It takes a village to grow a place brand

A question we asked our City Nation Place Awards judges what was the most important skill for place branding teams – creativity or diplomacy – and the breadth of responses we received demonstrates that perhaps the greatest challenge for place brands is how to put together a clear vision for your place brand and communication strategy whilst listening to a myriad of different opinions and voices, including the voices of your citizens. Perhaps Adam Joyce, VP of Acceleration at Calgary TELUS Convention Center, sums it up best: “Both are equally important skills, and I think creativity is enhanced through diplomacy and diplomacy requires creativity”.

The dangers of not listening are clear. There are numerous examples of places that didn’t listen to their community and launched communications campaigns which were then lambasted by citizens who disagreed with them (Vilnius’ ‘G-Spot of Europe’ campaign springs to mind quite quickly), and of places who are facing a citizen backlash to the success of their tourism attraction strategy, or even – as the case of Long Island in the USA and the rejection of the new Amazon HQ plan – a rejection of successful investment attraction and economic development.

“The trick is to take the citizens on the journey with you, so that they understand why you are focussing on the place’s brand and what benefit it could bring to them” stated Cat Leaver, Director of Brand Scotland, one of our jurors looking forward to reading the entries in the “Best Citizen Engagement” category. Engaging your citizens in the place branding process is essential to creating an effective place brand strategy and this can mean a lot more than focus groups and researching opinions. Increasingly, we’re seeing more places actively involving their citizens in the strategic approach to achieving economic and tourism development goals; the sense of ownership over the place brand that this provides is key to getting your community on board with your brand. Take India City Walks. By spreading awareness about the lesser-known monuments in Delhi, they were able to build an interest in the younger generations about their own cultural heritage and create new employment through a tour guide scheme that in turn created diverse and authentic experience for their visitors.

This ownership can be taken even further, with many places reaching out to their citizens as ambassadors of their communication approach. Ghana, for example, invited the stars of Black Hollywood to Ghana for a festival that allowed them to share in a cultural heritage that many had never had the opportunity to explore. “Diaspora members often have a strong voice and impact in their network abroad,” began Claus Lønborg, CEO at Copenhagen Capacity, “so partnering up with this powerful group is smart thinking.” Though less star-studded than Ghana’s approach, This is Finland similarly reached out to their diaspora, with a 12 hour live broadcast of the items on a small local checkout ahead of Finland’s centenary independence day celebration. Despite its apparent mundanity, thousands of people across the world engaged with the live Facebook stream, sparking communication between Finns, foreigners and the Finnish diaspora.

This ‘people-first’ approach to marketing your place brand has two major effects. Firstly, by engaging with your community, you help to create a sense of ownership over the place brand and the vision for tourism and economic development. And secondly, you ensure that your marketing truly sounds authentic, enabling you to cut through the noise of an overcrowded market. Consol Vancells Casanovas, City Branding Project Coordinator for Barcelona’s City Promotion Department, suggested that “a city branding project should also be called a ‘city alliance,’ to align wills and synergies for a better projection of the new storytelling.” This ‘alliance’ approach embodies the symbiotic core of a successful place brand and communication strategy. As Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir¸ Director at Visit Iceland, said, “it is impossible to engage citizens if they do not connect with your place brand vision on an authentic level. Your vision must reflect shared authentic values that citizens take pride in.”

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