When place branding doesn’t make a splash: 4 failure factors

As you’ll know if you’ve had any experience with place branding, it’s such a strange beast of a discipline that it’s rare to have an unqualified victory. Speaking for myself, I’ve been in the game for 13 years – which might even qualify me as a pioneer in the field –and I often wish I could go back and give my past clients the benefit of my hindsight.

So, as penance for the crime of not knowing what I didn’t know back when I didn’t know it, I offer here four failure factors I’ve gleaned from both the do-overs and the successes of my forays into place branding. As the saying goes, “Ask me how I know…” [sigh]

Failure factor 1: Not respecting the intrinsic wickedness of the place branding problem

If there’s a flaw common to nearly all approaches to place branding (including my own, too often), it’s failing to apprehend the wickedness of the place identity problem.

A “wicked problem,” first named by Horst W.J. Rittel at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s, is a real thing. Some of the attributes of a wicked problem in a place branding context include: multiple stakeholders all of whom have valid perspectives and competing interests; the problem cannot really be understood till after you begin the process of solving it; every implemented solution has consequences and may cause additional problems.

The notion that we can conduct place branding projects effectively with a conventional three-staged project plan— analysis, recommendation, execution — is incorrect. Like addressing a fiscal problem in the macro-economy using monetary policy, it simply won’t work—because it can’t work. It’s the wrong tool for the job.

What’s the solution? I think it’s to run place branding programmes using the rules of agile software development. With this approach, you don’t set much in stone at the beginning. Instead you set up a meta-process in which outcomes, objectives, tasks, personnel, and sub-processes can all be changed on the fly.When it comes to writing briefs or drawing up tender documentation, this could be very, very hard, or even impossible. But it is also necessary. It’s not our fault public tender processes designed to procure bridges and school buildings simply don’t work for hiring services like branding. (NB: I haven’t had one of Malcolm Allan’s actual “play books” in my hands – yet – but from the sound of it, they’re oriented around giving guidance rather than guidelines, and therefore may be a good deliverable for a branding programme to produce, if “pre-agreed tangible deliverables” is an absolute must.)

One quick concrete suggestion for respecting the wickedness of place branding: Re-think the beginnings of projects. Maybe your first step should be to figure out– really figure out –what your first step should be. Bring originality to how you begin, and see what happens.

Failure factor 2: Allowing wishful thinking to get out of hand

Clients and consultants suffer the ill effects of wishful thinking all the time.

One example is how clients will tell consultants early on in an engagement how much they want to stand out from the crowd. They’ll reassure the consultant about how different and challenging and brave they’re prepared to be. Later on, though, they turn out to be less ready than they thought they were. That’s not cowardice, in my view – that’s normalcy. Cold feet of some description are almost inevitable. In the eleventh hour, people get conservative.

On the other hand, consultants fall into wishful thinking traps, too. One mistake I’ve made repeatedly is delivering the client something I thought was better than what the client wanted— but frankly it wasn’t what they asked for (e.g., a film, when they wanted a print piece). Maybe other consultants aren’t as grandiose or pushy as I can be (I’m getting better, I swear), but I know I’m not the only one who’s prodded clients to go too far beyond their comfort zone.

When I was a boy growing up in California, I used to build model rockets made by a company called Estes somewhere off in Colorado. The rockets came (and still do!) in skill levels 1 through 5 based on difficulty of assembly. A skill level 1 model rocket arrived in three pieces (nose cone, body tube, tailfin) and took about 10 minutes to put together. A higher skill level rocket required some intrinsic talent to get right, and might take weeks of concentrated and systematic gluing and sanding and painting before it was ready to fly – but the results were magnificent: a beautiful and functional scale model of the Space Shuttle or the Saturn V. (A 14-year old has left an Amazon review of the latter rocket: “When I opened the box for the first time, I was terrified when I saw how many pieces there were.”)

That’s a long way of making an important point: place branding consultants must be hyper-conscious of the skill level the recommendations they make will take to implement. Not every client wants or needs a skill level 4 brand strategy. For others, you’d be condescending to give them anything less.

One quick concrete suggestion for minimizing wishful thinking: At the start of an engagement, consultant and client should make sure that neither is conning the other (or themselves) into endeavouring to create something through their collaboration that is more than, less than, or other than what is managerially and psychologically realistic for both sides.

Failure factor 3: Being too ginger about getting to know a place

As far as I know, I have the distinction of being the sole human being ever to have worked (and published) with both godfathers of place branding, Wally Olins and Simon Anholt.

As consultants, we all have our quirks about how we “interrogate the product,” to use the old advertising adage. Wally would read extensively – he had a degree in history from Oxford, after all – but once in the field, he had limited patience for sightseeing. Simon (back when he advised heads of state on competitive identity matters) explored places voraciously during the day, but at night liked to stay in his hotel room and order room service. Both men were effective in their work, we can agree.

Regardless of our research eccentricities as consultants, there’s really no substitute for spending (or having already spent) a considerable amount of time in the places we work with. Exhibit A: The main reason I was able to give the then mayor of Vilnius a slate of the most potent, cogent, inventive, and right-on recommendations I’ve ever mustered is because my wife is from there and I know his city particularly well. Exhibit B: By the time I had devised the Platonically ideal branded export strategy for Mongolia’s cashmere industry (if I do say so myself!), I’d been living nearly full time in Ulaanbaatar for six months. That “deep hanging out” fueled and informed – and frankly outright enabled – my part-analytical, part-generative solutions. I am convinced that without the dozens of sober conversations with ministers and academics, which extended time on the ground made possible, along with the occasional drunken revelry in a Gobi nomad’s ger (yurt)or a seedy downtown nightclub(yes, I suffer for my art), I wouldn’t have pieced together the robust answers to my client’s enormously complex and nuanced problem.

I’ve recently been delving more consciously and deliberately into anthropology, and it turns out that “deep hanging out” is practically a formal, named concept for an approved methodology of the discipline.

One quick concrete suggestion for living and breathing the place: Become an amateur expert on wherever it is you’re working. Watch the films, read the books, spend the time in the field. It’s okay if you forget everything afterward, but you must get passionate for the duration of the project. AuthorJames Michener was perhaps the world’s expert on Poland, Alaska, Israel, Texas, and the Caribbean for the two or three years it took him to write each of his epic historical place-based novels; he confessed, though, that within mere months of a book’s publication, he could barely recall a single fact about whichever place he’d just written. (I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel better!)

Failure 4: Forgetting that people live there

I’ve seen a lot of great place branding work torpedoed by locals after launch. “That’s not us,” they say. “We don’t like being portrayed that way. Stop it.” I call that phenomenon the insider/outsider paradox, and it’s a very tricky one to contend with. So tricky, in fact, that I’m not even going to address it here – but it’s too important not to flag it up.

What’s been on my mind a lot lately is the relationship between visitors to a place and residents of that place, and how that relationship has virtually disintegrated, to everyone’s detriment. This needs to be fixed. If the last big problem in tourism and travel related to the physical infrastructure (a la the overdevelopment of the Costa del Sol), the next big one pertains to the social infrastructure (e.g., the overrunning of places by throngs of visitors).

It’s only relatively recently that you could visit a populated place and basically have little or no meaningful interaction with the people there. When tourists explore places now, they’re more concerned about opening hours than about opening themselves up to the full-bandwidth serendipity of travel, which necessarily would include positive, non-superficial interactions between visitors and locals. Locals, too, get robbed of a nurturing interchange, and begin to see visitors as a nuisance. As my Icelandic friend and colleague Bjarni Jonsson brilliantly put it, “Lonely Planet is making the planet lonely.” Amen.

As the poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness reminded me in an email after I broached the subject with him: “In the ancient world, as described by Homer, travel was only possible because of the culture of offering hospitality (food, lodging, gifts) to travellers. Hence all the descriptions in the Odyssey of kings/lords inviting Odysseus to stay, feeding him up, exchanging stories, taking him hunting, inviting him to athletics contests etc.”

The ancient Greek concept is called xenia, and I hereby call for it to be revived and made modern, relevant, and operant. Classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver explains: “Xenia is usually translated as ‘guest-host relationship.’ It is a reciprocal relationship between two xenoi—a word which means guest, host, stranger, friend, and foreigner….It works only if each side does not violate the terms of xenia. To do so is to offend Zeus himself. Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus’ homecoming and regaining of his family and kingdom are either helped or hindered by the kind of xenia he meets on his journeys.”

Whatever technologically enabled form this ancient custom might now take, we need a new wave of xenia in the world. Couchsurfing obviously isn’t cutting it, and I’m skeptical about Airbnb’s new City Hosts platform for amateur tourguides.

For travellers, mobile dating apps like Happn and Tinder, especially with the recent advent of the Tinder Social feature (for spontaneous group meet-ups), can also be “hacked” to meet locals, whether you’re on a business trip or on vacation. But they’re neither mainstream (for this use) nor suitable for all demographics.

Platforms dedicated to the task of connecting locals and visitors are on the right track – the one Toposophy did for Athens comes to mind, as does Icelandair’s Stopover Buddy initiative. They have an open spirit, although without money changing hands at all (same as Couchsurfing), their appeal to locals is limited.

Yet, I’m so enamoured of the opportunities in this area, and so convinced of the centrality of this problem to the future of a prosperous and enriching travel industry, that I’ve co-founded a startup which is developing what we hope will be the “killer” marketplace for authentic travel experience. It’s called Skiptimó and it supplements warm heartedness and the kindness of strangers with cold hard cash, enabling visitor-local transactions that are both spiritually and materially gratifying. Watch this space.

One quick concrete suggestion for including the people who live there: Ignore them. (Just kidding. Seriously: In any place branding programme, please give a lot of thought to helping locals and visitors have a good and meaningful experience of one another.)

In conclusion: Have you ever been on the client side or the consultant side of the place branding equation, and been disappointed with the ultimate outcome of a project? Have a look back at how it unfolded, and see if one or more of these four failure factors came into play. (Or if you’re in a situation where you’re concerned you might run into one of these issues, drop me a line.)

Jeremy Hildreth is a maverick identity consultant who’s worked with clients from Nike to Northern Ireland. His greatest professional pleasure is giving clients “a-ha” moments that lead them to better ways of doing what they’re already doing. Reach him at jeremy@jeremyhildreth.com or, less personally, at http://jeremyhildreth.com.


If you’re interested in a fuller explanation of the wickedness of place branding, I’ve posted to my blog the relevant excerpt from my 2010 Journal of Place Branding article “Place branding: a view at arm’s length.”http://jeremyhildreth.com/wicked-problems/

Plans for a level 5 model rocket:https://www.estesrockets.com/media/instructions/001284_SPACE_SHUTTLE.pdf

Icelandair’s Stopover Buddy is at http://www.icelandair.co.uk/stopover-buddy/

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