Interview with Nahim Mehenni, Director for Place Branding at The New York Times and Raquel Bubar, Director, T Brand Studio International

Borja Basa Borja Basa Managing Director, Corporate Solutions Spain, JLL
Interview with Nahim Mehenni, Director for Place Branding at The New York Times and Raquel Bubar, Director, T Brand Studio International

The New York Times is hosting the pre-conference Think Tank session at this year’s City Nation Place Global conference where our delegates will be considering the differences between place branding, and place marketing. We caught up with Nahim Mehenni, Director for Place Branding at The New York Times and Raquel Bubar, Director, T Brand Studio International to discuss the media owner’s interest in place branding and place marketing. Find out what The NEW YORK TIMES team has learned from working with clients in the tourism and investment promotion sector and discover tips on how place brands can get the most out of a relationship with a media company…

The New York Times has taken the unusual step of appointing a Director with a specific place branding remit: why is this? What are your objectives?

Nahim Mehenni: Before we start we would like to thank the City Nation Place conference for giving us the opportunity to explain what we do at The New York Times in the field of Place Branding.

The New York Times is the first and only global media brand with a Place Branding commercial division. It makes sense if you look at what The New York Times is today: a global news organization that helps people understand the world. The advertising department also has a worldwide footprint with offices in London, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and, of course, New York. Among our team we have experts dedicated to many industries – luxury, corporate and finance, for example, so it made sense to create a team of Place Branding experts. In addition to that, the international expansion of T Brand Studio since 2015 with teams in the US, Europe and Asia gives us an incredible capacity to adapt our storytelling expertise to local markets.

And finally this initiative is in line with the permanent innovative mindset that we have at The New York Times– inside the newsroom and throughout the advertising department. On the advertising side, our main objective is clearly to help brands improve their storytelling in a global business and political environment that is more and more unstable. Our offer is to give them back control of their narrative.

How have you set about increasing your personal understanding of the Place Branding sector?

N.M: As in any business, knowing what keeps your client from sleeping at night is key. We build our knowledge of the sector two different ways: First, our experience collaborating with Place Branding clients helps us understand their unique needs, challenges and key objectives. Second, partnering with specific Place Branding conferences and trainings, helps us to best what places needs are.

The New York Times is not only about hard news coverage. We have a longstanding history of covering lifestyle and cultural topics in depth, such as Travel, Arts and Food to name a few, which is why place branding is very much part of our DNA. For instance, every year, our Travel desk publishes a story called 52 Places To Go, the ultimate travel bucket list for the year to come. This section was the third most viewed article for the year 2016 and is likely to remain in the top in 2017. Another piece to highlight would be our special on Australian food by editor, Sam Sifton.

From your research, and from the events you have attended, are there any places whose branding story has stuck out as particularly inspirational?

N.M: There are so many that I could name but lately I have been particularly inspired by the place branding strategies or tactics that are truly unique. Like the Only Lyon’s global ambassador’s network, the “Great” campaign by the UK demonstrating how a simple concept can become a global campaign, Luxembourg and its bottom up strategy involving the citizens in the process of defining the identity of the country. I also liked the Amsterdam and New York City actions showing how to best integrate local citizens in your Place Branding efforts.

Our role at The New York Times is to take each individual brand and tell a compelling story that will resonate with our global audience. We are the storytellers of projects like these.

Are there any trends that you have noticed in the ways in which place brands are approaching brand communication campaigns?

N.M: The one trend that we are clearly in the process of witnessing: the shift from traditional advertising campaigns-- be it TV, print or digital-- to more native ones, where the message is produced by integrated studios, tailored to the audience and more natively integrated to the platform it will live on.

In this field T Brand Studio, the branded content team at The New York Times, has had a massive amount of successes this year launching programs including: Business FranceBrand Hong KongPromPeruMexico TourismThailand EliteSwitzerland Tourism, Enterprise Florida, Greater Miami and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I could also name others, not directly coming from the Place Branding field but sponsored pieces by brands who have chosen to focus their storytelling on key destinations like Minh Long and Vietnam, iberostar and the Dominican Republic and Delta with the city of Atlanta.

Creating content marketing for a client is obviously very different from running an advertising campaign. When you are working with clients on a marketing campaign, what are the key differences you have noticed in how you need to approach the challenges of clients representing places and seeking to promote their tourism or investment to working with clients promoting a corporate or product brand?

N.M: Stick to your unique DNA; you have to tell a true story about your place. Place brand marketers everywhere are confronted with the challenge of wanting to promote all their destination’s assets, however we believe less is more, and you will get more attention if you focus your efforts on the one story that will resonate with your target audience.

What makes a great brief from a place brand – what do you need from the client to ensure that the commercial content team can come up with the best ideas?

N.M: Apart from the traditional key information (budget, timing, target audience, geographic scope, etc.) I think that the quality of a brief resides in the capacity that the client can have in setting clear objectives and identifying the top KPI of the campaign.

Raquel Bubar: One sign of a good place-branding brief is when the place wants to focus on the people that make their destination so special. T Brand Studio’s writers and creatives crave the freedom to tell the human side of a story, which is ultimately what makes a story resonate well with audiences. A place that thinks beyond interviews with government officials and business experts, and wants to highlight the local shop owner, an aspiring entrepreneur or technology startup can represent and embody the qualities of a location, without saying it so explicitly. This is where good storytelling comes from.

What would be your top three tips for a place brand approaching a content or brand partnership with an international media owner?

N.M: I would say that working on a branded content project with a media like The New York Times should be seen as a partnership, a long term partnership. Trust the media owner’s Studio to build the best content for you but also for the audience you want to reach. Think of it as a story with different chapters, building awareness is a long process; you have to be consistent throughout the time. Also, think about the side services that you can get from a media owner. As an example, the New York Times can work on territory perception researches. We have the capacity to provide perception insights from our global audience. Based on the results of these surveys the T Brand Studio can produce the right story that will improve the perception of your place.

R.B: It’s not enough to talk about yourself anymore in advertising. You have to tell a story. If you’re a city, nation or place that simply lists the many attractions your destination has to offer, it’s going to be hard to connect with readers who have never been there before. A better strategy is to tell a compelling story about what makes the city operate, the people and business that drive the destination to make readers forget they’re looking at an advertisement, and truly see the appeal of the place.

The New York Times is supporting the City Nation Place Global Think Tank session, led by Robert Govers and Martin Boisen and focused on the differences between place branding and place marketing. As you’ll be attending the session, what do you hope to learn from it?

N.M: Robert and Martin are great Place Branding experts, and I have no doubt that a lot of great knowledge and learnings will come out of it! What I expect more than anything is to show that despite the fact that place marketing and place branding are different sort of activities, the two are totally connected. Can a great place brand live without marketing? And at the same time, can a great marketing campaign hide a poor or weak Place Branding strategy?

This is the third year that The New York Times has supported the City Nation Place Global conference: why do you think it is an important event?

N.M: Very simple: the quality of the event! And that includes the quality of the conversations that we can have with the many experts of this specific field and the quality of the session topics and speaker talent.

You’ve managed to create a community of professionals and we all know that in November we have a Place Branding “rendez-vous” in London that we cannot miss!

Also, we’ve witnessed the strong and positive evolution of that global event, and are looking closely at the regional developments you are building for the future – CNP Americas and CNP Asia.

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