Beyond place branding

Place branding, as it is generally practised, can be a waste of taxpayers’ money. Nicholas Ind says the model should be more participative, and that place branding should be at the forefront of democratization and engagement

Dr Nicholas Ind
Partner, Equilibrium

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 6, no. 1, 2013

This is an edited version of the chapter ‘Beyond Place Branding’ by Nicholas Ind and Erling Dokk Holm that appears in the International Place Branding Yearbook 2012: Managing Smart Growth and Sustainability, by Frank M. Go and Robert Govers.

In spite of the long history of places promoting their virtues to visitors, commentators and investors, the concept of place branding is relatively new. In this context, the idea that there should already be a ‘beyond’ might seem hasty. However, we will argue that much place branding as it has been practised has really been place marketing, concerned more with creating an image through external communication than developing the experience of a place. This has tended to make place branding seem superficial and short-termist—more concerned with visitor numbers, reputation indices and growth figures than connecting with the needs and wants of citizens. So here we will turn place branding inwards and focus on three trends that are creating the opportunity to promote citizen participation and to develop more sustainable approaches to brand building that can deliver well-being for all.

The problem with (place) branding
The challenge for branding in general and place branding in particular is rooted in its orientation towards communication and the concentration of resources on building external image. Traditionally, there has been an emphasis on one-way communication, whereby brands make selective promises that align with stakeholders’ needs and wants. The communications-led approach also tends to treat stakeholders as passive recipients of brand meaning. However, this model is breaking down, as communication becomes more interactive, organizations more transparent and relationships more focused on service. Increasingly, branding is concerned with enabling dialogue as the brand evolves in interaction with its stakeholders. Meaning is no longer controlled by brand managers but rather co-created in the intersection between the brand and the individual. This perspective sees stakeholders as active participants who help to create value.
   As brand-building moves beyond the control of organizations and institutions and the importance attached to communications diminishes relative to the other components that define brand experience, so branding, as traditionally practised, loses relevance. It could be argued that this represents the death of branding, but brands seem to matter as much as they have always done. Rather the process of brand-building is changing. It is becoming more open and participative. Stakeholders have a clear desire to be active in shaping what brands are and may become and they increasingly expect brands to be responsive and responsible in engaging in a dialogue. When it comes to place branding specifically, the temptation to focus on defining and communicating those attributes that are defined as unique, increasingly looks misplaced. As Anholt argues, ‘there appears to be no evidence to suggest that using marketing communications to influence international public perceptions of an entire city, region or country is anything other than a vain and foolish waste of taxpayers’ money.’ This view moves brand beyond the narrow idea of communication to something that involves stakeholders in an active way in place-making. In other words, the focus should be on how institutions can better connect strategy, culture and widespread involvement and how individuals, groups and organizations can be encouraged to recognize their responsibility for making life worthwhile for themselves and for others. So, rather than just trumpeting slogans to investors, tourists and businesses, place branding should turn inwards and encourage democratization.

Living with participation
It would seem obvious that governmental and economic institutions play an important role in making a place. Governments set agendas, run budgets, create structures and systems, define strategies and play an integrative role. They determine whether a city gets a new opera house, whether there is sufficient funding for environmental initiatives and whether the transport infrastructure meets the needs of citizens. The challenge here is that these decisions can often seem remote from people. In an analysis of how New Orleans’ planners failed to seize the opportunity, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to reconstruct the city for the well-being of all, Kristina Ford argues there was a lack of participation. In The Trouble with City Planning, she suggests that good city plans tap into the knowledge and creativity of citizens and stimulate a ‘wider conversation about the city’s future and spreads responsibility for bringing about what a citizenry desires.’1
   Places do sometimes adopt a participative philosophy, but there could be far greater dialogue between government and citizens, more involvement of people in co-creation and greater democratization. The value of this ought to be obvious. By tapping into the diverse skills that engineers, teachers, scientists, designers and other citizens can bring to a challenge, relevant innovations can emerge. As Steve Johnson argues about large groups in Where Good Ideas Come from,2 it is not the crowd itself that becomes wise, but rather that connected individuals become smarter. If individuals fail to engage, it is because of a feeling of remoteness; that it is difficult to make one’s voice heard and to have a genuine dialogue on things that matter. Yet, when the opportunity to participate is created there are clear benefits. For example, studies in Scandinavia demonstrate that there is a link between the ability to participate in local politics and the well-being of citizens. Citizens in smaller municipalities are more satisfied with the level of public services, than those who live in larger municipalities. More important though is that citizens in smaller municipalities have more solid trust in the political and administrative unit and their elected representatives—in other words in the democratic system—than those living in in larger municipalities. Cities that offer citizens a real say are in a much better position to meet the demands of the future, not only because democratic activity identifies what inhabitants are interested in, but also because democratic participation produces meaning and loyalty. We can also see in Switzerland, where there is a long history of direct democracy at all levels of government, and where every municipality and canton has its own constitution, that citizens are very active in determining how they live their lives. Interestingly, where the political participation levels are highest, one finds better public services and stronger economies.
   As places become more participative, interactive, innovative and environmentally aware, they better meet the needs and wants of citizens. Place managers can and should be at the forefront of creating opportunities for democratization and engaging with the wide diversity of talents that live and work in communities, towns and cities. This is valuable for citizens because it provides an opportunity for meaning making and social interaction and beneficial to places because they can better meet the needs of all their stakeholders. To make this change place managers need to move away from an emphasis on external brand building and turn inwards to communicate better with citizens, businesses and institutions to help people to realize their potential and to encourage innovative approaches to tackling the pressing problems of over consumption and environmental damage. At the same time, citizens, both as individuals and as part of communities, need to take responsibility in helping places maximize the well-being for all.

   1. K. Ford: The Trouble with City Planning. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press 2011, pp. 230–1.
   2. S. Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come from. New York: Riverhead 2011.

Nicholas IndBeyond place branding

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