Stuart Speirs on the Power of Events and Place Branding in Australia

Are live events just platforms for a brief exchange of ideas or entertainment? Or do they have the potential to influence the branding strategy of a city?

In this interview, Stuart Speirs – the Director of Silver Lining Strategysheds light on the immense impact the event industry can have on a place, quoting examples of successful events from Sydney. He explains how events can help develop a distinguishing identity that resonates with residents and visitors.

Stuart also talks about the evolution of destination marketing over the years and lauds the place branding efforts of Brand Tasmania in managing to share the authenticity of the island state to capture the attention of potential residents, like him.

Stu, with a background in marketing intelligence and strategy development, what led you to your current passion: place branding and event strategy?

Back in 2009 whilst I was at Events New South Wales in Sydney I was lucky enough to be part of the team that got Vivid Sydney started, now the city’s largest annual event. My role was to look after the research program and part of that involved some vox pops style interviews with Sydneysiders as they went about enjoying the festival.

The responses we heard during those interviews uncovered a deep sense of pride in the city by those that attended the event. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the event was a prime example of place branding at its best. It was created and staged in a way that went to the heart of what it meant to be a Sydneysider. It tapped into what Sydneysiders love about their city, and by extension, themselves as individuals.

As the curator and MC of Place Branding Australia, how is place branding as a holistic concept evolving in Australia?

I suppose like a lot of places around the world, it is evolving to be understood beyond what the word “brand” would ordinarily lead us to believe it is about. As a nation and group of states, tourism has always been a big part of our economy and national psyche.

The importance of tourism to us as a nation firmly entrenches a set of classic “destination marketing” principles into the way we initially approach place branding. I think that’s changing though.

Place branding is less and less about appealing to a target market and telling them why a place is good for them, and more and more about a place telling the world who it authentically is, and then letting the potential visitor, resident or business decide for themselves whether it feels like their place.

The shining example of that in Australia at the moment is Brand Tasmania and the work they are doing. Their willingness to own a space that might be seen as a risky proposition in classic destination marketing terms (Tagline: The quiet pursuit of the extraordinary) is truly impressive. They’re a shining light in the Australian world of place branding.

Which cities, regions or states in Australia would you consider good examples to follow, for their approach to place branding?

Tasmania! Brand Tasmania and what they’re doing is remarkable. Personally, the work they’re doing has been part of the reason I’ve invested in the state myself (I live in Melbourne). In listening to the Brand Tasmania podcast, it strikes a chord with me to the point that I know I will live there at some point in my life.

When that is I’m not sure, but as a place, it aligns with me as a person so deeply that it’d be self-defeating not to live and work there at some point. So, in that sense, their work has done its job on me at an individual level!

I’m also a big admirer of what Ballarat in regional Victoria has been doing in recent years. Queenstown in Tasmania is another remarkable story. I think it is on track to turn out as an example that will be held up globally as to how a town can authentically re-invent itself after the decline of a primary industry that underpinned its previous prosperity.

Which challenges do you observe with regard to place brand management in Australia and Oceania?

The key challenge is finding leadership within the government that can take a long term view on things. True place branding takes time to take effect, and that time isn’t something a modern-day world affords us.

The news cycle and election cycles (3 years at a federal and state level, as short as 2 years at a local government level) are simply incompatible with the time frames required for powerful place branding to be done. What this does bring into focus though is the importance of growing something from the community, grassroots level, upward.

Doing it with authenticity from the ground up means that by the time elections come around, the candidates will have to be on board with well branded, united places.

A sense of unity around a vision for a place and an accompanying set of values inherent within a community are pretty hard things to ignore as an aspiring political candidate.

How important are events as part of a place brand strategy?

I think they have the potential to be the most powerful place branding vehicle a place can have. In a world awash with marketing and advertising that tells us what something, someone or somewhere is about, events show us what a place is about.

For me, that is far more powerful as a storytelling vehicle than classic above the line marketing. Events like The Unconformity in Queenstown, Vivid Sydney in Sydney, or even something on a national scale like France’s Fete de la Musique go to the heart of what these places and their people are proud of.

As such, they’re a true insight into a place’s collective identity and the values they hold dear. What could be more powerful a manifestation of a place brand than that?!

As the Director of your boutique consultancy, Silver Lining Strategy, which trends do you witness in connection with event strategy and/or place branding?

I think there’s a more sustainable version of tourism and visitation on the horizon and events can play a critical role in helping us work towards that horizon. I see that future as one that invites people to experience a place, as opposed to consuming a place.

I’m keen on the idea here in Australia of recurring annual events in our country’s towns and cities acting as a contemporary Welcome to Country. In Australia, our indigenous population has been practising a Welcome to Country ceremony for tens of thousands of years. At its heart, that ceremony is an acknowledgement and welcoming of the outsider.

It’s about recognising them, letting them know what our values are, and welcoming them into our place on the premise that they understand what it is that we hold dear. By framing our travel like that, it takes it out of the “consumer” mindset where visitors arrive, consume, and leave, and takes it into a more respectful setting where visitors arrive with a sense of respect and willingness to understand an “other”.

I encourage my clients to execute their recurring, place-based events with that philosophy in mind in the hope that they build a deeper connection with those that come to their place for those events.

The pandemic has brought much hardship to event organizers and tourism – two of your key business areas. Apart from the economic challenges, has anything positive come out of it?

Time to reflect and think about our path forward. Whilst it will take time for things to change, I think there’s a shift away from economic impact being the one and only metric upon which an event’s success is judged.

For so long now, the number of visitors and overnight visitor expenditure an event would drive was just about the only metric governments would pay any attention to when investing in events.

The pandemic, and before that bushfires here in Australia highlighted the importance of community, civic pride and collective identity for a place. That has brought those social equities focused outcomes to the fore, and they are being prioritized more and more by the powers that be.

Thank you, Stu.

Connect with Stuart Speirs on LinkedIn or visit Silver Lining Strategy.

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