Why One Size Fits All City Brands Are Doomed to Fail: And How to Do It Better

One-size-fits all city brands are common, but not always useful, argue Sebastian Zenker and Erik Braun in a recent research article. We asked Sebastian Zenker, Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School, why this is a problem, and how cities can do better.

Sebastian, you recently had an article published in the academic journal Place Management and Development, in which you question the usefulness of “one size fits all” city branding strategies. What motivated you to address this topic?

There is still a lot of confusion about place branding – and especially what a place brand is. We are very proud that our original place brand definition is widely used, but it is “only” from a conference paper and we wanted to update this definition and make it accessible to a wider audience.

Foremost, during our studies and meetings with practitioners we often had the feeling that the power of a place brand was over-estimated. It was supposed to help in so many different areas, should address so many different target groups, and influenced by so many different actors. How can only one brand manage all this? Only if it is very vague and generic – so that all actors included can interpret it in the way they want. And in this case the brand has no power at all.

Thus, we want to help the brand managers of places – especially those that already work with branding and are in a more mature phase of their marketing activities.

Which are the shortcomings of current city branding practice?

We see that the branding practice often still under-estimates the complexity of a place brand (in comparison to a product or company brand) and over-estimates the impact of a brand.

Research shows that different target groups (e.g. residents vs. tourists) have different needs regarding a place brand and react differently to brand messages. Thus, if you try to create a brand that serves both target groups, you will get yourself into trouble.

Which better ways to approach city branding do you propose in the article?

We recommend a general place brand with the commonalities for all target groups – and sub-place brands for different target audiences. Of course they cannot be totally detached from each other, but a city for students is different than one which wants to serve older Chinese tourists. Different place offers have to be included in our communication – different values are important. A sub-branding strategy can help here.

In marketing we call this a “branded house approach”. It also makes it easier to include other stakeholders in living the brand, since it can become their brand, with their messages.

The main task for place brand management, in this case, is to balance the different needs and make sure that the different sub-brands do not harm each other.

Are there any other topics linked to strategic branding of places which you think need to be investigated?

Academically, there is still a lot to research. Many cities are already successfully doing place branding and are in a mature state of their marketing. They ask themselves: what next? How can we further improve? Here we can show different new ways to enhance place branding. Also, we need to proof the impact of place branding: success measurement is still a very under-researched area.

I like the diversity of our research field. Sometimes this is because of differences in the philosophy of scientific standpoints: the so-called Nordic-school, for instance, discuss place branding often as cultural phenomenon. We have other authors that come more from a managerial side and want to see how we can use it as a tool. Both can contribute very different things to our discourse.

In my function as reviewer, however, I also see a lot of research papers that are in an early stage of place branding – still arguing that we need to include residents more (a fruitful discussion we had 5 years ago – and I think it should be common sense right now). I sometimes still see papers that use the AMA definition of branding (that is the logo discussion I thought we also overcome and solved many years ago).

Little has been written about the mature place branding challenges – and still too little is done for proofing our concepts with (quantitative) hard data.

In your words, what does place branding mean?

The brandING implies that it is an action – we would say a planned, managed, and therefore intentional action. It is the planned management of strengthening, changing, or creating the place brand in the mind of the place consumers.

The place brand is – in our definition: “a network of associations in the place consumers’ mind based on the visual, verbal, and behavioral expression of a place and its’ stakeholders. These associations differ in their influence within the network and in importance for the place consumers’ attitude and behavior.”

(Zenker & Braun, 2017, p. 275)

We therefore focus very much on the brand knowledge of the different customer groups and acknowledge that this knowledge can differ a lot.

How has the research on city branding evolved since you wrote your article?

The needs of practitioners are becoming more and more nuanced: while some places are still in the early stage and struggle with measuring their brand (or even still see a brand only as a logo), we have more and more places that have many years of experience in place brand management.

For them the questions of districts having their own brands is, for instance, relevant (how to manage many brands). They want to achieve greater strategic goals with their brand and try to be more professional with success measurement.

One article dealing with the places within a place and their sub-branding which I found very interesting is: Breek, P., J. Eshuis, J. Hermes and H. Mommaas (2018, forthcoming). The role of social media in collective processes of place making: a study of two neighbourhood blogs in Amsterdam. City and Community.

When investigating about city branding, do you have the impression that city or destination managers and marketers are aware of your publications and findings, and act accordingly?

Unfortunately, no, not at all. Sometimes it seems like two totally different worlds – and the only exception I see is in those cases where we scientists also work as consultants and deliver our approaches directly to the cities. For instance, I was very happy to see that the German city Bielefeld adopted my participatory place branding approach – and I hope we will see our city branded house approach in many cities around the world in the future.


Zenker, S. & Braun, E. (2017): Questioning a “one size fits all” city brand: Developing a branded house strategy for place brand management. Journal of Place Management and Development. 10(3), 270-287. Link: https://doi.org/10.1108/JPMD-04-2016-0018

Find out more about Sebastian Zenker’s research and thinking in our interview.


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