My Reflections on the 4th International Place Branding Conference in Greece, November 2019

Last week around 125 researchers and pracademics from around the world came together in the seaside city of Volos in Greece to present and discuss latest research on the branding, marketing and development of places – cities, regions, neighborhoods, countries and destinations.

The conference was organized by the International Place Branding Association together with the local host, University of Thessaly (kudos to Professor Alex Deffner and his team for making it happen).

Participating in the conference was an intriguing experience for me, as I am more used to attending practitioner-focused get togethers, such as City Nation Place in London a few weeks ago, or the Nordic Place Branding Conference (next one in Oslo, Norway, 2 April 2020). Those are very different in content and style.

What impressed me the most, perhaps, is what a nice bunch of people place branding researchers are – very approachable and such a friendly vibe during those three days. This of course I knew before – having met and communicated with many of the presenters for our series of interviews over the last years. Still, from other conferences I know that by no means we should take this for granted.

The two themes at the conference which intrigued me the most: reputational security and sustainability.

Reputational security through place branding and public diplomacy

Nick Cull in his opening keynote discussed place branding and public diplomacy through the lens of reputational security.

Essentially, when it comes to country reputation, being “good” is better than being “rich” or “strong”. Rather than boasting about how great they are (and thus perhaps limiting the ability or willingness of others to collaborate), countries should focus on how they can be of value to the wider global community. Place branding in this sense can both act as facilitator and as a barrier to achieving reputational security.

Issues of human rights and culture are gaining importance, and cooperation will be the virtue needed to navigate a world now entering a more turbulent and dangerous phase, where disinformation needs to be contested and victim narratives countered.

Like Simon Anholt, Nick calls for governments, public diplomacy and country branding teams to focus on how they envision the future, especially their role within the Welt-Schicksalsgemeinschaft, our “global community of fate”, as the late Ulrich Beck called it.

Overcity - painting by Magdalena Florek
“Overcity” – painting by Magdalena Florek

Place branding and sustainability

Questions about sustainability – environmental, social or economic – appeared in many presentations. They were present in Roberto Vegnutti’s keynote on the tourism development of Cinque Terre region in Italy and played a role in Thomas Doxiadis’ practitioner reflections on branding landscapes.

Within the context of sustainability, social dimensions are becoming more important, and increased efforts to engage with (and thereby ensure the happiness of) residents and other local stakeholders in place branding are a sign of it.

The growing importance of social aspects of sustainability is also something we observe over at the Sustainability Leaders Project, where we share the stories, hopes and achievements of world’s leading sustainable tourism entrepreneurs, thinkers and change-makers.

The key questions we need to address:

  • How can place branding serve as a tool for sustainable regional or urban development?
  • How can we align place branding KPIs and strategies with the UN Sustainable Development Goals?
  • What would “sustainable place branding” entail?

Those very questions were at the core of various presentations at the conference, including that of Cecilia Cassinger of Lund University in Sweden (we’ll publish our interview with her shortly), Viriya Taecharungroj’s research on sustainability as place brand position in urban Thailand, and also reflected in Magdalena Florek‘s painting “Overcity” – part of the art gallery, which I found a great addition to the more traditional lecture-style presentations.

And the 2020 conference will be in…. Barcelona!

Hosted by José Fernandez-Cavia and his team at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, next year’s get together of place brand researchers will take place early December. This is great news, since the Communications Department at UPF has established itself among the leading research hubs looking at the links between place branding, tourism and strategic communications.

Barcelona as city, and Catalonia as region and nation, are of course also fascinating place branding and public diplomacy cases. Hopefully we’ll get to hear from the respective brand managers and reputation guardians how they do it.

This much for now. We will publish a  second post shortly on key takeaways in the eyes of TPBO interviewees who attended the conference. In the meantime, I invite you to keep an eye on our research insights section and our conference overview page.

By the way, have you seen Efe Sevin’s and Magdalena Florek’s guide to teaching place branding at university?

You’ve done fascinating research on a topic which you think place brand professionals should know about? Tell me about it – get in touch!

Featured image: André Lins

Florian Kaefer
Florian Kaefer
Dr. Florian Kaefer is a strategic place branding and sustainable tourism expert, publisher, and speaker with over a decade of experience connecting with and learning from over 500 leading professionals worldwide. He is the founder of both The Place Brand Observer and Sustainability Leaders United. Through his knowledge platforms, coaching, and advising, he helps organizations, destinations, and locations excel in these fields and become recognized as leaders in sustainability and place branding. Book Florian as a speaker for your event.
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