How to implement a bottom-up approach to country branding

In 2011, Vibe Israel began the task of igniting new conversations that would challenge the international perception that Israel was little more than a site of conflict. Before the City Nation Place Global conference, the CEO of Vibe Israel, Joanna Landau, explained to us what they mean by "bottom-up country branding" and how they worked to implement such a monumental image change.

CNP: Why do you think it’s important to have a conference that brings together place branding practitioners from across the world to discuss the biggest challenges and emerging opportunities for cities, regions and nations working on their place brand strategy?

JL: Place branding is such a specialized area of expertise. There are not many of us out there specialising in this work, and this where the opportunity lies: CNP brings us all together, to learn from one another and improve the overall quality of this very specific, often misunderstood, profession.

CNP: How has your organisation or team’s role changed over the last five years? And what major trend or issue do you predict will impact on your strategy in the coming years?

JL: We are in the very unique position of attempting to do what we’re calling “Bottom-Up Country Branding” – rather than wait for our government to call the shots, we are a nonprofit, non-governmental movement without our government’s official mandate but with their implicit support, catalyzing proper branding for our country. In the long-term we expect the government to join the effort, but to do so, we need to prove place branding’s value. In the last five years, we have moved from a single-channel branding strategy for our country (through working with digital influencers) to developing a broad, holistic multi-year country branding and marketing effort that includes multiple channels of operation, and is reliant on stakeholder engagement as much as it is on the government getting on board and partnering with us on this national effort.

CNP: Effective place branding has always required a long-term view – and increasingly place brand strategies are aiming for more “sustainable” tourism and economic development. How do you define “sustainability” in place branding?

JL: Place branding is a never-ending effort that has a beginning and a middle but no end. Sustainable to me in this context means “lasting”, or “never-ending”. For this to happen, the strategy has to be timeless, the implementation future-proof (i.e. not reliant solely on government/local government leadership as it can be political and disappear depending on who’s leading the place at any given time), and the mandate belonging to the people, not just the leadership. In essence, it is like branding a company – the employees and customers have to believe and want to share the brand as much as the Board and CEO do, and it never ends.

CNP: Authenticity is perhaps one of the biggest buzzwords in place branding – what do you think is the key to creating an authentic place brand?

JL: In today’s era of social media and everyone becoming a broadcaster, there is no other option but to confidently let go of the message while maintaining a clear and consistent conceptual narrative for the place. Don’t insist on slogans and copy-paste party lines; allow people to do what they will with it, so long as they are consistent with the basic place brand strategy defined (this can only be done with proper stakeholder engagement, inclusion and “market education”).

CNP: Engaging the citizens who live in your city, region or nation has always been a key element of successful place branding strategy, but why and how can you engage your diaspora as ambassadors for your place?

JL: In Israel’s case we have a HUGE diaspora (the Jewish people living outside of Israel). We are currently setting up an academy to provide Israel country branding training and guidance to organizations that already promote Israel, to ensure they are doing so “on-brand”. This includes summits held in Israel and around the world to highlight the need for country branding for Israel, share the strategy we’ve developed and help the diaspora get “on-brand” with it. This also includes online platforms that provide a go-to resource for on and offline content about the country brand.


CNP: Why do you think we are seeing a growth in networks of places with similar challenges, and collaboration between places on strategic initiatives?

 JL: Places are like commercial brands. The evolution of this industry is mimicking what’s happening in the commercial world, where people network within the same field in order to improve their own offering and perhaps create strategic partnerships that are a win-win for each partner. Especially in the case of countries, visiting one country that is adjacent to another can create a great opportunity for an appealing tourism package (for example, visiting Israel and Jordan together); investment networks are prevalent in specific areas and partnering to expand the eco-system can sometimes lead to better results especially when one place compliments another place’s offering, etc. Finally, I think we’re seeing this evolution because strategic planning and professional implementation can be shown to work, so other places are seeing this and want to jump on the bandwagon. In essence, the industry of nation, country, city or region branding is becoming more established, now that almost 20 years have passed since the industry began to develop.

CNP: Do you think it’s important to connect place branding more effectively with placemaking / place shaping?

JL: Yes absolutely, they are intertwined. A brand cannot be wholly aspirational, it has to reflect and be rooted in reality, otherwise, it’s just packaging.

CNP: Why is it crucial for places to explore more innovative approaches to funding?

JL: In our case the government is simply not putting country branding as a priority, so we don’t have a choice. Another reason, though, is that there are specific benefits to certain industries to get involved in country branding – for example the corporate industry benefits directly from the country looking good, so it’s in their interest to invest some of their marketing budget in this.

CNP: Do you think places could be using data more effectively to inform and shape place branding strategy?

JL: Yes, from my own experience, using research and data is absolutely crucial to understanding how people perceive a place, and for measuring success and it is essential when seeking stakeholder support and especially financial investment. We have found that what we felt or thought we knew to be true, is not in fact true from the perspective of our target audience. Market research enables one to be free of emotion and to pursue the right course of action based on facts, not feelings or desires.

CNP: Which session (other than your own!) are you most interested in attending at City Nation Place Global?

JL: Securing the future for Place Branding strategies.

CNP: If you had a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel anywhere – all expenses paid – where would you go? 

JL: Tahiti for pure relaxation, Japan for cultural interest.

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