Who Owns a Country or City Brand?

Who owns country and city brands? One of the many interesting questions readers are sending us (you can too!). Our panel of place brand specialists had a good thought about this, and here’s what they answered (in alphabetical order).

It’s a bit of a long read – only edited for easier reading. If you are short of time and need quick(er) answers to specific questions, check out our Information Scout service.

Caio Esteves (Places For Us)

  • The brand is owned by the population
  • Strong place brands are shared ideas, owned by audiences and facilitated by the government
  • The government is a facilitator, the community is the owner

Christopher Hire (2thinknow)

Generally, the citizens own the city brand (as if they don’t believe it, it wont be ‘real’) . So citizens and businesses own brands of cities and nations.

Custodianship of brands often is in the hands of our locally elected officials – but not in ways we expect. Many times, it’s one council or department that takes a lead shepherding a brand and it can be an unrewarding task being responsible for brands you don’t own.

Ed Burghard

This is a great question. To answer the question, it is important to start with what a brand is: a promise.  It sets an expectation of an experience. Company leaders “own” the responsibility of making certain that experience is relevant and authentic for consumers who opt to “buy” the brand.

In the context of place brands, country leaders “own” the responsibility of making certain their nation’s promise is relevant and authentic for residents and visitors. To do so, they must make decisions on asset creation, infrastructure investment and public policy/program support that enable and reinforce the place brand promise.

Brand strength is “owned” by consumers. It is the degree to which the brand experience fulfills its promise. The strength of a place brand is “owned” by its residents and visitors.

This question is particularly relevant as the debate regarding nationalism and globalism continues to intensify.

Efe Sevin

This is a great question. Short answer is “nobody and everybody”. Nobody can claim an exclusive ownership about a city or a nation brand. And everybody can start their own city / nation branding campaign.

We started a nation branding campaign (Turkayfe) for Turkey as four individuals interested in nation branding. Here is an article we wrote on the topic.

The long answer really depends on what we mean by brand ownership. If we are talking about bureaucratic mandates and financial resources to launch campaigns, usually economic development offices own city brands and ministries of foreign affairs own nation brands.

If we are talking about brand ownership as the authority to define what a city or a nation stands for, residents and citizens own the brand.

If we are talking about brand ownership as the final say in how a city or a nation is viewed, the audience owns the brand.

Overall, I’d say, a city / nation brand is a process. It is a negotiation process among stakeholders, as well as between branding projects and audiences.

Gary Warnaby

A good question – it focuses on the differences between cities/nations and more stereotypical ‘products’, which (being radical here!) sometime makes you start to wonder whether city/nation branding has any relevance?

Inevitably a stereotypical brandname/trademark is legally protected (thus, has someone owning/controlling it, in order to register it), but with city brands it’s different? For example how many ‘I (heart) Placename’ logos have we seen, copying the original from New York – it’s said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but, I’m sure this wouldn’t be allowed in any other commercial context?

In addition, this question raises issues relating to the participatory nature of place branding processes  –  does formal ‘ownership’ (and by implication ‘control’) of a city brand potentially undo all the consultation/participatory work that was undertaken in terms of creating it, especially if the brand is subsequently used in ways which some stakeholders in the brand creation process would object to.

Gordon Innes

Nation and city brands are far more complex and multi-faceted than company or product brands. They mean different things to different people, at different times. Therefore, they cannot be “owned” or managed in the same way, or with the same marketing tools. A DMO’s job is to tell the nation’s or city’s stories to the world in accordance with its leaders’ vision. It highlights assets, attributes, policies and symbolic actions, which reinforce these stories.

Gregory Pomerantsev

A simple and straightforward answer – it’s nations and cities who own their brands.

The difficulty, however, is that countries or cities are not simply products or companies, so it’s easy to make a mistake when answering the question: who actually represents a nation or a city?

Most important here is that brand ownership has a community-based nature. This reinforces the need to maintain and develop the brand from the inside out and to ensure that nation or city brand managers are exposed to the heart and soul of the community, and follow carefully on the strengths of competitors and dynamics of the marketplace.

Günter Soydanbay (Soydanbay Consulting)

I believe, as professionals, we should be doing a better job articulating that when it comes to promoting a place, “brand” is simply a metaphor; not a reality. In that context, brand”ing,” is used to describe the act of applying the discipline of marketing to promote a place or strengthen its relationship with its stakeholders.

The problem arises, however, when we take the word brand literally. If we view that metaphor literally, we will end up confusing the literal and the concrete. So, places are not brands. Consequently, nobody owns a nation brand. Frankly, if we were to take a step back, we would realize that the mere fact that someone -or an organization- thinks it has a monopoly over a nation, should send chills down our spine.

Nonetheless, there is nothing that stops us from using branding techniques to define and promote a place. So, if we were to go ahead and entertain the metaphor, and use our imagination to find out what a “brand” could be for a country, we would come up with two answers: identity and image.

The identity is the collection of all physical elements of the brand that appeals to the senses. They are used to fuel recognition, amplifying differentiation. In that sense, the tourism board or the ministry of trade could “own” the identity system.

Image, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. It is the impression of a nation held by locals, potential tourists, or investors. They are bundles of associations and set of beliefs within the minds of people. In that sense, nobody can own those – fortunately.

Gustavo Koniszczer (FutureBrand)

The intellectual property of a country or city brand is not regulated in all cases in the same way. The country brands usually stay in the administrative structure of some of the areas involved in their management: tourism, investments and/or promotion of exports. The ideal is to have it distributed in more than one sector.

Heather Skinner

Everyone and no one. Many tourism place brands may be ‘owned’ or at least the branding managed by a DMO, others may be led by national or local government. Some places have no brand management at all.

If any effort at formally branding any type of place does not include all stakeholders in meaningful discussion, then the top down efforts that may be seen as foisted on other stakeholders will not be accepted or adopted and may even end up being subverted.

Hila Oren

The true owners of a city brand are the city’s residents. It is managed by the Municipality and championed by the Mayor but it is the residents who really own it and live it. To me, a city’s “residents” includes workers who commute to the city for work, tourists who visit the city for leisure, students who study in its institutions – as well as those who live there. This is because all of those people have chosen to be part of the city, to identify with the city in some way. They are all part of its story.

Every city has its story and its DNA. As city-makers, we have tremendous scope for creativity and influence. Yet there are some things we cannot change, like a city’s geography or its people, which are part of its DNA. City branding is part of city-making and it is our role to uncover a city’s Unique Selling Proposition and to leverage those elements we may not be able to change but whose vibrancy we can illuminate.

Branding a city is not about increased sales or market share; it is about belonging, pride and improving the lives of the people who live – and own – that brand.

Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir

This is a big question and depends on the set up of the brand, and in reality cannot be answered so easily. If you go from thinking that a name of a country is a brand itself – the owner should be the nation, and the government should be responsible for protecting it. However, if you are working on a brand/slogan that has been decided by stakeholders, the organization/company/municipality, or whoever is the executer, needs to be the formal owner and register it.

In the case of countries this is a really interesting question from the idea that the name of the country is a brand itself, and who should be allowed to use it – and who owns it… e.g. supermarket Iceland vs. the country Iceland, or Patagonia and the outdoor clothing company Patagonia.

Something that I think all countries will be looking to do better in the future is to protect their names – or brands.

Jaume Marín

Normally the right answer would be to say that city brands are owned by the DMO or the local authority. In reality, city brands are owned by everybody involved in that brand, from locals, to companies –whatever the sector–, operators, even sometimes media, and as well the local authority and the DMO.

Jeannette Hanna (Trajectory)

You can think of brands for cities, regions, and nations as public “trusts”. While they can be considered public “assets,” they are typically stewarded by partnerships that may include some combination of economic development, tourism and hospitality, businesses and community groups. A key indicator of the success of a place-based brand is how well it is embraced by local stakeholders – from businesses and community groups down to individual ambassadors – who take active ownership of the brand messaging and experiences. Part of the role of the brand stewards is to incentivize collaboration, support and monitor impact.

Joao Freire (Grounded)

A nation or a city brand should be owned by its residents, while its management should be done by professionals. The nation or city should have a model of governance that allows its residents to influence how the brands are managed. The influence on the brand management is often exercised indirectly through the involvement of elected representatives from the national, regional and local political organizations. The residents, however, should also agree with the goals established for the brand by the management team. Therefore, having a sound model of governance is particularly relevant when dealing with destination brands within the tourism industry.

The objectives for the brand should always take into consideration how the owners of the brand – the residents – will benefit from the brand strategy. The residents as owners of the brand should be regarded as shareholders who are entitled to profit from the brand strategy.

Martin Boisen (For the Love of Place)

In my view, nobody ‘owns’ a place brand. I’d argue that a place brand belongs to both the past, the present and the future people that live in the place in question. This means that we should talk more about ‘stewardship’ and less about ‘ownership’.

A place brand is a commons, and should be treated as such. Ultimately, it is therefore the democratically elected or controlled governments that are responsible for making sure that place brands are managed well. The government and its civil servant organisation remains responsible, even if the brand management task has been delegated to a public-private organisation.

Nadia Kaneva

The answer to this question depends on the meaning of “ownership,” which has changed over time. Originally, the maker of a product owned the right to put its label on it and, subsequently, to profit from the sale of the product. Today marketers think of brands as consisting of the intangible associations that consumers form in their minds in relation to a product, service, or company. No company really “owns” these associations, but they are the basis for company profits nonetheless because positive associations are the reason why consumers pay a premium price for a product or service.

When we relate this to city or country brands, the picture gets more complex. When a city or country attracts more tourists or investors, for instance, the immediate economic benefits accrue to the businesses located in that place and to the investors. However, the costs for maintaining infrastructure, educating the labor force, providing health care, hauling the trash, and so on are typically paid for with public money. So, although the residents of a place are co-producing the city or country brand, they are not always profiting from that brand.

Therein lies the trouble: Although place brands cannot exist without the labor and investment of local residents, the economic profits from place branding often accrue only to private companies and investors.

Therefore, to answer the question of ownership in relation to city or country brands, it is important to make the connections between “ownership” and “profits.” Branding is a particular economic tool in the toolbox of capitalist economies and, for that reason, its analysis cannot be separated from the question of “Who profits from the brand and in what way?”

Natasha Grand (INSTID)

A romantic answer is that they are owned by the people who care about that place, no matter where they live.

An ideal answer is that the brand is curated, fostered, and developed by a state-financed but politically independent Nation Brand Trust, but none exists to date.

A pragmatic answer is that the brand tools are owned by the state body that contracted a branding programme, such as the tourism ministry. Some allow them to be used in open source by the local businesses and communities, like in Lipetsk Region. Others license the usage of brand visual style in souvenirs, like in Tatarstan.

Oliver Zoellner

My answer would be quite straightforward: The citizenry should own their nation’s or city’s brand, as it is them, and no company whatsoever, who create and make up the nation or city, their values, lifestyles, identities, etc.

Territorial brands should be public property. If they are privatised, the citizens – the people – are effectively expropriated: what is theirs handed over to a company and thus privatised. This may lead to an alienation of a citizenry from its nation or city, with negative consequences for their feeling of belonging or attachment, i.e. the very things that make a territory a ‘brand’ in the first place. Such an alienation-through-disenfranchising would effectively kill the very heart of the brand.

Pärtel-Peeter Pere (Future Place Leadership)

A place brand cannot be owned by someone. It can only be managed. It can be considered as a public domain, as it affects all people and businesses at a place and as such, falls to the responsibility of the government to take care of it in the proper way, meaning by an inclusive and open approach to stakeholders.

At the same time, the place brand is always in the eyes of the beholder: your idea or collection of brand associations, ideas, experiences and word of mouth, including prejudices, make up the perceived brand image of the place.

Robert Govers (Imaginative Communities)

No-one and everyone as place brands cannot be legally protected. Some might argue that one can trademark a logo, but that’s not quite the same as ‘owning the brand’.

More about the panel and answers to frequent questions on place branding here.

Know someone who might be interested in this collection of expert views on place brand ownership and the question who owns city and nation brands? Spread the word!


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