Is digital transformation the key to successful place branding?

The digital world is unavoidable. It seems strange to mention this at all – it’s intrinsic to the way we understand the world. According to Google research, 65% of tourists use search engines to inspire their travel choices. On the investment promotion side, a Bloom consulting study showed that more than 86% of investors use search engines as a primary source of information about potential countries to invest in (Nation Brand Builders, p. 125). And that was in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Four years down the line, there are 4.39 billion internet users. Today alone, over a million users will have come online for the first time.

But while the world has digitised rapidly over the last three decades, many organisations are failing to innovate. Effective digital transformation is key for the future success of place brands, destination marketing organisations and investment promotion agencies. So what lessons can we learn from the place brands that have implemented effective – and ingenious – digital reforms?

Why Helsingborg axed their tourist centres

With travel agents making the move away from brick and mortar establishments, Helsingborg took the plunge and closed their tourist centres. “The tourist centres used to be little kingdoms, and they knew everything about their area that was worth knowing,” mused Emma Håkansson, Head of Destination Development for the City of Helsingborg, Sweden. “That’s not true anymore – we don’t even know everything that is going on. Our strategy was to provide good service where the customers actually were.”

In the process, the destination marketing organisation found a new purpose. Rather than providing breadth of information, they discovered that most tourists were more interested in niche information that they couldn’t find elsewhere. An in-depth analysis in 2014 had shown that nearly 99% of visitors never connected with the tourism board at all, but it was second nature for tourists to reach out for this specialised information online.

However, while the move to a digital-first approach was a huge success in terms of visitor engagement, locals were another story. “They only saw that we closed down, and not that we still put as much money into tourism,” Emma explained. “We had a communication strategy that was almost to the hour by the end!” Advocacy is essential in digital transformation. Tourist centres are the most visible face of a tourism board – so keeping your citizens informed helps to ease the transition.


Easing the way for investment in Kent

Locate in Kent, based in the South East of England, became one of the first investment promotion agencies in Europe to implement a Global Information System [GIS]. Given the unique requirements of each potential investor, the GIS platform helps showcase the best traits of their investment locations in a visual, user-friendly mapping tool.

“The companies we work with require a high level of bespoke data to help make their investment decisions. Before using GIS, we had to use multiple data sources to compile this information,” said Simon Ryan, Investment Director at Locate in Kent. “This new technology enables us to respond much more quickly to the clients’ requests.”

At the click of a button, the GIS portal is able to provide detailed information including demographic data and labour force statistics, as well as potential local supply chain and competitor information, all in an easy-to-use visualisation tool.

“The GIS mapping tool is ideal for the first stage of fact-finding for investment decisions,” Anita Glover, Head of Marketing at Locate in Kent, explained. “We have continued to see excellent levels of engagement with the GIS portal and property enquiries generally. In the month of launch, we had more than 100 new registrations for the service.”

By moving to digital, they smoothed the user experience for both their team and their investor and made their destination more attractive as an investment site in doing so.


How Helsinki connected with a Chinese market

More and more place brands are looking to China for future growth, but how do you reach this market? Already a testbed for innovative solutions, Helsinki designed a WeChat mini-programme that provided personalised recommendations for Chinese tourists right in the app they were already using.

“When we started our collaboration with Tencent, we were searching for the most efficient way to share our content in the Chinese market. We had just opened our new digital service, based on genuine local recommendations and utilising open data,” stated Kaari Artemjeff, Marketing Manager for China & Russia at Helsinki Marketing. “We wanted to use the same approach but in the digital environment more easily accessible to Chinese users.”

Through the MyHelsinki mini-programme, Chinese visitors travelling to Helsinki are able to review recommendations for restaurants and activities, choose personalised ways of transportation and pay for transport digitally. All this from just one app that met the audience where they already were.

“The collaboration has been a dynamic process, with lots of learning by doing,” Kaari mused. “The global PR value of the collaboration has been invaluable.”


The future of digital transformation for place brands

What does the future hold for destination marketing organisations and investment promotion agencies? With 5G on the horizon, the technological possibilities are infinite. Increased video streaming speeds will make video an easier format to access. Likewise, VR and AR tours could easily become the normal. And with connectivity growing exponentially, personalisation will be possible at the most granular level. More and more places will be able to optimise for the digital world. Those that don’t will quickly be left behind.

That’s just three quick snapshots of effective digital transformation in place branding. There are numerous other examples, and the exact formula for success will vary from destination to destination. However, a clear communication strategy, creating an easier user experience and meeting your audience where they already spend time are all key to digital transformation. 5G will continue to open up doors so the sky is the limit for creative DMOs and IPAs!

Interested in learning more? Check out our latest place branding articles.

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