Place branding: When private sector takes the lead

It’s fascinating to see how place branding organisations are structured in such different ways. The one consistent factor is usually an affiliation with government - the nature of this relationship varies for a hundred reasons ranging from the structure of the organisation through to the history of the destination’s development, but nonetheless, it’s a reasonable constant.

However, what happens when place branding becomes separated from the government? What changes when the private sector becomes the leading driver of a place brand strategy?  Can it work?  We looked to three contrasting examples of private sector-led place branding initiatives to understand some developing trends in private sector engagement.

Bottom up place branding: embracing agility

Israel is perhaps one of the most unique place branding cases in the world in that the entire initiative is spear-headed by a not-for-profit organisation, Vibe Israel. “In our case, the government is simply not putting country branding as a priority, so we don’t have another choice,” explains the founder and CEO at Vibe Israel, Joanna Landau. “We are in the very unique position of attempting to do what we’re calling ‘bottom-up country branding’.”

The ‘bottom-up’ approach has put place branding in the hands of the private sector and philanthropists who have a vested interest in evolving the international perceptions of Israel. “It’s actually financed mainly by philanthropy,” mused Joanna. “which comes from people who care deeply about the country and really want to promote it but feel that the promotion that is being done currently by our government is not sufficient.”

From a robust influencer marketing programme (if you’ve not yet seen it, check out their #DoggyVacay campaign) to a long-term strategy to encourage their Jewish diaspora to promote the new Israel country brand, Vibe Israel are well on their way to undermining decades of negative images. However, one of the key areas that Joanna attributes her success to is the agility of the organisation.

“It really allows you to constantly try stuff out,” Joanna suggested. “We’ve tried stuff that has failed, but that’s okay. It’s alright. Because you’re a not-for-profit, you can do that. Sometimes governments can’t do that as well.”

Providing a platform for the private sector to interrogate and inform the place brand

Solly Moeng is the founder and convenor of a forum designed to provide a platform for the business and investor community to discuss how to present the brand of South Africa on the world stage.  Crucially, they also focus on how public policy, skills training, and business practices need to evolve to add to the nation’s attractiveness.  Initially focused on South Africa, the 2020 Africa Brand Summit is focused on “Recapturing the South African narrative; interrogating Africa’s brand potential” – recognising that the brand of Africa as a continent is hugely impactful on each nation’s reputation and bringing in a pan-African audience.

As an initiative, the Brand Africa Summit is entirely separate to the government-funded Brand South Africa – although it is supported by Cape Town Tourism, and Wesgro, Cape Town and the Western Cape’s tourism, trade and investment body.

So how does this fit within a country’s place branding strategy? Solly is clear that the summit doesn’t aim to develop any nation’s brand, “What it seeks to do is to interrogate the destination brands [cities, regions, nations, or the African continent] in order to analyse what works and what doesn’t work…. And to propose ways to progressively eliminate the negative while enhancing the positive.”

Rather than being a hindrance, being separate from local and national government allows the Africa Brand Summit to open up robust and frank conversation – which can then lead to actions and provide insight for the government-funded nation branding efforts. Solly is adamant that nation brands “cannot be determined by governments [run by politicians] alone.  The involvement of the private sector and other key social players… is the right way to go.  All brands need brand ambassadors or positive influencers, but they cannot generate the needed goodwill to develop such ambassadors / influencers if driven solely by politicians or the public sector. The private sector also brings relatively objective, market-driven insights on to the table that the public sector alone might lack.”

Creating brand ambassadors to support your strategy

When Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture in 2008, there was a huge degree of fragility in the city at the time. Building private sector confidence was key, so Marketing Liverpool began to research why people used the Liverpool brand on their collateral and it quickly became clear that organisations didn’t understand what the brand really meant.

“By engaging the private sector in beginning to tell the story of Liverpool - rather than the propaganda coming down from the top which was much more political - we started our brand journey,” explained Chris Brown, Marketing Director at Marketing Liverpool. “It was about restoring private sector confidence in the place that they were fundamentally going to create the wealth in, and the employees – the vast majority of whom, were the community of the city.”

Engaging the private sector is key to creating brand ambassadors – both from the businesses who represent you on the international stage, and from their employees who form a large percentage of your residents. And by involving their perceptions at an early stage, Liverpool were able to create an authentic narrative that businesses and residents could be proud to represent.

“What we’ve recognised is that with public sector funding diminishing at a fast rate, the brand ambassadors and the people who would tell the story of our city the best, are the businesses and the residents of the city,” Chris continued. “Jobs like ours in our organisations isn’t to run over that, it’s to be a facilitator, a catalyst, a collaborator in that space.”


When the private sector directly funds place promotion

Business Improvement Districts [BIDs] and specialist Tourism Business Improvement Districts [TBIDs] have been operating in a number of geographies for a number of years, effectively creating a way for the private sector to fund the physical improvement of a neighbourhood and investing in place marketing to attract new residents, visitors, and investors and create a virtuous cycle of economic development.  BIDs usually exist in parallel with a city’s destination marketing organisation, and of course operate at a very different level to the nation brand strategy.

In Mexico, things are shaping up a little differently.  In late 2018, Mexico unexpectedly disbanded their Tourism Promotion Fund leaving tourism bodies across the country destitute. In August 2019, Google, Discovery Channel and Grupo Pasadas stepped in to fund the Visit Mexico website and their Twitter and Facebook presence. Destinations in Mexico also turned to the private sector for support.  In Los Cabos, local organisations stepped in to fill the gap by creating a private trust that would enable the tourism board to continue promoting the destination internationally.

“The private trust looks to keep everyone accountable to the mission,” explained Rodrigo Esponda, Managing Director for the Los Cabos Tourism Board, “to keep everyone accountable on this mission, to strengthen the marketing[,] and to supplement the funds that were previously received from the government.”

Less than four months after the launch of the trust, Los Cabos opened their first international office in Los Angeles – this time funded by private sector organisations rather than government. By increasing transparency, Los Cabos have aligned key players with a single brand image and ensured a better return on their investment.

How to engage the private sector in your place branding strategy is a constant topic of interest at City Nation Place conferences.  We’re interested to hear of the most innovative and effective approaches  - do contact us at if you have a story to tell!

Related reading

Financing a nation brand through philanthropy

Lessons in stakeholder management | Interview with Cat Leaver, Brand Scotland

The evolving role of the private sector in place branding

Brand Summit South Africa | Interview with Solly Moeng

Changing international perceptions of Los Cabos | Interview with Rodrigo Esponda

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