Many place branding projects do not see the light of day, so how can the failure rate of such projects be determined? And what are their root causes to ensure the same mistakes aren’t repeated? We asked our panel of place branding specialists (in alphabetical order – highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research or as speakers) and here are their valuable insights.
Our key takeaways:
- Investigate the reason behind the failure of a place branding project. Have a closer look at the key attributes and any structural gaps that can be avoided going forward.
- Learnings from an unsuccessful place branding project from five years ago might not be completely helpful today, as realities on the ground change.
- Failure to establish proper checks and balances, lack of communication, leadership issues, and a wide gap between the set objectives and reality are common pitfalls that lead to place branding failure.
- The most common cause for a place branding debacle is failure to involve locals in decision-making. A project that does not involve stakeholders like citizen interest groups and NGOs misses out on valuable local insights.
- Lack of will from political circles and change of political leadership in long-term place branding projects are additional significant causes for failure.
This is an interesting question which I am working on a project at the moment. However, failure is not the most important to check for, rather: resilience. Longevity and resilience in the socio-cultural, economic and political status of a place and the collective imaginaries; that is what is important to check.
My sense is that a high-level study spanning the last two decades since place branding has come into vogue, and that investigates the survival rate of place branding projects, would reveal structural gaps between “campaigns” that claim to be place brands and their sponsoring organisations (or the lack thereof). Sustained place branding needs a strategy and institutional infrastructure for implementation, as I have argued in the context of Brand Sri Lanka here.
To determine the failure rate you must first determine the success metrics.
What is a successful place branding project? Do we all agree that the idea of success changes according to the project and its public or private nature? As I imagine, place branding is not just outward and it is not just about perception. The main cause of failure is the non-adherence of the community.
A place brand must be shared by all. If it becomes just a government brand, something for the international market, with no reflection of the local community, local economy and no understanding of the process as a whole, then this is a place brand that failed.
It is much harder to find place branding projects that succeeded, than those who didn’t.
The impact of place branding can be measured the same way the impact of branding on products is measured – use brand equity research to determine if the brand promise is understood and viewed as 1) authentic, 2) relevant and 3) competitive.
Conduct the research in the context of the decision you are studying (live – residents, visit – tourists, invest – capital investors). If positive progress is made on the key attributes defined in the study then the place branding is a success.
Typically you would run this quantitative research for a small set of competitors in addition to your location, so you can compare scores to identify real points of parity and +/- differences. In my experience, I set a standard of a statistically significant difference at the 80% confidence level as a difference worth paying attention to.
Positive points of difference are opportunities to extend a competitive advantage. Negative points of difference are potential weaknesses the competition can exploit to their advantage. Follow-up research on WHY the difference exists leads you to insights into root causes.
When I was leading the branding of Ohio in the US, we ran this type of quantitative study annually and used the resulting analysis to inform our strategic choices.
This is really a tough one. I mean, this is why my research suffers all the time. And here is why:
- When we talk about place branding, we actually refer to two different levels of activity. At one level, we are talking about the overall long-term reputation of places. At another level, we are coming closer to marketing and we are talking about shorter-term projects – those either trying to use a place’s brand for certain economic, political, social gains or those trying to project brand characteristics.
- Despite the differences between these levels, they are both place branding activities and they both contribute to the management of place brands.
- Then, the question is – what is failure? Let’s take the GREAT Britain campaign. The campaign was there to promote growth in the country and practitioners argue they delivered results. But was that a ‘branding’ result? Did the campaign actually contribute to the reputation of the country? Or did the campaign use the country’s reputation? In my view, it was just a sales-push and it worked. Should we consider this project as a failure?
- Given the complexity of these projects – the variety of objectives and ways to reach those – it is virtually impossible to articulate a way to fully assess the success of a place branding campaign.
Let’s start with the basics: In its essence, every “place branding” project is a “change management” project. Most studies show a 60-70% failure rate for organizational change projects. That said, there is a McKinsey report showing that around 60% of change initiatives are somewhere between a base-hit and a home run, and only 1 in 10 are strikeouts.
In light of all that, we can confidently assume that the failure rate of place branding projects around the world is between 10 and 70%, and more realistically around 40%.
As per the root causes, I wrote an article on TPBO about the seven systemic problems of place branding projects, which you can read here. To summarize:
- Stakeholders have a misconception about what a brand actually is.
- The project team fails to communicate the objectives.
- The project team fails to sell the problem.
- The project team focuses on the wrong feedback.
- There is a conflict among the place’s vision and actions.
- The project team overlooks the change management side of the project.
- There is a lack of clarity over ownership.
The BID Foundation, the industry body for BIDs, has recently published a state of the art report on UK BIDs which is freely available here. This report includes a section on BID failures and provides examples of unsuccessful BIDs. The key issue when BIDs fail seems to be lack of engagement with levy payers.
In general this is similar to any other place branding initiative that fails due to lack of engagement with place stakeholders, and lack of grassroots support.
How to measure success and failure is still one of the great challenges of place branding. One way is to monitor brand awareness and words associated with your place name. Is the media coverage (in both traditional and new media) in accordance with the narrative you have been trying to build up, or is there still a big discrepancy between your claim and the actual experience?
From my observation, I’d say the biggest root cause for failed place branding projects is the disconnect between the projected narrative and the experience on the ground. And the reason for that disconnect is usually that the brand project is run like a corporate branding or marketing exercise with too little ownership by the locals. This is the key and the reason why internal communication is actually more important than your external communication when it comes to place branding projects.
You can be certain that people will write about their experiences in your place – whether they are tourists, business people, politicians or journalists. Your most important role is, therefore, to make sure the experience fits the narrative and brand image you are trying to project. That only happens if you have the local public on board.
Failure happens when you do not get all stakeholders involved right from the beginning. Getting everyone on board in the first place is the easiest way to avoid problems later on in the place branding process. “We” is always better than “I”.
One of the root causes of failure that we have observed ties to governance. Without a sustaining governance model, with clear responsibilities and investment in ongoing development, even successful place brands can simply atrophy and fade away.
Often, the moving force behind a brand initiative is an individual who catalyzes the original momentum for the project. When there is a change in leadership, the brand can suffer from a lack of support or commitment in that transition.
According to my experience, there are two key elements that determine the failure rate of place branding projects:
- The politicians understand a place branding strategy as ONLY a promotional initiative with no incidence in areas such as economic development, place management or spatial planning.
- The citizens are not involved in the place branding strategy.
I think most failures come from misunderstanding what ‘place branding’ means, also by not defining clear objectives and many times by using basic image and communication tools with the believe they, ‘per se’, will be able to change the image and perceptions people have about a place.
Problems often arise with the misuse of the term and concept ‘branding’.
I am not sure whether the failure rate can be determined, because places define success of their branding activities in multiple ways and that very fact casts different perspectives on the notion of failure as well.
For instance, what time frame, what scale of a project, what objectives are we talking about? What if the place failed to build its international reputation but strengthened community bonds and stimulated valuable social projects? Are we paying more attention to the process or to the outcome? All these questions (and many more) need to be addressed to determine whether the project did or did not fail.
As far as root causes are concerned, these – of course – vary among places. However, usually, the most common of them include: key stakeholders being unable to cooperate, lack of clear and stable leadership, conflicting political agendas, lack of stable funding, lack of shared vision of a place’s brand, misconceptions about what place brands are, insufficient internal buy-in and others.
I wouldn’t know how to begin with determining the failure rate. To me, the root causes of why place branding projects often fail are similar to the reason why I wouldn’t know how to approach the first half of the question: there’s still very little agreement – and I would like to say present TPBO-audience excluded, but I can’t – on what place branding projects should be about. Therefore, place branding projects range from simplistic visual design exercises to complete, in-depth place management strategies.
And it doesn’t stop there. Most strategies never really leave the paper on which they were written. Identifying a good strategy and getting a consensus amongst the stakeholders is just the first step. Making sure that the strategy is implemented in the governance of the place is a second.
Until we have clear, agreed criteria for a failed project, it is best to assume that all place branding projects are failed unless proven successful. Success is easier to see and the more of it, the less needs to be claimed.
Someone said in the 2000s that 90 percent of all place branding projects failed, and I think it is a fair ballpark figure.
Lessons in what failed three years ago may no longer even necessarily apply. Determining the failure rate would be an interesting exercise. But perhaps that account would be similar to the graveyard of EU cross-border projects – there are plenty done and plenty drafted, with certainly some excellent ideas piloted or put on paper. Is it any use to dig around in them? The world moves fast – if we want to learn, we need to learn with other means.
From our practice we know that root causes for failure include lack of making people understand why do any branding, a grave lack of leadership or management, insufficient involvement of stakeholders (place branding is a catchphrase, but in reality it is very concrete work with steering groups and sounding boards, for example), lack of will from highest management or politicians.
Another scenario is politicians, personas or organisations moving from owning and leading to hijacking and making the project their own pet project. Often, of course, people want quick solutions now and hence opt for a marketing campaign. Branding is not marketing.
It’s challenging to determine if a branding project has failed because in many cases the measures of success are unclear from the outset. For some projects it seems those measures of success are short term and tactical, so the projects simply run out of steam after a few years without long-term commitment or vision.
In fact, if it’s referred to as a project – that in itself indicates it’s short-term and unlikely to become embedded. An indication of commitment and likely long-term success is to establish a programme office and sustainable governance – rather than a project.
Of course, in some countries, leadership changes mean officials move on and projects or programmes simply wind up due to restructuring. New leadership often means starting again. This is one of the most challenging aspects of a country or place brand programme: successfully navigating through political change and upheaval. The successful programmes are those that can maintain a sense of purpose, clarity and vision throughout these changing times.
Root causes for place branding failure:
- Lack of understanding and knowledge about place branding
- Lack of political will to implement place branding
- Lack of stakeholder management
- Lack of measuring the place brand perception (and rather focus on the image that the political leaders want to have)
- Lack of financial resources
We can probably make search-engine analytics say anything we want them to say, but it’s important to be honest about success and failure. What do we honestly want to achieve with our place brand projects?
I’m now working for a place branding organisation, instead of acting as a consultant, and my view of this question has changed. Now that I am actually implementing the work, I see and feel the complications. It’s made me a better thinker.
That said, we’re making our clients’ and partners’ measurements of success our measurements of success, so we succeed and fail together. We’ve tested the word-mark. We know people will like it. Will it unify efforts, and inspire and encourage hundreds of thousands of people? We’re going to try really hard.
I have failed at every place branding project I have attempted. Some have been brilliant failures, with hundreds of thousands of people participating in a positive way. The brand has embedded itself in the place and endures, in some fashion, but it’s still a failure.
The root cause is just about always… people are complicated! When it’s really disappointing, the sort of thing that keeps you up at night, it’s almost always because someone – usually an agency partner – decided it should be an advertising campaign and nothing more.
True success, in place branding, is impossible. People are too messy to be “branded” in the usual definition, but those of us who have devoted ourselves to this impossible mission work our asses off to make it work. Everyone who toils in place branding for a decade or two would be really good at branding bread or apps or banks.
From a visitor/consumer perspective: Awareness and perception surveys. Ask what people think a country or city stands for in two sentences, or three words, and why it might inspire them to visit, instead of somewhere else.
From a destination/place perspective: Ask DMOs/NTOs/placemakers and managers to describe their place in two sentences, or three words, and why it might inspire people to visit instead of somewhere else. If they can’t provide a succinct description that conveys a visual, evocative and distinctive image to the questioner, and they use words like ‘quality’, ‘diversity’ and ‘something for everyone’, you know they’re dead in the water.
Find previous questions answered by the panel here.
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