Place branding and community engagement

Voices that matter – A placebrander’s guide to stakeholder engagement

There is an expression in community development, “Nothing about me, without me.” That sums up the attitude of many citizen groups in terms of engagement in decisions about their place. What used to be viewed as a nice-to-have is now a pre-requisite for diverse types of local development and placebranding initiatives.

People care deeply about decisions that impact their home turf. Not surprisingly, they want to have a more direct say in decisions that will shape the future of their locale and their lives. Places with smart governments are leveraging the “wisdom of the crowd” by creating open, transparent platforms for input on ways to improve the local quality of life. In Medellín, Columbia, for example, the MiMedellín program allows citizens to propose solutions for urban problems. To date, more than 18,500 ideas have already been posted. In the nearby city of Rionegro the Alcaldia has put citizen participation at the heart of its decision to create a city brand and marketing strategy with a major survey of citizens current perceptions of the city as the precursor to a major consultation programme on what might constitute the building blocks of the new brand strategy. In Iceland, a similar program, “Better Reykjavik,” has been used by over 60% of citizens. Each month, the five top rated ideas are evaluated by a standing committee. City council has invested €1.9 million to develop over 200 projects based on ideas suggested by the community.

The challenge for placebranders can be knowing how, and when, to engage locals in the somewhat less tangible, but equally important, work of brand building.

So, it’s important to be very clear, from the start, what kind of involvement is appropriate and relevant to your work; in other words, what do you want as a result. One-way communication is not engagement, although sometimes it’s disguised as such. The following model is a helpful taxonomy of strategies for involving audiences in the formulation and implementation of place brand strategies.


The goal here is to share information about an initiative or build awareness of an issue or opportunity. This is about “telling” what people need to know – often at the beginning or end of a project – through standard communication tools (web sites, newsletter etc.)


The focus here is to get public feedback about an initiative or decision. You may want people to listen and provide feedback or weigh in on a debate. Focus groups, surveys and public meetings are useful tools here. But be very clear the role you want your audience to play. Are you looking for general comments or opinions on specific aspects of an initiative?

Beware of the “faux" consultation” approach. We’ve all experienced this. A consultant creates some live/work/play pastiche of a place and then tries to create “buy-in.” That create-it-and-flog-it approach is about selling, not consulting.


Real involvement demands a deeper commitment between you and your public(s). Workshops, polling and town hall (public) meetings to make sure concerns are heard and considered are typical involvement strategies. Be explicit about the level of commitment required and frame the process and roles clearly – what you will do and what participants can expect at each stage. Will they have an ongoing role throughout the decision-making process? What is the extent of their authority? Make sure you’ve thought the process through clearly.


A pre-condition of effective collaboration is effectively setting ground rules for working together and well-articulated goals. Will this be a long-term partnership or more temporary? Advisory groups or panels are useful participatory decision-making structures.


Empowerment involves equipping the public to take a leadership role in determining outcomes and managing implementation. Enabling stakeholders may involve setting up specific structures or governance roles, providing tools and resources or training. This is a great opportunity to activate influencers and star “performers” who can be powerful advocates, ambassadors and exemplars for their place.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs

As the model illustrates, there are many flavours of what is loosely called community engagement. One placebrand initiative might involve the full spectrum of options.

Happily, placebranders have access to a robust suite of cost-effective tools to support different types of public dialogue and participation at different stages of brand development – from social media to sophisticated digital platforms. Today, there’s little excuse for not using these types of communication tools.

Certainly there are lots of inspiring social campaigns like “I Amsterdam” and #SeeYourCity but the hashtag-driven social media campaign is also not a panacea for engaging communities. It’s important to remember that the digital divide is still huge in most parts of the world. Not everyone is hard-wired to their smart phone. If inclusion matters – and it should – consider the voices that rarely get heard: children, seniors, marginalised communities, even the homeless. Low-tech, in-situ installations, art projects and one-to-one conversations can be invaluable insight generators.

What’s often missing, yet critical for place brands, is to capture the aspirations of a place – what kind of collective future do people want to build together? There are no easy shortcuts to those answers. It helps to get creative.

In Bermuda, a cultural initiative wanted to understand the importance of performing arts in the cultural identity of the nation. The project team mobilised high school students to have one-on-one conversations with hundreds of elders about the importance of music, dance and other creative arts in their lives. Transcripts of those encounters revealed powerful and deeply personal aspirations that traditional surveys and focus groups would never have surfaced.

Strategist Gunter Soydanbay’s work in Gaziantep, Turkey, is another example of a creative approach to surfacing the hopes of an often overlooked constituency – kids. The 10,000-year-old metropolis near the Syrian border wanted to collect "next generation" insights about the city’s future. Nearly 200 school children participated in an art project to depict the Gaziantep of tomorrow. Through the eyes of the young, the city branders could identify very compelling and authentic themes.

These non-traditional approaches speak to the diversity of strategies placebranders can employ to really generate evidence-based authentic and enthusiastic engagement.

It’s understandable that people have a healthy skepticism of place branding. Our role is to show how a creating a shared, authentic brand idea can be immensely powerful and beneficial for communities.

“We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.” – Donella Meadows

The consulting firm Mckinsey & Company once write that, “Great cities do three things very well: They achieve smart growth. They do more with less. They win support for change.” We believe learning the art of public engagement, in all its many forms, is key to winning support for change and something that placebranders need to learn to do very well, now.

For further reading:

Penn State University Community Engagement Principles

Civic Tech Field Guide

Forrester Research - Vendor Landscape: Civic Engagement Platforms

Knight Foundation Trends in Civic Tech

Ford Foundation/Placematters: Best Practices for Using Technology in Engaging Underrepresented Communities in Planning

About this blog

The purpose of this series of blog posts is to share our collective experience (including working with each other) as practicing place brand consultants on developing and implementing place and destination brand strategies. Our purpose is to inform current practice and contribute to the debate among practitioners and academics about what might be effective and cutting edge practice in the field. We are:

  • Malcolm Allan – Founder of Placematters, UK
  • Jeannette Hanna – Founder of Trajectory, Toronto
  • Jose Filipe Torres and Gonzalo Villar – Founders of Bloom Consulting, Madrid I Lisbon
  • Roger Hobkinson – Director, Destination Consulting | Global Development Solutions | Colliers International, Dublin

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