UK place brand and marketing leaders call for cities and regions to be bold, brave, and passionate

If you had a pound for every time that ‘collaboration’ was mentioned at City Nation Place UK 2023, you’d have come away from the conference with a heavy purse. However, it was also wonderful to hear how many places are finding new ways to work with their stakeholders, their citizens, and their neighbouring cities and regions. After all, collaboration is at the heart of successful place branding.

While the theme of ‘collaboration’ threaded throughout all the discussions, there were a host of other learnings from the packed day’s agenda. Here are just a few of the learnings that we took from the conference…


Place to place co-operation is essential.

Competition between places can be helpful to an extent. It allows you to view your progress within a broader context, and it can push places to think outside the box and try new approaches. However, it becomes restrictive when you view a neighbouring city or region as a competitor to be beaten. Investment in a nearby city is still beneficial for your place, and if one of us thrives, we all thrive.

Sarah Green, Chief Executive at NewcastleGateshead Initiative, highlighted that the changes and development that UK cities and regions want to create require scale – and that means working together at a regional level. By partnering with your neighbouring places, you can access new opportunities for funding and to tackle long-term structural issues such as a lack of international visibility. Ultimately, we all need to be aiming to be globally inspiring cities.

We also got an example of best practice in this area, as Eliza Ferguson, Consumer Marketing Lead at London & Partners, and Fiona Holmes, Senior Brand Marketing Manager at VisitScotland, unpacked the work that when into their dual-destination marketing campaign which encouraged American travellers to extend their trip to visit both destinations. While the final results will be announced in a few weeks, it’s clear that the campaign has been hugely positive for both destinations.

Prioritise inclusive growth.

As Kate Josephs, Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, reminded us, we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to listen differently, to find new avenues of partnership, and to give voice to those who have been pushed to the margins. A place brand has to speak to the breadth of your community and the challenges that they’re facing, or else it won’t create equitable development.

Ask yourself – who is in the room? What are the barriers to participation? Can you put in support mechanisms to help people participate who would otherwise be unable to?

Be agile.

There is no one-size fits all approach for places. Whether you’re looking to engage your stakeholders, diversify your funding, or drive regeneration, you need to look to the needs of your place to shape your strategy. Make sure that everything relates back to your mission, to ensure that all your actions contribute back to that core purpose. If you can do that, and you can be agile and responsive to new challenges and opportunities, you create the best foundations for success.

Articulate your place DNA in one voice.

One of the key roles of a place brand organisation is to synthesise the experiences of a multitude of communities to create a story that resonates with local residents and businesses. Claire Hamilton, Chief Executive at Dacorum Borough Council, explained how having a well-articulated narrative for Hemel Hempstead has given the community a shared language to talk about their home and creates a platform that encourages locals to be proud of where they are from. Or as John Till, Founding Director at thinkingplace, put it – story is the route to distinctiveness, competitiveness, leadership, and collaboration.

Demystify sustainability.

It’s encouraging to see that many cities, regions, and nations are putting sustainable thinking at the heart of their strategies, with Will Myles, Managing Director for Visit Isle of Wight, and Steve Bluff, Head of Redcliffe and Temple BID, providing a number of practical solutions for making positive change. But for a small business, sustainability can appear an overwhelming mountain to tackle. People can be put off from making change because it can be hard to know where to make a start, but every small action helps.

Teams responsible for place brand and marketing can take a leading role in helping to break down ‘sustainable change’ in to simpler, easier to manage steps. At the end of the day, you just need to take the first step and destination marketing organisations and economic development teams can help their businesses to begin their sustainable journey.

Democratised data lifts all boats.

We heard two case studies from destinations who are working to share data and insights amongst a broader pool to support growth and development. Gavin Smyth, Tech Ecosystem Manager for Glasgow City Council, explored how they’ve pooled data from across their tech ecosystem to create a resource that is supporting both investors and start-ups in the city – and providing valuable insights to tell a better story about Glasgow’s tech prowess. Meanwhile, Amanda Lumley, Chief Executive at Destination Plymouth, is leading a regional initiative to make data more widely accessible to destination marketing organisations and private sector alike. Data is key to making more informed decisions, but many DMOs don’t have access to the same level of resource that the biggest players have at their fingertips, so being able to share resources across the region will allow them to bridge that gap.

However, your data is only worth the analysis and insights that you can derive from it, so investing in data and analytics skill sets is also a top priority.

Be passionate, be bold, and be brave.

Passion is the driver of a successful place brand. As Martin McKervey, Chairman of Sheffield Property Association, said – we care passionately about our city. It’s not about bricks and mortar, it’s about partnership and collaboration.

Place branding isn’t a quick fix, and it requires long-term commitment to make real change. This can only be done if the people who are driving the strategy care deeply about their place. So lean in to the passion of your team and of your stakeholders. And don’t be afraid to be different: Susan Finnegan, Commercial Director at Culture Liverpool, called for destinations to take measured, calculated risks in order to stand out.

A place brand should never be static or fixed, and often the most impactful strategies are the ones which break away from the crowd but really meet the needs of your place.

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