Place brand management is the theme of an article in the current issue of Town and Country Planning, the excellent little magazine produced by the Town and Country Planning Association. Its authors, Sonya Hanna and Jennifer Rowley, stress the need to involve stakeholders in the process. This means not just local residents, but also visitors and businesses. They argue that branding is not only an exercise in marketing: rather the experience of the place is central to the process.
Their article is based on a research study in which they spoke with 15 destination marketing organizations in various places in the UK. Their findings are set out as ten steps, each of which they describe as “difficult”. This is because of the need to engage with a wide range of stakeholders during the process. The steps are as follows:
- Brand evaluation
You need to assess the current situation. Each place already has a reputation, whether there has been previous place-branding or not. This legacy should not be ignored: any new branding will have to work with – or against – this image. Equally important, the evaluation must be of the brand experience, not just the image. In other words, what is the place actually like to live in, work in or to visit?
- Brand infrastructure
This means how the place works and how people experience it. Thus it is about the buildings and public spaces, the streets and the landscape, but also culture and the services that a place offers. The authors recognise that these are matters over which those trying to market the place often have little control. However, “the integration of a brand perspective in this area is pivotal.” Thus the experience of the place should shape the brand, but in turn that brand should be embedded in things like the services provided by shops or hotels, or the way the open spaces look and are maintained.
- Stakeholder engagement
Some of those who exert strong influence over the infrastructure and services are key stakeholders – e.g. departments of a municipality or a regional council. Perhaps without knowing it, such agents are shaping the brand of the place. Therefore, they need to be informed and involved in place branding initiatives.
- Brand leadership
This means not just the people heading up the branding and marketing exercise, but more importantly, the processes of engagement with stakeholders whose support and commitment will make the difference between success and failure.
- Brand identity
Hana and Rowley make the fundamental point that the essence of the brand must be in tune with the reality of the place. This reminds me of the attempt of Drammen in Norway to promote itself as “The Venice of the North”: well, at least it had the water. However, branding is about aspiration as well as the current state of a place. The problems then are two-fold: combining present reality and future vision, and getting all the key players to agree on values and meanings.
- Brand architecture
The term “brand architecture” is used to recognise that there are multiple identities in any place. This was a key message from the book on Place Identity, Participation and Planning that I co-edited with Paul Jenkins, and which came out of our work on the NoordXXI INTERREG project, one of the IC’s ancestors. Thus while there will be a portfolio of brands for a place, the trick is to build alliances that enable the various brands to be aligned in mutually supportive ways.
- Brand articulation
How is the brand to be marketed? What images and words are to be used? How will the logo communicate the essence of the brand? The article makes the point that this process of brand articulation again needs stakeholder involvement, though often it is just contracted out to an agency. If stakeholders are consulted then there is a chance to earn their co-operation. For example, they could use the brand identity, logo etc to supplement and support their own marketing. This then helps with….
- Brand communication
This will also include use of a website, publications, maybe exhibitions and events. The aim should be to achieve synergies between the various communication channels, so that their messages reinforce and complement each other.
Personal comments expressed to friends and colleagues by “word-of-mouth” are recognised to be very important in shaping images of a place. The use of social media like Twitter or photos on Facebook can now significantly extend the reach of this form of brand communication. Just listening to what is being said about your place on such sites can provide valuable insights into the way it is perceived.
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