Place Branding 2021: Key Priorities and Trends to Watch

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and work, affecting every citizen and community. As the world looks forward to a more positive 2021, economic developers, community builders, FDI and talent attraction agencies and other place brand managers have a lot on their plate with respect to building an optimistic narrative for their country and city. 

We asked our panel of place branding specialists what are the topics that will likely dominate the place branding agenda this year and what place branding pro’s need to address in 2021 (answers in alphabetical order –  highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research, or as speakers). What we found especially noteworthy: panel members see 2021 as a year of opportunities for place branders, despite the many challenges to be faced.

Our key takeaways:

  • Managing the effects of COVID-19 will be a key topic in 2021, both in terms of ensuring health protocols and with regard to reviving the economy.
  • Short-term planning to boost economic activity bears the risk to hamper social and environmental sustainability at the expense of fast economic recovery. All three are needed for healthy and competitive communities and business locations.
  • There is an opportunity for place branders to leverage from the strong community connections which developed during the lockdowns, having brought neighbors and citizens together in unprecedented ways.
  • Creative messaging and storytelling will be key to communicate health and safety aspects in a way which encourages people to come back to city centers and high streets, and for workers (with a choice) to come back to their CBD offices.
  • A fresh opportunity for towns and regions to attract talent: entrepreneurs and skilled people will be on the lookout for a safe, beautiful place with a supportive culture. Peripheral places can often offer this mix and should increase their communications.
  • Local tourism will increase, owing to the concerted effort by governments to kickstart economic recovery. Unfortunately, environmentally and socially sustainable tourism might not be a priority in many regions this year, as getting local businesses up and running (economic sustainability) will be the more immediate concern.

  • Country brands will face fierce competition from peers, all eager to welcome people back to visit, study and work, once possible.
  • The global logistics systems will change, which brings massive opportunities for some locations (especially those perceived as safe and which demonstrated good crisis management and remained accessible during the pandemic), while disadvantaging others.
  • Places will come under more pressure from citizens and businesses to mitigate the effects of climate change, especially in terms of tourism, and ensuring places remain well livable.

Andrew Hoyne

Andrew Hoyne

Hoyne Design / Speaker

Australia | I believe place brand managers will need to prioritise the messages and practical actions around safety and health. Surely encouraging people back into public places has to be the highest priority and biggest challenge. Place brand managers will have to juggle audiences with different mindsets – those keen to get back out there and enjoy themselves and those who are cautious and hesitant. The way individual places have handled (or not) COVID-19 and the press coverage they got, as a result, will be relevant. Some places have bigger hurdles to overcome than others (think of those floating ‘places’ called cruise ships to be labelled as “floating Petri dishes” is hard to come back from. But they will).

Another hot topic will be the community. How we banded together during the various lockdowns around the world and how people stood up for health workers and so forth could represent an interesting opportunity. For a long time, social disconnection seemed to define modern living – people not knowing their neighbours and so forth. Now everyone is aware of shopping local and looking out for each other. Pushing this as a brand value will be useful for many places in my opinion. For residential neighbourhoods, I see it as a great branding theme to explore.

The other hot topic will be getting people back into CBDs. This is really urgent. The ecosystem that exists around city office culture is so enormous and many people just don’t understand the huge damage that will be created if we don’t embrace our cities quickly and fully.

The final thing I know will be a hot topic in Australia in particular is local tourism. Dialling up the attraction of our own locales and attractions represents a huge opportunity. Some regions need a lot more investment in tourism-related places and activities. Place brand managers will need to double down on corporations and governments for ideas and investment.


Caio Esteves panel

Caio Esteves

Bloom Consulting

BrazilThe hot topic is the recovery from the pandemic and how we can prepare for the next events. The priority is to think of more adaptable, dynamic and anti-fragile places, and how place branding will be able to effectively strengthen and create effective development vectors.


Christopher Hire

Christopher Hire

2thinknow

Australia | Digital placemaking, digital twins, city innovation, geospatial, RFID, internet of buildings, rebuilding after COVID-19, how to safely integrate tourism into a perceived (risk) threat to encourage travel, raising the average spend of visitors by 30% or more (we think this is essential) to compensate for lower densities, and avoiding political risk in place branding are trends to look out for.

Finally but not least, increased professionalism and increased best practice in expanding opportunities for place branding and urban professionals to pull more place levers (and get more kudos) in their branding of places.


Ed Burghard panel

Ed Burghard

The Burghard Group

USA | Obviously, COVID-19 (and subsequent strains) safety will be a situation nation brand managers will need to address. If residents and tourists do not feel safe, economic recovery will be negatively impacted.

The other related issue will be the impact on rural/metro migration. Shifts in work situations impact infrastructure investment choices.


Efe Sevin

Researcher profile

USA | We are going to see a lot of “post-pandemic travel” discussions while scholars and established practitioners will keep yelling “let’s stop talking about destination marketing as branding” and “let’s stop sacrificing long-term goals for short-term gains”. Though I hope I am wrong.

I believe there are two important issues we should all be tackling:

  • First should be the role of cities in the international arena. We have seen cities engaging with each other – beyond their national borders. This city-to-city cooperation – or city diplomacy – should be considered part of a city’s brand.
  • Second, we should be cognizant of the smart city concept, which is lurking as the new fad following the creative class. If the place brand managers jump on this bandwagon without really considering its implications, we will have a lot of smart sidewalks with no pedestrians on them.

Gunter Soydanbay

Günter Soydanbay

Soydanbay Consulting / Speaker

Canada | Obviously, COVID-19 has been a game-changer. Last year, we saw some top tourist destinations manipulating their case numbers so that potential tourists would feel safe to travel. That’s less likely to happen this year. As far as tourism goes this year, all will depend on vaccination rates. I don’t expect tourists being swayed by travel sites. So, at the public policy level, communicating the efficiency of the health care system. For instance, as I write this, Israel already vaccinated 4% of its population, whereas Canada sits at 0.14%. I expect Israel’s tourism sector to recover much faster than that of Canada’s.

Another topic I advise you to keep an eye on are investments. COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on the global logistics system. For instance, under normal circumstances, a country like Turkey would have been much more lucrative to European investments. So, Eastern European countries have a stronger case now against China. Those countries could be more active in place branding.


Heather Skinner

Heather Skinner

Researcher profile

Greece |

  • Overcoming health & safety concerns – as places open or re-open for business when attempting to attract people to live, work, study, or visit a place through place brand message.
  • Digital engagement with stakeholders – actively ‘listening’ to messages about the place brand that are shared on social media; also utilising online and social media better.
  • The pandemic has given place brand managers time to pause to think about how they will move forward in 2021 and beyond. Hopefully moving away from year-on-year growth targets and accepting, at least concerning tourism, that focusing more on sufficiency may be a better way forward. Growing tourism businesses without necessarily growing tourist numbers.

Hjörtur Smárason

Hjörtur Smárason

Scope Communications / Speaker

DenmarkHow to reinvent your place branding strategies – while still being on-brand! I believe this will be the biggest challenge for place brand managers. How you change your focus and priorities while still staying on brand and reinforcing it.

The pandemic has shown how important politics and crisis management are for place branding and the importance of effective stakeholder management. It has also shown how important it is that politicians understand place branding and the impact their actions can have on the reputation and perception of a place and hence the economy in whole.


Jeannette Hanna panel

Jeannette Hanna

Trajectory Brand Consultants / Speaker profile

Canada | Obviously, rebuilding post-COVID will be key locally, regionally and nationally. This will require more imaginative partnerships and shared purpose. Supporting local commerce will be vital.

Malcolm Allan has been championing the significance of climate-smart strategies for places and I agree that this is a “must-have” in the coming year. This will take many forms – from responsible tourism to green placemaking.


Joao Freire

Joao Freire

Researcher profile

PortugalI think it’s going to depend on the place we’re talking about. I think some places have become too reliant on tourism and are now paying the price. The challenge for those places is the diversification of their economies. But also for those places, the emphasis will certainly be on the short term.

The tourism economy has crashed, so the pressure will be to create short-term conditions to bring back tourists. I fear that organisations will panic and that there will be a lot of short-term tactics. There will be a lot of emphasis on advertising. One of the key issues is that there is likely going to be no medium- and long planning and thinking. Institutions will be looking for a quick solution to their problems.


Malcolm Allan

Malcolm Allan

Bloom Consulting

UK | Regarding hot topics for place branders, I believe that mitigating the continued effects of COVID-19 and its mutations will continue to concern places and therefore, place branders.

And, as you might expect, I believe that places will come under more pressure from citizens and businesses to mitigate the effects of climate change, especially in terms of tourism and healthy places to live. Hence, again, these will be topics that place and destination branders will need to continue (or begin to) address.


Martin Boisen panel

Martin Boisen

For the love of place / Researcher profile

The NetherlandsI hope that we will regain attention on issues like degrowth and sustainability in the broadest sense of the word. With that, I gather that ‘balance’ is yet again going to be a keyword: balancing out the various components of our places to create positive impacts back and forth, instead of letting one sector or industry gain too much influence over how our places are managed and developed.

The priorities of place brand managers will hopefully return to managing the reputation of their places, chiefly by influencing the behaviour of the place, its citizens, its businesses, its leaders and its other stakeholders. In that sense, I hope it will be less about ‘trends’ and more about a sustained professionalisation of the discipline. To me, it seems more necessary than ever.


Natasha Grand

Natasha Grand

INSTID / Speaker

UK | Place brand managers would have to prove their enduring value and necessity in the face of more immediate governmental concerns with the population’s health and safety. They could do so by rising above tourism (their rightly or wrongly perceived speciality) and helping governments at a more strategic level, reminding them of the core values that hold their nations and societies together.

Also, during times of forced idleness or furlough, many people started small businesses using their hobbies or traditional skills. It would be interesting to see if place branders could harness, guide and support this new creativity to produce new cultural artefacts and lifestyle products characteristic of their place. These would reinforce place identity and provide ready souvenirs for the future.

The overall challenge for this year, however, is to make places come to people, instead of people coming to places as before. Place brand managers could find creative ways to bring their places into people’s homes around the world, through online learning, entertainment, local produce, and being part of larger global conversations.


Robert Govers panel

Robert Govers

Independent advisor / Speaker / Researcher

BelgiumUnderstandably, pushed by economic forces, I am afraid that it will all be about short-term promotional campaigns to bring back business, instead of using the current crisis to seriously rethink strategic directions.

We are currently resetting globalisation with travel halted, value chains disrupted, money flows redirected and technology reinvented. Now is the time for communities to contemplate how they want to tap back into the global system when they emerge from this crisis. It’s a question of identity, purpose and positioning. What are our values? What is our “brand”? This is not about wasting money on vanity projects like logos or slogans. I’m sure that we can all now agree that such frivolities are down the list of priorities for government budgeting.

This is about soul searching, finding belonging, virtue, leadership, community collaboration, and maverick, unorthodox ideas that serve a larger purpose for the community and its standing in the world; staying true to one’s values.

I sincerely hope that place brand managers, their stakeholders and political masters pursue such a strategic approach, defying the enormous pressure that they will be under to come up with quick fixes to address current challenges. One does not exclude the other, but I think the strategy should come first.


Sebastian Zenker panel

Sebastian Zenker

Researcher profile

Denmark | Of course, the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. While many place managers mentioned in the beginning of the pandemic that this might also be a chance to re-calibrate and re-start initiatives (e.g., work against over-tourism), I am pessimistic here.

Currently, it sounds more like: how do we get back to the old normal – instead of “how should tourism look like for us and how to get there?”


Todd Babiak, place branding panel

Todd Babiak

Speaker profile

Australia | This is just my instinct but I feel like there is a fresh opportunity to attract talent. We’ll be going after entrepreneurs and skilled people who might want to live in a safe, beautiful place with a supportive culture of artisanal enterprise. A grim year like 2020 might inspire people to take risks about the rest of their careers and lives.


Tom Buncle

Tom Buncle

Yellow Railroad Consulting / Speaker profile

UK |

Hopefully:

  • Sustainable tourism will receive more attention and, consequently, become an expectation than an exception.
  • Millennials will drive demand for greater sustainable behaviour in the destinations they choose and the operators they decide to travel with.
  • ‘Slow travel’ will grow, where people spend more time in one place, thereby delivering greater economic benefit to the destination.
  • ‘Instagram-snacking’, where people float across the surface of destinations, remembering them only through the camera lens will decline as destinations structure their offer and experiences to encourage longer dwell-time and greater engagement with the place.
  • Destination management – to minimise overtourism – will become more important than marketing for many popular destinations.
  • NTOs and DMOs will need to focus on redressing the balance between the interests of visitors, tourism businesses, the host community and the environment. Communities will have more say in what type of tourism they want, and NTOs and DMOs will have to listen.
  • Tourism will become much more controversial. Having been the poor economic relation in national and local government policy-making for decades, tourism will become both loved for its economic recovery potential and despised for its destructive impact on the natural and built environment and community cohesion. NTOs, and DMOs in particular, will have to navigate this dilemma. This will require new and different skills – in destination management, not just marketing.
  • People will take fewer international short breaks and ‘staycations’ will grow.

Realistically:

  • Maybe this is more wishful thinking than likely. Maybe the hoped for trend towards more responsible travel will gain only a limited amount of traction – amongst millennials, where more demanding and socially conscious consumers tend to be concentrated.
  • Memories are short and all the worthy words that were written and spoken during the pandemic about responsible, slower, and more community-focused travel may fly out of the moral window when the opportunity to travel resurfaces.
  • Maybe, sadly, the store of pent-up demand will mean a headlong rush back to the way things were, as people lust just to ‘getaway’.
  • Destinations, airlines, hotels, and tour operators may be only too delighted to have any type of tourism, as long as it’s bringing money in to keep them afloat, to concern themselves with responsible and sustainable tourism.
  • Prices may be considerably higher, as a result of there being enormous pent-up demand that has to be satisfied by a smaller supply capacity. With many businesses having collapsed, including airlines, the dice will be loaded in favour of suppliers, rather than consumers.

Consequently:

  • The drive to make the world a better place, in terms of more responsible, sustainable, and community-beneficial tourism, has to come predominantly from two angles:
    – Consumers, who demand sustainable destinations and expect responsible operators to ask questions like “Does the water in my hotel swimming pool take drinking water away from local people? Do you buy your vegetables locally? Do you employ/train local people in your business?”
    – Local and national governments, and NTOs and DMOs, who prioritise the development of infrastructure, visitor products and experiences which will attract the type of visitors they want, who will be most valuable to, and valued by the local community – not just in terms of revenue, but, importantly, in terms of their sustainable behaviour in the destination. As well as this positive development and marketing focus, destinations will have to bite the bullet in managing their destinations. This may mean imposing visitor quotas, restricted access, limited opening times, advance booking, et al.
  • New funding mechanisms will be needed, not least because the pandemic-induced recession will result in a considerably lower tax take. Local and national governments will have other, pressing social and community imperatives, which will mean less public funding available for tourism than ever. Expect to see vigorous debates about tourism taxes, visa charges, licensing, and access charges for operators.

Andrea Lucarelli

SwedenIn terms of tourism, with all the restrictions due to the pandemic, it is an opportunity to promote local and national branding activities. At the same time, given the lesser possibility to travel, branding activities should become more digital, using many cues, especially ocular and sound-based. All this to ‘keep in touch’ with visitors and tourists.

On the other hand, given the economic difficulties, I can envision a sort of ‘sober’ year. There will be less economic, political and social incentives to engage in any new activities. It might be a good year to make an inventory of all different campaigns, projects, events, etc. With the final aim to plan more strategically for the future.


Bill Geist

USAEvery marketing message will move to one of safety. But, that’s where place brands that are already believable will shine through because everyone will be saying they are safe, which will create significant messaging chaos.


Cecilia Cassinger

SwedenI hope that the discussions will concern how places can be made more sustainable and resilient beyond growth measures. Unfortunately, I think that the place branding agenda will be dominated by how tourist destinations can recover and grow when people start travelling in a post-COVID-19 world.


Eduardo Oliveira

GermanyPriority: Improving the socio-spatial and spatial-economic conditions of regions lagging-behind in a post-pandemic context.

One of the challenges for place brand managers will be balancing between development priorities and place branding goals in a post-pandemic context, particularly in the spatial context of lagging-behind regions. Lagging regions are those European Union (EU) regions whose level of development is significantly lower than the EU average. Examples are Northern Portugal, Extremadura in Spain or Puglia in Italy, among others. It is important to underline that persistent poverty, economic decay and lack of opportunities, are the cornerstone of discontent in declining and lagging-behind regions. Lagging regions and their local communities, however, still matter to secure cohesive regional development patterns.

In my view, there will be an increase in travel for tourism or work purposes in a post-pandemic environment. Balancing strategies intended to attract and retain people and capital with other priorities targeting the socio-economic conditions of lagging-behind regions will remain. Lagging regions suffer deeply with the economic stagnation resulting from quarantines and travel restrictions. They are, therefore, at the front line to receive economic recovery schemes. Yet, a question remains – will they be prioritised by governments?

I hypothesize that if we understand better the different socio-economic development paths within local communities as well as their distinctive tangible and intangible amenities or assets, then we will be better prepared to design frameworks helping lagging regions, as a whole, to become more socially inclusive and economically prosperous regions. I hypothesize also, that place branding strategies at the community level can leverage place-based qualities to overcome current economic, social and political constraints of lagging regions in a post-pandemic context.


Erling Fossen

NorwayThe COVID-19 situation will transform our cities as the crisis before has. The cholera outbreak created parks and green lungs in the city. COVID-19 will create more decentralized cities where you can fulfil all your life’s desire within a walking or biking distance of 15-minutes. It can be bad news for both mass transport and mass tourism, time will tell, but definitely good news for the neighbourhoods.


Gary Warnaby

UK | In 2020 and continuing into 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global hiatus, which has been manifested in so many ways. The implications for places are very real. Those places dependent on tourism have obviously been hit hard by travel restrictions imposed by governments, and more generally, changes in working and social patterns have had a massive impact, which will continue to be felt in the long term.

How places respond to this – both in the immediate term and on an ongoing basis to create and maintain their resilience – will be critical to their continued success in 2021 and beyond. For tourism destinations, convincing people that it is safe to return will be paramount, and marketing/branding will play an important part in this.

However, for all places, the events of the last year –  not least, the need for people to remain ‘local’ in light of restrictions on movement – give those responsible for the governance of places an opportunity to (re)connect with those that live there to develop a stronger sense of community and belonging.


Gustavo Koniszczer

Argentina | Safety, security, care for health will be key, as pandemic will continue or worsen.


Hila Oren

IsraelThese days, I speak about the concept of PPS – Pocket Public Space, meaning that everything now goes outdoor. We are already seeing the beginning, with three things that are happening outside: street furniture, playgrounds, and gyms.

I foresee that, very soon, there will also be outdoor classrooms, offices, salons, and social gatherings. Learning and work will take place outdoors; tomorrow’s WeWork will be outdoors. That entails urban space to be functional rather than just for leisure as it has been so far.

The priorities for place brand managers would therefore be to emphasise how the place is making itself accessible and accommodating to adapt outdoor activities of all sorts.


Hong Fan

China |

  1. The influence of COVID-19 on the branding of places and tourist destinations
  2. Place branding through digital technology
  3. Place branding through community building
  4. Place branding with the construction of a public health system

Jaume Marín

SpainHow the climate emergency is going to affect branding in destinations.


Jonathan McClory

UK | Government competence, safety, and efficacy of public health systems. People would want to feel safe when travelling.


Jordi de San Eugenio Vela

Spain | Obviously, one of the hot topics of this new year will be the management of the effects of COVID-19 on places. In this sense, the place branding strategy will develop an important role to recover the trust to travel, to discover new places and to develop new strategies to reinforce the economic development of places. In my opinion, trust generation will be the most common topic of this new year.


José Pablo Arango

Colombia | To regain confidence, increase the visibility of places, reorganize some priorities of the offer and return to ‘normalcy’.


Marta Hereźniak

PolandSustainability, community, locality, building resilience and post-COVID-19 recovery strategies, managing place brands against fake news, deep fakes etc. (especially in public diplomacy).


Oliver Zöllner

GermanyReviving/restarting tourism, convincing travellers of the safety of a particular place/country, stressing hospitality and convincing foreign travellers of being welcome (again).


Stella Kladou

TurkeyThe priority for place brand managers will be regaining the trust of internal and external actors. Gradually, everyday life and the economy are likely to start resuming from the pause brought by the pandemic. As this happens, place brand strategies will reveal the work towards sustainable place development which place brand managers (hopefully!) started planning and implementing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The importance of both the ‘country-of-origin-effect’ and co-creation in place branding are deemed to regain their meaning as those sectors mostly struck by the pandemic will try to get back on track.

After spending much time isolated and on screens, many will probably be in search of travel experiences and human contact but a different manner. Safety is likely to still be a major issue, so travellers are more likely to avoid crowded areas and prefer reassuring country brands. Smart technologies will dominate subsequent travel and hospitality trends and actions. Such technologies will help manage destinations and crowds and enhance the long-sought travel experience.

In my view, however, one of the ‘hottest’ topics will be exploring the effect that the pandemic has had on local cultures and the identity-based approach to place branding; how will relevant institutions emerge, maintain and decay after all?

A challenging new chapter is about to start for place branding and place managers.


Previous questions answered by the panel here.

You’d like to ask the panel a question? Get in touch!


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Stay up to date on latest place brand insights, strategies, stories and examples: join our mailing list! You'll receive an email summary of highlights every month. Benefit from more frequent updates by following us now on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter!