up to Denmark, Sebastian Zenker of Copenhagen Business School finds the country’s cities and municipalities much more risk-taking compared to those in other European countries, especially Germany. His observation: Danish cities and regions are comfortable trying it out and evaluating later.
Most French cities are now open to, or involved in, place branding and place marketing, tells us Christophe Alaux of Université Aix-Marseille, although they prefer referring to such activities as communication or economic development.
Indeed, as Jorgen Eriksson and Svetlana Masjutina point out, every French commune has an empowered place manager, and many of the towns in regions such as the Cote d’Azur in the South of France have started “branding” themselves based on their historical and natural heritage, long before place branding became a concept.
The town of Grasse is a good example for how place branding can happen organically, over time. It also illustrates well how cities can build themselves a very unique and highly competitive identity, by smartly connecting economic development, talent attraction and tourism:
Grasse is the birthplace of the world’s perfume industry, which grew out of the local rose and jasmine horticulture industry, and expanded to encompass the fast-growing sector of aromatic substances.
The fragrance industry emerged around a few local companies, some over a hundred years old, which have become multinationals. More than 60 companies producing raw materials, flavours and fragrances now employ almost 3.500 workers, provide 13.000 indirect jobs, and generate over 650 million Euros in annual turnover, which equals nearly 8% of the world’s turnover of the perfume industry.
Specialized educational programs, such as The Grasse Institute of Perfumery, ensure a supply of trained talents.
About one million tourists visit the hilltop town every year to visit the boutiques of perfume producers Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard, enjoy the vestiges of an industry that blossomed out of the town’s 17th century tanneries.
The key lesson here: when looking for examples of successful place branding, don’t focus on specific terms, especially ‘place branding’, but observe and explore with an open mind.
For those with expertise in strategic place branding and knowledge of German language, Europe’s economic powerhouse is the place to be – or go, judging by the following observation of Peter Pirck, Brandmeyer Consultants:
For years now we’ve been seeing a paradigm shift, away from classic city marketing and towards the focused management of city brands. Traditionally, city marketing aimed to cover as many players and topics and as much content as it could with the budget available – as well as serving as many markets and target audiences as possible. But that’s like trying to please all of the people all of the time: you just can’t.
Pirck further observers that, “nowadays, cities are increasingly focusing on just a few, brand-defining themes and topic areas and sticking with them for the medium term rather than just on a short-term basis. That’s the way to establish a strong city brand.”
Petra Trimborn of inspektour in Hamburg sketches a very similar scenario in a tourism context:
Destination branding has been a hot topic in Germany for the past few years. Destinations in USA and Australia/New Zealand were the first movers. What is happening now in Germany is that each destination wants to become a brand.
Equally noteworthy, from a place branding point of view, is the country’s impressive transformation within only a few decades from a Germany disliked and feared to one admired and liked. Christof Biggeleben of Ketchum Pleon agency in Berlin explains:
Four events and the associated images that already went around the world paved the way for Germany’s image change: The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the wrapped Reichstag 1995, the FIFA World Cup 2006 and the resurgence of the brand Berlin in the last decade. Suddenly Germany was no longer grave, but easy. No longer just cars and machinery, but also colorful, loud, warm and emotional.
Keith Dinnie: “In the Netherlands there is an exceptional level of interest in place branding, particularly at city level where many skilled professionals are working to promote their city brands.”
Amsterdam comes to mind – en par with Barcelona in terms of brand image – and the Limburg region has been actively consolidating its brand as border region. Also noteworthy the case of The Hague and its positioning as City of Peace and Justice.
One of the Poland’s leading place marketing scholars, Magdalena Florek in her interview offered the following thoughts on the current state in Poland:
In my opinion, in Poland place marketing has made a name for itself; there is considerable awareness of the potential related benefits.
However, she also observes “a serious discrepancy between professional projects on a European level and single, amateur ventures”. This problem which she finds even more acute in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Portugal’s cities have found their taste for strategic city branding, reports Joao Freire: “Some cities are using the concept in a quite effective and efficient way. Porto, for example, is doing a great job and using all of its available resources in a quite intelligent manner.”
He further adds that Porto’s approach to city branding complies with good practice standards in that it “involves all relevant stakeholders of the city, including all of its main cultural agents”, and that the city has” an ambitious urban regeneration program.”
Interestingly, the devastating financial crisis of 2008/09 might have played a decisive role in raising awareness and encouraging place leaders to spend their limited resources more responsibly, by means of strategic place branding:
I think there is a new way of thinking in Portugal. Before the crisis there was plenty of money available for the cities. Mayors used the available resources in a very tactical way, paying for logos and events with a dubious return on investment. With the crisis, these resources dried up and the lack of results started to show. Now mayors are more aware about where to invest and I think it forced them to think more strategically about the place they are managing.
For place branders, Scandinavia as region is both fascinating and inspiring. The Nordic Region’s international branding is a prime example of brand collaboration across country borders. But why is the concept so popular in Sweden and Denmark in particular?
For Finnish scholar Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko, it “might be the fact that all these countries are small, open economies, relatively distant from the epicenters of global economy.” He further notes:
We have learned to be responsive and think relationally. We regard national, regional and local development as an open, competitive setting, which tends to bring branding and other forms of “social engineering” into the picture.
Sweden’s Marcus Andersson links the comparatively strong interest in place branding in Scandinavia to the specific geographical location of Nordic countries, at the periphery of Europe. In addition, “the Nordics are also trading nations and have depended on being open to trade, investment, tourism and exchange of people.”
Another reason for the growing popularity of city branding in particular, according to Julian Stubbs, is the domino effect: “As one place markets itself, everywhere else has to. It’s a competitive business and there will be winners and losers, and we saw starting to see that now.” His observation as brand consultant:
Demand from the market has grown enormously in the last ten years. It’s emerged from being a subject handled by a few odd academics and advertising agencies into a much more specialised business with huge implications. Place Branding demands much more than this of the consulting companies who need to engage with the topic, if it is to work.
While many cities, regions and destinations across Europe are starting to embrace strategic place branding as an opportunity to enhance their competitiveness and to solidify their strengths, there are also places where political hijacking of the concept have led to much resentment and caution.
As Keith Dinnie reports:
In the UK there is no explicit commitment to nation branding, perhaps as a long-lasting consequence of the Blair government’s much-derided ‘Cool Britannia’ strategy. I would say there is a much higher level of antagonism towards the concept of place branding in the UK than in any of the other countries mentioned in your question. The ‘brand’ word is still toxic to many UK audiences.
Our last reflection on the current state of place branding practice in Europe is by Roger Pride of Heavenly consultants. His account of the situation in Wales likely holds true for many places:
When I helped develop the first nation brand strategy for Wales almost 10 years ago, Wales was at the forefront of creating a nation brand approach. As in most places there are people in key positions who understand and appreciate the value of a compelling brand and there are those who think it is irrelevant and therefore a waste of money.
To date the Wales brand approach has been focused on marketing and communications. In that sense it has been very successful, unifying a very diverse range of communications. But the brand has not really been used as guidance for policy and strategy.
To be honest this is very difficult to achieve at the national level. Because of the way the brand was developed, it was externally focused and we failed to create a narrative and set of key messages which the people and businesses in Wales could support.
Clearly, if succeeding in place branding is challenging for cities, then establishing a brand for nations must be close to impossible. At least if old-fashioned branding approaches are used.
Place branding examples from Europe
Looking through our collection of case studies on place branding in Europe, there are some intriguing examples – most of them on a city level. For instance, Bernhard Klein’s report on the branding of Vienna. Or the very detailed case study by Malcolm Allan and colleagues on branding the city of Cork in Ireland, and developing a brand strategy for the London Bridge area in London.
Our case studies on Dublin and Stockholm both hold valuable insights for city marketers and managers, as does the innovative approach to branding a city region, by ONLY LYON in France.
Well-known places such as Barcelona have engaged in rebranding initiatives to divert focus from tourism destination to business and talent attraction. Catalonia’s nation branding and public diplomacy initiatives are an interesting example for regions and nations in similar situations.
And of course our cases and examples of place branding in other regions offer plenty of insights and advice for European cities and destinations.
Place branding books by and for Europeans
Most books on our list of recommended reading for place professionals have been written or co-authored by Europeans, and with Europeans in mind.