The story behind Brussels’ daring new place brand strategy

In June 2023, Brussels launched their new international city brand to address the fragmentation of their international reputation. Annemie Verschueren, Director of Media & Communication at visit.brussels and a 2023 City Nation Place Awards judge, explains how they developed and launched a place brand that shows Brussels as perfectly imperfect and how they’re working with residents and stakeholders to tell the story of Brussels with one voice.

 

Thanks for joining us, Annemie. Your new place brand strategy is built around ‘In Brussels, we dare you to be yourself.’ Can you explain how your strategy will be built around this positioning?

 

The findings of our 18-months research showed us that Brussels was both buttoned-up and fiercely free-spirited - a region that accepted itself as it is (warts and all) and of people we defined as “originators”.

Brusselers are comfortable with their contradictions and are unabashedly themselves. “Dare To be Yourself” is a radical starting point, but it resonates because it reveals the authentic facets of Brussels’ character that also speak directly to the audiences we’re trying to attract.

Brussels’ appeal lies in its authenticity. In an age of ‘no filter’, where residents embrace its beauty and diversity, where people don’t take themselves too seriously, they don’t expect anything from you and welcome you as you are, challenging you to be yourself. This positioning led to the creative platform “Perfectly Imperfect” and a strong brand that shows Brussels as it is.


Did you face any challenges in aligning other key organisations and stakeholders around the new strategy?

 

From day one, the city marketing project of the Brussels Capital Region was developed in close collaboration with private and public stakeholders.  This was made possible thanks to the creation of a public-private steering committee, representing the public organisations in charge of business and leisure tourism, economic development, international and EU relations, the Chamber of Commerce, and the two main universities, coordinated by visit.brussels.

During the research phase, for instance, 100+ stakeholder interviews with Brusselers who are leaders in culture, arts, food, entertainment, business, innovation, and politics ensured that the strategy would be taking into account their actual needs and opportunities. This resulted in the creation of a brand that will be sustainable in the long term, rather than a one-off campaign. Our strategy was to ensure that as the brand came to life, we would drive consistency across the board - across marketing, HR and communications, and across governing bodies, and public and private interests.


What are you doing to engage private and public stakeholders and your residents in this story for the city?

 

The whole project relies on an innovative approach, which we have called ‘brand as a service’. We want this brand to come to life, no matter what audience we are talking to. It can easily be deployed for private or public stakeholders.

An online brand toolkit is accessible to everyone, including tools and guidelines for anyone wishing to promote Brussels, ensuring consistency across platforms. We also set up governance procedures to ensure the long-term viability of the brand, and conducted workshops for ongoing education and marketing support.

To get input and buy in on the brand, we’ve spent the past year conducting multiple workshops with public and private partners (hotels, real estate developers, tourism sales, meetings, investment promotion and exporters, among others) to educate on the brand and its guidelines. We know the brand has to work, from Paris to London and Dubai to Singapore, and for economic development, talent attraction, tourism, and beyond. We also recognise that messaging will have to become more refined and specific to suit the needs of some of our audiences.

Moreover, Brussels residents can themselves apply to be ambassadors of the brand and join a network of dynamic Brussels enthusiasts.


How will you measure the performance of this new city marketing brand impact that the strategy is having?

 

The KPIs for our brand are threefold:

  • increase our positive perception from its current number 9 to within the top 5 of European destination
  • increase the number of in-brand activations
  • support private and public sector HR in talent attraction efforts.

The brand was officially revealed in June 2023. The KPIs set won’t be properly measurable for another few months.


With hindsight, is there any advice that you would have given yourself at the start of this project?

 

Eighteen months of research might seem long, but it’s essential if you want your strategy to be based on solid findings.

It’s great to develop a new city brand, but this is just the start of a long-lasting city marketing program of implementation, activation and fine-tuning.


As someone who has just been part of the development and launch of a place branding strategy, are there any particular elements that you will be looking for in a potentially winning entry at the City Nation Place Awards?

 

I will be looking for cases that dare the unexpected, choose a creative and innovative approach, and retain relevancy to sectors involved.


Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the City Nation Place Awards entries, Annemie!

 

The City Nation Place Awards are open – and you have an additional week to finalise your entry! Make sure you submit your success story by September 14th for your chance to win.

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

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