Turning Towns into Taglines —
The Pitfalls of Place Branding


Too often a disastrous use of taxpayer’s money? Is place marketing that good?

Good place branding should be inclusive, Engaging communities and activating the people to let them be the brand.

It's seen by some to hold much controversy in whether there is in fact more detriment than good. Across the globe there is rivalry, to attract business, skilled workers, new residents, tourism and investment. This often means creating a national identity through promotion.

Photo by  Jasper James .

Photo by Jasper James.

Cities are complex, turning them into a tagline, so often homogenises the offering.

Simplified explanations of places have a failed miserably across the globe at astonishing levels. With only a 14% success rate, quoted by K 629 a U.S. consulting firm 86% of 5000 projects failed within the first year in 2014, creating a staggering $75 million loss of taxpayer money. But the question is, why is this failure rate so high? It starts by making a very clear distinction between marketing a place and branding it.

Place marketing is a demand driven way of managing places,

it's an outside in approach through which the offerings of the place are specifically designed to selected market segments, it should be easily measured by conversion rates segment by segment.

Kessels Kramer's 'I Amsterdam' campaign celebrates Amsterdam’s citizens in all their diversity.

Kessels Kramer's 'I Amsterdam' campaign celebrates Amsterdam’s citizens in all their diversity.

Place Branding is identity driven,

the goal being to influence perception and reputation measured by a carefully selected key perceptions indicator. These distinctions are critical in achieving success and there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to performance measurement.

For the nation brand to create a genuine ripple effect, considerable coordinated effort is required with sub-brands to get communication, local support and resources right. Creating a ‘toolbox’ of communication assets and making them available to all manner of parties by open source is now digitally very possible. The trick is to put an editorial team in place to manage, organise, train and coach their use. In many cases, there are parochial budgets which could be connected, it takes great charismatic leadership to pull such an initiative together.

With the rise of cities, we are reverting to ancient times with the organisation of ‘City States’. However, getting the nation right first then allows the regions and cities to thrive with in it. Every place is affected by the nation brand. Staying well-grounded should mean that programs should not talk about place or nation, but rather the visitor experience, creating jobs, and economic growth.

Cities are complex, and turning them into a tagline will not work when they are far more than such a simple explanation. Having a project mindset will most certainly spell doom for a project in that it should be an ongoing process by a whole range of different parties. A weak positioning trap is to try to be all things to everyone. The most exciting cities are the most diverse ones; they require accompanying stories inviting curious discovery as in the case of Eindhoven Holland.

What is vital is not to work against changes in society, but instead identify them, evaluate how best to align the strategy with them.

Using social media to engage citizens is not new in that Sweden was the first country in 2011 to handover its official Twitter account to its citizens. The project, ‘Curators of Sweden’, which uses the Twitter handle @sweden defends free speech and emphasises the importance of openness.

When I look across the globe at these various programs the most interesting developments, to me, are the ones that enable participatory decision-making for places. Small communities have enormous power when galvanised into action, they need to be given the tools and training as all of the stories and enthusiasm are usually lying there ready to be ignited.

We are going to see the rise rapidly of localism.

Faced with an overwhelming deluge of global information pouring in through powerful portable devices, communities are cultivating a greater sense of connection and control by focusing on their local area.

Two variations of Finland's very own sauna emoji.

Two variations of Finland's very own sauna emoji.

Finns have their own emojis and they are naked – can there be a cooler country? The emojis were covered in extensive articles in 2000+ global media from Time, CNN, BBC, NHK, Fox News, AP, Reuters to Wired and Huffington Post. They were shared, liked and retweeted in social media more than any other communications activity ever for Finland. The first emojis reached 154 million people through traditional media and the earned media raised up to 3.8 million euros, being all organic.

Political change should not act as a catalyst for Place Branding.

These projects should transcend any election cycle and not be captured by politicians looking to score electoral points. This doesn't mean that you should not involve politicians as they can act as powerful champions, the trick is to avoid them controlling the scope, the narrative and timing. The hardest part of managing a place brand strategy is in managing the stakeholders; when done well it can ensure the success of the program for years to come. Identifying stakeholders in a place brand exercise is to choose carefully the important partners across a range of sectors, selecting those with the most influence who are willing to collaborate. Universities, airports, economic development agencies, sports teams etc. the list is considerable, you need to find those who will benefit from the outcome and rank their contribution accordingly.

Photo by  Jasper James .

Photo by Jasper James.

Place branding is not a top-down exercise
but will only produce the best results when it is co-created

and maintained through a strong coalition between government, business, civil society and target markets. 

Place branding isn’t about a good slogan, logo and nice promotional campaigns. In the experience economy, you need an integrated strategy to capture the hearts and attention of visitors, investors and locals. This means that the place brand should be supported by policies, innovations, events, structures, investments and symbolic actions.