Why place and destination brand strategies fail

What causes some place brand strategies to fall short of some, or all, of their objectives? There’s been little analysis of what can go awry, how to remedy a failing initiative, or avoid the most common pitfalls altogether.

In our experience failure can result for a variety of reasons, often in combination. They are typically a mix of:

  • an unclear purpose;
  • confusing marketing with strategy;
  • a politically-driven, short-termist approach;
  • failure to recognise the complexity of crafting an effective and lasting strategy;
  • failure to achieve a true consensus on strategy and a future vision for the place through meaningful consultation and engagement;
  • failure to properly fund the creation of the strategy and meet the costs of its implementation;
  • failure to invest in the details of implementation; and
  • poor or non-existent management of implementation and assessment of the impact of actions taken.

Below we deal with those causes and related issues.

Failure of decision makers to understand what’s involved in strategy formulation

A lack of rigour in approach

Too often place brand strategies look and feel superficial because they take a simplistic view of what the place offers. Failure to understand the complexities of place leads to skimping on research into what target audiences think of the place and its offer, with the result that the proposed brand strategy often ignores major perception issues. For example, while visitors may be interested in visiting specific heritage attractions, they may avoid those in areas with a reputation for being unsafe or that appear to be plagued by poverty.

Allowing for enough time to do a  proper job

Often there is a political or commercial imperative to get a cursory snapshot of what a place offers or a development might provide. This kind of expediency results in inadequate analysis of the challenges or opportunities of a place and a perfunctory assessment of what might be developed. This “quick-fix” approach is often fuelled by short-term (re)election cycles and the need to justify expenditures to a cost-conscious electorate.

The need to agree (among stakeholders) on a powerful driving idea/vision

Too many place strategies lack imagination and ambition so they fail to inspire real support. Others are often highly ambitious but poorly thought through. Both can result from one stakeholder being overly focussed on their own agenda or groups sinking to the lowest common denominator to reach agreement on what should be the future offer of the place.

In comparison, places with a well thought through vision galvanize their supporters around a clear, powerful driving idea; an idea so compelling that stakeholders want to be part of its achievement; an idea that has emerged from shared goals and collaboration rather than one imposed by a few players.

The need for finance to cover the costs of strategy formulation

Creating brands for places is rarely a short-term task. Typically, it can take between six to twelve months, depending on the size of the place, its mix of challenges and opportunities and the scale of its ambition. All too often funders underestimate the complexity of co-creating a shared vision. Starting with insufficient resources and time results in rushed, inadequate brand strategies that are far less likely to succeed.

The need for finance for strategy implementation and management

Even the most inspiring strategy can’t succeed without long-term commitment and investment. Financing is critical to cover the costs of implementing and managing place brand initiatives. What’s required is usually a mix of funds for a brand management team and as well as key projects in the brand development programme. We refer to this as the “Experience Masterplan”. This plan plots the delivery of the promised brand offer and experiences. All too often politicians think that once the brand strategy has been agreed to and detailed that the work is over. They fail to recognise that resources of suitably skilled people and meaningful money are required to manage the process of implementation. This can include marketing and promotion, funding improvements to the offer and extensions of the offer as “signature projects” – new services, facilities or events that will spark interest in the area and contribute to its desired identity.

The need to involve stakeholders and the community in strategy formulation and implementation

In our work, we have observed a number of actions by clients that can alienate stakeholders and local communities rather than engage them. Here are a few examples:

A short-term focus on consultation at  the expense of longer-term engagement

  • All too often public-sector bodies “consult” stakeholders and local communities after they have made their minds up about what the brand strategy should be. It’s call “buy-in” because their goal is to sell a proposition rather than promote meaningful dialogue and input. Another common tactic is to limit the public’s involvement to the strategy development stage. This effectively prohibits the community from playing an ongoing role in implementation and delivery – the times when all-important trade-offs often happen. Sometimes this comes from the hubris of public sector elected representatives – we have been elected so we know best – or a view that the local community will not have the experience or insight to understand the complexities of brand development.
  • In our experience, extensive consultation with stakeholders and community representatives on brand development and subsequent engagement in brand delivery is key to successful strategy development, delivery and sustainable impact. The typical “dodges” used to avoid community involvement are about costs and limited resources. These excuses are simply no longer valid. There are now many low-cost online and off-line solutions available that make rich dialogue among stakeholders affordable and highly efficient. When people feel they have been listened to, given a voice, and empowered to participate in its delivery, the result is long-term support of the strategy and greater acceptance of its costs.

An inability of the public sector to  create a common focus and approach between departments or levels of government.

  • One of the biggest challenges in city, regional and country branding is to get all levels of government “singing from the same hymn sheet”. That requires being tightly aligned on the strategy and understanding their complementary roles and responsibilities. This is a conversation that needs to happen early in the brand development process, especially where a city is seeking support for the development of its regional hinterland or where a country wants the support of its capital and major cities. Failure to do so creates a fragmented image and lowers the confidence of the private sector in participating in brand development.

The lack of effective listening skills in the public sector

We referred above to the “disease” of hubris in the public sector – the belief among elected politicians and officials that they know best. This characteristic is often accompanied by a failure to accept alternative viewpoints from stakeholders and community representatives as well as little ability to explore dissent and reach agreements that command wide support.An image of a person's shadow with their fingers in their ears, showing a lack of effective listening skills

The most effective brand strategies are created by places whose governments recognise the value of “giving to get” – giving up or avoiding entrenched policy positions in order to reach agreement on positions of greater harmony that a majority of stakeholders can support. Typically, the depth of discussion on policies that impact the offer of places is much more detailed in brand strategy development than during elections and often result in previous policy viewpoints being amended or reversed.

The need for brand testing, monitoring and evaluation

Once a strategy has been agreed by a brand partnership, (typically a mix of public, private and community sector stakeholders), there is a collective sigh of relief that the job is done and the partners can now get on with implementation. The notion that brand ideas be tested with target markets before implementation commences often causes clients to balk at the additional time and money. Few major commercial ventures would risk launching a new brand without market research to validate its appeal. Testing ensures a better fit between the brand offer and market needs, wants and desires. In other words, it is more likely to succeed and achieve its desired objectives and outcomes.

Another blind spot we often see the failure to closely monitor “the brand in action” in order to evaluate it impact and performance. Places need key performance indicators (KPIs) too. Is the strategy having the desired effect, e.g. increasing the attractiveness of the place to target market audiences, increasing visitor dwell-time and spend, creating a more distinctive and recognised identity and reputation, etc?

The world is not static – it’s dynamic and ever-changing. Proper monitoring and evaluation will also help highlight opportune times to evolve the strategy e.g. monetary policies that make places less or more attractive for inward investment, or changes in national fiscal regimes that make locations more or less attractive for inward investment. In order to minimize such surprise, some of our clients have set up “observatory” units to specifically track changes that can have negative or beneficial effects on the brand strategy.

Confusing place marketing with place brand strategy

Finally, a common source of confusion in places, and one that can result in “epic” failures of strategy, is to mistake place marketing for brand strategy. This, if not corrected, can result in places undertaking marketing without the rigorous focus that a place brand provides. In our view place marketing is the promotion of an existing offer or experience. By comparison, place brand strategy is about detailed planning of enhancements of the current offer, improvements, extensions and additions to its offer and experiences, informed and driven by a compelling big idea, offers which need to be marketed as they are developed and delivered to target audiences.

This is a collaborative blog by  experienced place brand practitioners who have worked together - Malcolm Allan of Placematters, Jeannette Hanna of Trajectory in Toronto, Roger Hobkinson of Colliers International in Dublin, Jose Torres and Gonzalo Vilar, both of Bloom Consulting, Madrid and Lisbon

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14 steps to nation branding: a practical guide

Has the pandemic killed soft power?

The politics of space, culture, and placemaking on post-COVID place branding

The roadmap for sustainable recovery

Hall of fame: Best place branding and marketing campaigns

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