Corona Pandemic: What it Means for Place Branding Community

Corona, the pandemic, is turning our world upside down – at least the parts many believe to be the most important: our personal freedom and the economy. Over the last weeks I’ve been in close (virtual) contact with many readers, partners and clients – members of the TPBO community. And while we all seem to be impacted financially by the situation (thankfully most seem to be doing just fine health-wise), I’ve been surprised by the crisis-resistant answers and almost optimistic attitudes, sensing a unique opportunity for place branding.

Curious about the crisis’ potential benefits (something you’ll easily miss out when following traditional media or your social media streams), I created a short survey to find out more – greatly assisted by Dillon from the TPBO team. Here is a summary of what respondents shared (you are most welcome to add your own views in the comment section below).

We asked:

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your work or business?

The greatest impact of COVID-19, judging by survey respondents, is the major sentencing of teams and individuals to work from home. University professors and academics from Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, Greece, Denmark, UK, USA, and China report university and school closures. The universal solution being virtual interactions; Zoom, Skype, online workshops, and adaptive teaching methods are en vogue.

Perhaps indicative of other DMOs, a respondent leading the destination marketing organization of Natal, Brazil, states that the pandemic has jeopardized plans and outlooks for at least the next two years. The current state of tourism is derailing entirely their action plan which was about to be published. Moreover, stakeholders being concerned with the immediate control of the situation, it’s difficult to connect with, and acquire data from businesses, organizations, associates, and so forth, within the industry – one of the things DMOs are good at.

On a corporate level, brand strategists and consultants have gone “virtual”, at times facing difficulties in tackling tasks which require contact with administrations and public bodies. Many programs and development projects which would involve consultants have either been halted, postponed, or cancelled.

How do they fill the gap? Staff continue to work on existing contracts and maintain communication with clients. They perform research and identify innovative approaches that destinations are developing to cope with and ameliorate the impacts of the pandemic.

We asked:

How are you adapting to this situation in your day-to-day work/life?

Working from home for many also means “parenting from work”. Professionals from various fields are being forced to adapt to a new standard in both their professional and family life. Solutions shared by survey respondents include creating schedules between partners, as well as creating a sense of normalcy for their children.

What parents are doing for their children, employers are doing for their teams, holding daily online meetups to both maintain order and reassure social connection.

Online sessions and discussions are considered productive in many cases, with some pointing out that physical meetings were too frequent, after all.

Motivation, continuous workflow, and a positive mind are the main objectives now. CivicBrand has even gone ahead and made their team a home Spotify playlist.

For some, social distancing is not as simple, due to medical conditions. Others find the need to shop nearly exclusively online time-consuming.

Knowledge- and job sharing have proven a solution for at least one DMO among our respondents,  in which those with skills apt to serve the crisis at hand are playing a dual role for the organization.

Furthermore, connecting with companies with different expertise to exchange ideas, data, and good practices has been useful in building a stock of information and creative solutions.

São Paulo-based place branding consultancy Places 4 Us notes their efforts to find a digital solution for community engagement, for example artificial intelligence.

Tel Aviv Foundation CEO, Hila Oren shares how the organization established an Emergency Relief Fund to help the city’s most vulnerable populations. The creation of an emergency campaign that has a strong element of branding, with the city mayor at its core, is yet another example of crisis management communications with direct links to place branding.

We asked:

“Never waste a good crisis” – so the saying goes. How is COVID-19 pandemic perhaps even leading to positive outcomes or opportunities for cities, destinations, regions or countries?

An optimistic range of responses begins with becoming more familiar with technology, even if it’s just to make the most of devices and ensuring a stable internet connection.

Public administrations are developing emergency action plans. Governing bodies and private sector organizations are partnering to ward off impacts of the looming global recession. Individuals are uniting to support their own livelihood and that of neighbors and friends.

Socially responsible destinations now have the chance to capitalize on this extraordinary situation, as the right moment to tell their story; initiatives, responses, innovative proposals, etc. as a way to engage with interested parties, without the need for travel. Communities are now more receptive to sustainable actions.

We’ve seen the positive environmental effects of less visitation in (otherwise often overcrowded) destinations worldwide, such as less air pollution. Decrease in consumption allows for a new perspective and gives cities the opportunity to almost reinvent themselves, nurturing their own voice and identity.

A call for efficiency and responsible consumption post COVID-19 will be particularly relevant for destinations which are overdependent on tourism and now face the need to diversify, while travel recovers. This could include investment in digital structures, optimization of logistical bottlenecks to be more resilient in future crises, and consideration of delivery chains – whether the currently favored model of “off-shore, on-demand” production is really the best strategy forward.

As recommended in the survey by a Destination Marketing Organization’s Head of Intelligence, this may be a period to re-think and learn, especially for those who have so far ignored global issues such as the ever increasing routes offered by low-cost carriers, unnecessary business trips, tax breaks for climate-harming industries like aviation, etc. An opportunity to change both mindset and metrics, prioritizing quality over quantity, as well as testing a place brand’s resilience in a time of adaptation.

“We need to learn from the many creative ways that people across the world are taking action to help those most affected by the virus.” – Malcolm Allan, President of Bloom Consultants (London, UK)

“Of course, I am biased, but I see this crisis as a huge and crucial opportunity for place branding. Our communities have never been so engaged, so focused on what really matters, and the rebuilding period will be defined by places and people who have strong place brand programs in place and those who… don’t.” Todd Babiak, CEO of Brand Tasmania (Australia)

Reputational gains: South Korea and Japan both seem to be managing the Corona crisis comparatively well, and will thus benefit in terms of how they are perceived globally – unlike poorly performing countries, not handling crisis management as well and thus with a longer period of recovery.

Countries providing aid to foreign nations now will come out of this as winners, in the opinion of one professor who contributed to the survey.

The stark contrast between Italians singing on their balconies, while Americans line the street for gun ammunition, reveals much about countries and nations, and will have an impact on perceptions, as Jeannette Hanna, of Trajectory brand strategists in Toronto, Canada, points out.

Public diplomacy opportunity: All of a sudden under the microscope of global interest and opinion, China felt the pressure to react with positive outreach efforts to expand and repair relations with neighboring countries. The nation has begun to restore its somewhat damaged brand image by providing aid to Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan.


What does the future hold? The coming months and years of recovery will be telling for city, region, and nation brands. While it might be a tad more difficult to “sell” promotional packages to communities under financial burden, this is a stellar moment for the more serious place branding community.

Cities, regions, countries will all be eager to unite and strengthen local identities, to keep up their image and to attract talent, investors and visitors. Helping them succeed with this – through leadership and advice, imagination, creativity, smart placemaking and good storytelling – is what 21st century place branding is all about. Let’s get on with it.

Where are survey respondents based?

Brazil, Sweden, USA, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Greece, Denmark, UK, Canada, China, Colombia, Australia, Poland, Estonia, Israel

What do respondents do?

Professor, Researcher, Lecturer, Consultant, Head of Intelligence for Destination Marketing Organization, Place Brand Strategy Consultant, Destination Brand Executive, Institute Executive, Faculty, Brand Strategy Consultant, Management Consulting, Foundation Executive

Elsewhere on the web…

André Santos and Márcia Pinto of Maps Identity, in a recent webinar organized by City Nation Place suggested that this is a time to use digital to broadcast brand values, while pausing traditional destination marketing.

Singapore Tourism Board CEO, Keith Tan in the same webinar explains their current delicate situation of finding a balance between crisis management and recovery planning, both of which are now equally important.

Leah Chandler, Chief Marketing Officer at Discover Puerto Rico, in the webinar shared how the organization uses its crisis management playbook, which includes instructions on airborne illnesses.

All major consultancies with sound expertise in place branding have published pieces of advice on what to do and what to expect. If you need help or would like me to liaise you with any of those, please let me know.

What about you? How is Corona affecting you, how are you responding? Do you think place branding can support recovery? Comments welcome!

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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