Putting your citizens front and centre

Citizen engagement is one of the foundational pillars of a place brand strategy. You can choose to run a destination marketing or investment promotion campaign without consulting your citizens, but there is no long-term success for a place brand strategy without community buy-in. People are places, and places are people – but residents often have the quietest voice at the stakeholder table.

The past year has seen a refocussing of attention, particularly for destination marketing organisations. As we entered near global lockdown, tourism promotion campaigns were pulled from the market and in their place many DMOs adopted a local-centric approach to their communication strategies. However, this was by no means isolated to DMOs as places around the world began to re-evaluate the importance of their citizens - something that was made apparent in our 2021 survey report on the evolution of place branding.

The notion of there being silver linings to sixteen months of social and economic devastation is an alien one. However, it’s undeniable that many places have also taken the opportunity to reset their strategies and redefine what they want to achieve for their city, nation, or region – and in doing so, have put their communities front and centre. After all, place branding isn’t something to be done to your place, but with your place.

But first, what do we really mean by citizen engagement?

As with many terms in the place branding sphere, there is no real consensus on what citizen engagement means. Broadly speaking, there are three areas that we see in reference to ‘citizen engagement’:

1. Communicating with your citizens as ‘residents’ – including advocating for the economic impact of your strategies and ensuring that any burden placed on your community is balanced and outweighed by the benefits.

Amsterdam is a great example, having taken an active stance to managing the impact of tourism on their citizens following increased dissatisfaction from their residents.

“Cities were built by people who decided to live together. So the residents – the people that live there – are the people that own the city,” shared Geerte Udo, CEO at amsterdam&partners. “We’re welcoming visitors, we’re welcoming conferences, we’re welcoming companies, but always with an added value for citizens and the people who live there.”

Amsterdam have taken a multi-tiered approach. Messaging around the city aims to deter more distasteful tourist behaviour, while changes to the long-term strategies for the city target visitors and investors who will contribute to the city’s overall vision. And on a policy level, new regulations aim to increase the liveability of the city centre by limiting the number of ‘tourist trap’ shops and short-term rentals which discourage locals from living in the city.

2. Creating your place brand strategy in conjunction with your communities – including long-term consultation approaches to embed an authenticity in your brand values and communications.

Taking a city – or a nation! – with hundreds of thousands of different perspectives and distilling it down to create the core values and positioning for your strategy is undoubtedly a challenge. But it’s also critical for buy-in and is what differentiates a holistic place brand strategy from a short-term marketing campaign.

Lithuania, for example, underwent a detailed consultation process to launch their own nation brand. Following several unsuccessful attempts over nearly two decades, Lithuania embarked on a national analysis of Lithuania’s reputation – both locally and in key markets.

Over 400,000 individuals were reached in an 8-month project, directly informing the strategy of how to present Lithuania abroad.

And the consultation hasn’t stopped there, either. A recent campaign surveyed 10,000 Lithuanians to identify their national cuisine – something which had slipped from the national mindset after decades of Soviet occupation.

As well as raising awareness, the project identified the 15 most popular dishes which are now available at hundreds of participating restaurants as part of the National Menu.

3. Building civic pride – including working with citizens as ambassadors of your place and encouraging your community to adopt and use your place brand strategy.

A place brand strategy is unlike that of any other commercial brand, because all of your residents are unwittingly marketing your place for you. A thorough consultation process goes a long way to making sure that your messaging aligns with the values that your community already holds, but if you can convince your community to work alongside you, you’re able to drive far more impact.

Elkhart County, Indiana, challenged the misconception that there’s ‘nothing to do’ in Elkhart. This isn’t necessarily an Elkhart-specific challenge – young people in particular are prone to feeling their hometown is ‘dull’ - but Elkhart’s Vibrant Communities programme tied economic growth to quality of place and aimed to inspire people to love Elkhart County.

A series of community meetings, work groups, and surveys helped to identify a list of projects and actions to improve what was available to the community. More than that, it helped to create the social infrastructure that supported and built a community brand and encouraged everyone to communicate their story in one voice.

Restructuring for long-term success

While there are a lot of very comprehensive citizen engagement strategies, we also see a number which end at either the occasional resident perception survey or simply showcase residents in destination marketing or investment promotion as shining beacons of place values.

We don’t want to say that these tactics don’t have a place in citizen engagement – as we said, your citizens are the soul of your city and therefore a core component of what differentiates your proposition. Amplifying your citizens’ stories makes perfect sense. Likewise, resident perception surveys are important indicators of the effectiveness of your place brand strategy.

But in the interests of making your citizens a more integral element of your planning, strategy, and implementation, how can we go beyond this?

Whilst creating an exclusive report for members of CNP Connections, we reached out to a number of experts in the field to understand what places can do better, and there were a few key ideas that you should keep in mind while planning your citizen engagement strategy:

1. Understand what the goal of your citizen engagement is.

2. Citizen engagement can't be an afterthought - and it's not something you can do once and be done with.

3. Actively reach out to community groups who are less likely to be involved.

4. Make it fun.

5. Leverage technology where appropriate, but don't forget the human touch.

You can download the full report HERE or apply to become a member of CNP Connections HERE to get complimentary access to all our reports. Please note, to qualify for your FREE membership of CNP Connections you should be in a leadership or strategic role as part of a government team; destination marketing organisation; economic development team; investment promotion agency; city, state, or regional marketing board; or similar organisation.

Related reading:

Place branding for the 2020s and beyond: a city viewpoint

Lithuania's DNA

The secret to Lithuania's domestic tourism success

Rebuilding confidence and engaging citizens in the recovery of place economies

Keeping Austin weird in the face of huge success

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