Xinxin Liu on City Branding in China: Navigating Urban Identity and Economic Growth

Step into the world of city branding with Xinxin Liu, an Associate Professor at the Communication University of China. With a Master’s degree in Globalization and Mass Communication from the University of Leicester and a Ph.D. in Advertising from the Communication University of China, Xinxin has played a key role in crafting the identities of various cities, including Chengdu, Gaozhou, and Wuhan’s Optics Valley.

Join us as we explore Xinxin Liu’s fascinating insights and experiences in the realm of city branding in China.

Xinxin, what sparked your interest or led you to become involved in city branding, particularly within the context of China?

In 2007, I completed my master’s studies in the UK and embarked on a journey back to Beijing, where I started to establish myself at the Communication University of China. At that time, China was actively preparing for the highly anticipated 2008 Beijing Olympics, sparking a fervor for national image research. Being keenly aware that China’s overseas image communication was still in its early stages, I was deeply impressed by the vast research and practical opportunities it presented.

During that period, a prominent scholar in the field of communication in China suggested to us young scholars that the future of China belonged to the era of city competition, emphasizing that young communication scholars should focus on researching city image instead of national image.

Since 2008, I have dedicated myself wholeheartedly to researching city branding, covering aspects such as image communication, branding strategy, city governance, and communication, spanning a journey of 15 years.

The reality is that China has undergone significant changes in the last 15 years, leading to a growing demand for city branding and image communication.

All of this can be traced back to the careful guidance of my predecessors, my burning desire to shape China’s global image, and most importantly, my deep love for studying cities as a research subject at the meso level. These are the things that have given me an unending passion for advancing and exploring China’s city branding.

Could you outline the main differences between city branding in China and Europe and the unique challenges Chinese cities face?

Before discussing the differences between Chinese and European city branding, I would like to begin by discussing the unique aspects of urbanization in China because this forms the fundamental basis for these differences.

China’s urban administrative system consists of four levels: municipalities, provincial-level cities, prefecture-level cities, and county-level cities.  As of the end of 2021, there were a total of 691 cities in China, including 4 municipalities, 15 sub-provincial cities, 278 prefecture-level cities, and 394 county-level cities. Additionally, there were 21,297 township-level cities with an orderly increase in both county-level cities and townships.

The growth in these numbers reflects China’s rapid process of urbanization as the urbanization rate increased from 17.9% in 1978 to 65.2% by the end of 2021. Notably, the urbanization rates of 25 Chinese cities exceed 80%, indicating that within less than half a century China has achieved what took Western countries two to three centuries to accomplish in terms of urbanization.

The direct consequence of this rapid urbanization has been extensive infrastructure construction and expansion of urban areas accompanied by typical “urban diseases” such as traffic congestion and environmental pollution.

To address these challenges, Chinese cities are focusing on urban renewal efforts aimed at enhancing their carrying capacity while improving living environments and preserving cultural heritage.

Recent practices in urban renewal have primarily focused on three directions: emphasizing habitat improvement through ecological restoration and optimization; renewing residential areas with an emphasis on community participation and people-oriented approaches while preserving historical value and distinctive features; integrating city characteristics into cultural renewal efforts to create unique city styles that promote overall development through city branding.

For this reason, the promotion of city branding in China follows a top-down approach, with the government playing a decisive role. Although there has been progress in citizen participation and multi-stakeholder collaboration, there is still much room for improvement compared to European cities.

The main goal of Chinese city branding is to stimulate economic growth and cultural innovation, emphasizing the role of brand building in economic development and revitalization of traditional culture.

European city branding, on the other hand, places more emphasis on sustainable development and the improvement of living quality, focusing on integration and optimization of public services, which reflects the different stages of urban development.

In terms of international communication, Chinese city brands mainly rely on domestic media and social media platforms for promotion while international communication and reputation building are still at an initial stage.

Conversely, due to the advantage of internationalization through European languages and cultures, European city branding has a more comprehensive approach to international communication which reflects differences in communication resources and strategies between the two.

Based on this, we can see that the main differences in city branding between China and Europe stem from variations in urbanization stages, divergences in urban development strategies as well as roles played by governments versus citizen participation. Additionally, different objectives exist regarding brand building along with discrepancies in international communication capabilities.

The current challenges facing Chinese city branding mainly stem from the homogenization issues brought on by rapid urbanization. This phenomenon starkly reflects that in pursuit of modernization, many cities have adopted similar planning and development modes, leading to a lack of distinctiveness and individuality among them.

This homogenization is not only reflected in architectural styles and urban layouts but extends to the design of cultural activities and public spaces, diluting the unique charm and recognition of cities.

Especially in the incorporation of cultural elements, although each city has its unique historical and cultural resources, they often face challenges in transforming these resources into attractive city brands due to a lack of innovative and personalized strategies.

Homogenization also severely affects the ability of Chinese cities to shape unique brand images internationally. In the context of social media and the dissemination of web traffic, each city needs to find its voice and features, but homogenization makes this goal even more challenging.

The phenomenon of “Internet-famous cities” has brought brief attention and traffic to some areas, but this over-reliance on short-term attractiveness rather than deep cultural communication can further exacerbate the superficiality issue of city branding.

These challenges provide a profound insight into the predicaments currently faced by Chinese city branding, calling for a more in-depth and innovative approach to reevaluate and construct the uniqueness and brand value of cities.

Can you share a successful example of city branding in China that has notably changed a city’s image or economic landscape?

There are many successful cases of city branding, among which I would like to share particularly about the development of the Quzhou city brand.

Quzhou is located in the western part of Zhejiang province. Zhejiang is one of the most economically developed provinces in China, boasting cities like Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Wenzhou, which are well-known for their market economies.

In stark contrast is Quzhou, which has always been under great pressure in economic and cultural spheres, particularly in terms of city visibility. The name “Quzhou” is still unfamiliar to many people.

In 2017, the Quzhou municipal government took decisive measures to change this situation. Under the leadership of Mayor Xu Wenguang, the municipal government’s research department published a significant research report titled “Several Thoughts on Building ‘Quzhou Courtesy’ as a Regional Brand.”

The report emphasized that building the “Quzhou Courtesy” brand was not only of great significance, but it should also become a key project of the municipal government, requiring deepened research and the realization of co-construction, co-creation, and sharing. This decision put the construction of the “Quzhou Courtesy” city brand on a fast track of development.

On March 27, 2018, the third session of the Seventh People’s Congress of Quzhou was held. As a city brand, “The Holy Land of Southern Confucius· Quzhou Courtesy” was included in the “Government Work Report” for the first time. This not only aroused strong resonance among the delegates and citizens but also marked the formation of the concept of “Courtesy” governance in Quzhou.

At the same time as promoting the ‘Polite Quzhou’ concept, the city of Quzhou also devoted considerable effort on the institutional level, releasing directives like “Quzhou City’s Regulations for Promoting Civilized Behavior”, “Quzhou Courtesy Citizen Convention”, and “Quzhou Courtesy Villager Convention”, thus ensuring that courteous behavior is safeguarded at a legal level.

In order to normalize courteous behavior, Quzhou pioneered China’s first “Courtesy Index”. A systematic set of indicators for government work evaluation, quantifying the degree of ‘courtesy’, was established for measurement and demonstration.

This organized effort integrated the work of economic development, social education, the creation of national civilized cities, and others, into city branding.

In the meantime, Quzhou also set up a special team responsible for shaping the city brand, designed brand logos, city cartoon images, and mascots, and solicited the creation of a city song, forming the ‘Polite Quzhou’ series of brand clusters.

All these activities promoted resource sharing and mutual empowerment across the city, fueling collective innovation and progress in the city’s image. Quzhou also encouraged diverse media reporting on the “Southern Holy Land, Polite Quzhou” theme, and brought city mascots “Grandfather Nankong” and “Happy Little Deer” into people’s lives through various channels.

At the same time, the city brand was further promoted through a variety of activities, such as calligraphy, singing, cultural product design competitions, etc.

After ‘Polite Quzhou’ took root in people’s hearts, the city’s economy, awareness, and tourist experience improved.

Quzhou has not only achieved a good reputation domestically but has also started to explore international communication, aiming to achieve greater success on the global stage. This above-noted process demonstrates how Quzhou incorporated brand construction into urban governance, serving as a paradigm of a city that comprehensively enhances its development capacity through brand building.

What common challenges do Chinese cities encounter in their branding strategies?

In the process of promoting city branding strategies, Chinese cities generally face several key challenges.

Firstly, the issue of homogenous competition; many cities over-rely on similar elements such as history, culture, or natural landscapes in shaping their brands. This leads to a lack of differentiation between cities, making it hard to stand out amongst many competitors.

Secondly, resource integration is lacking in city brand building. Effective brand building requires cross-departmental and cross-field cooperation. Nonetheless, this is often hindered due to insufficient departmental cooperation or a lack of resource-sharing mechanisms.

The third challenge is inaccurate positioning; some city brands may be too vague or inconsistent with the city’s actual features, preventing the accurate attraction of the target audience.

Moreover, insufficient effort in brand communication also contributes to the failure to form a deep impression on the public.

Finally, city brand building is a continuous process that requires long-term input and strategy updates, but challenges of continuity, such as policy changes and financial constraints, often make it difficult to maintain the continuity and timeliness of brand development.

How can these hurdles be addressed?

Overcoming these challenges is no easy task, but in serving the government, my team and I have developed a set of tools to tackle these issues.

Firstly, we improve the hierarchy by convincing city managers to elevate the city brand to a critical level, ensuring their awareness of its pivotal role in city development. If direct high-level support isn’t possible, we can help to develop an interdepartmental cooperation framework to ensure effective collaboration between different departments, promoting city brand development together.

Secondly, we build bridges. My team and I facilitate interdepartmental interaction by encouraging and assisting heads of responsible departments to share ideas and review proposals with heads of other government departments, enhancing their focus on and participation in city brand building. This type of interaction will help to integrate resources from all parties, driving the smooth implementation of city brand planning and construction.

Furthermore, regarding positioning, my team and I are committed to exploring the unique qualities of the city, for which we’ve established a three-step rule: initially, we understand the city’s history and culture by studying municipal and county annals; next, we understand the city’s development focus by analyzing government work reports from the past five years. Finally, we clean up keywords capturing comments on social media through big data. This three-dimensional positioning method allows us to capture the unique image of the city in the minds of all stakeholders, thereby positioning the city brand.

Lastly, concerning the issue of official rotation, we acknowledge that this might impact the continuity of city brand strategies. To mitigate this issue, we suggest formulating relevant strategies within a government tenure, such as a three or two-year plan. This way, we can ensure continuity of the strategy, maintaining consistency and effectiveness in brand strategy, even when faced with official rotations.

What current trends are shaping city branding in China?

In the current trend of city brand building in China, digital marketing is tightly linked with the development of the tourism industry, especially igniting waves of cultural experiences through word-of-mouth.

A prime example is the “Go to Zibo for Barbecue” campaign triggered by TikTok short videos from March 2023. This activity quickly gained popularity online and elicited nationwide interest in Zibo‘s barbecue and the city’s culture. In response to the sudden nationwide rush for its barbecue, the Zibo municipal government promptly reacted and integrated the city’s resources to ensure the travel, accommodation, and quality of experience for tourists from other regions.

Since March, Zibo’s 1,288 barbecue restaurants have served around 4 million customers and the total amount of social consumer goods retail sales reached 31.36 billion RMB. This activity stimulated the city’s first-quarter GDP growth to reach 4.7%, with a total exceeding 100 billion RMB.

The Zibo municipal government also launched 34 new settings for the night economy and planned to invest 8.401 billion RMB into 79 major cultural and tourism projects. At the beginning of 2024, the municipality established “Grateful for the Encounter, Enjoy Touring Zibo,” as a core city branding strategy and particularly launched three major brand strategies called “The Unknown Zibo,” “The Different Zibo,” and “The Extraordinary Zibo.”

This case reflects how short video content and media communication effectively promoted the development of city branding strategies and momentarily became a hot topic of discussion.

Moreover, successful cases of this method of branding and communication centered around social media and short video content can be seen in other cities such as Luoyang and Harbin, which suggests that this trend is increasingly becoming more pronounced. This not only provides a new avenue for city brand building but also injects new vitality into the economic and cultural development of a city.

However, becoming an “internet famous” on social media, as I mentioned in answering the above question, is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it brings online attention to the city, which can be converted into tourist numbers and consumption within a hot period, but in the long run, what kind of lasting and qualitative impact it brings to the city’s brand assets is worth evaluating. This depends on whether the city government can seize the opportunity to turn online attention into brand focus, and it also depends on the city managers’ understanding and competence in building the city’s brand.

Lastly, how do you think platforms like TPBO can contribute to the evolution of city branding in China?

In my view, TPBO, as a platform, gathers a wealth of academic and industry resources. These resources are precisely what China currently lacks and needs in terms of both sustainable and community participation development.

Taking China’s city brand building as an example, when it comes to the integration of sustainability, there is a real need for top-level planning and guidance. From the establishment of concepts to the reference of practices, think tanks play a pivotal role in providing copious directions and forming a systemic guiding framework.

On the level of community participation, Chinese governments at all levels are exploring effective methods for better community and citizen participation, yet are all feeling their way by following precedent. There is an urgent need for mature experiences to learn from and borrow.

These areas all present opportunities for TPBO in China, perhaps through the promotion of TPBO in China, an effective and useful idea of city brand development can take shape for Chinese urban growth. With TPBO’s accumulated international resources, they can provide even more assistance and guidance to Chinese cities.

Thank you, Xinxin.

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