Moving your DE&I strategy beyond the tick box

If you look at many place marketing campaigns, you would assume that diversity, equity, and inclusion are key priorities for cities around the world. The challenge is that to truly enact positive change, marketing alone isn’t enough. DE&I needs to be integral within your place, your organisation, and every facet of your strategy.

Cities have complex pasts that have left complex legacies – much more so than employers who have only existed for a fraction of most cities and nations. How can you ensure that you don’t resort to copy-paste cliches and tokenistic efforts, and that you’re developing a place narrative that acknowledges the past while still looking to the future?

The Unfiltered Truth Collection: Developing immersive experiences in Louisville

“We believe visitors are interested in what makes a city unique and authentic,” explained Cleo Battle, President & CEO at Louisville Tourism. “We’re working to stay true to our heritage by telling Louisville’s history through unique visitor experiences offered through The Unfiltered Truth Collection, which strives to showcase the extraordinary people that built the Louisville experience as we know it today.”

Launched in March 2021, the Unfiltered Truth collection features eight immersive experiences that put the spotlight on aspects of Louisville’s heritage that have gone unheard. These experiences celebrate the lasting impact of African American contributions on the city, but they also don’t shy away from the darker aspects of the city’s history. The campaign video features eight actors portraying key figures from history, including King Oba, ruler of the Benin Kingdom in West Africa, who was brought to America as a slave: “In my country, the word sankofa means you have to go back to your past to know where you are going and why. So, before we can begin to understand who we are, we must go back and hear the stories – their stories.”

The strategy delivers a new tourism product for the city, a way to for residents to re-connect with their heritage, and an authentic way to start new conversations about race within the community. “We want Louisville’s tourism industry to contribute to the advancement of racial equality in our city to ensure we are an appealing destination for all visitors,” explained Cleo.

Closing the gap between perception and reality

The Māori identity is a fundamental part of Auckland’s identity, and the city is committed to honouring New Zealand’s legal binding Treaty – signed in 1840 – to protect the interests of tangata whenua (people of the land). The city is also highly multi-cultural, with one in three Aucklanders born elsewhere. As one of the key stakeholders responsible for marketing the city, the team at Auckland Unlimited are highly aware of the importance of reflecting this contemporary Māori identity and cultural melting pot in their strategy.

“Researching your identity by engaging with citizens, who ultimately own the brand, will reveal what is embedded in your region’s Place DNA™,” recommended Nick Hill, CEO of Auckland Unlimited. “It will articulate the richness and values of your place and their importance to the diverse people who live there.”

Through meticulous research with all community groups, you can develop a unique communication strategy that will resonate with your community and will allow you to build an authentic reputation based on your values. Take this lockdown awareness campaign, for example, that seamlessly connects Māori tradition with the authentic Auckland experience:

However, there’s a fine line to tread, and it’s important to ensure that your place narrative comes from a place of collaboration to ensure that your approach lifts up all your community groups – and that you’re not misappropriating the culture of another group.

“We’re clear that authentic and appropriate use of indigenous culture, language, and iconography, in commerce – particular with regards to consumers’ perceptions of authenticity towards this use – must be principled,” shared Helen Te Hira, Director of Māori Outcomes at Auckland Unlimited. “Collaboration that highlights Māori identity and enterprise and a love for our unique environment and diverse communities ensures a nuanced approach that we believe people connect with.”

Developing an inclusive design for your city

Zuidoost, a borough of Amsterdam, was looking to develop a new story, co-created with a community which has roots all over the world and over 130 different nationalities represented. The new visual identity had to be able to connect the new and existing Zuidoost, and radiate community pride.

Examples of the Zuidoost branding design being customised by residents.

The solution was to develop an identity which worked for each person as an individual, whilst still connect them as district residents. The open-source brand allows individuals to make the design their own using their own colours and language, while still remaining identifiable as an over-arching design style. A person can create a design that celebrates their roots both in their mother country and in Zuidoost, or a company can blend their brand identity to remain recognisable while showing their commitment to the local community. The identity has been created for a person and for a community – all at the same time.

Tackling stereotypes in Boston

Boston has a reputation for being one of the most racist cities in America. To address this, Boston’s journey begins with research. “The key is to understand where you are in the present so you can effectively address past realities and perception and create a new narrative that is authentic and compelling,” shared Martha Sheridan, President & CEO of Greater Boston Convention & Visitor Bureau. “The learnings from this research informed our creative development and deployment and led to a campaign that was based in truth and aspiration.”

Understanding external perceptions of your place is important to know what topics you need to address, but listening to your citizens is just as critical – particularly when speaking with members of a marginalised community. “When we attempt to speak up about the duality of being Black anywhere, we are dismissed and belittled,” shared Sharra Gaston, chairwoman of the Boston Art & Music Soul Fest. “Only fellow native Black Bostonians know and understand the nuances which exist within our unique experience as both members of the African diaspora and proud members of the City of Champions.”

As Martha explained to us, “to ensure that DE&I is fully embedded in your place DNA, you need to understand how residents and visitors perceive the destination and ensure that your messaging reflects those perceptions.” Then you need to assess all your assets and activities – internally and externally – to ensure that DE&I is woven throughout every aspect of your organisation.

How do you integrate tough truths and build a more diverse and inclusive place brand? Join us in Pittsburgh this May 11-12 at City Nation Place Americas, where Cleo Battle of Louisville Tourism, Nick Hill and Helen Te Hira of Auckland Unlimited, and Martha Sheridan of Greater Boston CVB will be sharing insights from their experiences.

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