Joacim Sjöberg Joacim Sjöberg Head of Corporate Finance, Swedbank
Interview with Keith Dinnie

Interview with Keith Dinnie

We interview Keith Dinnie, following his update to the seminal text book, "Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice" to discover his views on challenges facing place branders around the world.

CNP: You have just published a revised edition of your seminal text book, “Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice” -  an update on the 2008 edition.  In your recent interview with Place Brand Observer, you mentioned that you felt that cynicism about place branding has grown over the past five years, given the unsurprising failure of the “logo and slogan” approach and that you were concerned that the message about the benefits of a more policy based and action-led approach, first mooted by Simon Anholt, was not getting through.  What do you think is needed to improve understanding amongst those cities and nations who are still not really getting it right?

KD: That’s a good question, with no easy answer. As with any progressive development in society, education is key. Policy makers need to become acquainted with the fundamentals of place brand management, namely, how are place brands formed and what interventions can you make to help the place brand evolve in a positive direction.

Unfortunately the prevailing norm still seems to be a default approach wherein an advertising agency or brand consultancy is hired and then allowed to create a cringeworthy campaign that alienates everyone, because no local buy-in was sought. In such cases, policy makers take an approach that is so hands-off it borders on negligence. At the other extreme, policy makers waste the creative capabilities of agencies and consultancies by insisting on clichéd stereotypes and feeble slogans. This dull, conservative design-by-committee approach leads to branding in which the slogans are so meaningless that they are completely interchangeable between places. Such is the ‘Gateway to this’, ‘Best kept secret of that’, ‘Has it all’ approach.

So at the moment there is still a lot of poor practice going on. However, the increasing numbers of people engaged in place branding, either as practitioners or as students, is a promising sign that things could improve in the coming years.

CNP: In the same interview, you talked about the significance of “the branding that is done to places without their consent”.   What’s your first piece of advice for place branders whose city or nation has come through a crisis and suffered increased negative perceptions?

KD: “Don’t wait for the crisis” would be my first piece of advice. Places that do successfully come through crises tend to be those places that have nurtured a strong brand over a period of several years so that when crisis strikes, the place has accumulated a sufficient reservoir of goodwill to overcome the negative effects of a crisis. Look at Thailand as a case in point – whatever social and political upheavals occur in that country, it doesn’t seem to damage the country’s brand in the slightest.

For a comprehensive overview of specific techniques that places can use in order to manage perceptions in times of crisis, I would direct readers to Eli Avraham and Eran Ketter’s excellent book, ‘Media Strategies for Marketing Places in Crisis’ (Butterworth Heinemann, 2008).

CNP: There are many new case studies in the new edition of your book – if there was one place branding story that you would have liked to have been involved in or able to take credit for, which would it have been and why?

KD: Yes, all the cases in the second edition of the book are new. Each case has its unique interest, but for me personally, I would have been particularly interested to have been involved in the cases featuring Cuba, New Zealand, and Portugal.

The case on Cuba, contributed by Dunja Fehimovic, is intriguing because it focuses on the expression of Cuban national identity through cinema and the effect of Cuban films on Cuba’s nation brand. It’s an interesting case of a nation brand developing relatively organically through the works of independent Cuban film makers rather than as part of an orchestrated nation brand campaign.

The case on New Zealand, contributed by Brian Sweeney, similarly demonstrates how nation branding can take place without any official governmental involvement. In the New Zealand case, titled ‘Going to the Edge’, Brian provides a classic example of turning a weakness into a strength – taking New Zealand’s far flung location and turning it into a unique asset. He also offers a compelling answer to his own rhetorical question, “What license did we have, as private individuals, to mount a nation branding campaign?”

The case on Portugal, contributed by Joao Ricardo Freire, is one that I feel an affinity for because back in the 1990s I spent one year living in Lisbon, the country’s capital. At that time I couldn’t help feeling that Lisbon (and Portugal in general) were fantastic places but largely overlooked by most external audiences. That was part of the inspiration for me to write the book ‘Silver Screen Cities: Lisbon’ (under the pen name David Kintore). Joao’s case examines the fascinating issue of place brand architecture in the Portuguese context and shows some of the pragmatic challenges facing place branders when it comes to dealing with political realities on the ground.

CNP: We are beginning to see the appointment of more Country Brand Managers and City Brand Managers around the world.  If you were writing the job description for a Country Brand Manager, what skills and character traits would you look for?

KD: Skills and character traits I would look for include good analytical ability, persuasive communication, tenacity (which would be required in the face of so many stakeholders who are hostile to the notion of place branding), tact, and tolerance of different viewpoints. Cultural awareness and the ability to speak foreign languages would also be considerable assets.

CNP: You’ve worked in many places around the world and made a study of many more – what’s the most surprising fact about a place that you’ve come across that you could share with us?

When I lived there, I was surprised to discover how many Scotch whisky bars there are in Tokyo!

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