Interview with Stella Kladou on How Culture Impacts City Branding

Stella Kladou, Assistant Professor at Boğaziçi University, in this interview discusses – among other topics – the role of culture in city branding, destination marketing trends and the current practice of place branding in Turkey.

Stella, what do you understand as the “brand” of places, and what is place branding all about, in your view?

In my view, people and culture represent the core of the place brand, although the ‘brand’ of places represents everything the place has ever been about, and everything the place currently embraces. Place branding views these from a strategic point of view and bridges the past with the present and stands as the ‘joint vision’ of where the place and place actors want to see themselves in the future.

Place branding takes our understanding of the place beyond efforts to ‘sell’ the city, region or country. Its primary interest is internal audiences. Place branding builds on the premise that once the place brand is strong and its development cherished internally, then external audiences will equally appreciate it.

What (or who) led you to the topic of country- and destination branding – how did you get interested?

I grew up in Crete, and very vividly remember my first personal interaction with tourists at the age of 5… Growing up in Crete and Greece meant growing up hand in hand with tourism. But, even back then so many things felt ‘wrong’.

When I was working on my master thesis, my supervisor Prof. Siomkos guided me through my first research on tourism, which initiated my interest in research and places. That project focused on more ‘rewarding’ forms of tourism than the cultural element I originally had in mind. Yet, working on it made me want to bridge my concerns as a local raised in a popular tourism destination, with the capabilities I started developing as a researcher and what I kept reading about culture and country branding – even if these were not relevant to my thesis.

Dr. Kavaratzis’ first steps and works were an inspiration for me. It took me 5 years to more clearly put things together, but, luckily, my later PhD supervisor Dr. Kehagias was more than supportive of the cross-country doctoral project I developed and turned city and place branding into my passion.

What role does culture play in place branding – in terms of issues and potential pitfalls?

Simon Anholt’s nation brand hexagon was one of the first works I came across when I started working on place branding, and still remains up-to-date. Seeing ‘culture and heritage’ as a separate dimension in Anholt’s hexagon appeared promising, especially at a time when practitioners and scholars around me seemed to believe that culture holds a minor role and we should focus on aspects that are more rewarding in monetary terms – as they put it.

The way I see it, the dimension of culture is crucial for each nation, country and place, especially if the place brand wants to be sustainable.

Culture exists within the other hexagon dimensions, which makes its role more complex but also more important. Misinterpreting or underestimating its role could jeopardise a country’s potential to build and maintain a strong brand across all dimensions (people, tourism, exports, governance, investment and immigration).

Another major challenge when it comes to culture is that it is not static but evolves together with the place and its people. Place brand professionals thus need to be in a position to see beyond the culture and heritage of the past (or today) and manage the dynamic nature of culture.

Because the interpretation of culture can also be very subjective, managing culture in place branding requires in-depth involvement with – and understanding of – the place culture and all involved parties, which calls for branding professionals’ objective judgement.

Which trends do you see in the area of culture tourism, as relevant to place branding professionals?

Most – if not all – cultural tourism trends are relevant to place branding professionals. The ATLAS Cultural Tourism Project, Greg Richards and several place branding professionals have been trying to raise awareness for several of them, but let me refer to those that I see as more crucial and urgent:

  • First and foremost, it seems that, at least in some places, we have started realizing the need to move away from mass cultural tourism. Mass cultural tourism has led to significant overcrowding, and complaints against overtourism and has, quite often, jeopardised cultural authenticity, sustainable urban planning and the social structure on the altar of touristification.
  • In the past, investing in cultural tourism has often been seen as an opportunity to use the old recipe of ‘bread and games’, to cover up a city’s problems. This meant not really trying to understand and address issues associated with everyday life in a city. Yet, travelers nowadays do not wish to see themselves as tourists. They tend to want to ‘live like the locals’, which means that intangible heritage and the holistic experience with the place (and not only a heritage site/landmark or festival etc) become central.
  • Cultural identity and developing tourism following the identity-based approach to place branding gains importance in some places, in an effort to boost co-creation among tourists and locals, and tourists’ memorable experiences.
  • Discussions over discrimination, inclusion and the protection of the characteristics and identity of indigenous/ minority cultures when referring to developing cultural tourism come to the foreground.

Such developments push tourism and place branding professionals to seek to integrate locals and more bottom-up stakeholder groups in their planning and management strategies. They also give the chance to place branding professionals to put forward solutions and infrastructural changes that will minimize damage to nature and threats to culture and heritage, and provides them with solid arguments against stakeholders still considering (cultural) tourism and (sustainable) development lying at opposite ends in their agenda.

Sustainability is becoming more and more important for urban and regional planning policies and strategies. How can place branding serve as a tool for the sustainable development of destinations?

In many places, destination practitioners still tend to focus on numbers and figures and have a more narrow-sided approach to the place. Since, in most cases, decision-makers and institutions are affiliated to elected governments and municipal authorities, they tend to prioritize short-term results over longer-term strategies.

Destination practitioners often overlook the fact that tourism is only one element of the place brand and that if the place brand is not going to be built on sustainable cornerstones, then tourism will also suffer in the mid- or long-term.

Luckily, city/regional/country branding is becoming more popular among these circles, whereas the impact of overtourism has also shaken them up to a certain extent. Still, there is much room for improvement.

Place branding asks practitioners to develop long-term strategies, embracing many different stakeholder groups. Practitioners need to comprehend the place, its past and history, current dynamics but also the local/national/worldwide trends influencing it.

In search of a lasting competitive advantage, destination management has to benefit from the examples exhibiting how urban/ regional planning embraces sustainability. This means, by definition, getting to know and respecting the place’s socio-cultural structure, recognizing the pillars upon which the (tourism) economy can sustainably develop and boost destination development without compromising the environment.

Which topics are you currently focusing on in your research, and which areas would you consider in need of further investigation?

I recently was granted university funding to work on a project exploring institutional theory in the identity-based approach to place branding (as Dr. Kavaratzis has developed it in a number of his personal and collaborative works). The project evolves around specifically the gastro-cultural identity of the place brand in a first attempt to explaining how culture as institutions (1) maintains, deinstitutionalizes and/ or reinstitutionalizes in order to hold across places and (2) influences co-creation in gastro-cultural place branding.

The conceptual model is to be tested and verified across different places, and seeks to provide insights to culture and place branding professionals in both developing and developed countries.

With my students I have also been working on place branding topics that can feed into scholarly research and practioners’ projects. These projects relate to different forms of tourism (e.g. dark tourism/wine tourism), but some of the emerging issues hold across those different tourism types: for example, the role of minorities/local groups and how authorities hesitate to embrace ‘differences from the national norm’. Further research in such areas will help place branding professionals comprehend how to develop and manage place brands that respect the need for inclusive culture.

Other group research projects that I am at the moment involved in have emerged from current topics relevant to place branding: One has been inspired by the recent Prespa agreement and refers to a multi-disciplinary project on the brand of North Macedonia. Another one seeks to assess sustainability issues and place branding in relation to the developing trend of P2P accommodation (such as Airbnb).

I believe that there are so many place branding topics and issues calling for our attention, that the difficulty lies in choosing and prioritising which research project to focus on. Following trends and foreseeing developments within one’s area of interest and expertise is the best way to maximise one’s contribution in the field.

With tourist numbers constantly growing, which would you say is the biggest challenge that destination managers and marketers are going to encounter in the next years?

Corporate marketing departments tend to include sustainability objectives in their marketing strategy plans, whereas sales departments keep raising their sales expectations compared to previous years. The same paradox exists in destination management and marketing: many DMOs try to attract increasingly more tourists, despite this situation pushing the limits of both the destination and its resources.

There are various examples of destinations that try to discourage  or manage visitor numbers following different practices, such as:

  • regulations (for instance, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador have established regulations over arrival limits),
  • reservations/ ticketing or specific taxes and fees/ real-time data in order to create an extra hustle, counterincentive (e.g. during rush hours/high season)
  • nudging visitors away from overcrowded areas toward others,
  • efforts to promote alternative attractions and extend touristic seasons etc.

This implies that alternatives exist, and each destination can develop or choose among the most suitable ones.

The challenge is to shield the destination while also protecting people’s right to travel; to protect the environment and pursue environmental sustainability when travelling by air is becoming more accessible and popular; to guard the place’s cultural identity and heritage despite intensive co-creation with visitors.

It is high time for destination managers to learn how to say ‘no’. Instead of trying to accommodate all tourists, destinations need to develop their strategies based upon sustainable plans. Destinations need to reach the maturity point that comes with the realization that what makes a successful destination is not the constantly growing number of tourists.

Five tips for place branding students, how to find a job in “place branding” – how to best prepare for a career (practitioner or academic)?

– Stay tuned with developments by reading, studying, discussing, questioning. Work on building a multi-disciplinary background: Place branding is relevant to a number of disciplines, success lies at seeing and working on the connections among them.

– Work on your research and interpersonal skills. Place branding embraces many audiences, stakeholders and disciplines. As such, you are going to be in a better position finding a job or making a contribution if you can contribute in different ways and leave aside any prejudice in order to be able to effectively discuss with different stakeholders.

– Dedicate time to in-depth explore different places, cultures, languages. This hands-on experience will help you discover your own good/bad practices and areas to contribute.

– Consider volunteering or finding a relevant internship or part-time job during your studies. This will help you network but also build skills useful down the way.

– Internalise the place you are working on/with but at the same time disengage yourself from it: To contribute to any given place’s long-term planning, you need to be in a position to evaluate the place as being in each stakeholder group’s shoes, and evaluate reality and projects from that point of view. At the same time, however, you need to be objective and proceed to rational, sustainable solutions for the place in the long run, accepting that this will probably leave some stakeholder groups disappointed.

Your thoughts on the current state of place branding practice in Turkey – e.g. which cities or destinations have been especially innovative in how they strengthen community identity and promote themselves to their target audiences?

It is difficult to comment on place branding practices in Turkey for a number of reasons. Place branding is still in its infancy in the country and only a few actual place branding professionals are invited in respective projects.

Some good practices exist, yet usually at a more local level: most destination/urban/regional branding plans are not built on a longer-term and inclusive basis in order to make it possible to evaluate them according to place branding standards.

One example of a larger scale practice worth to mention refers to the city of Eskisehir; it has not been investigated in the literature as thoroughly but it appears to have many similarities in its development with the more popular case of Bilbao, in Spain: In Eskisehir, the municipality worked with a broad coalition of civil society, academics, industry representatives, the chamber of commerce and sought to re-design the city for its people, thereby prioritizing internal rather than external audiences.

As a result of these efforts, the city can now exhibit infrastructure inspired by successful cities and destinations abroad, and, unlike many Turkish cities, is accessible to people with special mobility needs, the elderly and families. Changes have made the city more attractive for students, tourists and the creative class. Most importantly, community identity was strengthened, and Eskisehir residents started changing their mindset and being proud of their place of residence: from a city in the middle of nowhere, Eskisehir has become a place where people want to go, study, move in.

What differentiates Eskisehir from other projects is that the priority were internal audiences and boosting the quality of life for the local community; changes were planned primarily to serve local, internal stakeholders but their success also attracted tourists. What remains to be seen is how this success will now extend beyond the city center, in order to improve quality of life at the outskirts of the city and in order to care for management of the city center – as numbers continue to grow. Hopefully its planning will continue building upon sustainable priorities and set the example for other cities as well.

Thank you, Stella.

Connect with Stella Kladou on LinkedIn or find out more about her research here or on Orcid.


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