City Nation Place Think Tank: Key lessons

Over 50 place brand practitioners from all over the world gathered together on the day before this year’s City Nation Place conference to share insights on two key topics – when to initiate or refresh a place brand strategy and how to engage key stakeholders. The Think Tank was led by Dr Keith Dinnie, author of Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice and editor of the book City Branding: Theory and Cases [both published by Palgrave-Macmillan].  In this report, Giannina Warren, Lecturer in Advertising and Promotional Culture at Middlesex University in the UK, summarises the key findings and insights of the session.

Initiating a Place Brand Strategy

The first session of the Think Tank focused on the conditions that might trigger a place branding exercise. Participants listed three reasons why policy makers might decide the time is right to pursue a place brand strategy, and one specific reason NOT to consider it.

A Crisis

Unfortunately, sometimes a major crisis can befall a city or country, due to factors unforeseen and beyond its control. The crisis might be physical, such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, or the SARS outbreak in Toronto. In such cases, the place has no choice but to rebuild its image — sometimes the messages can be as basic water and road safety, or assuring residents and visitors that the violence or outbreak has passed; but in the long term the messages are usually directed at creating compelling tourism offers, or convincing business that the economic climate is safe enough to reconsider for investment.

Another type of crisis can be reputational — a country is seen to be lacking in progressive values through the censoring of individuals, or the government fails to adhere to internationally recognised democratic norms or trade relations. In either case, place brand practitioners have a rather challenging road ahead, both in curtailing negative messages that might spread quickly about the place through both traditional and social media, as well as turning around the narrative to focus on more long-term positive messages that might need to skew slightly aspirational, especially in the near-term wake of the crisis.

Audience/Perception Change

Sometimes the prevailing stories or beliefs about a place can become outdated or stale. This happens when the perception of the place diverges with what is really happening on the ground, and the narrative hasn’t yet caught up. Perhaps the population demographic has changed considerably, or the dominant industries fueling the local economy have moved on or even collapsed. What is clear is that perception doesn’t match reality, and it’s time to take stock of what the place now represents, and create a new brand narrative around that.

Coming of Age

Beyond tourism, ‘new’ places — those places that have young democracies, or have been formed through amalgamation, or have not enjoyed international awareness previously, have a real opportunity to use place branding initiatives to advance their positioning both regionally as well as globally. This is especially true of Tier 3 and 4 cities who might be experiencing exciting innovations in new knowledge and creative industries, or are developing economies that elevate them out of the shadows of their Tier 1/2 or capital city counterparts. Again this offers a ripe environment for a place brand effort that is firmly focused on the future and establishing that place as a competitor in a new field.

When NOT to prioritise place branding: 

Think Tank participants resoundingly agreed that political change should not act as a catalyst for place branding. A solid place brand transcends an election cycle and should not be privy to the whims of politicians looking to score electoral points. However, there is an agreement that a place branding initiative offers a real opportunity to involve politicians and get them on board with the dominant narrative, and leverage their desire for legitimacy and the spotlight among their citizens. Politicians can act as powerful champions for a place brand, and are in fact vital stakeholders in the exercise — however promotional practitioners would be wise to refrain from allowing them to control the scope, the narrative and the timing.

Key Takeaways

An effective, long-term place brand strategy need not be influenced by the winds of political change or even a crisis, physical or reputational. It takes a great deal of time to establish the foundations, build relationships with stakeholders and get it right. While there are three good reasons listed above to initiative or implement a place brand endeavor, practitioners still need a champion to ensure buy-in is achieved among both the political and private sectors, the funds are available, and the place is ready to commit to it over the long term.

This relies on a commitment to collaboration and co-creation, by leveraging citizen engagement, political support and public/private partnerships. The connections to be made should be considered laterally and span tourism, education, institutions, government, and industry. The management of these stakeholders and the unique challenges that offers was the subject of the second Think Tank session, covered below.

In the meantime, participants had this advice for any new practitioners just about to undergo a new place branding initiative:

  1. Be clear about the goals and objectives you can actually achieve, and be sure to communicate them regularly.
  2. Use consistent terminology — the term ‘brand’ is still loaded for many stakeholders, and may not be an appropriate term for your program.
  3. Be inclusive and comprehensive in your outreach, and use whatever tools are available to you to communicate with stakeholders. There is no such thing as too much communication when undertaking a place brand initiative.

Stakeholder Management – The Holy Grail of Place Branding

The second session focused on stakeholders — participants spent time discussing the many diverse stakeholders that place brand practitioners must consider, and how they can be both included in the process, and leveraged to help make the brand a success. This involves both getting their input in various stages of the process, as well as relying on them to play a significant role in the output of strategies and messages to broader audiences.

The first step in identifying stakeholders in a place brand exercise is to choose carefully. Important partners can be found in the private and education sectors, among arms-length government institutions, and even in the global diaspora. The key is to identify those with the most influence who are willing to collaborate — universities, airports, attractions, venues, multi levels of government, sports teams, small business incubators and even the media — all have the potential to be important stakeholders, and practitioners must not only think expansively, but laterally about who might be the best targets.

However, once they are identified, formalized cooperation with stakeholders is necessary. A defined stakeholder agreement, and consistency when it comes to communication and managing expectations is paramount. A broad array of channels are available to assist with this, and practitioners should ensure they use as many as possible — social media, meetings, events, and leveraging influencers as ambassadors are all useful ways of ensuring as many as possible are on board. Relationship management tends to be the most important job of place brand professionals, and it might be a good idea to tie various KPIs to these relationships, giving priority to relevance, resonance and respect as markers of success in this area.

However, sometimes important stakeholder relationships can be problematic. The government might decide to change its policies, which can impact funding for place branding programs. Corporations within the private sector might have reputational issues that impact the brand, and arms-length agencies might have conflicting priorities that result in conflicting messages. Some stakeholders might find the exercise of branding the place distasteful, and question the need for allocating tax revenue to it.

Practitioners must make themselves aware of the resistance, and work very hard to counteract it by whatever means are available, as it is important to have as many partners as possible pulling in the same direction. A good strategy is to try to bring dissenters into the fold, ensuring that they feel they are a vital part of the overall strategy, and that their input matters. The concept of ‘co-creation’ is important here, as it treats a place branding exercise as a collaborative and community-driven endeavor. Practitioners must put themselves in their stakeholders’ shoes, considering how their interests might be served or their values reflected in the brand. It might even be necessary to avoid talking about it being a brand, or a marketing program — perhaps the best way to convince stakeholders of the importance or value of the work is to frame it within economic or cultural development narratives. The important thing to do is to adapt and diversity the message to align with the audience being considered.

Adapting a co-creative strategy and acting as an ‘Honest Broker’ among diverse stakeholder groups allows place branding practitioners to identify the core values of the place, structure them within a stakeholder agreement, and hopefully encourage everyone to abide by them. Of course, the only way to do this effectively is to communicate those values clearly, and often! It is absolutely necessary to make as many tools as widely available as possible to stakeholders — strategy documents, key messages, videos and imagery, PR tools, metrics and KPIs. A charismatic and highly visible champion can ensure the brand story stays top of mind among politicians and the media. And a collaborative, transparent and inclusive approach to managing relationships can go a long way to ensuring the brand resonates with the right audiences over the long term.

Perhaps the most important advice from Think Tank professionals? Never, ever give up! The hardest part of managing a place brand strategy is in managing the stakeholders, but it is also non-negotiable. When done well, it can ensure the success of the program for years to come.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.