How to Teach Place Branding at University

This past semester, I finally had my own course on place branding! In this post, I want to share my experiences in pitching, designing, and delivering the course. I know I am neither the first nor the only one to teach/take a course on place branding. So, please do share your own experiences and/or expectations. If commenting is not your cup of tea, you can always reach me via e-mail or find me on Twitter.

Pitching a new course or responding to “but we already have a course on branding” arguments

I currently teach at a Public Relations department. We take pride in our innovative approach to public relations. Instead of having an event management and media relations focus, we encourage our students to gain expertise in new areas of practice, such as civil society PR and political communication. When I pitched the idea for a place branding course, my department was quite happy. Actually, we even made my course a requirement for our Political Communication minor.

The challenging part was to pitch the unique aspects at the School level that houses an advertising department and at the University level with a marketing department. Both departments offer a variety of branding and brand management-related courses. I have shared my ‘problems’ about positioning place branding as a distinct academic field in one of my earlier posts. Even though place branding is not a field by itself, our approach to branding is at best comparable to corporate branding or service marketing.

My most compelling argument for the need of a specific course on place branding was industry-related. I managed to argue that it will give our students a competitive advantage in the job market as more PR and Advertising agencies start to bid on place branding contracts. It worked!

Designing a course on Place Branding (wait, I am supposed to discuss what I have done in the last 10 years in 15 weeks?)

I managed to convince the University that we needed ‘a’ course on place branding. Even though I would like to offer at least three courses focusing on different aspects, expecting anything beyond a single course was unreasonable in the beginning. I was left with fifteen weeks of lecture time and a vast amount of literature. My initial reaction was to leave certain subjects out – such as measurement and brand equity – and to focus solely on communication strategy.

However, I soon realized that it was impossible to introduce place branding in bits and pieces. The introductory course had to include each and every aspect of the practice.

As the course was offered in a school of communication, I followed a strategic communication approach. I divided the course into four parts:

  • Situational Analysis and Problem Statement
  • Setting the Vision and Mission
  • Objectives
  • Strategies and Tactics

If you are interested, you can access my syllabus via this link.

Delivering a course on Place Branding: what is a place? A city? A brand? Branding?

Brand and branding are abstract concepts. Apart from the visual identity elements, there is nothing concrete about brands. Place branding, very inconveniently, lays another layer of ‘abstractness’ onto the already convoluted concept: place. I would say the most important lesson I learned from my first semester of teaching place branding is the importance of ‘place.’ Students do not necessarily have a grasp on how cities come to being, how we – individuals/residents – move from spaces to places.

Don’t get me wrong; most of the students know history and current situation of their cities very well. Yet, they do not necessarily appreciate how social forces were responsible in shaping the social and physical landscape of cities (In this sentence, “social forces” is just a fancy way of saying residents).

Keith Dinnie’s Nation Branding book was a life-saver. I supported the book with two key readings (Anholt’s 1998 article as well as Lucarelli and Berg’s 2011 meta literature review). I also included an article I wrote for non-course related reasons (basically, I wanted the students to know faculty members do a little bit more than just lecturing).

Dinnie’s book comes with a companion website (CW) that includes slide decks, notes, and teaching exercises. The teaching exercises are very-well designed and manages to create an interactive course environment. If you are not the biggest fan of delivering long lectures, the CW icebreaker games and discussion questions amount to a great experience. I shared some of the exercises and questions before the classes with the students as they tended to require prior research. Some questions cannot be answered on the spot by students; you need to give them enough time to reflect.

So what? Lessons learned

So, why did I write this post explaining my experience? Well, I wanted to share three points. First, Keith Dinnie’s book is a good resource for undergraduate students with little to no background in branding. I was not happy with the line-up of chapters, but you do not need to follow the chapters in the order they are presented in the book.

Second, place branding definitely deserves a couple of courses, yet if you are faced with time constraints, width triumphs over breadth. Covering a larger number of topics – albeit superficially – gives the students a better appreciation of the topic.

Last but not least, place branding is a practice-driven field. It should be our objective to train the next generation of practitioners that appreciate the social outcomes of place branding and do not look at these campaigns as a sales or marketing-oriented endeavor. At the end of the day, everything we do in terms of place branding has an impact on the daily lives of individuals.

Efe Sevin on social media and city brandingAbout the author

Efe Sevin is a faculty member at the Department of Public Relations and Information of Kadir Has University, Istanbul, Turkey. His current research focuses on the role of public diplomacy and nation branding on achieving foreign policy objectives. In his role as Academic Observer, Efe shares his thoughts on place branding as academic discipline.

Connect with Efe Sevin on LinkedIn or Twitter.


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