Do you think place branding should be guided by a defined set of principles to ensure transparency and assured benefits to the local communities? How can such rules be implemented in a multi-polar world with unique belief systems in different places?
These are full-on questions which we put to our specialist panel at TPBO these last weeks. And we received some very insightful responses (below). Coincidentally, the panel took place at the same time as the IPBA conference in Sweden, where a Manifesto – Code of Ethics was proposed to delegates. Find our more about it in Robert’s answer, below. Rather than offering a thematic summary, we decided to publish all answers in full, as this is an important topic and also one with nuances in responses, across cultures and regions (in alphabetical order, highlighting TPBO partners).
We also enabled the comment function for you to participate in this conversation, if you like! We will report your feedback back to IPBA.
- Stakeholder engagement should ensure a fair representation of diverse voices and should be treated equally and transparently.
- We live in a multi-cultural world and a one-size-fits-all approach to developing a code of ethics might not be effective as local nuances like understanding of local values and cultures are important.
- The development of a code of conduct should involve all relevant stakeholders, including residents, authorities, and businesses. This can be tricky though, as motivations differ.
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion are important aspects of social sustainability of any development project.
- Emphasizing an ethics of care, empathy, and emotion in place branding can help promote social equity and justice.
- Place branders should respect the authenticity and identities of local communities and not use them as marketing tricks.
- A code of conduct should be based on the shared beliefs and values of a community, with a focus on doing what is right for the socioeconomic good of the place.
United Kingdom | Potential dilemmas could arise from selective stakeholder input, which encourages a place branding image that does not reflect how all groups see and interact with the place. Therefore, a code of conduct should outline mechanisms for stakeholder engagement and input in place branding campaigns and content development.
For the sustainability aspects of a place brand, the entity should know which sustainability topics matter most to stakeholders (e.g. the employed, students, families, tourists, and investors), as well as their expectations that the place aligns with local, regional and national sustainability goals.
Belgium | This is what The IPBA Barcelona Copenhagen-Region Place Branding Manifesto is for.
On October 18, 2023, in Helsingborg, Sweden, representatives of the city of Barcelona, the regional and municipal administrations of the Greater Copenhagen region, and the International Place Branding Association (IPBA) signed this manifesto to define the main principles of “place branding” with which the signatories are aligned.
The manifesto is a call to action for local, regional, national and international public administration professionals, elected and private sector officials, academics, and everyone concerned about the role of cities, regions and countries in the global system.
We all need to consider and manage the international positioning, engagement and reputation of our city, region or country, to improve citizen quality of life with respect to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
What’s at stake? – A public spending of tax-payers money that is more efficient, more effective and more meaningful.
Why do we need to act now? – The challenges and hence the public spending are expanding rapidly. The sooner we establish some principles the better. The city of Barcelona, the regional and municipal administrations of the Greater Copenhagen region, and the IPBA recognise this and have taken action by establishing this manifesto. Now we require everyone to sign it and share it. Most importantly, we would like you to convince your local, regional and national administrations to sign the manifesto and adopt the supporting principles as well.
Objectives – To clarify what place branding is and what it is not and to raise its profile. To clarify the main principles that guarantee successful place branding. To clarify the scope of work for those in charge of place brand management.
Defining place branding – Perceptions and civic pride matter. Locals deserve opportunity, dignity and the ability to engage internationally with their heads held high because they come from a respected city, region or country. Hence, the reputation of a place is a public good and needs to be managed as such. Place brands serve that purpose.
Building a positive reputation is a long-term objective and hence it can only succeed by doing “the right thing”, and by contributing to local quality of life and wellbeing as well as to humanity and the planet. In the long run, one cannot expect to obtain a positive reputation when damaging others. Therefore, place branding is not synonymous or even an extension of pure marketing or promotion.
It is not simply about attracting more tourists, more business, more migrants, and more investment. It is about creating the framework that informs decisions about what kind of places we want for our citizens in the future, based on identity and purpose; how we want to position these places internationally and hence, what kind of tourism, investment, talent, trade we expect to attract or not; and within which boundaries.
More importantly, the domain of place branding reaches far beyond economics; it also deals with culture, ecology, politics, and technology.
- Based on identity and purpose
- Through collaboration between all public, private and civil society stakeholders
- Create a long-term positioning strategy (beyond the logo)
- That is robust and capable of absorbing change and responding to crises
- That is implemented through meaningful action (policy, project, investment, infrastructure, campaign initiatives) contributing to society, humanity and a sustainable planet
- Using the power of imagination to create original, creative, innovative, captivating and inspiring initiatives that catch the imagination of internal and external audiences
- Thereby building a distinctive, relevant, authentic, consistent, meaningful image
- Seeing reputation monitoring and management as an integral part of governance
- Committing adequate resources and processes to it
- Therefore, requiring constructive collaborative leadership to co-create the future
Please endorse the manifesto here.
USA | You have to define the term “ethics” and, in my opinion, go with the classic law school definition that differentiates ethics from morals. People can have different morals and, therefore, never agree but ethics, in this sense, is defined as a community’s shared beliefs and values that can shift over time and be different from one community to the next. At the end of the day, that is what place branding is all about honing in on those shared values of place.
Australia | I think there’s a reason the UN Sustainable Development Goals have resonated so far and wide. They’re a great starting point and provide the framework for a community to define its code of conduct. As with all things place branding, anything created must be reflective of the place and not simply transplanted from elsewhere.
Australia | I hate to be a cynic, but the world is not ethically unified. There are fascist regimes, authoritarian regimes, and liberal democracies that spend a lot of time and effort on their reputation yet routinely destroy the environment, engage in atrocious behaviour through their militaries and secret police, and harm their citizens for political gain. This isn’t a controversial opinion. It is the front page of any newspaper over any given week in the past twenty years.
An actual place brand, and a strategy that brings it to life, can help. If citizens help build it, with positive values embedded in it, a powerful expression of “this is who we are at our best,” perhaps leaders will consider it before making decisions that contradict the brand. There might be some personal jeopardy in doing the opposite of what we say we do, and who we say we are. But I don’t think an ethical framework will help any more than committing to abstract ideas about sustainability has helped. Humans respond to incentives, and too many of the incentives lead us to unethical behaviour.
India | This would indeed be charting unnavigated territory. Creating a place branding code of conduct is very distinct from enumerating prerequisites essential for a successful place branding strategy. For now, it would be preferred to amalgamate the former as a part of the latter to keep the place branding mould simple and strategic.
At the same time, it is also important to acknowledge that part of ethics and standards is a moral responsibility that a vastly evolving human landscape is demanding of people and places. The mention of a code likely evokes a sense of it being prescriptive, which is avoidable at this stage. The intent is not to resist a formal framework, but rather nuance these for now as the subject of place branding is still evolving.
It may be worthwhile for the concept being extensively discussed, particularly in a continental context, to be able to propose a code of conduct in place branding in the times to come. The subject is vast and sensitive and demands addressing people and cultural sensibilities.
Sweden | My colleague Nadia Kaneva, at the University of Denver, and I have argued that we need to rethink the premises on which our common understanding of ethics in the field of public diplomacy and nation branding is based. I think that what we’re proposing applies to the broader field of place branding as well.
In short, we would like to shift attention away from rights-based ethics or a “patriarchal ethics of domination” – as feminist scholar Bell Hooks articulates in her book Feminism is for Everyone: Passionate Politics (2000) – to an ethics of care. Care is intimately tied to emotion and empathy. Focusing on care therefore suggests that place branders and communication strategists need to examine how emotions, alongside reason, inform moral action and responsibility.
For place branding, this means paying more attention to the vulnerability of places and how places are interdependent. The moral perspective implicit in an ethic of care challenges the prevailing view of places as autonomous and in control of populations and borders. In contrast, feminist thought has sought to rehabilitate care as a virtue and to rethink the branding of places in relational terms. The value of incorporating ethics of care into place branding as a means of supporting social equity and justice cannot be overstated.
Italy | The significant literature on place branding failures provides relevant raw material to sketch out a “code of conduct” for place branding. Two points come to mind:
- local identities are not a marketing trick and marketers should deal with them with consciousness
- place brands leveraging identity and authenticity should not become a trap for local communities and should be supported throughout their paths of evolution and constant innovation
USA | Use a panel of experts to draft a code and then get feedback (ideally quantitative) from economic development professionals, elected officials and private sector leaders on it. Use the feedback to adjust. Establish a process for amendment. Then publish.
Have a small group draft a set, get feedback from practitioners, publish and adjust as appropriate going forward.
USA | We need to formulate such a code of conduct through a participatory process. The biggest ethical pitfall we have in place branding is forgetting that we are working with places people call home. Just as we incorporate resident input into place branding campaigns, we should involve as many stakeholders as possible in developing such a framework.
Canada | I don’t think we can create a universal place branding code of conduct. Instead, each “code” must reflect the unique character and values of the location it represents. For example, a small Swiss town emphasizing community involvement may prioritize public meetings in its branding, while a similar-sized town in the Middle East focusing on strength and authority might provide tools for public displays of support.
In both scenarios, understanding local values—in other words, “knowing thyself”—shapes everything from ethical guidelines to stakeholder engagement. After formulating a locally-grounded code, the next steps are education and evaluation. If a place values transparency, training should focus on open disclosure of information sources and decision-making processes.
Conversely, in a community that prizes discretion, the code could guide individuals to protect sensitive information, perhaps favouring confidential briefings over public forums. Metrics, such as resident attendance at meetings or participation in online polls, can then be used to assess the code’s effectiveness, ensuring it evolves from a static document to a dynamic aspect of community life.
Argentina | Firstly, the code of conduct, along with any ethical considerations that may arise, should be established within the team responsible for the development, design, and implementation of any place brand.
Secondly, when embarking on a place branding project, it is crucial to articulate and delineate the place’s vision, mission, and values, thus laying the foundational pillars of the brand.
At FutureBrand, our code of conduct is evident in our respect for the entire community and all brand stakeholders. That’s why we consistently emphasize the importance of involving everyone in the project, ideally from the beginning.
On one hand, this ensures that potential dilemmas are addressed at the project’s outset, preventing the development of projects lacking long-term continuity. On the other hand, it ensures the collective character that should be inherent in every place brand. Furthermore, there is an international consensus regarding the values that make one country or place more positively perceived than another. Values such as sustainability, solidarity, inclusion, and equity, among others, are undoubtedly crucial issues that must be considered in our field.
Denmark | Who are you working for and what is the purpose of the project?
Place branding is about the values of the community, the benefits of those values and how they are communicated. Place branding can easily be used as a cover for nationalism, rewriting history, discrimination or to build support for a single political party, in particular nationalist parties.
The formulation of a code of conduct needs to take this into account and could sound something in the direction of:
- Place branding is about the story of the place, its people and its culture, regardless of political affiliation, religion, ethnicity, language, social status or origin of people.
- Place branding is about finding the common denominator of the people that make the place and has to be inclusive with stakeholders from all aspects of society.
- Place branding is about facing the history and the current state of things – the good and the bad.
You can start laying the path towards a credible future only when you are honest about your history and where you are now. Place branding is about walking the talk. If there is a discrepancy between what is being said and done, it is bound to backfire. As a specialist in place branding, it is your responsibility to ensure that your work is used for good and not to cover up for war crimes, human rights violations or discrimination.
Spain | To ensure a correct and ethical code of conduct, we may take into consideration, different points such as:
- Stakeholder engagement, including residents, local authorities, and businesses.
- Identifying core values and principles such as sustainability, inclusivity, and respect for cultural heritage must be relevant in the code.
- Develop ethical guidelines, state the do’s and don’ts of place branding.
- Transparency and accountability – establish mechanisms for accountability and oversight, such as independent audits and regular reporting.
- Inclusivity and diversity – celebrate the rich cultural and social diversity of the destination.
- Community involvement – seek feedback and incorporate the ideas and concerns into the branding strategy.
- Cultural sensitivity – avoid cultural appropriation or insensitive representation. Respect the cultural heritage and local traditions.
- Environmental responsibility – promote environmentally responsible practices and advocate for eco-friendly initiatives.
- Communication and education – educate all stakeholders about the ethical code of conduct and its importance.
Poland | I doubt it would be possible to formulate such a code point by point and in an exhaustive formula because place branding is interdisciplinary and involves many aspects and areas of influence. Instead, such a code could emanate from the discussion we are having among both academics and practitioners.
The issues of ethics, both of the practices being carried out and of the broader context of place branding as an approach, are increasingly being addressed. This discussion must be ongoing and in-depth.
Whatever we are doing as place brand managers, we need to consider the social, cultural and natural environment. We need to be able to assess the impact of place branding on these spheres and put moral legitimacy first.
In practice, this should involve, among others, transparency, honesty, responsibility, and sensitivity. We should be following place values, but also take care of good practices. The place branding community needs to respond to potential unethical behaviour.
United Kingdom | A universal code of conduct for the practice of place branding is needed. However, reaching an agreement on one is challenging. Why? Because there is, as yet, no global body representing the range of people and organizations working in the field. There is currently no universal agreement on what constitutes professional practice in the field. There are no national or international bodies developing accepted and recognised standards for the conduct of place branding, nor universally accepted definitions of what this constitutes, involves and how best to practice it. Why?
Largely because practitioners in the field come from a variety of other disciplines with their codes of professional practice; for example – marketers, researchers, public policymakers, institutes of government, civil services, etc. Few, if any, of those professional codes of practice are universally applicable to the field of place branding and marketing whose challenges are varied and complex.
In my case, I came into the field with an undergraduate qualification in town planning, a postgraduate qualification in development economics and an early career progression governed by a comprehensive system of Continuous Professional Development Accreditation.
Until recently there was no postgraduate qualification for individuals with related field undergraduate degrees, a position changed by the recent development of a MA in Place Branding at Middlesex University and the accreditation of the new courses at the Bloom Place Academy as elements of Continuous Professional Development for practitioners in the field, both of which address the case for ethical behaviour and values for them.
However, these initiatives do not reflect a set of universal agreements among practitioners – consultants and members of place brand teams – on anything resembling a global code of conduct. But they are a step in the right direction.
What is now required is a conversation, a debate among practitioners on the case for such a code of conduct, what it should contain, who should develop it, and who should “police” its application. No such body currently exists. One is urgently required.
Poland | It can be formulated by assuring all perspectives are represented: place brand managers, academia and consultancies. You may want to employ the Delphi technique to ‘merge’ the views coming from diverse communities.
Netherlands | I think the IPBA Manifesto is a good start. It sets out some basic agreements. However, it will always be down to the people in charge (and the people advising them) to ensure ethical aspects are considered and addressed. Some of these ethical considerations are endemic to the topic though.
For example: Who has the right to try and define the meaning of a place? Who has the right to decide what stories are more meaningful or desirable than other stories? Who has the right to influence and manipulate what people think of a place? This is why the question about a Hippocratic oath of place branding (that came up during the IPBA Conference in Helsingborg) is a nice idea.
United Kingdom | As a market-led concept, place branding positions ‘place’ as focused on the socioeconomic good, doing what’s right, but that does not equate to doing what is morally right to stakeholders and for the benefit of the place itself.
It requires communicative actions (internal) that legitamize stakeholder views relating to investment, inequality, and environmental sustainability. To regulate such action, we need mechanisms (codes of conduct) that ensure accountability, but the question is, who are we trying to regulate?
Are we seeking accountability in the governance or co-governance of place brand? It is a pertinent distinction that needs to be ascertained before developing any codes of conducts that regulate and measure our actions.
Scotland | It has to be consultative. Businesses, residents, and destination management organisations need to get together to agree on an approach, which includes aims, an action plan, governance, and monitoring.
to the panel of industry leaders for sharing valuable insights on why and how a code of conduct for place branding should be formulated, ensuring ethical considerations and potential dilemmas are addressed.