Nine lessons you should hear before embarking on your placeshaping project

What are the elements that make or break a placeshaping project? We reached out to our expert partners to discover what they’ve learned from their own projects to understand what every place brand or marketing organisation should know before embarking on their own placeshaping initiative.

Respect the research.

Conduct qualitative and quantitative research with all your audiences, internal and external. Extend beyond the squeakiest wheels or your personal contacts to achieve a truly random sample. Performing these steps correctly will ensure you hear from all facets of your audiences—residents, visitors, and businesses.

When our clients haven’t followed the above advice, avoidable hurdles appeared later in the project. However, when they did respect the research, the end result was a bulletproof — and successful — placeshaping effort.

Jessica McCarthy, President & Co-Founder, Joy Riot

Leadership matters.

We have learned many lessons over three decades, including: 1) leadership matters! Having a strong elected advocate promote the vision for the project is key! 2) process and communication are critical. When proposing a placechanging project, be sure to involve stakeholders, neighbourhoods, elected officials and potential naysayers in the studies and plans to be sure everyone knows their voices were heard, and they are a respected partner in the process; 3) do your homework! Complete your financial feasibility and tax impact studies immediately to educate yourself and the community about what the costs, benefits and incentives needed to make the deal happen. Without credible financial and tax data, no plans can be funded or executed.

Rob Hunden, President & CEO, Hunden Partners


Develop a singular, cohesive vision.

Perhaps the most pivotal lesson we’ve gleaned as a team is the paramount importance of cultivating a singular, clear and cohesive vision, as early as possible.

Without this unified direction, projects can easily flounder amidst conflicting interests and objectives. Equally crucial is aligning stakeholders around this shared vision. Effective communication and consensus-building among diverse parties, including government bodies, local communities and private sector actors are key. We advise clients to prioritise this vision as early as possible. Establishing this shared vision and fostering alignment not only enhances project success but also fosters community engagement and all subsequent communication, both internal and external, resulting in a place that truly reflects the collective aspirations of those it serves.

Jane Etheridge, Strategy Director, Hunter Design


You need to continually nurture the relationship with your stakeholders and citizens.

One thing in particular became clear as we worked on the number of placemaking and civic-alignment projects at the regional tourism office in Ontario, Canada in the early 2010s: the single most limiting factor in effective civic alignment and placemaking is a lack of tangible connection between the destination organisation and stakeholders and citizens.

We are going to have to get used to constantly working on nurturing that stakeholder-citizen relationship. That means a destination organisation’s marketing is just as imperative internally as externally. It means that the credible KPIs that citizens and businesses understand and value are essential, and that we must shift a considerable portion of budgets to ensure that the essential engagement piece happens. Your stakeholders want three minimum things from you before they engage: transparency, trust, and an interactive communication channel — but that alone is not enough. Within that context, you must constantly provide value to them and value to the relationship — a reason to keep coming back, a reason for them to want to work with you. That’s the hard part of engagement, but it’s not impossible. The outrageous, overinflated marketing budgets we nurtured over the past decades can easily be re-channelled to engagement … so it should be.

David Peacock, Senior Advisor – The Future of Tourism, Simpleview


A placeshaping project needs to be ‘owned’ by your stakeholders to be successful.

Without focussing on a particular project but thinking about many, the most important aspect of placeshaping is that it is place and people led. To deliver this, and more importantly sustain it, requires the active and ongoing engagement of stakeholders. It is constantly surprising to us how many Councils and other place related bodies have limited knowledge of, or relationships with, their stakeholders. No placeshaping project will ever ‘land’ unless it is understood and vitally ‘owned’ by stakeholders. In developing a project the stakeholders have a really clear view of the opportunities and priorities in a place and have a great deal of energy, ideas, contacts, insight and vision to help delivery; stakeholder engagement (not consultation) must run like a golden thread through any placeshaping project.

John Till, Founding Director, thinkingplace


Celebrate local heritage and culture, and build on the existing creative energy.

Over the years, we’ve learned that placeshaping is much less about launching shiny new campaigns or throwing lavish events and activations, and more about celebrating the history of a place and putting the spotlight on the heroes of the community. We’ve learned how critical it is to take the time to listen and intentionally engage with a breadth of stakeholders to ensure we are embedding the right stories, staying contextual to local heritage and culture, and leveraging the talent of local artists in brand activations.

Nur Asri, Director of Placemaking, Resonance


Know your audience.

The biggest learning around placeshaping is for clients to know exactly who their audience is. Far too often, clients have made the mistake of thinking 'one size fits all' and tried to appeal to the masses with too much of a generic approach. By knowing your audience through research, you can be a lot more authentic in your approach and use the right channels to appeal to the correct target audience. In being more focused, you are going to see a much stronger ROI and attract the right traveller, in turn driving a greater economic impact.

Samuel Hancock, Group Key Accounts Director, EMEA, MMGY Global


Be focused and be intentional.

Whether it’s a small project or a large one, having the discipline to remain intentional at each step has become a common theme for success. It’s easy to lose focus and chase new ideas that can limit impact. But intentionality keeps messaging sharp and purposeful; acts as a road map through the many twists and turns (and temptations) of a place-shaping journey; and ensures the outcome can be accurately and objectively measured.

Steve Duncan, Managing Director, C Studios


Empower partner agencies to take ownership of specific areas.

The initial New Zealand Story narrative and creative was developed almost ten years ago by three people seconded from the trade, tourism, and education agencies. Whilst representation from these agencies was retained at a Board level, a new team of private sector marketers was assembled to execute the programme. Relationships remained strong and a shared funding model kept agencies engaged and committed, however, separate priorities inevitably drew each agency toward its own connected but separate brand development programme. My advice would be to consider how you might leave space in your working team for revolving senior secondees from partner agencies (and possibly private industry) who are specifically empowered to lead interconnected sector narratives and evolve the place brand itself.

Rebecca Smith, Former CEO New Zealand Story & Advisor to Brandkit


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