Embedding your values in your place branding strategy

As place branders, we are the storytellers of our cities and our nations. The stories we tell have to reflect the everyday reality that our residents face, and they have to engage with the audiences that you want to attract. However, when you’re taking something as complex and multifaceted as a place, how do you identify who you are and the values that are at the core of your DNA?

“Humans are narrative-driven creatures and stories are how we make sense of the world around us and our own place in it,” Dan Terris, Head of Marketing & Brand at Ōtautahi Christchurch, told us. “Stories need to be consistent, intentional, and based on evidence, so they resonate with the local community, business, and visitors.”

Ahead of City Nation Place Global this November 8-9th, we reached out to some of our speakers to understand what they considered to be the essential tenets of delivering a place branding strategy that is firmly rooted in the authentic values of your community.

Listen, listen, and listen again.

At the top of the list, and threaded through all the responses we received, was the utmost importance of truly listening to your community. “A values-led approach to place branding and place marketing requires a genuine ongoing commitment to listen and understand the views and values of the people that live there, as well as the culture and history that has gone before,” Dan continued.

Oslo underwent a similar process during the development of their place brand in 2015. “Our aim extended beyond merely embracing a passing trend or crafting a logo and slogan,” Siw Andersen, CEO, of Oslo Business Region, explained. “We recognised the importance of collaboration within Norwegian culture, anchoring our approach in shared values and identity through conversations and feedback from over 1000 people and organisations, making it apolitical.”

Siw’s mention of apoliticism is an interesting one, and one that gets to the heart of why it’s so important as place branders to listen to your community and allow your strategy to be guided by their lived experience. At our last conference for UK cities and regions, the CEO of Sheffield City Council highlighted that if your place brand doesn’t speak to the breadth of your community and the challenges that they’re facing, you won’t drive equitable development.

As place branders, you need to be able to actively listen to your residents, and to challenge yourself to find new ways of reaching disenfranchised communities. Who’s already at the table? What are the barriers to participating? Perhaps you need to provide forums where parents can bring their small children along with them. Perhaps you need to go into schools and find out what’s really impacting your young people. Or perhaps you need to reach out to community leaders within the groups you struggle to reach to understand what you can be doing better.

“For the New Zealand Story, the key was to incorporate indigenous Māori values and world views, while not appropriating them or alienating those who don’t yet understand the concepts,” shared David Downs, CEO of the New Zealand Story Group. “To do this we had to authentically engage with a wide variety of stakeholders and utilise the skills of a cultural expert to help us navigate this.”

Understand how your place brand can deliver for your community – now, and in the future.

As we all know, place branding isn’t a vanity project. Done right, it’s a long-term strategic roadmap to help shape the future of your place, prioritise the quality of life for your residents, and drive equitable growth. And as Nakyoung Kim, Team Leader – City Branding Team at Goyang City Government, outlined, “to develop a values-led approach to place branding and place marketing, first we need to understand the needs and desires of the target audience: residents, visitors, and investors.”

Christchurch’s Dan Terris shared a similar sentiment and explained that the active engagement of their citizens allowed them to shape their strategy in response to the needs of their residents. “This provides the foundation to identity what is unique, where the place is now, and where it wants to be in the future, ensuring the brand is authentic and believable,” said Dan. “Ongoing commitment to listening and measuring means the brand can adapt and evolve to remain relevant.”

The ongoing commitment is essential, because unlike a soft drink or streaming platform, a place is constantly evolving. The makeup of your city is constantly shifting, and so are the wants and needs of your communities. By developing a feedback loop of listening and re-evaluating how your strategy is measuring up to those requirements, you can ensure that your place brand will continue to deliver as your place grows and develops.

Fostering trust in a time of distrust

Trust in governments is still extremely low, but according to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, 68% of people globally would say that ‘brands celebrating what brings us together and emphasising our common interest would strengthen the social fabric.’

Your community need to trust that you’re working towards their best interests. As Oslo’s Siw Andersen shared with us, “establishing trust emerged as an important factor for the success of the values-driven methodology.”

This is particularly true in times of economic crisis when people may be more likely to look at the expense of a place brand or marketing campaign and demand to know why money has been spent in this way. But if you’re engaging with your citizens regularly, you can waylay some of those potential concerns.

“Once the core values have been identified, they should be integrated into the branding strategy in a way that is inclusive and participatory of the local communities,” stressed Goyang City’s Nakyoung Kim, before she went on to remind us of the importance of co-creating your place brand strategy hand-in-hand with your community.

Leveraging Sustainable Development Goals to prioritise inclusive growth.

Adam Burke, President & CEO of Discover Los Angeles, referenced the importance of bring a ‘community-centric’ organisation when we asked what he considered to be the key to delivering a values-led approach to place branding and marketing. After all, what’s good for residents is always good for tourism – but the reverse doesn’t always hold true. However, it can be a challenge to identify the areas where you can make most impact and ensure that your strategy helps your place to develop responsibly, sustainably, and equitably.

“Rather than reinvent the wheel, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide the perfect framework for a values-led approach,” Adam continued explaining to us. “In that context, we’ve opted to focus on Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG #8), Reduced Inequalities (#10), Sustainable Cities and Communities (#11), and Partnerships for the Goals (#17). These all represent areas where we believe we can make a significant, long-term difference.”

By adopting Sustainable Development Goals, you also hold yourself accountable to making progress in those areas. However, like with all core values, they have to be integrated throughout your strategy and be relevant to your work and the everyday experience of your community.

Staying true to your story and your values

Finally, once you’ve identified the values that you’re building your place brand strategy around, you need to stay true to this. Yes, your brand will evolve – we’ll be hearing from the Estonian Ambassador to London, Viljar Lubi, at the Global conference about how Estonia integrated a new pillar of ‘democratic values’ into their strategy in response to Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But, you have to be confident about your values and be guided by your central mission. Your place is made up of the challenges and hardships that your residents face just as much as it about the opportunities available to them and your cultural strengths. However, to develop a strategy that faithfully reflects the lived reality of your community and takes steps to build a better future for all, you have to be able to own up to all aspects of your place.

The strength of your place, whether you represent a city, region, or nation, is that it is your place. People aren’t looking for cookie-cutter experiences. They want to experience what it is that makes your place unique – even if some of that is also a core element of other place brand strategies.

“Sometimes I get the comment that [our brand values] are not as unique as the other more internationally oriented values,” Luuk Helleman, Programme Manager – City Branding for the City of The Hague, told us. “And you know what? They are absolutely right about that. I think the goal of good place branding is not always to outdo other places, but to help build a city that residents recognise themselves in and are proud of.”

City Nation Place Global brings together early adopters and disrupters from place branding and place marketing organisations around the world to discover how a joined-up approach to storytelling can deliver better value for your residents, visitors, and investors. Join us in London on November 8-9th to connect with a global cohort of place practitioners and to be inspired by best practice case studies. 

Siw Andersen, CEO of Oslo Business Region, Adam Burke, President & CEO, Discover L.A, David Downs, CEO of The New Zealand Story, Luuk Helleman, Programme Manager – City Branding for the The Hague, Nakyoung Kim, Team Leader - City Branding Team at Goyang City Government, and Dan Terris, Head of Marketing & Brand at Ōtautahi Christchurch, will be sharing their expertise as part of the agenda, alongside many other place branding movers and shakers – see the full agenda here to find out more!

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